Women’s March organizers speak to students about activism

Women’s March discussion at USF speakers and organizers. Photo by Faisal Latif.

Jan. 20, 2017, marked Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States. And thus, a movement was ignited.

On Jan. 21, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, marched on Washington in protest of Trump’s election and the issues he ran on. Spinoff marches took place in many cities around the country and the globe, making the Women’s March the largest single-day protest in U.S. history.

On Wednesday evening, three of the Women’s March organizers spoke with students at the University of South Florida on activism and other issues in an event hosted by USF Divest.

In attendance at the event were Women’s March Co-President Tamika Mallory, Treasurer Carmen Perez and Assistant Treasurer Linda Sarsour.

Mallory is a social justice activist, as well as a leader in a community-based effort to end gun violence in New York City. Her past work includes collaborating with the Obama administration as an advocate for civil rights issues.

Perez is a Latina woman who has spent the past two decades advocating for civil rights issues, highlighting the violence and mass incarceration crisis in America in an effort to solve them. She also served as executive director of the Gathering for Justice, travelling the world to find alternatives to incarceration.

Sarsour is an activist for racial justice and civil rights. She is an outspoken individual who seeks to educate people on intersectional activism. Sarsour prides herself as an unapologetic Palestinian-American Muslim.

The panel also consisted of local activist and USF alumnus Ahmad Saadaldin as well as journalist Ali Al-Arian, who served as the mediator of the discussion.

Saadaldin is a filmmaker, organizer and small-business owner. Saadaldin founded Peace House University and regularly speaks to high school students about the importance of activism. He is currently running in the Florida District 58 Special Election for State House.

Al-Arian is an award-winning journalist with Al Jazeera English. He was part of the team that launched Palestine Remix, which used interactive tools to tell the story of Palestine. His latest project is a documentary about the boycott, divest and sanctions movement against Israel.

The panelists spoke about the importance of intersectional activism, getting involved and how they organized the Women’s March.

Mallory acknowledged that the Women’s March wasn’t always an intersectional movement. In the beginning stages of its organization, Mallory said, it was very problematic. The original name of the protest, “The Million Women March,” was the name of a protest march organized by black women in 1997. The organizers called Mallory and Perez, looking to include women of color in their planning process in order to rectify such knowledge gaps. The ladies weren’t going to take that offer at face value.

“We immediately said from the beginning that we’re not going to plan a march, we’re not event planners,” said Mallory. “If we’re going to come and meet with you, it was about us being in leadership and helping shape the agenda of the march.”

She decided that she would help them make it intersectional and bring her voice to the table.

“There was no table [for us]. We actually built the table, we stood on the top of the table and made sure that the agenda represented all of women’s issues.”

In an effort to make sure all women and their issues were included in the march, they reached out to multiple individuals who were all experts in their separate fields and asked them to come together to form a list of what they were working on. These points of unity helped to generate a policy platform for the Women’s March.

“It was the most radical policy platform in the history of any march,” she said. “For us, it was making sure that people felt included in the process,” said Perez, adding that although there was a lot of criticism “at the end of the day, a lot of people felt that they saw themselves in this march and that was what we were trying to accomplish.”

Perez also insisted that the march wasn’t targeting Trump alone.

“Trump is only one of the symptoms of what’s happening at a larger scale in this country,” said Perez. “We were fighting systemic racism and oppression.”

Sarsour expressed her surprise at the amount of people who showed up. Having planned for a quarter of a million people, they were not expecting hundreds of thousands of people to show up in Washington. She also was taken aback by the magnitude of the march, in terms of how many spin-off marches resulted around the country and even around the world.

“We are so grateful to look back at that day and know that people stood up in every corner of the country, for women’s rights, for equality and for justice,” said Sarsour.

The women proceeded to explain to the students the importance of activism and the importance of supporting the identities of other people.

Saadaldin, who was instrumental in the divestment movement on campus, discussed how the movement was an intersectional movement.

USF Divest is a diverse coalition made up of students, faculty, and staff on campus with the purpose of raising awareness of USF’s investment policy. They have collected over 10,000 signatures of support in one year.

The peak of their efforts was this past spring, when 89 percent of those  who participated in the student body election voted in favor of USF creating a group to oversee the investments of the university. The group is currently in the process of establishing a large student membership on campus.

Although divest originally was founded on Palestinian rights, the leaders realized that their issues were systemic and took shape in different forms in other communities.

“We decided to expand our movement and invite people to join us, calling for private prison divestment and fossil fuel divestment,” said Saadaldin.

Mallory also explained that intersectionality doesn’t mean the tokenization of other identities for the purpose of diversity.

“It’s not transactional,” Mallory said, describing it as being able to look at an issue and caring about it even though it doesn’t directly affect your community.

Panel speaks on activism at the Women’s March event, hosted by USF Divest.

“Intersectionality looks like you being able to step outside of yourself and say, ‘This may not necessarily impact me…but it impacts us as a greater community and if you aren’t free…how can I be free?’ ” Mallory said.

Sarsour elaborated on Mallory’s point about the non-transactional aspect of intersectionality. She doesn’t ask organizations if they support her causes before she decided to work with them and care about their cause, rather she shows up and gives her support.

“This is how solidarity works,” said Sarsour. “You don’t come into a space and impose your issue on other people. You don’t come into a space and be upset because somebody doesn’t want to talk about your issue. The first question people are going to ask is you is, ‘where have you been? What have you done for our community?’”

Sarsour also encouraged people to realize their own privilege when working with an organization.

“Intersectionality also means the intersections of oppression,” she said. “When people who have been at the receiving end of oppression [are talking], you need to listen to their pain and frustration and not take it personally.”

Following the panel’s discussion, there was a Q&A in which attendees lined up to ask questions. The questions were diverse and covered a lot of aspects on activism. One 12-year-old girl, with her mother by her side, asked how young people can be more involved with activism, to which the organizers applauded her for being interested at such a young age and gave her suggestions.

However, there were a few hecklers who came with the intent to disrupt the organizers.

Some attempted to condemn Sarsour and Islam as a whole but were shut down by the panel. Sarsour said that she developed thick skin to people who used Islam to attack her because they didn’t have a proper understanding of what Islam is.

The event ended peacefully with the last words of Sarsour inviting people to be organized and involved.

“Don’t be ambitious, don’t try to change the world,” she said. “Take baby steps and baby steps.”

Author: Hafsa Quraishi

Hafsa Quraishi is a Muslim-American journalism student at the University of South Florida. She currently serves as a digital media intern for WUSF Public Media. Hafsa is also a contributing writer for Wear Your Voice Mag, an online intersectional magazine centering on the experiences of black, indigenous and people of color.