Deciding to March: The Civic Duty of “What the Hell?”

Their stories neither started in January nor ended with that day after the inauguration or the headlines for Women’s History Month. Whether they marched on Washington or their local government centers, American women took action on January 21st carried their own plot line about how they came to be part of that crowd.

They also have their own ideas about where to look for ways to stay engaged. Their story may have started with the March or taken an unexpected turn but it is a mistake to think their moment has come and gone.

The experiences shared here come from women who had all voted previously. They all paid some attention to current events. They all enjoyed some degree of comfort in knowing the American system is generally consistent, moves at a glacial pace of change and has a limited reach when it came to their day-to-day. This comfortable place, of course, also provides much of the criticism of the Women’s March. Activists working to raise awareness for years were lost in a crowd of women who seemed to have come from nowhere. Where had they been before the March?

But what if we wanted to learn something from the newly engaged? If coalition building starts with engagement, those interested in building a movement can hardly risk alienating those who have just arrived.

From Inauguration Day protest March in Austin, TX (Photo by Bill Wale)

However any of us understand our role among the American people, there is a responsibility that comes when one’s understanding of political events shifts from “this seems to be working well enough,” to “what the hell are we going to do.” It’s a different mode of civic duty from voting or writing checks. It’s a mode that many know only in the abstract as their careers, families and other social responsibilities seem unfazed by congressional contests, diplomatic undertakings or judicial decisions.

It’s this mode that makes movements possible. Success comes by reaching people on the verge of making this shift. Potential lies in convincing others that they know something has changed, something that requires them to re-think their estimate of “well enough.”

The personal experiences presented here focus on this disruption of individually-held estimates of “well enough,” the place in our political mind when we look to find a movement.

There’s No Way

Ashley attended the March and took her teenage daughter with her. She said it was a “no-brainer.” The march was something they needed to do together even if she didn’t have a specific reason for this decision. They joined forces with one of Ashley’s friends and her daughter. They were a party of four joining the Women’s March in Austin.

Somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people joined that “sister march” with those at the front of the parade beginning the march two hours before anyone at the back of the crowd had the chance to step forward. Ashley’s daughter had plenty of time to question what she witnessed. She asked why they would all be marching for “women only.” Ashley explained that it was a group of women making a show of force but that their cause included “everyone’s rights.” She pointed to longtime friends who had become objects of the election cycle’s superheated rhetoric. Thinking about their family friends who were gay, Hispanic or recent immigrants, Ashley admitted that the hate was nothing new but had become more terrible when it worked to win the highest office.

At the end of the day, they returned home and turned on the TV to watch the news coverage. Fortunately this meant Ashley had a glass of wine in her hand when her daughter asked what the deal was with all those “pink kitty hats.” The images of a historic day rolled by on the screen and Ashley decided that meeting the challenge of the moment required providing honest answers to her daughter’s question.

She told her about the Billy Bush interview; She shared the pussy-grabbing quote. Her daughter was skeptical that it could be true.

So a long day on their feet at the Texas Capitol met its final scene when Ashley found the interview online. Her daughter watched it for herself and kept looking over her shoulder at her mom. Each time the man who had been elected President pressed on to say more about his misuse and abuse of women, her daughter’s face contorted again to show a different emotion. She looked at Ashley and said, “there’s no way.”

In that moment, Ashley knew why she had marched that day, why she had brought her daughter along and why she had to continue to stay engaged as the new administration rolls on. She follows the calls to action but knows staying involved requires focusing. She is keeping her eye on education and healthcare and encourages others to, “find a cause and get behind it.”

Then she added that we should get our kids involved too. The next generation will remain stuck in neutral if we never make that invitation.

Do Something

The day after the election, Anuva took her kids to school while wearing a safety pin and looking for other allies. Other parents went on about their business like nothing had changed. For Anuva, it felt like everything had changed and had done so very quickly.

She admits to being “selfish” prior to Trump’s election. She had voted for Obama but had never done anything to go out of her way. She did her part casting her ballot and had faith in a system of checks and balances. Trump’s success had shaken that faith. This mother of a biracial family now had to admit to being uncertain about what might happen next. She could imagine a future when her children would look back on the history of the moment and ask her, “what did you do?” She realized the safety pin was more slacktivism than activism. It wasn’t a good enough answer.

The moment required more than symbolism, tears and moping around the place. She had to do something.

Anuva had not been convinced that the March was the thing for her. She turned down the first invitation from her sister-in-law because her daughter had a basketball game that day. When another friend told her that she was taking a bus from Houston to join the march, Anuva and her husband sorted out a new plan for kid duty that day. At the Capitol, she found hope in the crowd. She found the group that would stand with her against whatever intolerance came next. The crowds washed away the isolation she had felt at school drop-off and helped her see that showing up mattered. Anuva says, “the march gave me a fire.”

She also has newly found support from her circle of friends. A crew that had enjoyed a Girls’ Day the weekend before the inauguration “all got fired up together.” They had rarely talked politics before but now push one another to be more involved. Anuva even says she feels like she is now the most vocal of the crowd. She is “all over the place” writing postcards, attending legislative training and supporting the Muslim rally.

Despite all the new activity, Anuva has yet to escape the uncertainty and the anxiety that accompanies it. A Facebook fight got personal and ugly without warning. Anuva had only wanted to make the case for empathy. She talked to her doctor about the anxiety and was offered the prescription to turn off the news. She tried.

Throwing her hands in the air, Anuva says, “There’s too much going on. I can’t crawl under a rock.”

Anuva plans to focus on the couple of causes where she can “put her passion.” She has accepted that she can’t do it all but still wants to find a better way to sort through the calls to action. She knows voting is not enough, Facebook isn’t the place for it and we all need a good answer when we’re asked “what did you do?”

It’s Going to Happen

Talking about her previous participation, Tracie admits, “I say I stand for all these things but I haven’t done shit.” The election results served up an inconvenient reminder of what can happen when we leave politics to other people, even other people we trust.

Tracie’s story often returned to a central theme of despair more than dissatisfaction. She had deep convictions that required her to get involved. As a child, she had attended a boarding school where the boys had different rules than the girls and she grew up in a foreign country where adults explained away offensive behavior from men. Tracie added the election results to the long list of examples where sexism gets presented as something normal, as something we should all get used to. She felt betrayed that all the questions about Trump’s behavior had failed to disqualify him for office.

She traveled to Dallas the weekend after the election and carried her disbelief with her. How could so many women vote for Donald Trump? How could any woman? She realized that they were living proof of the persuasiveness of this “boys will be boys” mentality and its necessary corollary that women need to let it go. Tracie was never going to accept either of these positions but it helped her move her own emotional posture from anger and betrayal to compassion and empathy. When she saw a mention of the Women’s March in D.C., she knew she wanted to be there.

She made a few phone calls while driving back to Austin. She recalls telling a friend, “I don’t know how or why. I’m broke. But it’s going to happen.” She found a friend who signed onto the mission. Making travel arrangements, however proved difficult. She thought about giving up but eventually had a flight ticketed and a hotel room booked. Discovering her D.C. arrangements to be a bit disjointed, Tracie connected with a friend of a friend, someone who lived in the area and who could answer questions. Leah, the friend of a friend, invited Tracie to stay at her home, located only a couple of blocks from a Metro stop. It was the sign she needed to know she and her travel companion could make things work.

From Inauguration Day protests in Austin (Photo by Bill Wale)

When she stepped outside of Leah’s front door on the day of the March, Tracie saw all kinds of people walking down the street with their signs ready. She shared one story of kindness after another. Once she had staked out her position in the crowd on the Mall, she saw how an overwhelming and frightening mass of people would shift to make way for children, panic attacks and other difficult situations. Tracie found catharsis in this shared concern for one another. She could have felt claustrophobic in a tightly packed crowd like that but she felt safe instead.

She had found a crowd of women who had experienced the same feelings she had experienced, who refused to let go of their beliefs about right and wrong and who had made the commitment to show up that day, whatever it took to get there.

Tracie reflected on a joyful day. Marchers were happy to be there, acting together and thanking the police and other public servants who made the event possible. An Uber driver admitted to Tracie that he had taken Inauguration Day off. He had even avoided the television. He was one of many trying to not think about what was happening. Talking to her during the ride, he teared up with a look of sincere appreciation and said, “you don’t know how much it means to see you all out there.” Another thank you came her way at the airport as she headed home. She could see how all the small sacrifices stacked up to make a powerful moment possible for many people. The expression of unity extended beyond the marchers themselves.

In the days ahead, Tracie has vowed to no longer rely on her more politically active friends to do the work that needs to be done. There’s work for everyone and each of us needs to step up to lead within our own circles and with our own style. Taking the lead is sometimes an uncomfortable proposition, but it is necessary and might just be the thing that inspires the next person.

When you know what you stand for and you know the impact you want to make, you have to do what it takes and make it happen.

What’s Next

The change we need to make is mobilisation. We have to sound the alarm. The worst thing we can do is despair. My message is, don’t stand aside, get stuck in. Don’t be a click-avist. Keep asking: “What next?” If you go on a march and think: “That’s the job done,” they win. A backlash is a reaction, so we have to keep taking action. I keep saying to people, I adore Martin Luther King, but he was wrong when he said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards progress.” It doesn’t, unless you fight for it.
— Stella Creasy, Member of Parliament for Walthamstow

These three stories show how the Women’s March worked and how its work has to be carried forward. Ashley, Anuva and Tracie offer three stories of women finding the courage to get “stuck in” and provoking us all to ask “what next?” Even, perhaps, when we think we are comfortable with the “well enough.”

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