“I see solidarity as something that I try to live with every single day,” Carmen Perez tells me by phone. Perez is the National Co-Chair for the Women’s March on Washington and, alongside Tamika D. Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Bob Bland, says her role is to ensure that the march will be inclusive as well as authentic. That the estimated 200,000 women and men who will move forward together in solidarity, from their starting marks on Independence Avenue and Third Street SW in our nation’s capital, create a sea of diversity in its many forms — issues, race, gender.
Perez speaks as someone with 20 years of organizing and activism experience might: with an assured, steady voice at a clipped pace, acutely aware of the clock (we have 15 minutes scheduled) yet so passionate about this cause, this march and what it stands for, that when we go over time she keeps talking — I guess because when your life is dedicated to social justice, conversations can’t just stop because they’re inconvenient.
“Courageous conversations” is the term she uses for opening dialogues with people and groups one wouldn’t otherwise talk to in the name of breaking down preconceived notions and learning more about one another. She has been having these kinds of dialogues every since day since her involvement in the march. “It hasn’t been easy,” she tells me, “meeting people where they’re at, having courageous conversations about white privilege, social justice, misogyny.” She’s had conversations about climate change indigenous rights and reproductive justice. She’s been speaking with immigrant groups, women’s rights groups, people in the AAPI community, the Masa community, the American Southeast Asian community, the Trans community. It’s a list that can go on for as long as America is wide.
She does it, as she says, “on the shoulders of” Harry Belafonte, an artist, activist (who walked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1963 March on Washington) and founder of The Gathering for Justice, the nonprofit for which Perez is Executive Director. “I work with him to ensure that we are making room for new activists, creating their legacy,” she says. “The youth are not just our future, they are our present. How do we create space for them?”
It’s important to Carmen Perez that the communities she is part of are “at the table,” too. She works in the criminal justice field with formerly incarcerated youth, is involved in civil rights activism and is a Mexican American woman. “The President-elect targeted my community,” she says. “Because of that, there was an urgency to be part of this conversation. It was important to bring in voice of a Latina woman who has been organizing for 20 years alongside my sisters Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory and the representatives of all of the communities he targeted: Muslims, African Americans, women, LGBTQIA…I felt connected to their world, their issues.”
“My own growth through this has been to look outside of my issue expertise and ask, ‘How can we be intentional working in collaboration with one another? How can we be intentional about the voices represented?’” she says.
Bob Bland, one of Carmen Perez’s fellow National Co-Chairs, asks me a similar rhetorical question. “It’s not enough to have voices that have always been there in the feminist movement,” she says. “It’s about recognizing the different forms of intersectionality within the feminist movement, among people of all faith, among the LGBTQIA community, and giving each group a metaphorical microphone. That was a learning curve for me early on in this organization. You can’t just welcome people to the march and say that it’s unified. You have to center their voices in leadership.”
She speaks about the national committee and the state administration team that’s made up of “every different background you could imagine” in all 50 states and 20 countries. Many of these women became “activists on the spot” — regular people who felt a very real call to action on the night of the presidential election.
“The team is so dynamic,” Carmen Perez says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The woman who has never organized anything in her life, a baker, yoga teacher, a mother, a person dedicated to social rights and justice — all working alongside each other. It has been a powerful experience.”
Bob Bland recalls how, in the first couple of days, people kept messaging the Women’s March Facebook group to ask, “What organization is putting this march on?”
“They couldn’t understand: There was no organization. Just women coming together.”
While planning the march, Bland gave birth to her daughter. “She’s a reminder for me every single day. I look at her and I ask, ‘What am I doing to ensure that your rights are not rolled back, that this country can be one where you feel respected and empowered as a woman?’ We can’t wait for someone else to do this work for us.
Women are not afraid of work. We work tirelessly. This march came from the idea: why not take our skills, time and effort and put it toward a movement that can energize us, bring us together, make sure that this kind of thing never happens again?”
Listed on the Women’s March website is its mission:
“The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us – immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault — and our communities are hurting and scared. We are confronted with the question of how to move forward in the face of national and international concern and fear.
In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.”
It is a powerful credo to stand behind and walk for. “This march transcends politics,” says Bland. To repeat her and the mission above: this is about human rights.
Carmen Perez hopes that the march will ignite a spark in those who participate, whether their footsteps land in Washington, D.C. or on the ground at sister marches nationwide.
“Yes, our communities are under attack,” says Perez. “But the fact that we have a quarter of a million people coming to Washington, D.C. gives me hope. We can’t we live in our fear. We can’t live in our anger. So what are we going to do? How do we turn our baggage into gifts? What are we going to do with our stories?”
“January 21st is going to be a day in which we can show radical resistance grounded in radical love so long as we move forward together with compassion,” she says. “And if we ask you to march again in the future, we hope you answer the answer the call.”
Feature photo by Don Carl STEFFEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.