The Women’s March on Washington began as a seemingly simple idea shared on social media. It wasn’t long before this tiny spark transformed into a blaze, igniting participation across the globe. Together We Rise, published earlier this year, is a powerful new book that goes behind the scenes at the historic protest.
We were given the opportunity to speak with Paola Mendoza and Sarah Sophie Flicker, two organizers of the Women’s March and contributors to Together We Rise. In this interview, we talk about art as a powerful advocacy tool, the importance of having daring discussions with one another, and how changing the world should always come from a place of love.
*Responses have been edited for clarity/length.
I thought, to get started, we could share some background for our readers about both of you – specifically, how you came to be involved in the Women’s March on Washington and began working together.
Paola: I was a film writer and director, focused primarily on immigrants and their stories. Before the Women’s March on Washington, I spent a lot of time with my other artist friends discussing what art meant in those moments…what was the role of the artist, did art matter? We came away from those conversations with an even deeper belief in the power or art and artists.
My partner, Michael Skolnik, was contacted by Vanessa Wruble regarding the Women’s March. They reached out to Michael because they wanted him to recommend some activists to work with on the march, particularly women of color. So, he connected Vanessa and Bob Bland to Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez, who eventually became the co-chairs. I called Carmen and told her I wanted to join in. I started working with Carmen and, eventually, I became the Artistic Director for the Women’s March. It was then I began working more closely with Sarah Sophie on all things with regards to artists and organizing artists, and also Ginny Suss, who produced the March.
Sarah Sophie: I’ve worked for a long time within the space of the women’s movement, as well as at the intersection of art and politics. I’m the Creative Director of a theater group called The Citizens Band, and I’ve done a lot of production in the realm of campaign videos, including Get Out the Vote, Paid Family Leave, etc.
Around the time the March was being conceptualized, I was in my living room with a group of organizers and activists discussing strategy – what was our plan of action for the next year? I noticed a group of women online who wanted to march on Washington. Just a few days later, Michael [Skolnik] put me on an email with Tamika and Carmen….and the rest is history.
When Art Meets Activism
It’s clear that one concept, in particular, is very important to both of you – it’s really this idea of using art as a tool when it comes to advocacy and activism. Why do you think art is such a useful amplification tool? What is it about art that helps make messages resonate so deeply with people?
Paola: For me, the importance of art lies in its ability to tap into the human heart and open it to other people’s stories, traumas, and realities. I believe it is the job of the artist to use art in this way! We say in Together We Rise, that “progress is not continuous, nor is it guaranteed.” With that in mind, we have to make sure that the work that artists are doing is progressing us and moving us forward.
Something else art can do is shift culture and shift narrative. In the ten weeks spent creating the Women’s March – not just the 150 we had on the Artists’ Table, but the hundreds of thousands of artists creating content every day around the values of our Unity Principles – we started to have mainstream conversations around more progressive ideals. And those ideals started to be consumed by millions of Americans who, through art, could better understand those principles. We saw a radical culture shift within those first ten weeks and, now a year and a half later, we are still seeing the results of the cultural shift, that narrative shift – thousands of women running for office, large numbers of calls being made to senators and members of congress by women, etc. Art was very essential to that cultural shift.
Sarah Sophie: We often focus so much on policy, but it’s also important to remember – at this intersection of art and politics – that the work coming out of all of this is what helps keep everyone involved in the movement sane and nourished. Something we often forget about is taking care of ourselves. Singing in the Resistance Revival Chorus, for example, is an act of resistance but it’s also an act of self-care, it brings happiness. It’s also worth noting that, regardless of views or beliefs, most people are constantly plugged into the television, the radio, the internet. This means that we can shape hearts and minds through the cultural content we put out. We need to focus on art and culture, just as much as we focus on everything else.
Each of you showcase these ideas so much within in your own lives. You both have careers that are really grounded in the arts, but you also focus so much of your time on activism and causes that you care about. Did you always gravitate toward careers that allowed you to do both, or was that something that developed over time?
Sarah Sophie: I’ve always felt some shame around saying that “I work on a lot of different things” or “I don’t have a set title.” However, I’ve seen a really beautiful shift in that line of thinking during the past few years, and I know realize that this is just the work I’ve always been drawn to. I’ve done everything from dance, to law school, to creative direction, and all of those things inform the work I’m doing now. I think, for better or for worse, women are uniquely taught to multi-task and to have that sense of nuance and complication. So, it took until a later point in my life to proudly stand behind what I do, but I feel like this is where my heart is. You don’t need to know exactly what you want to do as soon as you get to college, you need to go toward the work your passion leads you to.
Paola: I’ve always walked in a world of art and creativity – both my graduate and undergraduate degrees are in acting. I stopped acting not long after graduation, however, to focus more on directing. The stories I wanted to tell were focused on the women I grew up with, the unsung heroes of this country. They were the people you ignore on the street, but are so strong and full of dignity, so incredible and complicated. And, yet, they weren’t celebrated or even shown! As an actress, these were the stories I wanted to be a part of. When I realized these weren’t the stories being told, I went into writing and directing so I could tell these stories. One story I’m most proud of is, ultimately, a film about my mom.
What I didn’t realize when I started working on the Women’s March was that my skills as a director, producer, and even as a writer would transfer so perfectly into organizing both the March and the creative resistance. Bob [Bland] says in Together We Rise – when you’re organizing for the first time, you don’t necessarily have to think about the new skills you need in order to organize, but what skills you already have that can help push the movement forward. I think it’s a beautiful reminder for those new to this arena to look at their current skill set and see how they can help us move forward, to do better, and to help communities in need – even if they aren’t your own.
Together We Rise
One quote from Together We Rise that really stuck out to me came from you, Paola. You mentioned reading an article about a woman who said her resistance was being fed by her anger. It was then that you realized, and I quote:
We must resist out of a place of love – not anger, not revenge, not fear, but out of love for our communities, love for our democracy, love for our freedom.
Can you talk a little bit about what else drew you to that conclusion? Why is it so important for resistance to come from a place of love?
Paola: I’m proud of how much and how hard we have all been fighting. I’m proud that we haven’t remained silent. But, what is most critical is this idea that it’s about more than just the next few years and the issues we are facing today. These issues of inequality have been around for a long time, though they may seem exceptionally prevalent now. My realization is not a new one…Martin Luther King Jr. talks about it a lot, Nelson Mandela talks about this idea as well. But, in order to have the longevity to fight inequality for a lifetime, we have to come from a place of love because it is an infinite source of power, energy, and strength. When we are at our darkest, tiredest moments, we have to dig into that love in order to pull ourselves up. If you dig into that place in your heart, you will find courage.
Sarah Sophie: In that same vein, I’m happy we are starting to acknowledge the value of nurturing, collaborating, listening, and being vulnerable. We still don’t always talk about those as strengths but, when you talk about organizing from a place of love, it’s inevitably because you love humanity and uplifting our shared humanity liberates all of us.
Another interesting point from Together We Rise was the idea that, with regards to Women’s Movement, agreement on every issue is not the goal – and can actually be dangerous. I think something that a lot of people struggle with is communicating with those who have different views and opinions than their own. In the book, you talk about having what are called “Daring Discussions” – conversations that might be uncomfortable, but are necessary for progress. What advice do you have for people who have a difficult time with that?
Paola: We do talk a lot about Daring Discussions in the book, Together We Rise. I think that what’s so important -for everyone, but especially for young people – is that, in addition to being politically active and engaged, we talk to each other. It’s important to talk with those who have similar beliefs and to challenge each other on these issues and to listen out of a place of love. However, it’s equally as important to talk with those that have different opinion and beliefs. As a society, we aren’t going to get anywhere unless we are able to have productive conversations. They can be filled with rigorous debate, but should be based in truth and in values of respect.
Daring Discussions is a toolkit that helps walk you through how to have these types of conversations. Young people, in particular, should feel empowered to take the lead! We will only get to an inclusive and just place if we talk to one other.
(Interested in the Daring Discussions toolkit? You can download it here!)
Sarah Sophie, you said something in Together We Rise that we touched on earlier, but I’d like to revisit. You stated, when discussing the Resistance Revival Chorus,
“We know that joy is in act of resistance.”
Do you think that, in addition to being an act of resistance in and of itself, being able to find happiness during tough times is what helps people endure? In a way, being joyful is an act of self care.
Sarah Sophie: First, I want to acknowledge where that idea came from. I have a friend, Ashley C. Ford, a wonderful writer who had shared a lasting lesson from her grandma on social media. It was the idea that no one was meant to fight all the time. It just really stuck with me.
When we talk about the chorus, not only is participation an act of self care, it’s joyful. It’s often one of the most joyful parts of my day! That joy sustains us, it allows us to organize from a place of love, it allows us to resist from a place of love.
Lastly, do you have any advice for young women and men who wish to be more active in their communities and advocates for causes that are important to them? Especially for those who aren’t sure where to start?
Paola: First, I think folks need to realize that their voices are of great value and that staying informed and engaged is so important. If they aren’t sure where to start, Together We Rise is actually a great launchpad. In the back is a resource section that features several organizations across a variety of issues, both large and small, that people can get involved with. Not everyone can be on the front lines of a cause – and that’s okay. Organizations need other kinds of help, too. Time, donations…these can make a world of difference.
The last thing, which is SO important….is to go out and vote. Voting is one of the best ways to support causes that matter to you. If you’re not registered to vote, make sure you register! If you don’t know if you’re registered, you can go to the Women’s March website to find out. Our new campaign, Power to the Polls, aims to register one million new voters for 2018…and we would love for young people to be the majority of that!
(Want to register to vote? Not sure if you’re already registered? Get started here – it’s a quick and easy process!)
Sarah Sophie: I would only add that people need to keep showing up. Show up for communities or causes that don’t necessarily affect you directly, and just listen.
So many young people are on social media, and these platforms often get a bad rap. But, they really can be a positive force for change when used wisely. So stay informed, stay engaged, keep listening. Listen even when it’s painful. If you’re new to this kind of stuff, be prepared to be uncomfortable and know that that’s okay sometimes. However, sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is just to show up and listen.
What better time to learn from the women of history, to be inspired by those making a difference today, and to look forward to the leaders who will rise up in the future than Women’s History Month? Stay with us as we continue #CelebratingWomen throughout the month and beyond.
Together We Rise – The Women’s March: Behind the Scenes at the Protest Heard Around the World dives deep into the creation, organization, and execution of one of the largest single-day protests in history. Find interviews with organizers, read essays from those who were there, and peek through photos sure to become a part of history.
Find your copy here.