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The Commons
Photo 1

Courtesy photo

Writer Brenda Siegel, right, with Laura Chapman of Putney and Rachel Maiore.

Voices / Dispatch

Reclaiming our time at the Women's Convention

'I was ready to soak in what I was learning and come back ready to fight longer and harder for progress. I could feel both of my grandmothers walking beside me, their hands in mine, to support me and guide me on this journey'

Brenda Lynn Siegel  — “captain, mad scientist, and artistic/executive director and founder” of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, according to the festival’s website (southernvermontdancefestival.com) — is an activist in the Windham County area and around the state, participating in lobbying, resistance actions, and planning for policy change.  In addition, she teaches social justice and civic engagement and runs IBIT Dance Company, a professional company and preprofessional training program for modern dancers. She has taught dance and yoga and choreographed throughout the country.

Originally published in The Commons issue #433 (Wednesday, November 8, 2017). This story appeared on page D3.



In late October, I boarded a plane and embarked upon a journey that I would later find out would change my life and my perspective on the world. I was on my way to the Inaugural Women’s Convention organized by the Women’s March Team in Detroit.

After a lifetime of being involved in the political process and a year of protests, rallies, meetings, lobbying, phone calls, op-eds, art for change, and more, I had begun to feel a fire in my belly to take the fight for progress to the next level, and I was drawn to this event.

It may seem a small detail, but earlier that same day I had acquired my own carry-on for this journey. I have had to borrow one every time I go away, ever since I lost mine in Tropical Storm Irene. I couldn’t tolerate any longer the idea that my ability to go somewhere was tied to another person’s willingness to loan me a bag.

This simple act foreshadowed a change in me.

I was ready to soak in what I was learning and come back ready to fight longer and harder for progress. I could feel both of my grandmothers walking beside me, their hands in mine, to support me and guide me on this journey.

At the airport I met Rachel Maiore, someone I didn’t know but whom I had planned to meet. We would be sharing a ride to our hotel with where we would be sharing a room with our mutual friend, Laura Chapman of the Putney Huddle (one of the activist groups inspired by the Women’s March in the aftermath of the election).

Immediately, we knew we were meant to meet each other. We also immediately knew that we were not twenty-somethings — we couldn’t figure out how to use Uber or Lyft. “Do they still make real cabs?” we asked out loud.

After accepting a ride with someone who said they were a transportation service, we somehow ended up at the wrong hotel. We traveled up to the 10th floor and could not find the room, at which point, Laura tried to get us to use our Locator app, which neither of us knew how to do.

I should mention that it was a keyed elevator that we only got up to the floor because someone got in the elevator with us and used his key. We proceeded to walk up and down the hallway until we finally gave up, went down to the front desk and asked them if we were in the right place. After asking us “How did you get upstairs?” and “were you just in the elevator the entire time?” and sharing a few late night laughs, these wonderful humans called us a cab.

That’s right — we were already making a smash hit in Detroit.

We laughed the entire time. After we finally got into the cab (after one attempt of trying to take the wrong cab), we made it to where we were going. We were finally there.

* * *

The next morning, we walked in to the convention center to register, and I felt a wash of intense emotion come over me.

I was here only because of two wonderful women who barely knew me who were kind enough to add me to their fundraiser and then get me there when we didn’t raise enough money.

It was because of my bad-ass, feminist, take-no-crap Grandma Rachel and my compassionate, speak-her-mind, don’t-be-a-bystander Grandma Barbara that I knew I had to go. I was firmly in the footsteps of the most amazing women I knew.

The first session, “Reclaiming Our Time: Setting the Agenda Together,” set for us the intention of the weekend. Each speaker was as amazing as the last. I shook and cried as Tarana Burke, the woman who started “Me Too,” spoke and as actress Rose McGowan said “The Scarlet Letter is theirs; it is not ours.”

Woman after woman spoke with amazing words, with powerful sentiments and statements on how we would move forward together.

It was activist Tamika Mallory’s words about feminism, though, that rode shotgun through the weekend with me. Her words on intersectionality and feminism carried me through the weekend.

Mallory, the Women’s March co-founder, was strong and clear about the need to stop relitigating the 2016 Democratic primary election.

That doesn’t mean that we should not address a very real concern that the primaries must be open and honest but, as Mallory urged, no matter what side you are on, we need to move together to make progress.

About feminism, she said: “Your feminism does not represent me if it is only about our right to get an abortion. If you do not care about the fact that I can’t even have children because I’m too poor, then your feminism does not represent me.”

“If men are not a part of this movement, your feminism does not represent me [...] because I have an 18-year-old son that I cannot leave behind. If your feminism does not include how gun violence [impacts] our communities, it does not represent me.”

Then, about the fight over inviting Bernie Sanders to the convention, she said, “If your feminism is the difference between Bernie and Hillary [Clinton], it does not represent me.”

“I want to know what you are doing on the ground in your community,” Mallory asked us. “Who have you saved? Who have you lifted?”

This message resonated with me because I want men to join this fight. It resonated with me because I can’t see any reason not to welcome anyone and everyone fighting with us to this fight. It resonated with me because I am not interested in re-litigating the primary. It resonated with me because I have a 15-year-old son whom I, too, cannot leave behind. My feminism includes my son.

I attended sessions such as “Belly, Heart, Mouth: Using the Body to Become a Comfortable, Confident and Compelling Public Speaker,” “Run As You Are,” “Confronting Anti-Semitism,” “Speech Writing,” “Economic Justice,” “Media Training and Public Speaking,” and many more.

There were more than 180 sessions to choose from. I chose a path in which I could learn new skills, explore if I would want to run for office, and develop useable tools as an activist and for my career in creative economy and dance.

In addition, I took part in all the plenary panels, which included “Resistance in the Age of Trump,” “Dismantling All Forms of Oppression as One Movement Through Intersectionality,” and “Where Do We Go From Here.”

We heard from other people like Angela Rye, CEO of Impact Strategies; Donell White, executive director of the Detroit branch of NAACP; Sally Kohn, progressive CNN political commentator; Erika Andiola, political director for Our Revolution; Rebecca Cokley, senior fellow for the Center for American Progress; Cristina Jiménez, executive director of United We Dream; U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Debbie Stabenow; U.S. Representative Brenda Lawrence; along with so many others.

* * *

We also heard from “Auntie Maxine” — a.k.a. Maxine Waters, to whom the convention’s title, “Reclaiming Our Time,” paid homage.

She delivered a fiery speech, letting us all know that we should feel inspired to do what Hillary Clinton could not on the debate stage where now 45 stalked her. Waters urged us to say, loud and proud, when a man does that to us: “Creep, Get Off My Back!”

She told the truth about the actions of 45 and asked anyone planning to run for office to stand up and a flood of women supported by all their peers new and old supported them as they stood. She let us all know how grateful she is for the work we are doing and showed us how to stand strong and truly “reclaim our time.”

She ended her speech by leading us all in a chant: “Impeach 45.” This sound of more than 4,000 women demanding that something be done was powerful and shook all of us to move forward with the strength of Maxine Waters carrying us and to lift her up as she continues her good work.

* * *

I spent three amazing days with amazing women, well-known analysts, commentators, directors of our favorite organizations, speechwriters, pollsters, powerhouses in women’s health, high-up people in the field of criminal justice, well-known hip-hop artists, actresses, senators, congresswomen, and more.

We had access to all of them. They were not out of reach. We could ask questions, and we did. We made connections that will last a lifetime. We were invited for interviews for news services, magazines, television, cable programs, blogs, and other venues.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the weekend is that it was entirely centered around women of color. Every panel, every discussion, every subject put women of color at the center.

As a white woman, I was forced to feel a little uncomfortable at times, to reflect on how women of color frequently feel that. I was forced to face my privilege by feeling a little out of place, and that self reflection made a huge impact.

Rachel, Laura, and I had to reflect, decompress, and talk through our experience. In the end, I came out having much more understanding about my impact as a white woman in the world and what I can do to combat the oppression that exists.

Combatting this issue will help to lift all of us up.

* * *

The most important messages of the weekend for were:

• Ladies, it does not hurt you in any way to lift up the women beside you. It only helps all of us. If you are excluding, pushing down, not supporting, or in any way not doing what you can to lift other women up, you are not doing the work!

I will extend that to people in general: it does not hurt us to lift up our fellow humans. I repeat, it does not hurt us to lift up our fellow humans! It helps us all.

• For those of us who have the same goal, we might have different ways to get there. If you are not supporting or working with someone whose goal you share just because they are getting to it in a different way, you are not doing the work! We have to work together right now.

• We have to use our financial powers. If you are not going out of your way to support black-owned and women-owned businesses and if you are purchasing from places that have bad business practices, you are not doing the work!

• White women, this is to you: just as all men need to reflect on how they contribute to rape culture, all of us white women need to reflect on how we have contributed to a system of oppression. I certainly have, in ways I am ashamed of now that I better understand, and to not reflect on that would be a failure to move forward. You do not have to publicly announce it; rather, I am saying it is time for all of us to reflect.

• If you are not going to move forward together, then please step aside so that those of us willing to do the work can make some progress!

* * *

We landed in Boston on the way home from the convention, as Rachel said “Over Empowered” and ready to do our part in making this world a better place. Are we ready to lift up our fellow humans and move together to “Reclaim Our Time”?

I, for one stand entrenched in a familial tradition of activism. I feel my grandmothers’ hands in mine guiding me on this path.

I stand with the strength of my ancestors as I move forward, together with you to ensure a better world for us all.

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