Women’s Convention in Detroit aims to inform, guide

Stephanie Steinberg, and Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Detroit — This spring, activist Linda Sarsour posted an update on her personal Facebook page. She was looking for a city to host a national convention.

Sarsour, a well-known Palestinian-American political activist who was one of the national co-chairs of the historic Women’s March in January, didn’t specify what the convention was for, but Phoebe Hopps suspected it was for a women’s convention.

Hopps, who organized the Michigan contingent that attended the march, answered quickly: Detroit.

“It is the birthplace of revolution, from engineering to the automobile industry,” she said. “It’s been a centerpoint for a lot of distress as well. It’s really important for us to look at Detroit and see how we can work together and how we can make this an intersectional, inclusive movement that really puts people of color at the head of leadership.”

National organizers agreed. Now, as many as 5,000 women from all over the world are expected to converge on Detroit for the Women’s Convention beginning Friday at Cobo Center. It runs through Sunday.

A follow-up to the Women’s March in January, the national convention is about building on and harnessing the momentum of that record-breaking march, creating networks and sharing strategies, organizers say. It also aims to bring women from different states and ideologies together to simply learn from one another.

“We marched in January, but it’s time for us to really sit down and learn and network,” said Hopps, president and founder of the nonprofit Women’s March Michigan and a local committee member for the convention.

Cass Technical High School senior Tamera Middlebrooks will be at the convention. She spent the summer as a Girls Making Change fellow, learning about community organizing with fellow Detroit teens, and wants to build on those skills.

“I’m hoping I can learn more about how to organize in my community and how to join with other marginalized people so that we can help each other,” said Middlebrooks, 17, who received a scholarship to attend the convention at no cost.

Sarsour says national organizers considered three cities for their inaugural convention — Detroit, Phoenix and Chicago — but there were “so many reasons” why they chose to Detroit.

“It’s a microcosm of all the issues we’re working on a national level — police brutality, immigration, school reform, right-to-work, Detroit water shutoffs, Flint water crisis — and really looking at the issues and seeing it all unfolding in one city was an important place to bring people,” Sarsour said.

Sarsour says Detroit also has a history of “inspirational organizing.” Organizers also wanted to pick a city that would benefit economically.

“Detroit really inspired us,” said Sarsour, who was once a national advocacy director for nonprofit ACCESS in Dearborn for five years.

The convention will cover a broad range of topics and subject areas, all designed to “channel the energy and activism of The Women’s March into tangible strategies for change and concrete wins in 2018,” according to an event Facebook page.

The theme is “Reclaiming Our Time,” inspired by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, and her exchange with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin earlier this summer that went viral. Waters is the convention’s headline speaker on Saturday.

More than 60 breakout sessions are planned throughout the weekend on a broad range of topics, including coalition building, learning to organize a rally or protest in 24 hours and hyperlocal activism. Other sessions will tackle thorny subjects such as immigration, reproductive freedom and “Confronting White Womanhood.”

At times, planning the convention required having some difficult conversations, said Hopps.

Organizers had to look “at how the Women’s March has failed in the past — including transgender women and women of color,” Hopps said.

The goal is to have attendees walk away from the three-day convention more informed on various topics but also equipped with skills to do everything from voter registration and engagement to pushing statewide policies, Sarsour said.

“We believe there is a lot of tangible knowledge that can be taken back to their home states, cities and towns,” Sarsour said. “On Sunday, we’ll be holding state caucuses. We’ll be breaking people up by state. What we hope is people will leave with new connections, new friendships and new allies that they’ll have in the work ahead of us.”

Engaging in issues

The convention comes nine months after the Women’s March, a 2 million-plus rally in Washington, D.C., on President Donald Trump’s first day in office in January. Women wore pink hats in solidarity, carried signs and shouted to have their voices heard on issues such as reproductive rights and equal pay. Separate marches were held the same day in cities across the globe, including Lansing and Detroit.

The Women’s Convention, however, will be a little different. The point is to get people — women, men, and anyone of any age, race and sexual orientation — engaged in issues and posing solutions, said Gabriela Santiago-Romero, 25, of Detroit, coordinator for the leadership fellowship program Girls Making Change and member of the host committee.

“We have to start to create this net of people doing the work. It’s not just marching and protesting and screaming. I do all those things very well, but we have to start doing more than just that,” she said.

For attendees such as Breanna Miele, it’s about getting educated and continuing down the path of becoming an activist. The 25-year-old technical writer from Oak Park says she never really paid attention to politics until Trump’s travel ban was imposed earlier this year. Now, it’s more important than ever to be educated and informed, she said.

“We’ve come a long way, but I think it’s especially important for younger generations to get involved,” Miele said. “We’ve reaped the benefits that all the women before us have done. But it’s not over. We still have a long way to go.”

Planning the convention hasn’t been without bumps. When organizers announced that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, would be a speaker, critics called his inclusion an insult. Others say the convention is only for liberal women. Sanders on Thursday announced that he would not speak at the convention to travel to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico instead.

Sarsour said the current women’s movement is “led by women, but we need all hands on deck.”

“We are all people with husbands and fathers and brothers and sons,” she said. “We need them to be allies, and that’s important in the way that we move forward, uniting ourselves as a movement.”

Programming at the convention will focus on three tracks: issue-based education (civil rights, immigrant rights, reproductive justice and anti-violence); skills training (public speaking, fundraising, digital organizing and safety training); and civic engagement (voter registration, lobbying and grassroots advocacy). There will also be separate programs for youth ages 11 and older.

Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-Lopez, whose District 6 includes the area of the convention, will speak on a panel about building welcoming cities for immigrant communities.

“It’s amazing they chose the city of Detroit, and they’re coming to create a space for some of the most marginalized voices in our city — which would be women and women of color — to be able to share, to be able to learn from each other, and think about strategies and different ways to get involved so they can really impact change,” said Castañeda-Lopez, noting Detroit’s high unemployment and poverty rates. “Given many households are run by low-income women, and mostly minority women, I think that conversation is welcome.”

Visitor from afar

The cost to attend the convention is $295 for general registration and $125 for youth and students younger than 25. Originally, attendees had to commit to the entire three-day convention, but now one-day tickets are available for $125 each for Friday and Saturday and $75 for Sunday. Scholarships are now closed.

Through nearly $150,000 raised from donations, anyone who applied for a scholarship to cover the registration fee received one, according to Hopps. The Detroit-based Girls Making Change also received funding to recruit 30 girls of color from Southeast Michigan and gave full scholarships to attend.

While the convention is in Metro Detroiters’ backyard, it’s far from home for Jasminé Mehho. Mehho received a Heather Heyer Scholarship, named in memory of the woman killed while marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.

The 34-year-old Stockholm resident works as a coordinator for the Swedish Federation for LGBTQ Rights. She plans to run for a position with the Feminist Initiative political party during Sweden’s election next year and thought the convention would be a great way to learn mobilizing strategies.

“My goal is to take in the knowledge of American activists and feminists and bring it back to Sweden and implement it,” she said.

Organizers say they want the convention to be accessible to all women, which is one reason they’ve given out so many scholarships. Hopps, who’s heading a logistics committee, is working to have caregivers at the convention so mothers can attend sessions and leave their children in a safe space, as well as pair attendees with Metro Detroiters who are opening their homes.

While Castañeda-Lopez attended the Women’s March in the nation’s capital and said it was “an amazing experience,” she hopes attendees, Detroiters especially, will leave the convention with “concrete action steps” to get involved in their communities.

“I hope that people from the city come out to participate in the convention,” she said, “and bring their neighbors, their daughters, their grandmothers ... to engage in conversation and strategize about what we can do on the local level, given the challenges that we continue to face.”


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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

The Women’s Convention

■Friday-Sunday at Cobo Center, 1 Washington, Detroit.

Speakers include U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.); U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield); actress Amber Tamblyn; former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who’s running for governor; Ai-jen Poo, executive director of National Domestic Workers Alliance; CNN commentator Angela Rye; and Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock.

■ Tickets available for the entire weekend or per day.

■ Read more information at womensconvention.com