Convention inspires women to engage, speak out

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — They came sporting pink hats, carrying glowing “me too” signs and wearing T-shirts supporting women’s rights.

Thousands of women attend Reclaiming Our Time: The Women’s Convention at Cobo Center, Saturday, October 28, 2017, presented by The Women’s March.

The mostly women who attended the inaugural Women’s Convention in Detroit came from all over the country to be part of the follow-up to the Women’s March on Washington 10 months ago. Counting attendees, panelists and volunteers, organizers estimated attendance reached over 5,000 for the three-day event.

It’s been an “unprecedented success,” said Women’s March co-president Bob Bland. “We had more attendees than we expected.”

Waters to Women’s Convention: ‘We are reclaiming our time’

Bland was one of the key organizers for the Women’s March the day after President Donald Trump took office. Officials estimate that the march — where people carried signs and voiced causes they believed in — attracted more people than Trump’s inauguration day crowd.

“The energy of the convention center is so similar to the day of the march,” Bland said. “It is that feeling of love, of holding space for one another, of shared recognition of our struggles and how they’re bound together and real interest from everyone who’s here in learning.”

Elizabeth Rushing, 54, has lived in Flint the past year and attended a session on the Flint water crisis Friday.

“It put me in tears because there was so much stuff that I didn’t have a clue about that I’m learning about,” she said.

Other women, like sisters Christine and Jean Templin from Oakland, California, came to learn how women are getting involved in politics.

Two months ago, the Templins launched an app and platform called Purple Patriot in an effort to make it easy for women to stay informed about politics and legislation.

“It gives you information on all the bills, a place to contact all your representatives, a place to learn about gatherings or conventions you may want to be engaged in,” said Christine, adding that the platform has 2,500 users so far.

Jean compares it to a “Fitbit for politics.”

“Do you take 10,000 steps a day? Probably, you try,” she said. “And can you do three things to remain active in the government each month? Probably.”

“With the election of trump, we realized that the time is now,” Jean added. “Participation in government is no longer optional.”

Yet the sisters said the platform is for people of every political party. They point out their brand color, purple, is what you get when you mix red and blue.

“If you really want more women in politics, if you really want to level the playing field, you have to have both sides. It can’t be one, and it can’t be the other. It has to be as many as you can get.”

For other attendees, combating sexual harassment toward women was a priority.

Artist Athena Soules, 38, walked the Cobo Center halls Saturday carrying a sign stating, “#metoo,” lit up in blue and yellow lights. The Brooklyn resident and director of NYC Light Brigade said the art piece, referring to the national movement of women sharing stories about sexual assault, is one of her many signs.

“I’m not married to one movement and one cause. I go around and try to illuminate every cause I believe in,” she said.

Women, she said, are “so capable and have so much to offer,” but they face a big issue: “not being respected by men.”

Introducing Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., before her keynote Saturday, Rep. Debbie Dingell said that unacceptable behavior by men toward women needs to end.

“The United States of America has got nothing to be proud of. We still have a significant problem,” she said, referring to the women who’ve shared their accounts of sexual assault and harassment in recent weeks. ”...I find the anger inside of me building in ways I’ve kept squelched down for a long time, and I’m skeptical whether real changes is here for too many women in community across community in this country. We need to really talk about this issue.”

Of the 100 breakout sessions throughout the weekend, several focused on topics such as sexual harassment as well as reproductive freedom, immigration, gender equity and the barrage of issues facing women.

Many of breakout sessions were standing room only, and Bland said she’s hopeful that the attendees will take what they learn back to their communities, and talk about the issues, like Dingell stressed.

“There’s so much engagement from the audience and a sense of purpose and strength from the women here that shows they’re committed to not just coming to the convention,: Bland said, “but also taking the lessons they’re learning at the convention back to their local communities to inspire other women, fems and gender nonconforming people.”

That’s exactly what Kelly Johnson plans to do. The freshman at Wilmington College in Ohio runs a program on campus called Diversity in Action, which organizes conversations around controversial topics.

Johnson said she’s planning a conversation about women’s rights and wanted to come to the convention.

“It’s really about gathering that information and the different views and being inspired to go home and spark that change,” she said.

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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg