For MEA member Sally Pierce, the defining moment of Saturday’s historic Women’s March on Washington, D.C., came when she found herself marching next to a family with a young girl, about eight years old, who tried to start a chant by calling, “Is this what democracy looks like?”
About 30 people responded, “This is what democracy looks like,” and the girl became quiet, said Pierce, president of the faculty union at Lansing Community College.
“I turned and looked at her, and I said, ‘You should do it again, because it’s a chant.”
She did, and the crowd responded for several rounds, and Pierce welled up with emotion.
“That girl will never believe she doesn’t have power, because she just led a chant in this huge conglomeration of people where she was listened to,” Pierce said. “It was so beautiful – her little voice up over the top of all these people, and the crowd responding to her.”
In addition to the Washington march, sister events attracted hundreds and thousands of marchers to cities across the country and world – including Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Marquette, and more. MEA members who participated in the largest single-day protest in U.S. history used many words to describe it – reassuring, inspiring, empowering, surreal.
Amy Urbanowski-Nowak, president of the Birch Run Education Association, declared the march in D.C. one of the greatest moments of her life – seeing a half-million like-minded people gathered together with positivity and kindness to advocate for many different forms of justice.
“I think as union members, we have to realize—there’s power in numbers, and this march shows that,” said Urbanowski-Nowak, a high school English teacher at Birch Run High School. “That’s what our union is about, finding strength in numbers so people have to pay attention.”
Julie Bennett, a para-educator in Ionia’s Twin Rivers Elementary School, agreed the size of the march strengthened her beliefs about the importance of individuals stepping up to join larger advocacy efforts. “I’m one voice, but one voice matters,” said Bennett, president of her ESP local.
Seven buses full of MEA members from different parts of the state converged on the U.S. Capitol after traveling through the night Friday. Marchers clogged every rest stop on the way – a hint that large crowds would bust attendance projections of 200,000 with final numbers estimated at 500,000 or more in Washington alone.
“At the rest stops, buses were everywhere and people were so sweet—just pumped up and happy to be going, helpful if you needed anything,” said Barbara Race, vice president of the Niles District Education Association. “It felt like a sisterhood out there. It was awesome.”
When the MEA buses arrived Saturday morning, the marchers found metro stations overflowing with travelers waiting to board the Metrorail, so most decided to walk two miles to the march.
That was when Shelli Tabor, an English teacher at Northview High School in Grand Rapids, first felt overcome by emotion – walking for blocks past houses of people sitting on stoops, cheering the marchers, asking “Where you from?” and some even handing out coffee and chocolates.
“Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not an emotional person, but that was the first time I lost it that day,” Tabor said. “People were happy we were there. This wasn’t about just your pocket issue—it was about coming together across issues.”
Marchers advocated for environmental protection, immigrant rights, religious protections for Muslims, LGBTQ rights, quality public education, and more. The march’s broad platform made it difficult to choose a poster slogan, but it also created a huge variety of signs and designs.
Nancy Smith, a special education teacher at Hanover Horton High School, said viewing people’s clever, powerful, and inspiring signs was her “Wow” moment at the march. For her part, she went with an encompassing idea: “All humans are worthy of respect.”
In addition to signs, many MEA members wore their “Red for Public Ed” shirts and used the opportunity to talk with other marchers about threats to public schools.
The next step will be translating the vibrant energy and powerful momentum from one global day of action into an ongoing grassroots movement, said Candy Gorski, a second grade teacher at Harlan Elementary School in Birmingham.
“This was just the kickoff to get people to volunteer their time and efforts to whatever issue calls to their conscience,” said Gorski, a building representative in her Birmingham EA.
LCC’s Sally Pierce agreed. Going forward, MEA members need to embrace the discomfort of getting involved and join the fight. On that note, the march reminded her of a text she uses to teach her college students: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“We’re not done,” Pierce said. “Dr. King says the reason you demonstrate is to create tension, and tension moves negotiations. Tension is not a bad thing. If we know that, then we need to act. Deal with the tension, and deal with the discomfort, and do what we need to do.”
To see photographs of MEA members marching in Washington, Lansing, and elsewhere, visit our Facebook photo album.