CULTURE

The Women of the Women’s March: Meet the Activists Who Are Planning One of the Largest Demonstrations in American History

In nine weeks, the national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington and their tireless committee of organizers have brought together the single largest demonstration to take place on inauguration weekend. But Saturday is just the beginning.

Photography by Driely S, Victoria Stevens, Hann

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Produced by Biel Parklee.

On Saturday, January 21, 2017, activist Carmen Perez will turn 40; Donald Trump will wake up for the first time as president of the United States; and hundreds of thousands of women—led by Perez, Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour, and Bob Bland—will participate in the Women’s March on Washington, which is poised to be one of the largest and farthest-reaching demonstrations in support of a wide swath of social justice interests and organizations in the history of the nation’s capital.

Just two months after Donald Trump edged out Hillary Clinton to win the presidential election, the march’s inception now has the patina of myth. Teresa Shook, a retired grandmother living in Hawaii, created a Facebook event for a march in Washington, D.C. shortly after the election was called in favor of Trump. She invited around 40 friends, went to bed, and awoke the next morning to a viral success: More than 10,000 users had clicked “attending.” At the same time, on the opposite side of the country, fashion entrepreneur Bob Bland posted her own event, mobilizing the following she had cultivated after her own viral success: The “Nasty Woman” and “Bad Hombre” t-shirts she produced raised $20,000 in support of Planned Parenthood in three days. Within a day, they had joined forces; on the advice of Vanessa Wruble, editor of OkayAfrica and head of campaign operations for the Women’s March, that it not be organized by white women alone, Bland connected with Perez and Mallory. Sarsour, who had previously worked with them, soon followed. (Shook, who declined to take a central role in leading the march, will meet Bland for the first time in person this weekend in Washington, D.C.)

Trump’s victory also revealed deep fissures in the American social and political landscape that prompted many people who had no previous experience in activism to seek an outlet for their fear and anger. While three of the four national co-chairs of the Women’s March are professional activists and organizers—Sarsour is the executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York, Perez is the head of The Gathering for Justice, and Mallory is an experienced gun-control advocate and civil rights activist who previously helmed the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network—many of the women participating are not. Prior to that fateful Facebook post, Bland had participated in Get Out the Vote efforts across Brooklyn in the lead-up to the 2016 election, and growing up just outside Washington, D.C., she recalled occasionally protesting and canvassing alongside her mother, a volunteer for local Democratic candidates, but she didn’t consider herself an activist.

Meet the Women Who Are Making the Women’s March on Washington Happen

The executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, Linda Sarsour — a Brooklyn native, mother of three, and now one of the national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington — has been working at the crossroads of civil rights, religious freedom, and racial justice for 15 years. Once an aspiring English teacher, she joined the Arab American Association in its infancy, succeeding founder Basemah Atweh, her mentor, as executive director with Atweh’s death in 2005. “I grew out of the shadow of 9/11,” Sarsour said. “What I’ve seen out of bad always comes good, is that solidarity and unity, particularly amongst communities of color who feel like they’re all impacted by the same system.”

Photo by Driely S, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Tamika D. Mallory’s roots in community organizing and activism extend back to her early childhood: her parents were two of the earliest members of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network nearly 30 years ago, an organization for which Mallory went on to act as executive director. But it wasn’t until the death of her son’s father 15 years ago that Mallory found her niche in civil rights and flung herself headlong into activism. Now, she’s one of the four national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington, balancing organizing the march with her day job as a speaker and civil rights advocate. “We’re centering this march by having women to be at the helm of it, to organize it, and to be most of the speakers,” she said. “At the same time I think it’s very important that we never forget the fact that our men, our brothers, our young brothers particularly need this support.”

Photo by Victoria Stevens, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Fashion entrepreneur Bob Bland was nearing the due date of her second daughter, now seven weeks old, when she posted a Facebook event calling for a march on Washington during inauguration weekend. Nine weeks later, she’s one of four national co-chairs at the heart of the Women’s March on Washington — where she’ll march with her infant, her six-year-old daughter, and her 74-year-old mother. “We’re activating people who were previously content with sitting behind their computer and posting on Facebook,” she said.

Photo by Victoria Stevens, Produced by Biel Parklee.

For Carmen Perez, executive director of Harry Belafonte’s Gathering for Justice and one of the four national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington, work permeates everything else: “There’s no real life outside of activism,” she said. Just over two decades ago, Perez’s elder sister was killed — the anniversary of her burial coincides with the march, and with Perez’s birthday — and navigating the justice system motivated her to work with incarcerated young men and women, first as a probation officer and then with The Gathering, operating on the intersection of race, criminal justice, and immigration. “Oftentimes, when I’m in spaces, I am the only Latina and I have to speak a little louder for my community to be part of the conversation,” she said. “The work that I do around racial justice, it’s not just about Latino rights. It’s also about human rights.”

Photo by Hannah Sider, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Californian ShiShi Rose, 27, moved to New York a year ago to develop her activism and writing. She previously worked at a local rape crisis center and assisted in educating therapists and counselors before turning her focus more squarely towards race, first via her Instagram account and then through public speaking engagements and writing. As part of the national committee for the Women’s March on Washington, Rose runs the group’s social media channels, from Instagram (where she has a substantial following) to Facebook. “Women encompass everything,” Rose said. “If you can fight for women’s rights, you can fight for rights across the board.”

Photo by Tyra Mitchell, Produced by Biel Parklee.

A law student-turned-actress-turned-activist, Sarah Sophie Flicker was born in Copenhagen, the great-granddaughter of a Danish prime minister who has been credited with bringing democratic socialism to Denmark. She grew up in California before moving to New York to found the political cabaret Citizens Band, eventually joining the production company Art Not War. “Once you start breaking it all down, you realize the most vulnerable people in any community tend to be women,” she said. “All our issues intersect, and something that may affect me as a white woman will doubly affect a black woman or a Latina woman or an indigenous woman. So when we talk about a women’s movement, we need to be talking about all women.”

Photo by Victoria Stevens, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Vanessa Wruble, a member of the national organizing committee, is the uber-connector of the Women’s March on Washington. She’s also the founder and editor of OkayAfrica, a site connecting culture news from continental Africa with an international audience. It was Wruble who first messaged Bland on Facebook to connect her with the women who would eventually become her co-chairs: “She said, Hey, you know, you need to center women of color in the leadership of this so it can be truly inclusive,’” Bland recalled. Within a day, they were meeting for coffee; now, they’re marching together in one of the largest demonstrations in support of a vast array of causes in United States history.

Photo by Amber Mahoney, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Paola Mendoza, artistic director of the Women’s March on Washington, is a Colombian-American director and writer whose work has focused on immigrant experiences, particularly those of Latina women. “Women have never convened this way in our lifetime,” Mendoza said of the march, “and it’s being led for the first time ever by women of color.”

Photo by Victoria Stevens, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Janaye Ingram, who Michelle Obama once described as an “impressive leader,” is Head of Logistics for the March, in addition to being a consultant for issues like civil, voting, and women’s rights in Washington D.C.

Photo by Kate Warren, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Cassady Fendlay, communications director for the Women’s March on Washington, is a writer and communications strategist whose clients include The Gathering for Justice — the organization helmed by Women’s March national co-chair Carmen Perez. As the spokeswoman for the march, Fendlay is tasked with acting as its mouthpiece, ensuring its message is accurate, unified, and coherent.

Photo by Victoria Stevens, Produced by Biel Parklee.

In addition to being a producer of the march, Ginny Suss is the Vice President of Okayplayer.com and the President and co-founder of OkayAfrica — she does video production for both. Her background in the music industry runs deep, and she’s worked closely with The Roots for the past 13 years, serving as their Tour Manager for some time. She’s also produced large outdoor events like The Roots Picnic, Summerstage, Lincoln Center Out Of Doors, and Celebrate Brooklyn — vital experience for organizing a march of this size.

Photo by Amber Mahoney, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Last year, Nantasha Williams ran for the New York State Assembly as a representative of the 33rd district — which encompasses a region just east of Jamaica, Queens. Though she lost to Democrat Clyde Vanel, she’s putting her organizing skills to good use in the aftermath of the election, working on the logistics team for the march and assisting national co-chair Tamika Mallory.

Photo by Driely S, Produced by Biel Parklee.

When Alyssa Klein isn’t managing the various social media accounts for the Women’s March, she’s writer and Senior Editor at OkayAfrica, the largest online destination for New African music, culture, fashion, art, and politics. Based in both New York City and Johannesburg, Klein’s passion is movies and television, and has made it her profession to highlight creatives of color in both industries. Juggling social media is no easy side project, however. The Women’s March has approximately 80,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter, plus a over 200,000 on Facebook.

Photo by Amber Mahoney, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Shirley Marie Johnson is the March’s head administrator for Tennessee, as well as an author, poet, and singer. Primarily, though, she’s an activist and advocate for those who are victim to domestic violence, a cause that’s not only her focus at the March, but in her day-to-day life through her group Exodus, Inc., which aids those affected by rape, human trafficking, and other abuse.

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Born in Shanghai, Ting Ting Cheng studied human rights at the University of Cape Town — and became an award-winning Fulbright scholar to South Africa — before heading to New York, where she’s now a criminal defense attorney at the Brooklyn Defender Services. All that’s no doubt come in handy for her role as Legal Director of the March.

Photo by Amber Mahoney, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Heidi Solomon is one of the three co-organizers for the Pennsylvania chapter of the Women’s March. Although she doesn’t have a long background in activism, Trump’s election moved her to take action, and she’s helped rally approximately 6,000 people from her home state.

Photo by Lauren Driscoll, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Deborah Harris is a grassroots organizer and feminist self-help author who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and served as a community activist for 10 years in the fields of fashion, healthcare, at risk youth, and supportive women’s relations.

Photo by Heather Gildroy.

As Illinois’ state representative for the Women’s March, Mrinalini Chakraborty has taken the lead in coordinating the Chicago-area charge, organizing bus rides for well over a thousand women and other supporters. She’s also on the National Committee and is a coordinator for all 50 states coming to D.C.. And that’s in addition to her day job: She’s a graduate teaching and research assistant at the University of Illinois at Chicago for anthropology, not to mention a student and a dedicated food blogger.

Photo by Alina Tsvor, Produced by Biel Parklee.

After earning her Ph.D in psychology, Dr. Deborah Johnson is now studying social work at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa — and making sure she stands up for both her and her daughter’s rights at the March, which she’s helping lead the way to for other Oklahomans.

Photo by Sarah Roberts, Produced by Biel Parklee.

Renee Singletary is an organizer, mother of two, wife of one, marketing consultant, and certified herbalist living and working in Charleston, South Carolina.

Photo by Lauren Jonas, Produced by Biel Parklee. Hair by Katrina Lawyer, makeup by Elizabeth Desmond.

A yoga instructor, theater graduate, and local organizer, South Carolina native Evvie Harmon has brought her skills and energy to the march as its global co-coordinator alongside Breanne Butler. Together, they facilitate partner marches and local organizers around the world, bringing the whole thing into synergy.

Photo by Kate Warren, Produced by Biel Parklee.
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“Heck, I didn’t even consider myself a feminist,” she told me. “And it wasn’t because I’m not a feminist — I just didn’t really know what it meant.” (Now, she’s very much a feminist, and very much an activist: “I think I’ve at least earned that title out of this,” she said.)

While many of the organizers have been working 16, 18, 20-hour days, juggling the march with their full-time jobs and other responsibilities, they agreed on this: The fervor of organizing the march, its breakneck pace, has served as a welcome antidote to the fear, anger, and malaise that have permeated the weeks since the Trump victory. “There’s nothing more healing than a group of powerful women coming together and planning some radical stuff,” said Sarah Sophie Flicker, an activist and artist, creative director of Art Not War, and a member of the Women’s March national organizing committee.

Sarsour echoed her sentiments. “I don’t really have time to do it, but you know what? I’m so angry at the things that are around me that I’m going to take that anger and translate it into some productive work, which is what I’m doing now for this march,” she said.

The Women’s March on Washington is unprecedented in scale — in sheer volume of attendees, in the array of issues it encompasses, and in the diversity at all levels of leadership, from the national to the local level. The national committee comprises 50 women with overlapping responsibilities, from fundraising to logistics to communications and arranging partnerships. This diffuse, decentralized structure ensures marchers aren’t just answering to one leader, Mallory explained — and as a result, the movement will outlast any particular demonstration. Community organizers across the country have helped coordinate transportation and logistics for their constituents aiming to get to Washington, D.C. Solidarity marches have also sprung up in cities including San Francisco, New York, Park City, Raleigh, Shreveport, Albuquerque, Paris, Accra, Warsaw — at the time this article was published, there were an estimated 616 sister marches around the world.

“It’s given a lot of the people involved in it a new outlook on what female leadership is supposed to look like,” said ShiShi Rose, a writer and activist who operates social media — especially Instagram — for the Women’s March.

Shishi Rose. Photo by Tyra Mitchell.

And it’s not just optics — diverse members of different races, ethnicities, gender identities, levels of experience, ages, regions, all serve to ensure that the needs and desires of those communities are represented in the march’s principles. Not only that — intersectional feminism requires addressing this tangled web, acknowledging that each of these factors are contingent and codependent.

“What we have been doing is ensuring that the voices of women across this country, women of color, that their voices are heard and that we are the mouthpiece to be able to speak on their behalf, and to ensure that this movement looks like what it means to be a woman in this country,” Mallory said. The Women’s March on Washington borrows its name from Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington — and it comes with the blessing of his daughter, Bernice King — building on generations of social justice movements while correcting for some of their shortcomings. Historical movements have often failed to account for the intersection of race, gender, and class. Many early-20th-century suffragettes allied with white supremacists and anti-abolitionists, pitting their own voting rights against those of black men and women in the decades after the Civil War. If they couldn’t have the vote, reasoned prominent suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, then neither should black men. Black women, on the other hand, disenfranchised because of both race and gender, were instructed to march at the back of the Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., in 1913. Today, equal voting rights for men and women alike are again at risk due to partisan voter identification laws in states like Texas, whose new legislation Ruth Bader Ginsberg argued in a 2014 dissent was “purposely discriminatory” due to its outsized impact on black and Latino voters. While much has changed, women of color still have to speak up the loudest in support of their own interests in order to be heard at all, and issues affecting all women frequently disproportionately affect women of color.

Carmen Perez. Photo by Hannah Sider.

The Women’s March on Washington is tough to describe without modifiers, lists, and lengthy explanations. There’s no concise way to express its founding principles, aims, its organizers’ extensive backgrounds in various arenas of social justice, the movements it encompasses. No list is exhaustive. But that’s precisely the point: “We are not a monolith,” Flicker said. “We all come to the table with different pressing issues, and what that means is beyond talking about reproductive justice and equal pay, immigration, xenophobia, Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, health care, minimum wage, ensuring that families coming to America are able to stay together, LGBTQIA, these are all women’s issues.”

Add climate justice on top of all of that, and this multifaceted approach could dilute any individual message instead of demonstrating their symbiosis. But then, a week before the march, Sarsour, Perez, and a committee of contributors including writer Janet Mock and Kelley Robinson of Planned Parenthood released a four-page outline of marching orders — the Unity Principles, a document that delineates what, exactly, they march for. It brings diverse issues into alignment. These competing interests depend on each other; as Sarsour put it, “We have to work in this intersectional way or we’re not going to win any of the fights that we have.”

The Unity Principles is a kind of codification of #WhyIMarch, the hashtag that has united marchers across social media. Perez initially envisioned a single call to action describing the goals of the march, which soon evolved into a three-tiered set of issues — but even that proved insufficient. “Though we were centering women, centering women of color, we were centering the most marginalized communities that were impacted by our president-elect’s racist rhetoric, it was really difficult to only identify three issues that we would then plug people into,” she said. As the volume of issues at hand grew, so, too, did the panel of women convened to draw up the Unity Principles, from a handful of individuals to a diverse group representing both themselves and sponsoring organizations (Perez’s Gathering for Justice is one of the primary partners of the Women’s March).

Tamika D. Mallory. Photo by Victoria Stevens.

That doesn’t mean the march has been beyond reproach. It’s navigating a complicated web of issues ranging from reproductive rights to gun control and police brutality to climate justice, and it’s contended with weaving together disparate, sometimes competing interests into a cohesive whole. A pro-life group, the Texas-based New Wave Feminists, was added to, and then dropped from, the list of march sponsors following a story in The Atlantic. (Also listed among the march’s sponsors are organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, but it’s not underwritten by any one interest group.) It confronted questions about required permits from the National Park Service; a contentious Facebook post about white allies on the Women’s March page prompted a swift response from white women who no longer felt welcome at the event while stimulating important conversations about privilege — including a video response from Rose, who penned the original Facebook post.

“We are humans with identities, and our identities, for better or worse, they do create different opportunities and different struggles,” Flicker said. “To me, one of the more saddening things about the election was this sort of rejection of intellectualism and nuance, as if we can’t have courageous, complicated, nuanced conversations. We need to reinstate our vast ability to do that.” These conversations have no end. They have no right answer. There are people who have been having these conversations, who are just joining them, who might not join until January 21 or later. They will be divisive at times; they’re uncomfortable; they surface decades-old tensions in hopes of maybe, finally, exorcising them — or at least holding each other accountable. But on Saturday, the Women’s March on Washington marches as one. Mallory and Perez and Sarsour; Flicker and her three children; Rose; Bland and her seven-week-old infant, her six-year-old daughter, and her 74-year-old mother will march. Then, the marchers, invigorated, galvanized by the sheer power of the movement, hundreds of thousands of bodies marching as one, return to their communities — and that’s when it all really begins.

“The work doesn’t stop just because we stop marching,” Rose said

Additional reporting by Karine Benzaria.