“There’s a lot that can happen when people have collective power.”
Wednesday evening, I had the privilege of listening to Carmen Perez, co-chair of the historic Women’s March on Washington, deliver an extremely inspirational speech regarding her twenty years of activism. Perez not only helped to organize the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history, but she also founded two state-based task forces: Justice League NYC and Justice League CA, dedicated to advancing criminal and juvenile justice reform. Currently, she serves as the Executive Director of The Gathering for Justice, an organization working to end racial inequities and child incarceration in the criminal justice system. During her speech, Perez recounted the hardships she has confronted, people whom she has encountered, and lessons she has learned. Ultimately, she claimed that in order for social movements to be successful, we must recognize the intersections between issues of social justice and stand in solidarity with one another.
Although not a perfectly inclusive demonstration, Perez stated that the Women’s March made great progress towards advancing the interests of all women. Unlike previous leaders of women’s rights movements, the founding leaders of the Women’s March wanted to make a conscious effort to represent and elevate the interests of women from all backgrounds. While at first hesitant to offer her assistance, as a Latina from a “farming community plagued by violence”, Perez recalled, “I realized that I had the power to make the march inclusive and make it my responsibility to make everyone a part of it.” Although the original organizers had good intentions, Perez believed that without her support as well as that of “women from every shade of brown”, the march would have ultimately failed to “produce the most radical policy platform in the history of the United States.” Although seemingly disparate, marchers realized that the issues they individually supported, such as, reproductive rights, immigration reform, and environmental justice, were interwoven and could simultaneously be advanced through a collective march.
Here, I thought about the connections I have made between issues that I have observed over the course of my fellowship. For example, during Margaret Regan’s lecture earlier this year, I noted the relationship between immigration and criminal justice reform. While Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke of the hateful environment the confederate monuments created for many of his constituents, I was reminded of when Dr. Brenda Armstrong recalled that, at times, she felt unwelcomed from certain spaces during her under-graduate experience at Duke. Furthermore, as I have noticed that many families staying at Families Moving Forward are headed by single mothers, I am wondering about the relationship between issues of homelessness and women’s rights.
In concluding her speech, Perez asked us to turn to the person sitting to our right and say, “You are loved. You are important. You are necessary.” Afterwards, we contemplated why this simple exercise had generated so much discomfort, giggling, and awkward pauses. Perez stated that in order to make positive social change, we must be willing to look past our differences, recognize one another’s basic humanity, and form human connections. As I continue to engage with a wide-range of social justice issues, I will be mindful to heed Perez’s advice.