The Women's Convention and What It Means to Be An Activist

I didn't get to go to the Women's Convention in Detroit but I do envy every person who did. It was just a little too expensive for me and a little short notice, but luckily they made lots of panels and speeches available for livestream. You can still see several of these speeches on their website and on Facebook. I encourage you to check them out, specifically this conversation about the importance of intersectionality:

The Women's Convention got a lot of heat leading up to the event after they announced Sen. Bernie Sanders would be a speaker. Eventually it snowballed into a rumor that he would be the keynote speaker (when it was actually always going to be Rep. Maxine Waters). Why give a man such a coveted opportunity over the many women who have been marginalized by our patriarchal society? The outrage and criticism was rightfully expressed and the organizers of the convention listened. Senator Sanders stepped out and the event became centered on women again.

This isn't the first time the Women's March has taken heat. The movement has received a lot of criticism since it began about whether it was intersectional enough, whether it was only serving white women with their pink pussy hats, whether it was strong enough to sustain itself, the list goes on... How could the Women's March galvanize such a diverse collection of women and serve all of their (sometimes competing) interests? Do they really think that protesting is enough? Don't they know that activism takes more than just being a body in a crowd?

True activism demands mundane, soul-crushing work:

  • Phone calls

  • Knocking on doors

  • Organizing events

  • Paperwork

  • Having difficult discussions with different people

  • Educating others

  • Educating yourself

  • Donating money

  • And at its most dire, risking your life...

This generation is finding new ways to engage people like through social media.

The cynicism surrounding the Women's March is not new, it crops up over other movements. Looking back at news reports and think pieces about Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, the same cynicism and criticism comes up. It seems easier for people to look at the birth of a movement and say, "They don't know what they're doing, they don't have the lasting power, they're not unified enough..." Sometimes, these opinions prove correct. Some movements die, some beget other movements. One thing that you can't argue about is the awareness each of these movements bring to the general public.

I recently read a piece by Rebecca Solnit in Harpers magazine about the nature of activism called "Preaching to the Choir." In it, she listed a statistic that blew my mind, "Only around 3.5 percent of a population is needed to successfully resist or even topple a regime. In other words, to create change, you don’t need everyone to agree with you, you just need some people to agree so passionately that they will donate, campaign, march, risk arrest or injury." A lot of us are operating under the assumption that in order to make change, everyone, or a large majority has to be on board. This article suggests that maybe not everyone has to be on the same page, but a solid percentage of us has to be willing to put in the work to make change for the majority.

It's less about convincing everyone to believe in the same future as you, but about finding common ground and engaging enough people to act on those beliefs. Action is much more important than belief. Solnit also brings up the fact that during the Civil Rights Movement, the majority of America did not support it. Only a quarter of Americans supported the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous, "I Have a Dream" speech! Instead, it was the small percentage of activists from the Civil Rights Movement that acted to make change for all Americans.

I see similarities in movements happening right now like the Women's March, Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock. Say what you want about a lack of unity, or definitive leader or clear messaging; these groups are doing the work. They are making their voices heard. They are making attempts to learn from mistakes and setbacks. They are doing what they can to engage the small percentage of the populace that is willing to do the work to make change for all of us.

Do you want to stay on the sidelines criticizing their imperfection? Or do you want to get in the mud with them and grow and learn while truly making a difference?