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What It's Really Like to Be a Women's March Organizer

In our 9–5 series, we ask our favourite boss babes what a day in the office entails. A week after the Women's March, Penelope Chester Starr, one of the co-coordinators of Canada's 38 sister marches, gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

Women's march organizer Penelope Starr went down to Washington with a large Canadian contingent

(Photo: Courtesy Penelope Chester Starr)

Age: 33

Education: Bachelors degree in political science and international affairs from Tufts University, master’s in international affairs from Sciences Po in Paris.

Length of time involved with the Women’s March: Since November, 2016

What prompted you to get involved with organizing the Women’s March?
I felt a lot of despair on the morning after the election. 2016 was a hard year for the whole planet really, and to top it all off I thought we’d see the first woman president elected and then instead we had the world’s greatest misogynist elected as president of the U.S. I’m Franco American [my mom is French and my Dad is American] and as an American citizen, I voted in the election. I woke up the morning of Nov. 9 just feeling terrible. A friend of mine reached out to me because she had gotten involved with the Women’s March organization in Washington and thought I might be interested. I realized I really needed something positive and constructive to focus my energy on. At the time there was nothing in place, it was just an idea that a bunch of women had on Facebook. From there, it kind of snowballed really quickly and crazily into something so much bigger than I think any of us anticipated.

Why is marching an important way to get your message across?
When you live in a democratic society, you have a responsibility to make your voice heard and tell your leaders what it is that you want them to focus on, what you want them to do. Marching is a very powerful, visual and tangible way for people to communicate to their leaders what they actually want. And the beauty of it is that you don’t need to be highly educated, don’t need to have money, you don’t need anything, really. You just need to go out and speak with your feet.

The Women’s March aimed to tackle a lot of issues. How did you create a focus while still keeping it broad?
In mid-November we started talking to people interested in helping out and we all had a similar gut feeling for what we wanted to do. The organizers came up with three core values to represent the movement: diversity, equality and inclusion. What’s great about this rallying call is that it’s very broad, so it resonates with a lot of people—women and others. Now, how that percolates over time and what that looks like in terms of concrete actions, we’re working on. But from a vision standpoint, we all agreed that these are the core values that are driving our movement.

Trump is an American leader, so why was it important for you to get organized in Canada?
In 2017, we don’t exist in isolation from each other. A lot of Canadian women were really appalled by what they saw in the U.S. electoral cycle and a lot of them joined this movement to help prevent this from happening in Canada. Unfortunately we do see it in Canada, just read the comments on any story about the Women’s March, look at the way Sandra Jansen was treated when she crossed the floor, or the way Rachel Notley has been talked about, or the issues with access to abortion in PEI. These problems aren’t particularly American, they are global, and I think women on a global level feel the need to fight back against this misogyny.

How did you try and make sure the Canadian Women’s March was a space for all women?
As women, we feel that we represent every segment of the population from all kinds of backgrounds, walks of life, belief systems and different areas of interest. It was important to reflect that rich diversity in our marches across the country, so all our organizers went to great lengths to make sure that there was a diverse representation of voices on stage. Of course, we weren’t perfect and we’ll get better. The marches didn’t necessarily represented every colour of the rainbow, but that said, the intent behind it—and this was core and central to our organizers—was to reflect this rich diversity that we have in Canada, and I think we succeeded in large part.

What was it like organizing this in addition to your full-time job? What did that entail?
It’s been really challenging balancing my day job as a full-time strategy consultant and the Women’s March work. It resulted in a lot of very long nights and a complete lack of sleep. My husband has been incredibly supportive, taking care of me and making sure I’m fed, my clothes are washed and the house is clean—seriously, if he hadn’t done that, I don’t think I could’ve given all my time and energy to the movement.

The Women’s March on Washington hasn’t used the words “protest” in its messaging. Why is that?
Saying that it’s not a protest was important. As a team we banned the P-word from our vocabulary because we want to be constructive. We don’t want to be portrayed as complaining and whining, and certainly that’s not what we’re doing. We want to be moving things forward, we want things to change, we want dialogue, we want debate and we want progress. We can’t do that if we’re criticizing, because the other side just shuts down.

The women's march in Whitehorse

(Photo: Matt Jacques)

When you saw the numbers from the Canadian marches, what did that mean to you?
The fact that we brought an estimated 119,000 people out to march in 38 communities across Canada, and that two months ago none of us even knew each other, it’s incredible and it gives us a sense of what’s possible if we put our minds and energy toward something. We have this ability to effect change. We all knew this instinctively, but we just demonstrated it to ourselves.

We heard a lot about the big marches, but what were some of the standout success stories to you?
Whitehorse had a 250 person march in -37 weather. That means something. It means that people needed this outlet. They needed to come out and say, “I’m not OK with this. I want a better world for me and my children.”

Why did you choose to march in Washington, D.C. instead of in Canada?
When we first started this, I thought we’d have maybe a handful of events across Canada. I never anticipated what we saw. For me, as an American living in Canada, I wanted to be in D.C. I participated in The March for Women’s Lives in 2004 and I wanted to be there and experience that. We travelled down to Washington with a group of 600 Canadians and I was one of the bus captains and I led them through the march and we chanted together. my voice is shot because I was shouting “Canada turn left! Canada turn right! Canada stay together!”

What was the biggest surprise on the day?
How things kind of just came together. There were all these details that weren’t really taken care of, for example, in Edmonton they rented a bare bones sound system because they didn’t expect that they would have 4,000 people come out. But it didn’t matter. Everything came together and people came away with a feeling of satisfaction and joy.

What is your response to the people who didn’t march because they didn’t feel like the movement was inclusive or representative of the struggles of all women?
We respect their right not to march and not to be a part of this. We hope that we can convince them to join us, because truly we believe that we’re stronger together and that we can’t afford to have all this division. Some of the women who have come to this movement are business owners or managers but don’t have a background in social justice, so it doesn’t come naturally to them to think about what it means to be diverse and how to create an inclusive moment. There’s been a lot of learning.

A Canadian saises her sign at the Women's March on Washington

(Photo: Sarah Boesveld)

Is there a plan in place to create more support for other groups like Black Lives Matter?
Absolutely, and we’re already doing it. For instance, there’s a march for indigenous women on Feb. 14 in Vancouver and we’re actively promoting it and we will be there. If there’s a Black Lives Matter event, we will do the same, if we’re invited. We want to help promote and support other causes and use our platform to do that.

Now that the Women’s Marches are done, what is your focus?
We are keenly aware that this is the perfect moment for the movement to fall apart because people are starting to question what the purpose is and what we’re going to do next. The really nice thing is that all the women in the Canadian network really want to continue, and we’re working hard to stay on the same page and stay coordinated. We all feel like there’s still a great need for this movement.

So what can Canadians do next?
We knew that we needed to have an immediate followup after Jan. 21 and our intention is to send a letter to our party leaders telling them to make women’s rights a priority. We’re working now on small, bite-sized actions that people can easily do that don’t take too much time, but can help carry the momentum forward. We’re also thinking about the fact that February is Black History Month, and what the Women’s March do for that.

If you could go back and talk to yourself before all this began, what advice would you give yourself?
Dream big and don’t limit yourself. I would be more ambitious about what we could accomplish.

What was your favourite moment of the Women’s March on Washington?
We had been marching all day with no water, no bathrooms, no nothing. We were getting tired, and our voices were getting raw from chanting, but then we turned a corner and all of a sudden we saw this absolute sea of humanity for like two miles. It was unlike anything we’d seen before. The whole Canada contingent audibly gasped. To see that many people to come out in support of this was really moving.

Who is an activist that you look up to and why?
Nelson Mandela. I’ve always thought of him as this amazing person who was both pragmatic but also idealistic and had tremendous courage and idealism. I don’t’ think as women we need to restrict ourselves to looking up to only female role models.

What advice do you have for Canadians who want to get involved and take a stand?
Start small. One of the marches we helped to promote was in Marble Mountain, Nova Scotia and I spoke to the woman who was behind it and I asked her how many people she had and she said, “10 people and three dogs.” A few of the women who organized marches in their local community were apologizing that they were so small, and I kept saying, “What are you sorry about? You actually brought people together.” No action is too small.

You Marched. Now What? The Next Step for Canadian Women
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