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Desiree Cooper: Women's Convention in Detroit Seeks to Build Coalitions

The Cobo Hall event might be an important step to reclaiming black women’s place in the feminist movement.

When women marched on Washington the day after the Trump inauguration, I was beside myself with both grief and wonder. The election had been a grueling display of chauvinism, machismo and misogyny, the likes of which were unparalleled in contemporary American politics. Candidate Trump had called women pigs and ugly to their faces, referred with derision to menstruation, talked with jocularity about rape and grabbing women by their private parts, threatened women’s health care and joked about dating his daughter. To add insult to injury, he defeated the uniquely qualified female opponent with the help of a whopping 53 percent of the white women’s vote.

Unable to attend at the last minute due to a family emergency, I watched from afar as women gathered in Washington. But my grief soon turned to wonder as I beheld droves of the other white women – the remaining 47 percent who were newly awakened or recommitted – join their sisters of color to flood the nation’s capitol in a rage of pink. As I witnessed women all over the country and the globe follow suit, I had a profound hope that something had shifted in the consciousness of women everywhere.

Or had it? Despite the inclusion of black, LGBT, Native American and Latina women; despite the agenda that addressed wide-ranging issues facing women of color; and despite the support of outspoken black women including U.S. Rep. "Auntie" Maxine Waters (D-California), questions persisted about the inclusivity of the march. Would the priorities of suburban pink-collar women once again subsume the issues facing the urban and rural poor? Were we poised for a new women’s movement or in line for the same old, same old?

"I was disappointed but never angry with those black women who decided to sit it out because of the history of neglect and abuse from the feminist movement," says Tamika D. Mallory, co-president of the Women’s March. But as they saw what actually happened in January, "Many black women confessed to me that they felt they’d made a mistake by not being there," Mallory adds. "There’s been a shift."

Ten months after that spectacular display of women’s political resistance, the coalition is proving that it knows the history of the women’s movement and is determined not to repeat it. The organization’s first big gathering since the march will happen at Detroit’s Cobo Center later this month. The choice to bring the convention to Detroit was more than symbolic. Detroit is a microcosm of many of the issues that led to the march in the first place, including economic equality, environmental justice, segregation, immigration, gun violence and educational equality. It’s also a city with a long history of community-based activism. Imagine the eye-rolling if the convention had been held in Seattle or Portland or Minneapolis instead.

"The choice to come to Detroit is more than an olive branch; it’s a bridge," Mallory says.

Progressive women will recognize the conference theme, "Reclaiming Our Time." It’s a reference to Auntie Maxine’s ability to demand accountability from the white power structure. (Google the way she interrupted bloviating Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during the House Financial Services Committee hearing in July by repeating, "Reclaiming my time.")

"Things have become worse for our country, but our resistance has become stronger and bolder," Waters says in a press release supporting the Women’s Convention in Detroit. "More than ever, we need all women and allies to come together to collectively reclaim our time."

What will the movement do with its reclaimed time? It will redefine feminism. It will build an unstoppable coalition of women, femmes and allies ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. It will get people registered to vote. Organizers predict more than 2,000 people will attend the conference. The question is: Who will they be? Amber York, 38, a Detroit activist and mother of two, will be one of them.

"The conference leaders have been assertive in making the concerns of women of color central to the conversation," York says. "As a queer black feminist, I’m taking them up on that invitation."

Perhaps women of color are ready to join hands with white women to reshape American politics. Maybe white women are ready to listen. Maybe this is the moment for women of color to not only reclaim our time, but also our rightful leadership role in the global feminist movement.

But in order to do that, we have to show up.

The Women's Convention will be held Oct. 27-29 at Cobo Center in Detroit. Visit womensconvention.com for the schedule and to register. If you can't attend, consider a scholarship donation to support others.

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