Editorial 9/29: “Either you have a seat at the table or you’re on the menu”: Co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington talk about trust and justice

By the Editorial Board

This past Tuesday, Canisius welcomed two of the co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington, and the co-presidents of the newly formed Women’s March 501(c)(4) nonprofit social and political advocacy organization. Dr. Erin Robinson of Canisius’ Sociology and Environmental Studies department introduced Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland with a quote from Detroit activist, Grace Lee Boggs: “We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.” As the two women took the stage, it was apparent from the crowd’s reaction that they were certainly the leaders they were all waiting for.

The title of the talk, “Building Trust: Organizing for Social Justice,” paved the way for the two women to start talking about their personal relationships with one another, as well as with the rest of the chairs of the March. The inception of the March was spurred by Bland who, after Donald Trump was elected, knew that she couldn’t stay silent about the potential implications that his policies would have for women.

After connecting with other women across the country via social media, Bland felt confident in the group’s ability to organize a successful event until a fellow organizer pointed out a fatal flaw. The whole group was made up of white women.

After that fact was brought to light, Bland and her colleagues were introduced to several female activists of color, including Tamika Mallory. Mallory explained to them that having women of color involved in the planning process was not merely an option, but a necessity to having an impactful, inclusive march.

Mallory made it clear that although she was excited to be working with Bland and her team, there were others who had hesitations about working with a group of only white women.

She stated that when she met Bland and started to talk to her about her goals for the March and for her activism and general, it was difficult at times because “the empathy [component] just wasn’t there because it wasn’t her experience. So we took time while planning the March to, like, walk backwards and explain our experiences and help people to all come together. She had to explain to me that ‘yes, it is unfortunate that people don’t know your story, but I’m here and I’m listening and I’ll do whatever is necessary to help make a change.’”

Bland confirmed that she didn’t understand at first how racial justice had anything to do with women’s rights. Despite this, she was open to learning and, as Mallory stated, open to hearing the stories of others who didn’t share her experience.

After her time with Mallory and the other activists of color, Bland began to understand that “either you have a seat at the table or you’re on the menu.” Through respectful discussion between parties of different backgrounds, she started to grasp that wanting unity and actually working for unity were two very different things; if she didn’t include non-white women in the planning process, if she took away their seats at the table, they might as well not be involved in the movement at all.

Mallory continued to reiterate this when she talked about how she got her start in activism and organizing when her son’s father was killed 17 years ago. She described with sadness how they didn’t find his body in the ditch he was dumped in for several weeks. This, she said, was her wakeup call: “I began to realize that there were too many other people who looked like me who had the same story.”

Since that time, Mallory has been fighting to make people, especially those in power, understand that civil rights and the rights of people of color are issues that need to be addressed immediately. This fight brought her all over the world, and now, to a partnership with Bland where they can engage in the struggles together.  

“The thing about unity is that it’s not organic, it doesn’t just happen. There’s a struggle involved,” said Bland. Despite recognizing this struggle, Bland and Mallory continued the themes of togetherness through respectful discussion during the rest of the talk, especially when they addressed President Trump.

“This is not about Donald Trump,” stated Bland.

Mallory continued the thought, saying, “Donald Trump is not the beginning of what we’re seeing here; [he] is the continuation. He’s like the nephew or grandson of those who’ve been upholding oppression in this country for a very long time.”

Interestingly enough, in their talk, they never demonized Trump for the actions of his presidency, and they never demonized a particular party or group for their actions in favor of Trump’s policies. They argued firmly that Trump is a symptom of the disease, rather than the actual disease itself; if racism and the systematic oppression of countless groups didn’t define American life, Trump would not have been elected. His presence as a leader is not suddenly turning people into bigots; people have been bigots long before Trump.

“America is always more of a promise than it is a reality,” pointed out Mallory.

At a small group discussion before the talk, Mallory bemoaned the fact that when she was a newer activist, she always felt guilty for leaving her audiences with a sense of responsibility rather than a sense of hope. However, the two can go hand in hand. While we cannot all be activists, we must feel a strong sense of responsibility to lift up those of us who do not have the same privileges that we have. That sense of responsibility creates a hope for the future that stems from the knowledge that you personally will help to create change, rather than wait for change to happen around you.

When finishing their address, the pair connected their activism to terms that every listener resonated with, saying, “We need to pay attention to the level of compassion we have for each other, the humility, the ability to experience others’ pain as if it’s our own, because there’s so much pain in this country right now.”

Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland will be fighting for those without relief from that pain as long as it continues. They are a light in a world seemingly filled with darkness; a light that each and every one of us can follow if only we choose.

For more information and ways to get involved, visit https://www.womensmarch.com/actions.

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