Organizers draw on expertise for Women’s Convention

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

One is an artist who used to organize open mic nights that prohibited misogyny. One works with African immigrants. And another is an activist fighting water shutoffs in Detroit.

All are part of a vast network of women who’ve come together as part of the local host committee working behind-the-scenes to pull together this weekend’s Women’s Convention at Cobo Center in Detroit, the first such convention since 1977.

As many 5,000 women (and some men) are expected to attend the convention, which starts Friday and runs through Sunday. A follow-up to the historic Women’s March in January, the national convention includes dozens of breakout sessions throughout the weekend where attendees will have the chance to learn everything from how to build political coalitions to the latest on immigration policy.

After national organizers decided earlier this year to hold the convention in Detroit, they tapped a local host committee of more than three dozen women, all volunteers, from across Michigan to help pull the convention together at the local level. Many are activists and reflect a wide diversity of ages, races, religions, demographics and expertise.

The majority of the committee is made up of women of color and that was intentional to make sure those voices were heard, said Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh, 26, a Muslim-American activist and member of Michigan Muslim Community Council. She was tapped to get involved by national co-chair Linda Sarsour.

“She said we need strong representation from the Muslim community,” Sheikh said. “Identifying as a Muslim American woman, I knew this was an opportunity that was important for us to be involved in — not just by attendance but in the programming.”

And local organizers played a key role in programming, which will delve into everything from sexual assault on college campuses to the Flint water crisis.

It was about “making sure there was inclusivity, making sure it was reflective of different religions and different political ideologies to some degree,” said organizer Monica Lewis Patrick, co-chair of We The People of Detroit, a nonprofit that has fought water shutoffs in Detroit. “It was a welcoming space for the free-flowing of ideas... There was really a lot of effort to be very intentional.”

Patrick volunteered to be part of the local host committee at the invitation of another activist. For her, it was important that Detroit wasn’t used “as window-dressing.”

“It happens a lot,” Patrick said. “People use the grit and the grind of the city — as well as this more recent comeback narrative — for an optic. And we really needed it (the convention) to have context and meaning and a strategy of moving forward together.”

National organizers easily could have created the convention without consulting local activists, said Phoebe Hopps, head of logistics for the convention’s host committee and president of Women’s March Michigan.

“But they created this committee so we could develop all these different programs, ideas for panels and workshops. It was all done in Detroit,” she said.

Some members of the local host committee weren’t even part of the Women’s March in January but volunteered to be part of the convention planning.

“They actually chose leaders from all over Detroit, phenomenal leaders in so many different ways, women who have been working and putting blood, sweat and tears into Detroit for decades,” Hopps said.

And while critics may have issues with the programming or the movement itself, people have to remember that activism isn’t always neat and tidy, said host committee member Piper Carter, who helped organize the arts and culture aspect of the convention. There will be a social justice concert on Saturday night.

“It’s not neat because it’s grassroots,” Carter said. “If we’re talking about shifting the paradigm and the patriarchy, and part of that is shifting how we think about think about order ... Our humanity is complex. It’s not orderly and neat.”

(313) 223-4686

Twitter: @mfeighan