BY ANNA KANE ’20
Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez, the founders and organizers of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., delivered the keynote address for the 2018 Women of Color Trailblazer Leadership Conference (WOCTLC) on Sunday, April 8. The activists discussed their involvement in social justice and civil rights movements, in keeping with the conference theme of empowerment through engagement and celebrating the accomplishments of women of color.
Flyers scattered throughout the lobby of Chapin Auditorium asked keynote attendees to refrain from recording or photographing the event. Attendees were also provided index cards on which to write questions to ask the women following the discussion. The keynote address was free and open to the public. Registered conference attendees were invited to partake in an exclusive meet-and-greet with Sarsour, Mallory and Perez directly following the conversation.
“We’ve been anticipating this event for eight months now,” said Assistant Dean of Students Latrina Denson before introducing moderator and member of the Students of Color Committee (SOCC) Millie Koong ’18. Koong read the biographies of Sarsour, Perez and Mallory as they entered the stage one by one.
The three activists began organizing together five or six years ago. “It was like home immediately. We brought something different to the people, but we also provided courage. We needed that because we didn’t want to walk around in fear,” said Mallory. “We have some brothers and [non-binary people] who support us in this work. There are moments when you need your crew to help you continue to move forward.”
“We came to this work because we’re impacted by it ourselves, not just because it’s the right thing to do,” said Sarsour, describing the fear that clouded her community in Brooklyn after 9/11.
Perez grew up surrounded by domestic violence and mass incarceration, and has since dedicated her life to working with incarcerated individuals. “I always knew I wanted to change the world,” she said.
When Mallory’s son was two years old, his father was shot and killed. He was found in a ditch two weeks later and couldn’t have a proper funeral due to the condition of his body. That’s when Mallory decided there were parts of American society that needed to change.
“I joined a club I didn’t want to be in. I think everyone goes through this, where they don’t know what their world is like while they’re living in it,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of it until it impacted me directly. And then it clicked why I was cursed with the movement and why my son is now cursed with the movement.”
Mallory described the warnings she regularly tells her 19-year-old son to help him get home safely every night. “He’s uncomfortable with this because his mom is this freedom fighter who always talks about black power and standing up. Yet I’m telling him if a white man approaches him, stand down,” she said. “I’m doing all of this and you can’t talk to your family about politics at dinner?”
Perez, Sarsour and Mallory also spoke about their approach to intersectionality in light of the criticism the 2017 Women’s March drew, especially the pink pussy hats that became a symbol for the movement. Perez admitted that the march didn’t put enough emphasis on transgender and gender non-conforming people.
“This was not a women-only space. We will not leave out people who are our family members and people who identify with the movement. The Women’s March would’ve happened with white women, and the issues would’ve been reproductive rights and equal pay and nothing else. We had to educate and organize at the same time, through intersectionality. We talked about intersectionality before anyone else was talking about it,” said Sarsour. “We’re not trying to get everyone on the same page. Unity is not uniformity. If you’re cool with a woman leading, then everybody is invited.”
Perez added, “We’ve been in this space organizing for 20 years in our own paths to liberation, following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through non-violence. Women are not monolithic. We are coming in with our communities. It was not about Trump. If it was about Trump, it would’ve been easy. It was about standing up for people. That’s why we had guiding principles for the march, so people could find their path.”
“If you came home on Jan. 21, 2017 in your pink pussy hat and thought ‘this is the most amazing day of my life’ then you didn’t learn anything. People stood up on that stage and we told you we were afraid,” said Sarsour. “We’re in an uncomfortable movement and we made it uncomfortable by design.”
Tehreem Waqas Mela ’20 was excited to attend a conference with a primary focus of empowering women of color and to see Mallory, Perez and Sarsour speak. “The way the three activists approach social justice is astoundingly scholarly and personal, which was inspiring,” she said.
The announcement that Perez, Mallory and Sarsour would deliver the WOCTLC keynote address at Mount Holyoke was not without controversy, as the activists have recently been scrutinized for their links to extremist leaders. These include Louis Farrakhan, an anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam and Assata Shakur, a former leader of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted of first degree murder of a New Jersey state trooper in 1973.
Waqas Mela, however, found that Mallory, Perez and Sarsour were all committed to standing up for marginalized communities. “Linda said, ‘unity is not uniformity’ which I thought is one of the most important things when thinking of POC issues. The umbrella term ‘POC’ generalizes way too much and there needs to be a recognition of the differences in everyone’s struggle. All three activists really stood in testament to that,” she said.
As the activists concluded their discussion, they encouraged student activists to form relationships with people of different backgrounds, practice both self- and community-care, vote, be well-informed and learn the history of the movements they want to be a part of in order to move toward equality.
“Remember that you don’t need to defend yourself to people who don’t understand. Say no to negativity. Say no to people and things who take you off your focus. Say no to people who say that nobody is at your talk. Understand that you are not perfect and your leaders are not perfect,” added Mallory.
“I want you to be assured that women of color are doing the work and are winning elections,” said Sarsour. “We are on the verge of making history.”
“Movements have moments of up and down. You have smaller groups of people who stick together, it’s not the masses all the time. The messy part comes after the big beautiful moment. That’s when people come together,” said Mallory, assuring the audience that there is still much work to be done as the movements and marches continue forward.