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November 8, 2016 was a pivotal day for many Americans. For me, November 9 held equal significance. It was the day that I decided to get out of the peanut gallery and take action concerning our political climate. It was the day I reached out to a friend who had started a march event page and offered my help. The team of people helping on that event page grew and became the planning committee for The Women’s March on Washington, the largest march in response to a presidential inauguration ever. I zeroed in on youth and family engagement as a necessary part of January 21st because decisions made during my youth changed the course of my life in a significant way. I started my life in the U.S. when I was 18 with all my belongings packed into two suitcases. I came from Trinidad and Tobago on a scholarship the year after 9/11. The ability to leave my life in Trinidad and start anew in the U.S. came from a belief that there could be more opportunity on the other side. I was right. For the past 15 years, the United States has become my home and has been the place where I’ve found my purpose. It is very dear to me, in part because there is space for people to lift their voices and potentially have a greater impact, if they so choose. Love for this country is what leads me to invest in, support and uplift the values and habits that encourage greatness and growth in my community. This belief system led me to create a program that elevated the principles of the Women’s March with young activists from all over the world through the Youth Ambassador program and encouraged them to get creative in propelling their activism forward. Keeping young people engaged in political action is essential for the future of the country that they will inevitably be taking over. Through my work with youth ages 9-18, I’ve seen certain factors spur on action and support political activism. Here are factors that contributed to the success of the youth arm of the Women’s March.
Clarity of the cause: The Women’s March stands for women. We focus on issues that affect over 50% of the population. These include pay equity, equal employment opportunities and equal access. In addition, racism, sexism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, rhetoric that was commonplace during the election, inhibit many women from accessing opportunities and living their desired lives. We were intentional about creating an intersectional movement that gives voice and space to women from many different groups, especially the most marginalized. We sent a clear message that those of us who identify as women can care about and advocate for many causes. I am an immigrant, so advocating for fair opportunities and treatment of immigrants is important to me. I’m also a woman of color, so the high rate of murders of black people by the police is deeply troubling to me. I’m also a woman, so I care deeply about reproductive freedoms for all women. I’m also an artist and business owner, so I’m passionate about support for small business owners who produce goods in the U.S. I can care about and advocate for each one of these causes without diluting the messages of any and without sacrificing any part of my identity for the greater good. By encouraging women to hold strong in their identities while reaching over and lifting up the causes of other women, the Women’s March created a truly diverse movement of women empowering women, thus mapping a blueprint for future movements with similar goals. This clarity made it easier to organize youth who were already activated in their communities under this umbrella of issues that affect women both cis and trans. The Youth Ambassadors were mostly people who identify as female but we also included people who identify as male since feminist issues can also affect gender nonconforming individuals.
Making space for young voices is a must: Even though most of them cannot vote, youth are highly activated and involved in the causes that matter most to them. We knew that we needed to find a way to support them in being engaged and energized within the march. Through the Youth Ambassador program, we identified 31 stellar ambassadors who are making waves in their communities and the world. They became young voices for the movement. They are all strong activists in their own right, speaking out on a wide range of causes including LGBTQIA, feminist and immigration issues and taking part in political campaigns. They are all involved in coalition building, many of them starting their own organizations before the age of 18. One example is Mari Copeny, who is known as Little Miss Flint. She is a 9-year-old girl from Flint, Michigan who wrote a letter to then President Obama telling him about what life in Flint is like in the midst of their water crisis. She has become known for standing up for her community. The Women’s March gave her a much wider platform to lift up her work and to spread awareness that right here in the U.S., children are getting sick from contaminated water and have been for a long time because of negligent actions by those in authority. By encouraging Mari to use our platform, little girls all over the world were able to see that age is not be a barrier to activism. The power of that message will live on in their minds as they see her as a role model. Another ambassador, Charlotte, was initially told that her school would not be supporting a bus of students to attend the march. She didn’t take no for an answer. She petitioned the school with the support of students and teachers alike. She was able to get her school to approve a bus which filled in record time.
Young people need an equal seat at the organizing table: Besides creating actions applicable to their demographic, they need to know that their perspective is needed during the decision-making process. Creating programming that supports young people and encourages them to stay active in the politics of the country involves giving them a seat at the organizing table. The Women’s March welcomed young people to our leadership team. I coordinated the Youth and Family initiatives that involved a teen meet-up at the March, the Youth Ambassador program and an online community of over 12,000 socially active parents. Four teenagers are on the organizing team of the march. Two of them coordinated their own march in Idaho. Their perspectives were vital to decisions made concerning the youth programming because they are focused on what is currently affecting young people. It’s one thing to create youth programming. It’s another to guide and mentor young people to become the leaders in the program. They will be voting in a few years. Issues like paid family leave and pay inequity will affect them in a few years and they are already speaking up for these causes. Young people are especially driven to action because of social media. They have quicker access to information, both false and factual, and are sharper than most other generations about distinguishing the difference. While encouraging others to share the movement online, actions created online can also catapult success in real life, as was seen in the Boston School Walkout. Using the hashtag #bpswalkout, students were encouraged on social media to take their activism offline by walking out of classes in protest of proposed $20 million cuts to their school budgets. This positive change is an example of young people taking the lead and using limited resources and their knowledge as a generation to force change with issues that affect them.
Young people are turning negative circumstances into an actionable movement: Women have long felt excluded from conversations directly related to our wellbeing on a national level and young people feel that divide more than ever. U.S. policy continues to inhibit reproductive rights for women and girls globally. More than 800 women and girls die daily all over the world because of unsafe abortions. The right to govern one’s own body and the right to a safe abortion continues to evade many people. In 2017, this administration sent a clear message to organizations trying to address this problem. Stop providing abortions, or any information about abortions, or lose valuable dollars from the United States, the biggest global funder of family-planning services. By targeting women and girls all over the world, this administration earned itself numerous enemies from people who believe in the right to have a say over one’s own body. Previously, there were divides between those who were engaged with politics and those who weren’t. Because of the current president, fear has entered the hearts and minds of so many more people all over the world who will be affected by poorly thought-out actions driven by ignorance and fear of “the other”. The administration’s wide-sweeping statements and policies incite fear. For those with privilege, this fear might lead to support for him. For marginalized communities and their allies, this fear leads to action. These were the women and girls and allies who came out to march on January 21st. These were the people who stood up and refused to continue in silence. Because of these everyday men, women and children, the concerns of the everyday person has been brought to the forefront of politics and young people are leading the way.
As a Trinidadian-American, I have several identities. I am an immigrant. I am an American. I am a small business owner. I am a woman, a wife and a mom, which is the most important job I’ve ever held. Being a mom along with the intersection of my other identities spurred me to organize youth in response to the election. I want to have an impact on the type of America my son will inherit. Before the election, even with an African American president, I knew that the racial divides in this country were not healed. I was not surprised by the amount of racism, xenophobia, sexism and anger brazenly leveled outwards during the election. The day after the election, I was not shocked by the result. I was, however, dismayed at the idea that my interracial family would be existing under that leadership and I was shaken into action. The Women’s March resulted in a resurgence of action for those previously docile with privilege and seasoned activists alike. People, including myself, who previously led lives of comfort and ease were driven to join the movement.
The Women’s March on Washington has spurred positive change across the world. Even though the political climate seems to be taking backward steps in regard to the treatment of marginalized groups, the march has, on a massive scale, reinvigorated many women, men and young people who had previously felt that feminism was not their thing. Feminism is no longer a bad word or even just a word for women. The march showed that women are powerful. Our economy hinges on women. Women literally birth nations. We should not be paid less than our male counterparts. We should not feel threatened by policies that can infringe on our reproductive freedoms. Our next action is A Day Without A Woman, which is a strike that will be occurring on March 8. We aim to show what the world would be like without women. We aim to show the power of the woman by collectively standing with each other on March 8. Young people are included in the planning surrounding that day, as they were with the March. Their perspectives guide our approach to youth all over the world. The amount of work we have to do increases with startling frequency in direct relation to the direction of the new administration but we feel confident that people will stay engaged and activated because our freedoms depend on each one of us raising our voice together in support of the values that made America the incredible nation it is.
Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs is a co-organizer and Youth and Family Coordinator for the Women's March On Washington. She is also a fashion activist, speaking out in support of fair labor, safe working conditions and ethical manufacturing in the fashion industry. You can follow her on Twitter @tabithastb.
The views expressed in this publication are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung or of the organization for which the author works.