by Alexa Broida
Director, Mitzvah Corps
On Saturday, January 21st, inspired by a Facebook post, thousands of people will join the Women’s March on Washington, and hundreds of other gatherings are scheduled around the world. Our partners at the Religious Action Center are sponsoring a Nosh, Pray, March event in Washington, DC, and many in our URJ community are participating in these pro-women demonstrations to advocate for the Jewish values we believe in.
Yet as with all opportunities to engage in social justice, the decision to participate in a march shouldn’t be taken lightly. We carry with us, at all times, including now, the intersectional components of our personal identities, and it’s easy to get caught up in a wave of action without taking a breath, and ensuring that we are as well-informed as we are well-intentioned.
The Women’s March on Washington is a great opportunity to run through some quick questions that we should ask ourselves before participating in any social justice event. Remember that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers – just the chance to check in with yourself!
Who is facilitating the event?
As a general rule, it’s good to know the names and backgrounds of the individuals who are at the forefront of an event, even (and especially!) one as large and global as the Women’s March on Washington.
From a safety and security perspective, do they have experience organizing large, public events? Have they communicated with law enforcement to obtain the proper permits? Do they have a history of peaceful protesting?
In this case, the organizers did obtain the proper permits, and will be working with numerous government organizations to ensure the event is lawful and secure.
From a community perspective, do they represent the full range of people they’re marching on behalf of? Is there diversity in the leadership?
The Women’s March on Washington was off to a controversial start in this respect. The idea began with a handful of white women, who had originally called it the Million Woman March. In addition to not initially involving women with different intersectional identities (ie, Black women, women with disabilities, etc), the name was originally the name of a huge protest on behalf of Black women’s unity and self-determination in Philadelphia in 1997. This was seen, by many, as white women co-opting an idea and fight that black women have been involved in for, well, centuries, without including them in the process or acknowledging that this is a fight that’s been being fought long before 2016. The leaders quickly amended the name, now known as the Women’s March on Washington, and some powerful and diverse women, including key leaders in the Black, Latino, and Arab American communities signed on as co-chairs.
What does the event stand for?
Events, particularly large gatherings, can be a great opportunity to publicly demonstrate the unity of a people, and to let those in power know where their constituents stand.
The purpose of these events is often shortened to fit in 140 characters, or as the title of a Facebook event, but it’s important to be thoroughly educated about the platform of the group you’re supporting.
Who are the organizers? What organizations do they work for, or with? What are the mission statements of those organizations? What have they taken action on? Does the event have a platform of its own? Does it align with my values? If not all of my values are represented, am I comfortable with which ones are / are not?
The Women’s March on Washington began as a call from a few individuals to their friends to protest now-President Trump. Once it began to take off, and take shape, the organizers codified a comprehensive mission, vision, and set of principles.
Is the event inclusive?
There are any number of potential barriers to entry with events; physical, emotional, socioeconomic, logistical, and more. It may not always be possible to create experiences that are truly accessible to all, but who is, and isn’t, able to attend the event is an important piece of knowledge to have.
A non-exhaustive list of the groups that often feel excluded from large-scale events, like marches, are: people who aren’t white, who may feel that their voices aren’t valued by white organizers, that their contributions to these causes aren’t being recognized, that their physical well being won’t be protected by law enforcement; people with physical disabilities, who aren’t easily able to navigate crowded spaces, or move along a non-handicapped-accessible path; youth, who may feel that adults are dictating what’s in their best interest without offering them a seat at the table; people with sensory processing disorders, who may struggle in large, noisy crowds.
It can be challenging to find information about inclusivity, which is part of the problem! Whether or not events are able to accommodate everyone, the information should be made available. Reach out to the organizers to ask, advocate for inclusivity, and if nothing else, request that the details and accessibility information be easy to locate.
The Women’s March on Washington has included a culturally diverse group of women on their national committee, sought out artists to be agents of social change in visual and audio ways, provided information for those with physical disabilities, and has launched a youth ambassador program to engage young people in civic action. You can decide if the information provided is sufficient for you, or if you have lingering questions, and don’t hesitate to make your voice heard!
Why am I participating in the event?
There are no “right” or “wrong” reasons to participate, or to stay home.
Some prefer to witness marches or gatherings themselves to make decisions based on personal experience, rather than read what’s reported by others. Some have been inspired to join a cause for the first time, and a march is high-profile enough that it’s the only way they know how to begin. Some are seeking unity and solidarity, the company of others who believe in the same values. Some want to be able to say that they were there.
Some avoid marches because of safety concerns, not wanting to be in a large, controversial gathering; the color of one’s skin may play a role in this decision. Some opt out because they don’t feel the purpose, organizers, and fellow marchers are creating an environment that resonates with them; this may be out of anger, frustration, or a feeling of marginalization. Some will choose not to attend in solidarity with those they feel have been excluded from the any component of the experience. Some will decide to stay home in order to take action in other ways.
Consider why you’re there, or why you’re not, specifically within the context of the event itself, and its intersection with your own identity. After knowing the answers to the above questions, what feels right to you?
What will I do after the event?
Above all else, participating in a march should be one of a series of steps that you take to enact lasting change. Marching and gathering can be a powerful tool, but it is not what will, in the end, change the life of an individual or a family. Marching alone won’t put food on someone’s table, make a doctor’s visit affordable, or better train law enforcement. So what will? Organizing for action.
There are plenty of opportunities to take action after an event. Start making phone calls to your elected officials to advocate for legislative reform, donate to organizations that work day in and day out to make these changes, show up to community events outside of your close social network, get involved in community organizing, grassroots efforts, and support lower-profile marches and events that are spearheaded by members of local communities.
The Women’s March on Washington organizers themselves are encouraging their participants to take action beyond January 21st, and are using their web presence to offer specific action items. Additionally, the URJ offers plenty of opportunity to get started:
- Mitzvah Corps summer programs give teens hands-on experience in the fight for social and environmental issues.
- NFTY’s social justice campaigns offer comprehensive and varied action items.
- The Religious Action Center (RAC) frequently pushes out specific calls to action.
Don’t know where to start? Send us an email at email@example.com or give us a call at 212-650-4071, and we’d be happy to help.
Whether marches are your starting point, or a continuation, make sure they’re never the end.