NOT YOUR GRANDMOTHER'S WOMEN'S CONVENTION

Nine months after the Women's March, a surprisingly diverse crowd of 5,000 met in Detroit for the inaugural Women's Convention. Their mission? To transform the energy of the march into strategy, bridge gaps and build power.

Originally Published on Colorlines.com (October 31, 2017)

By Bakari Kitwana

When I arrived at 10 a.m. on Saturday (October 28), thousands of women from across the United States had already filled Detroit’s Cobo Center for the inaugural Women’s Convention, a followup to January’s historic Women’s March. From its inception this summer, the Convention was challenged—by lingering racial tensions from the march, criticism of the $295 cost of general admission and the scheduling of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a man, as an opening-night speaker. (Sanders went to Hurricane Irma-ravaged Puerto Rico instead.) Under these conditions, could the Women’s March movement truly unite women across race and gender politics and help them build the power to defeat Trump’s MAGA agenda?

Surprisingly, the Convention crowd appeared to be equal parts White women and women of color, and there was a smattering of men in attendance, including me. Michelle Murguia, an 18-year-old college freshman from Albuquerque who works on deportation defense with New Mexico Dream Team, says the attendance defied her expectations. “I didn’t expect to see a lot of diversity here,” she told me in crowded hallway outside the main auditorium. ”It’s just amazing to see these strong women from diverse cultures fighting for their rights.”

Rana Abdelhamid, 24, founding president of The Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment, was also skeptical, but she made the trek from Palo Alto, California, anyway. “Being at the Women’s Convention was one of the most beautiful spaces I’ve ever been in as a woman of color. There was a sea of women of color and everyone was empowered to call out White feminism, White supremacy and White violence,” she said in a telephone interview the day after her presentation on self defense at the Convention. “I felt like I could speak my mind and speak my truth because it was such a diverse space. Also, the sessions were actively pushing well-intentioned White women to be better allies and accomplices in the fight for justice.”

The diversity of the Convention was not a coincidence. The event borrowed its theme, “Reclaiming Our Time,” from Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-Ca.) famous refrain and booked her as the conference keynote. And leaders of color in the Women’s March movement, including activists Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez, were highly visible on social and news media.

A cross-section of grassroots activists such as Rosa Clemente of #PRontheMap, Tarana Burke, #MeToo movement founder, and Shakyra Diaz, managing director of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, added to the diverse voices. They spoke bluntly about the past and current challenges of organizing women across vast race and class divides on issues from sexual assault to mass incarceration to the rebuilding of Puerto Rico. 

At one of the most attended breakout sessions, “94 Percent Voted Against Trump: Black Women in 2018,” panelists including Melanie Campbell, CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and Brittney Packnett, cofounder of Campaign Zero, discussed Black women’s fight for resources and recognition while navigating slights by their White counterparts. Symone Sanders, who served as the national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, moderated the session and Women’s March movement leader Mallory led off the question-and-answer period by asking the mostly Black crowd how they deal with the power dynamics of their emerging leadership. “We have been left on the sidelines so long that we have to think about what happened when we are invited in the room, and we show up hard, and sometimes make people run away. How do we deal with that?” 

 

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