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Organizers of 2nd St. Louis Women’s March try to address diversity concerns

A crowd likely numbering in the thousands filled Luther Ely Smith Square during the rally after the St. Louis Women's March January 21, 2017.
File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
A crowd likely numbering in the thousands filled Luther Ely Smith Square during the rally after the St. Louis Women's March January 21, 2017

The first National Women’s March was held in Washington, D.C., one year ago. That's when thousands of pink pussyhat-clad people filled streets in the nation’s capital and cities across the country to rally for the rights of women.

But some observers strongly believed that women of color, trans women and women of different abilities, and the issues they care about, were marginalized at the marches. With that understanding, there has been a concerted effort by St. Louis Women’s March for Truth organizers to mobilize support for the city’s second march in the face of lackluster support.

Amy Hunter is one of the black women who helped organize the St. Louis march. She admits that local organizers, and arguably national ones, didn’t get inclusion right the first time.

“We have an opportunity in St. Louis to work across racial lines as women,” Hunter said. “I think last year was a good example of how important that is and how people’s feelings got hurt and felt like they were being marginalized or left out of the conversation.”

With an eye on inclusion for this year’s event, Hunter said she invited speakers of various abilities, gender identities and expressions, sexual orientations and races to speak at the post-march rally, as well as religious leaders and politicians.

If you go: The St. Louis Women's March for Truth is at 10 a.m., Saturday. People will meet in front of Union Station on Market Street and walk a mile east to the Old Courthouse.

Hunter used Facebook to address questions about inclusion and posted a request weeks before the event, calling for recommendations for transgender women of color to speak at the march.

“Yes, I’m looking for a trans woman of color because racism is real, and when I am talking about the violence on the trans women ... the women of color are targeted, harmed and killed at rates higher than their white counterparts, I want space available to be heard,” she said in the post.

The St. Louis march will focus on “truth-tellers,” Hunter said, so each speaker will share an aspect of their experience. Some of the issues people are expected to address are pay inequality and infant mortality rates.

“I think the march is one step to build camaraderie, to get to see each other and see that we are together and can be unified. I think that’s the opportunity the march provides,” Hunter said. “I feel like women are active in our communities, but working across lines around race and other identities is super important.”

Other women, other issues

But not everyone believes the St. Louis women’s march the most effective way to show support for local issues.

Erica Williams, who is black, founded and directs the nonprofit A Red Circle, which aims to resolve racial and economic inequalities in north county through education, policy and employment initiatives.

Williams acknowledged Hunter’s efforts to make the march more inclusive, but she decided not to attend. She said on the day of the march she will be at a grant-writing workshop and a meeting on redistricting at the Hazelwood School District.

“There’s so much forced gaiety that has been attributed to this march,” Williams said. “We’re trying to get women together. We’re trying to be more inclusive. Trying to convince women why we should march. If you have to spend this much time and this much effort to make it inclusive, it’s not naturally occurring.”

Williams thinks people should be paying more attention to regional issues. In January, she used social media to question what a local march would do to help area businesses or grassroots organizations.

She wrote on Facebook: “Is there something that St. Louis women need to learn that only a march can provide? Is it the signs, and hats, and handmaiden costumes?”

'Change agents'

March organizer Nadida Amatullah-Matin said she understands the frustration. Amatullah-Matin, who is also black, said she knows that black women may be concerned about other issues such as mass incarceration and pay inequality — not just between men and women, but also white women and women of color. Still, she says that’s no reason to sit out local efforts to include all kinds of people and mobilize understanding and support of issues they care about.

“We are change agents,” Amatullah-Matin said. “We can definitely change the narrative of what’s being played, and it only starts as close as our communities.”

More than 100,000 people attended the national march, and more than 4 million people participated in marches across the country last year, by one Washington Post estimate. This year’snational march in Las Vegas on Sunday will focus on voter registration.

As for the pussyhats? The icon of the 2017 marches may not be as ubiquitous this year,as marchers said the bright pink tone marginalized women of color and the symbolic genitalia excluded trans women. In St. Louis, participants will be wearing bright orange hats, "so you can see us," Amatullah-Matin said.

Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.

Ashley Lisenby is the news director of St. Louis Public Radio.