In 1963, women helped organize the iconic civil rights demonstration officially known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but not a single one of them made the roster of official speakers.
By contrast, this Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington is organized principally by women of color, who can be expected to top the program. Though the march’s initial instigators were white women—a fact that will keep some leading African American women away—the event now reflects what veteran progressive organizer Heather Booth calls the new face of the women’s movement. Booth says that movement hasn’t disappeared, but that women are pouring their energy into vital campaigns to champion Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, and the Fight for $15.
“Very often it is young women of color in the lead,” says Booth, founding director of the Midwest Academy, a training center for organizers, and a partner with the consulting firm Democracy Partners.
The Women’s March has drawn plenty of detractors who question what such an event can accomplish, especially given the diverse messages of the many environmental, civil rights, labor and women’s groups that are sponsors and partners. But the march’s raw numbers and media buzz would be the envy of any progressive group, despite its bumpy start. Organizers have raised $1.6 million of their $2 million goal to defray expenses. The event’s Facebook page shows more than 200,000 people attending, but Washington law enforcement authorities are preparing for as many as 400,000. There will also be 616 “sister” marches, both around the country, and across the world in cities as far flung as Beirut, Buenos Aires, Helsinki, Paris, and Tokyo.
For all that, the key organizers are not affiliated with any big, established, national progressive groups, but have each labored at the grassroots for gun safety, civil rights, criminal justice reform, and pay equity. The story of Teresa Shook, the grandmother in Hawaii who created a Facebook event page that attracted thousands within 24 hours, is well known. Less well known are the four activists who came together shortly afterward to steer the march with a mission statement that declared that “women’s rights are human rights,” and that marchers will stand up for marginalized individuals who were “insulted, demeaned, and threatened” during the election. These national co-chairs are:
Tamika Mallory, an activist, writer, and consultant living in New York City, who once wrote that she’s “been marching as long as I can remember.” She was a national organizer for the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, and co-chaired the March2Justice, a 250-mile trek to draw attention to police violence, alongside Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour, two other co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington. As New York City co-chair of the Gun Violence Awareness Month Initiative, Mallory is a prominent gun safety advocate. She also founded a strategic consulting firm dubbed Mallory Consulting. “People often remark on the futility of marching but I was raised by a family who marched steadfast and often,” Mallory wrote in a 2015 Huffington Post commentary. “My parents were founding members of Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and I grew up attending rallies and protests.”
Carmen Perez is executive director of the Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit founded by social activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte, one of the Women’s March on Washington’s honorary co-chairs. (The other honorary co-chairs are feminist organizer Gloria Steinem, political activist Angela Davis, labor leader Doris Huerta, and Native American advocate LaDonna Harris.) Perez was a bilingual probation officer in the Santa Cruz County Probation Department, and has advocated on several fronts for incarcerated youth and criminal justice reform. Perez recently told CNN that the work of the march “really begins after January 21. When we bring all these women together, we not only want them to be inspired but we also want them to tap into what they can actually do back home and get activated and begin to organize in their own communities.”
Linda Sarsour was dubbed a “Homegirl in a Hijab” by The New York Times. The Palestinian-American-Muslim is a mother of three and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. She is also co-founder of Muslims for Ferguson, and a member of the Justice League New York City. She’s helped curtail Muslim surveillance in New York City, lobbied to convince city officials to close public schools for two important Islamic holy days, and has been talked about as a candidate for public office. Sarsour told The Guardian that marchers “have no choice. We need to stand up against an administration that threatens everything we believe in, in what we hope will become one of the largest grassroots, progressive movements ever seen.”
Bob Bland is a New York City fashion designer who created the “Nasty Woman” T-Shirts that took off after Donald Trump leveled that jab at Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate. When Teresa Shook was launching her Facebook event page after the election, Bland was doing the same. Bland drew 3,000 people within hours, but then a friend called her to say a Hawaii woman had gotten sign-ups from 12,000 people. “I thought, ‘Wow, let’s merge,’” Bland told The New York Times. Bland is CEO and founder of Manufacture New York, which promotes ethical work practices and what’s known as sustainable fashion—the promotion of ecological practices and recycled materials in the production and marketing of clothing, shoes, and accessories.
The four co-founders have rallied several dozen staff members to help with promotion, marketing and logistics, and are working alongside more than 200 progressive groups large and small. Several “Sponsors” are playing more prominent roles, including Planned Parenthood, which is listed on the march’s website as the event’s “Exclusive Premiere Sponsor,” and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is presented as a “Platinum Sponsor.” Other groups occupying varying levels of sponsorship include EMILY’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the ACLU, the American Federation of Teachers, the Human Rights Campaign, and MoveOn.org. Many of the groups are organizing special events and training sessions to educate participants about their issues, and give them the tools to take action after January 21.
“My great hope,” says Booth, “is that it will both give people confidence to realize that we can change this period—it is a perilous period—and give people hope that we can do something about it.”