Stories from 1960s Civil Rights activists had a profound impact on me. Something about the look in their eyes – part fire, part grief – stayed with me. From them, I learned about the critical importance of voting in a democracy, and our collective responsibility to take the next step and work for change. As a result, I’ve volunteered in every election cycle. I can hardly compare phone banking, knocking on doors, or attending political events with the risky sacrifices my former colleagues made, nevertheless, it’s been a learning experience.
It’s also been a perplexing experience: wars and growing social inequality that seemed critical to me did not rouse fellow citizens to vote, let alone to act. Even in my liberal, politically-active Boulder, Colorado community, getting out the vote has seemed like a bi-annual slog- through-molasses ordeal. But a re-activation occurred with the November 2016 US election of Donald Trump. This election was a wake-up call. From a personal perspective, as well as a social research perspective, I am looking for some deeper understanding of this surprising phenomenon. While careful empirical study is merited, I’d like to share some work-in-progress observations.
Two significant events provide an opportunity to explore how and why people shift from the couch to the streets. Rumblings about a women’s march on Washington, D.C. started even before Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. Tweets starting appearing, then a website, a Facebook presence, and before long sister marches were planned across the globe. The Women’s March on January 21st became the largest single-day demonstration in United States history, with an estimated number of 4,157,894 marchers in the United States (Chenoweth & Pressman, 2017). Altogether, 673 marches took place across the world with almost 5 million marchers (“Sister Marches” 2017). After climate change references were deleted from the Environmental Protection Agency website on the first day of the Trump administration, the idea for a March for Science started percolating on social media. While more focused, the 22 April March for Science drew tens of thousands of scientists and advocates in 600 cities on 7 continents.
I’ve been collecting data as a participant observer; this study is in progress. I made signs and walked in Denver’s Women’s March and March for Science, joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science, observed meetings, joined online discussions, and reviewed social media posts. So far I have interviewed three women who played key roles in the Denver Women’s March: Sue Buchanan, the Executive Director of the Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center who was a speaker, Cindy Lindsay, who organized transportation and started an online monthly “Resistance Calendar,” and Angela Astle, who organized and managed the speakers/performers.
Three major themes have emerged so far. First, this is a de-centralized movement with behind the scenes organizers, but no recognized leaders. Second, this is a multi-issue, inclusive, broad-based movement. Third, the election and early stages of the Trump administration have motivated people with little prior experience to take action.
Decentralized, cooperative, grassroots organization:
There were organizers for each March, but given the grand scale of these events, the degree of spontaneous volunteerism was remarkable. News coverage points to individuals who inspired others to get involved, but there are no charismatic leaders stealing the spotlight or taking credit. Photographs that appear online and in newspapers are of the crowds—sometimes in stunning aerial views of enthusiastic masses.
Sue observed of the Denver Women’s March, “I know for a fact that the people I was working with were all volunteers. There were three women, and they were amazed at how people called to say, ‘I want to donate this, I want to volunteer to do that.’ The sound system was donated, the stage manager volunteered. The AFL-CIO donated security. There was a four-hour program [of speakers]—that is a lot to coordinate.”
Cindy was a volunteer who saw and met a need. While she previously considered herself “apolitical,” she thought it was important to attend the Denver Women’s March— an hour from her home in Boulder. She sent an email to people associated with a local organization asking if anyone was interested in renting a bus together. It went viral—and they ultimately filled nine buses. She said, “I assisted over 400 women in getting to Denver…and could have helped 3 times that many if the buses were available.”
I had my own chance to observe grassroots coordination for transportation, since by the time I heard about Cindy’s buses, they were full. Instead, we thought it would be easy to take a public bus. In the week prior to the March, it became apparent that this might not be possible either. The Facebook page soon filled up with posts about ridesharing and ways to conscript all available forms of transportation for the cause. Someone posted contact information so we could ask about additional public buses on the day of the March. When I emailed the fellow, it was clear that he’d heard from many, many people with the same request. They added forty buses as well as additional cars to the light rail trains. When we arrived at the Boulder bus station at a chilly 6:30 AM, the crowd was lined up around the block, and bus after bus pulled in to carry a cheerful mob of pink hats toward Denver.
While the national March for Science required more logistical coordination as would be expected in Washington, DC, the Denver event was also loosely organized through a Facebook page—one that listed no leaders. Somehow, people learned of the event and came prepared to make a statement—in their lab coats and brain hats. Undoubtedly this event benefited from the national and local communication networks established in conjunction with the Women’s March.
It’s hard to imagine things that professional event planners could have more successfully engineered events involving around100,000 people (in the middle of the winter) for the Women’s March and 15,000 people for the March for Science.
Inclusion was a common theme of the Women’s March and the March on Science. Past demonstrations have typically focused on a particular concern, such as advocating for (or against!) the environment, reproductive rights, or gun-control. While it may seem that women would be attracted to the Women’s March and scientists to the Science March, the signs and the faces told a different story. Diverse issues were represented at both events.
I asked my expert interviewees, “what issues brought you to the Women’s March?” Cindy observed, “What was most striking was how many issues people have. The March was organized on the idea that ‘women’s rights are human rights’ but there were people concerned about the environment, LGBT community, voting and election… We were looking at the long-term issues.”
The March for Science drew individual scientists and advocates, with partnering professional organizations covering fields as seemingly disparate as the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and the Genetics Society of America joined together. Joining in discussions with the American Association for the Advancement of Science was a new experience for me, and happily the usual qualitative/quantitative or natural/social sciences distinctions seem less important now that we have a sense of common purpose.
Compelling and Unifying Motivation:
New activists joined with existing groups and organizations. College kids wedged into buses with senior citizens couldn’t help but strike up conversations.
This theme was amply present for my interviewees. Cindy grew up protesting the Vietnam War, but hasn’t demonstrated in the streets since then. She was motivated by “an opportunity to stand with like-minded people and make a big enough noise that it would be reported and seen by the world.” She was struck by seeing families with children: “even the kids got it, that there was something big going on.” She observed that the Women’s March was a “feel-good exercise, but at the same time it made people realize we can have a voice. It’s not a time to sit back and complain, and feel powerless. It is time to take action.” Sue, while working as an advocate for reproductive choice and health in her professional capacity, reported more than a decade since her last march.
Angela had not demonstrated prior to the Women’s March. When Trump was elected, she was shocked because while she voted for Hillary Clinton, she “hadn’t been paying attention for a while.” This shock was a motivator: she was “awakened and felt a compelling call to action like never before.” To counter this “gut reaction about what will happen to the world” she is finding ways to use her professional theater skills to support activism, starting with the program of speeches and music at the Women’s March. She’s now looking for ways to tell the stories that create change. “You can’t just sit back and think ‘someone else is on this’—you have to do something.”
This snapshot offers an optimistic view for the potential for engaging in local, national, and global social change. Another lesson learned from the Civil Rights era activists is that real change requires copious amounts of patience, and fearless persistence. Time will tell whether this phenomenon of civic engagement will succeed and American democracy will endure. I intend to continue my investigation, and welcome the collaboration of others who are curious about the lessons we can learn.
Chenoweth, E., & Pressman, J. (2017). This is what we learned by counting the women’s marches. Washington Post. February 7
Sister Marches (2017). Womens March.
Janet Salmons is an independent researcher, writer, instructor and consultant through Vision2Lead. Her eclectic, inter-disciplinary interests include various facets of collaboration, leadership and ethics in a digital world. She wrote Doing Qualitative Research Online.
Image Credit: Author’s own photo.