Some moments only become significant in retrospect; some moments demand at-present to be acknowledged as historic, world-changing, formative. The 2017 Women’s Convention in Detroit was three days of moments that were undeniably important then and will surely only grow in their importance as we forge ahead. I consider myself fairly well versed on United States politics, on social-justice issues, and on activism, so while I expected the convention to be inspiring and monumental, I didn’t expect to learn all that much. In reality, I learned more about activism and feminism in three days than most people learn in their lifetimes. I will surely fail to convey this knowledge to you all adequately, but I’m going to try.
First, a note: the convention offered over 170 amazing breakout sessions, but there was only time to attend 11 at most. Therefore, it is impossible for any one person to explain adequately the massive amount of inspiration, empowerment, and education that occurred. This account only covers my individual experience—and it’s an incomplete account at that, since it would take much more time than I have to offer to chronicle every second of the gathering. I do plan on watching some of the recorded sessions I missed, most notably the session on “confronting white womanhood.”
The convention began on Friday morning with a massive session titled “Reclaiming Our Time: Setting the Agenda Together.” Congresswoman Maxine Waters, as most of you will know by now, unintentionally coined the girl-power rally cry “reclaiming my time” when, while questioning Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin during a House Financial Services Committee meeting, the Secretary kept sidestepping her questions, likely in an attempt to let the clock run its course. Representative Waters repeatedly redirected him using the phrase “reclaiming my time.” With her permission, the Women’s Convention organizers used her words to set the theme and tone for the weekend. “Reclaiming our time” resonates with marginalized people who are tired of being talked over, ignored, “flattered,” underestimated, and silenced. This weekend was ours. And something magical happens when everyone has something important to say: we take turns, and we listen, because we know that others’ words are as valuable as ours—or more valuable, depending on the circumstance. Respect begets respect.
The opening ceremony began with recognizing that we were sitting on indigenous land. Cofounders of Indigenous Women Rise Sara Eagleheart and Anathea Chino said a few words and were then joined by other indigenous women, who all blessed the convention and led us all in song. It was beautiful, but, as the organizers acknowledged at the end of the weekend, it was not enough; indigenous women were not adequately represented throughout the convention. Still, beginning the weekend with intention and humility was vital; it’s a practice that is common throughout Canada, and seeing it happen in the U.S. was refreshing. But talking about indigenous injustices as if they ended with “resettlement” is harmful. Sara said, “We are not in the past; we are still here.” Indigenous women are more often than not forgotten in feminist spaces, and we have to change that.
Tamika Mallory, one of the organizers and a renowned social justice activist in her own right, spoke a bit later. The most striking part of her soliloquy was this:
“Your feminism does not represent me if it is only about our right to get an abortion. If you do not care about the fact that I can’t even have children because I’m too poor, then your feminism does not represent me. If men are not a part of this movement, your feminism doesn’t represent me, because I have an 18-year-old son that I cannot leave behind; he must be protected. If your feminism does not include how gun violence impacts our communities, it does not represent me. And if your feminism is the difference between Bernie and Hillary, it does not represent me . . . I wanna know what you are doing on the ground in your communities. Who have you saved? Who have you lifted? . . . I wanna know, when the movement goes from five million people to five people in your home where you stay, will you care about me, and others who look like me, who could not travel here? They are in Detroit, but they could not get in this conference center today. Do you care about them? That’s when your feminism represents me.”
Tamika went on to introduce Tarana Burke, the woman who founded the #MeToo Movement a decade ago. Actress Rose McGowan, who recently shared her #metoo story of sexual violence, then joined her on the stage and gave her own speech.
Puerto Rican author, activist, and academic Rosa Clemente later spoke, giving firsthand accounts of the post-hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico. She told the stories that aren’t being covered in the news—of the horror happening in large and small cities, to people routinely neglected by the federal government that stole their nation’s freedom. She described the aftermath of this year’s hurricanes in PR as “a thousand times worse” than the Hurricane Katrina destruction. And while hurricanes can be described as natural disasters (though let’s not discount the effects of pollution on weather, which disproportionately affect marginalized communities), but the most destructive disaster was human-made: “119 years ago,” Rosa said, “Hurricane America hit our island. It took our island, it colonized us, then it sterilized us, then it tortured us, then it imprisoned our people.” She asked all Puerto Rican people or people with PR ancestors to stand. Women all over the room stood, with tears flowing fast. She then asked all the women around them to hold them up, to hold their hands, to support them. It was heartbreaking and beautiful, a visual metaphor for what must happen moving forward, if we care about the people of Puerto Rico.
Linda Sarsour spoke a bit later. If you don’t know who Linda is, you need to do some research; I don’t have enough time to list all of her “receipts,” but, basically, she is every activist’s hero. She is a Muslim American woman who is fierce, fiery, brilliant and brave. She’s also one of the organizers of the Women’s March and Convention, though my first exposure to her was in 2013, at the Fourth Estate Leadership Summit at UCLA. In her first speech of the weekend, she reflected on the people who doubted their ability to pull off the convention less than a year after organizing the largest single-day protest in American history. “This is how you do it: We are women,” she said, “who have a vision. We are focused. We know that there are people counting on us, and we want something, we get what we want, and that is why you are here in this room today.” She ended the opening session with a quote that we at Invisible Children refer to often: Lila Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come here because you believe that your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
The breakout sessions I went on to attend that day were: a discussion about increasing diverse representation in politics; an interfaith panel on reproductive justice; a talk from the leaders of Women on 20s, the group that fought to get Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill and succeeded in getting the U.S. Treasury to commit to putting women on three different pieces of currency; and a panel on the role of cities in protecting reproductive justice.
We ushered in the evening with a reception around “Art for the Resistance.” I loved seeing women of all ages and identities socializing, admiring artwork, and talking about social justice. One of the older women in the photo below caught me taking their picture and assumed I didn’t want them in the shot. (Not true.) As she moved her friends to the side, she said to me, “From the First Wave, it’s great to see the Third here.”
Friday night was all about resistance. Welcome remarks were delivered by Senators Debbie Stabenow, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar, and Representative Barbara Lawrence. Each of these dedicated women took my breath away as they called us all to action in continuing to resist the oppressive regime we currently face.
Following the talks from these incredible congresswomen, a strikingly diverse panel of politicians and activists took the stage to discuss concrete steps required during the Trump Era. Every single one of these people offered a unique perspective not only because of their identities (though identity does inform experience and thus knowledge) but because of the roles they play in the resistance. I was particularly pleased to see disability rights activist Colleen Flanagan on the stage, as these events generally leave out disabled women. (More on this later.) Senator Nina Turner, in her awesome floral dress, was also remarkable; her tenacity and confidence left with me a lasting influence.
Day One effectively ran from 8:30 a.m. to close to 10 p.m. If there’s anything women can do, it’s make the most of what we’ve got, and the organizers did an incredible job of fitting an immense amount of content into the short three days we had together.
I arrived early Saturday morning to save front-row seats for the day’s opening plenary. The day before I’d met two incredible women, Carol Bontekoe and Caitlin Dobson; shoutout to Sam Penturf for seeing that Carol and I would both be at the convention and urging us to find one another. Carol and Caitlin basically adopted me into their group for the rest of the weekend, for which I was and am so grateful. I have no issue being on my own, but it’s always nice to make friends, and that’s true tenfold when the friends in question are as smart and astounding as these two.
After having saved three seats like I owned the place, I walked around the convention center a bit. I noticed through the windows that there were anti-choice protestors holding up graphic images and inflammatory signs. Rights as I pulled my camera out, an UltraViolet truck pulled up beside them, making for the perfect photo op. I said a silent thank-you for my earliness; the path from the bus stop to the convention center would have taken me right through them.
I was so glad to be front-row-Joeing it that morning, because the opening plenary featured a group of women so incredible it’s hard to put into words. At one point, I looked over to Carol and Caitlin and said, “I think this is the smartest group of people I’ve ever witnessed.” Carmen Perez, another of the WMW/WC organizers, moderated, and she so skillfully integrated the thoughts and opinions of all of the women. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity were all represented; black, MENA, latinx, and white; abled and disabled; cis and trans; immigrant and nonimmigrant. The talk was aptly titled “Dismantling All Forms of Oppression as One Through Intersectionality.” Disability rights activist Rebecca Cokley reminded everyone that disabled women are already in the movement, but we have to ensure that, when we make space for them at the proverbial table, that the table is accessible. (Rebecca and others expanded on this later in the day at a disability-specific breakout session, which was, without a doubt, my favorite breakout session of the weekend . . . but I’ll get to that later.) Stosh Cotler, a Jewish activist, explained how Jews in particular know that it is in moments of perceived safety that we are in the most danger—but she also acknowledged that, within that group of women, she was likely the safest right now, as a white, able-bodied, straight, cis woman. Honestly, I could go on and on about each of these women and the contributions they made to the conversation, but I will let you all watch their talk on your own if you please.
The morning breakout session I chose for Saturday was called “94 Percent Voted Against Trump: Following Black Women in 2018.” A recurring theme of the convention was to follow black women, and that idea has implanted itself into my brain and being. Black women overwhelmingly get it. However, we have to be careful not to impose misogynoir-rooted stereotypes, like “black women are strong,” which limit and dehumanize them. Keeping that in mind, it must be noted that black women run this country and this world, and the rest of us would be wise to listen to them—and to vote for them.
The lunch session was called the Sojourner Truth Lunch. We ate our pre-made sandwiches as we listened to a slate of impressive people speak and rally and impart wisdom and inspire courage. Words from artists and politicians and activists and journalists and academics led up to the keynote speaker of the weekend: Congresswoman Maxine Waters. She was, as always, a pillar of integrity, bravery, and wisdom. She “spoke truth to power” like nobody else can, but the thing she said that stood out to me the most began with a story Hillary Clinton tells in her book What Happened. Rep. Waters recounted the unsettling behavior of Donald Trump at that infamous presidential debate, where he essentially stalked HRC all over the stage, looming behind her in a way that made watching women’s skin crawl. Hillary writes in her book that she wanted to turn around and say, “Back off, creep,” but she didn’t because of the potential political ramifications. Rep. Waters told us that we need to harness that righteous indignation and self-preservation and “say what Hillary should have said: ‘Creep, get off my back!'” The crowd lost it, and rightfully so, empowered and supported by “Auntie Waters,” the wise woman every person needs in their life.
My afternoon sessions were about engaging new voters, the Flint water crisis, and disability-rights activism. I learned a lot in all three, but I want to focus on the disability rights session.
Earlier in the weekend, I had walked around “Social Justice City,” the area set aside for activists and justice-related businesses to set up booths with informational pieces and products. I was looking for any disability-rights booths, as that is what I’m currently most passionate about—and also what is so often overlooked. I found one booth: that of Warriors on Wheels, a Detroit-based organization led by a woman named Lisa Franklin. Lisa and I spent a little while talking, commiserating on the lack of truly adequate disability representation at the convention. (You may disagree with me on this point, assuming that a few disabled folks scattered throughout were enough, but you would be mistaken: consider that about 20% of the U.S. population is disabled, and that most of us, if we live long enough, will one day face disability.) Lisa was particularly bothered because she had been asked to be on the (only) disability-rights panel only three days before the convention. She felt as if she were being used as a token, the only African American woman to be on the stage during that session. I was outraged on her behalf, and on behalf of the many other black disabled activists in the country and in Detroit alone.
Despite this major misstep by the organizers, the session was awesome. I regret that I didn’t get a good photo of the women, but activist Katherine Perez live streamed it, and I highly recommend you watch. The panel was comprised of activist and adaptive athlete Mia Ives-Rublee, who was responsible for the accessibility of the WMW; activist and consultant Rebecca Cokley; Latinx activist, lawyer, and soon-to-be PhD Katherine Perez; activist Vilissa Thompson, who works on the rights of disabled people of color; and the aforementioned Lisa Franklin. After introductions, the discussion started with beautiful and necessary outrage at “progressives” and how the movement excludes disabled people in subversive ways that, in the end, are way more harmful than the ways that the Right does. A great example that Rebecca brought up is the notorious “Trump mocks disabled reporter” headline that liberals love to bring up, though they likely don’t know and certainly won’t say the reporter’s name, Serge Kovaleski, nor do they know or acknowledge that he doesn’t identify as disabled or cover disability issues. “What does it say,” she asked, “when we have someone in the White House who openly mocks people with disabilities on one end, we have the progressives on the other end that don’t even bother to know the individual’s name who’s being mocked, and then disability is used as slander, as we repeatedly hear people talk about how ‘crazy,’ how ‘unhinged,’ how ‘damaged’ the person in the White House is. What is worse: mocking us, or acting like our existence doesn’t matter at all?”
“The second one,” Lisa responded succinctly.
Katherine, who has a mental illness and considers herself non-apparently disabled, doubled down on how we need to stop directing language at the President that degrades disabled people. Vilissa followed up poignantly: “There is no medical diagnosis in the DSM for being a jackass.”
Mia spoke about how disabled people are either tokenized or infantilized (or both), outside of and within the movement. Kat told a story about how she’s organizing a disability-rights protest on her campus, and the meeting she had with the dean of the school was disheartening because the dean was so politely dismissive, saying things like, “Oh, that’s great, because that’s not political, and it seems like something everybody could agree with.” She responded by saying, “The only reason our issues aren’t contentious, if that’s the case, is because nobody takes us seriously.” Disabled people are more often than not spoken for rather than listened to.
I am not doing credit to this discussion or these women at all, so again, I want to encourage you to watch the recording linked above. The last thing I’m going to write about is what happened at the very end of the session, when Lisa made a comment about language. She said that she didn’t want to be referred to as “disabled,” that appliances can be disabled, but people are “people with disabilities” and should be referred to as such. There was uproar from the rest of the panel, who wanted to make it clear that they do not subscribe to that model of language, and that many of them prefer identity-first language (“disabled people” instead of “people with disabilities”). This is something of a hot-button issue in the disability rights community, as the vast majority of disabled activists, writers, and speakers prefer identity-first language, as 1) person-first was coined by able-bodied people, 2) disability isn’t negative, so there’s no need to distance it from the person, and 3) many people consider their disability an integral part of who they are. However, many parents, teachers, and other practitioners insist on person-first language. This is something that has come up a lot for me in my studies in the developmental psychology department, because I insist on using identity-first, and all of my professors, classmates, and books use person-first. I also noticed that the convention program used person-first language, which was a tell to me that the organizers were, perhaps, trying to be inclusive but weren’t versed on the issue, which is, frankly, unacceptable.
Another event that made me think that the convention organizers had perhaps used disabled people as tokens was at the very end of the convention, at the closing ceremony. Tamika Mallory was the final speaker, and she went off on an impromptu rant about American Airlines. For those who missed it, a few weeks ago, she and a black man were kicked off of a plane for expressing discontent with a situation. She started the hashtag #BoycottAmericanAirlines. During her speech about this, I kept waiting for her to mention the fact that another black woman, Vilissa Thompson, had been disenfranchised by American Airlines as well, just two days before, when, on her way to the convention, they lost her wheelchair and failed to provide her with a loaner chair. Tamika never brought it up, and I was incredibly bothered. How do you go on a rant about your own experience, an able-bodied black woman, and totally leave out the more traumatizing treatment experienced by a fellow black activist? Tamika stepped off the stage to let someone else speak. I got up from my front-row seat, crouched down and bewildering my friends, and went over to where she was standing off to the side. Her bodyguard stopped me, of course, and I just asked him if he would pass along my message to her, which was basically, “hey, this happened, I think you should mention it.” I got back to my seat, watched him tell her, watched her look at me, and waited with hope. She returned to the stage. She did not mention Vilissa. She did go on to use the word “crazy” to describe injustice—another clear indicator that she is not listening to the disabled-rights community. I wondered how those panelists felt.
But, back to Saturday: after the breakout sessions, there were documentary screenings and then a large concert. My head was pounding, though, and I was exhausted, so I ducked out and spent the night watching Scandal. It’s hard for me to do things like that, as I feel as if I should seize every moment of an event, but I knew that I needed rest, so I took it.
My final breakout session was on what activists can do in red states. As a Texan, I felt compelled to attend this one, and I’m so glad I did. It was led by Sera Bonds, founder of Circle of Health International, an organization that provides reproductive care to women in need. They work in South Texas, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. She spoke about “finding common ground and staying there,” enlisting the help of unconventional allies, and, ultimately, just doing whatever is necessary to help the people you’re wanting to help, even if it means sometimes keeping quiet when it comes to partisan advocacy. Her organization in particular can’t do the work they need to do if they “lead with abortion”; they have to lead with “miscarriage management.” Once they’ve established relationships, perhaps over years, they may be able to bring up reproductive choice, but their goal first and foremost is to get into communities and help the women who need them, so they stay discreet. (However, they recently launched an activist subscription box, called ActivateUs, which allows them to do advocacy work without sacrificing their primary mission.)
When the session ended, I felt compelled to thank Sera one-on-one, because her words and advice were so empowering to me. She spoke of coalition-building, relationship-nurturing, and using nonpartisan efforts to get things done. The vast majority of people at the convention would be headed home to blue states, where their beliefs are the norm. My U.S. home, on the other hand, is staunchly conservative, and when I bring up social justice issues even to my friends and family, I often feel written off as “a liberal”; I don’t feel heard. When I try to have discussions, I’m accused of being argumentative, even when I’m coming from a totally neutral place in terms of emotion. The people whom I love and who outwardly disagree with me simply don’t talk to me about the important, polarizing issues, because, for whatever reason, it upsets them that I want to dialogue rather than always just “agree to disagree.” But, more prevalent and frustrating than that are the people I love who don’t speak about their beliefs at all. It literally keeps me up at night when I think about the great injustices and how so many of the people I know don’t care at all. Why don’t they care? And what can I do without risking my relationships? Sera’s perspective gave me so much hope; she has accomplished so much good in places where people either won’t talk or don’t care. She has found allies in people on the other side of the aisle by searching for commonality. And she has done all of this without sacrificing her own beliefs. Basically, she’s my hero, and having her session as my final breakout of the convention was timely and perfect.
I already wrote about some of the closing ceremony, but Tamika’s speech was only one part of it. The closing ceremony began with a song from the Detroit Women’s Chorus and the Wayne State University Women’s Chorale. Witnessing this diverse group of women sing about sisterhood was beyond moving.
Afterward was the final plenary discussion, entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” With Tamika moderating, the panel consisted of Donelle R. White, Bob Bland (WMW cofounder), Carmen Perez, and Angela Rye. Carmen first discussed what she saw as the shortcomings of the convention and what she wanted to improve upon in the future. Her two main points were that indigenous and trans women weren’t adequately included. I agree. I also hoped that she would speak about improving disability visibility, as well as featuring older women and fat women with intention, seeing as ageism and fatphobia are very real forms of discrimination, and yet neither was mentioned all weekend (at least that I heard). In making the event accessible for disabled people, I think it was made accessible to the elderly as well, but the event was definitely not actively inclusive of fat people: some chairs had arms, which make sitting in them uncomfortable or impossible for many bigger-bodied people, and the shirts being sold were only offered in limited sizes. What sort of message does this send to fat women?
Moving on: Donelle and Bob both made meaningful contributions to the discussion as well, but most influential to me was Angela Rye, the no-nonsense, brilliant woman you’ve likely seen on CNN. Her accomplishments are innumerable, and her words had me on the edge of my seat. When asked what we need to do moving forward, her answer was a paraphrase of a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech: “bank black, give black, buy black.” It inspired me to reevaluate where my money goes: Am I eating at minority-owned restaurants? (In Toronto, mostly yes, since I’m in an intercultural neighborhood, but in Texarkana, I could do a better job.) Is my bank minority-owned? (No.) Do I give to enough minority-run nonprofits? (I give to quite a few, but I can always do better.)
Bob had each of us convene with our neighbors and discuss what actions we’re going to take to improve our activism. I said that I was going to assess my priorities: where I’m spending my money, yes, but also: what books I’m reading, what podcasts I’m listening to, what I’m doing with my free time, where I’m shopping, etcetera. I’m also going to get involved with the Toronto chapter of Democrats Abroad; I have been a member for a while, but at the convention I met another member—one who is actually engaged—and decided to make more of a commitment to it. (Also, yay for more Toronto friends.)
After the grownups talked, the convention’s youth paraded through the hall with hand-made signs. It was lovely. There were littles and kids and adolescents. They led us in song, and we all took comfort in knowing that the younger generations have torches ready to be lit.