On top of a crate nestled in a small children’s wagon, they built their altar.
In Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, black femmes honored their ancestors by laying down jewelry, photos and books — spraying them with water, rum, honey, and tobacco. Nearly a thousand people stood behind them. Although this group eventually took to the street, it was a far stretch from the traditional protest march happening downtown just a few miles away.
How did the city — which sits in the geographic heart of Appalachia and complicates stereotypes of predominately white, rural poverty — end up with two separate feminist events the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration?
Downtown Pittsburgh’s “Sister March” came first, although it was late coming online with the hundreds of other marches planned across the country, in solidarity with the massive Women’s March on Washington.
“She just got out there and got a permit and believed,” Tracy Baton said of the original organizer. Baton came on board with the event after initial planning went off the rails.
The original organizer had no prior experience. Just a few weeks before the event, all she had was a permit, a Facebook event page, and a planning committee.
“That committee did not include enough strong online moderators, but they didn’t know it would be a problem until it was, and now it is,” said Baton.
Things escalated quickly.
“Is this a white feminism thing?” posted black femme activist Celeste Scott.
Like marches in Philadelphia, Portland and early incarnations of the one organized in Washington, there were concerns about diversity and inclusivity in the leadership. As women of color, LGBTQIA individuals and their allies spoke up, they were quickly, and often harshly, silenced on the Sister March’s event page. The only administrator for the page was a young white woman left with no instructions. Watching tensions rise, she began deleting comments and blocking individuals. The backlash she received drove her to step down from her role.
The original organizer called for a meeting for anyone who would like to help get the event back on track. Baton calls what happened a “poorly conducted gathering that you can only nominally call a meeting in a Panera.”
Needless to say, no coalition was formed.
The black femme organizers say they asked for admin privileges to the “Sister March” Facebook page and an accountability statement claiming that people had been silenced and harm had been done.
March organizers agreed to neither.
The next day, the event “Our Feminism Must Be intersectional” was created.
“We identified a need for [an] event that not only welcomes people of varying intersections verbally, but takes actions to make space for people from those various intersections,” said organizer Sueno Del Mar.
She said it’s not a protest so much as a celebration of existence. A moment to make themselves visible.
Organizers from both events said they were open to collaboration, but ultimately, there wasn’t enough time. Intersectional organizer Alona Williams said lots of people are starting to care about issues of equality for the first time, but that novice activists missed something big.
“There are a lot of black women leaders in this city who have been doing this work for a very long time,” Williams said. “Especially if you want it to be an inclusive thing, [you have] to reach out to those people, because those are resources.”
Intersectional organizer Tresa Murphy-Green said new activists, mostly white, didn’t know how to improve their inclusivity.
“[People of color] were being bombarded by questions,” said Murphy-Green. “It’s not a marginalized person’s job to educate you. You’ve got to educate yourself.”
That’s why a key part of organizing the intersectionality event was to bring on white allies, or accomplices, like Samey Jay. She’s agreed to help out by “bringing other white women [and] sharing resources and information about intersectionality and white privilege,” said Jay.
“White women should take on the burden of educating other white women and other white people,” she said.
With time, people often forget complicated backstories, said Jessie Ramey director of The Women’s Institute at Chatham University.
“We know from the history of social movements here in Pittsburgh and around the country they are very messy. And we tend to remember social movements in an overly simplified manner,” Ramey said.
It’s true that solidarity is important for building a movement, she explained, but the idea of blanket solidarity is, in some ways, a fiction. Ramey recalls America’s founding suffragettes who fought for the right to vote in 1920–although, for practical purposes, Jim Crow laws prevented many women of color from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
To talk about feminism, Ramey said you have to talk about race. Intersectionality recognizes the individual and his or her multiple, intersecting identities. One person can identify as a woman and a woman of color and a queer woman of color, with each role informing and bleeding into the others.
“If we’re just paying attention to gender, too often that means we’re paying attention to white women. That’s what we mean by gender, that has become normative,” said Ramey. “We have normalized the experience of white women.”
Pittsburgh Women’s March organizer Tracy Baton said there’s no need to fight about unity – that after the dust of the Facebook drama has settled, people will bring their own issues to these events and be heard. In the end, the mission statement of the event was amended to be fully inclusive of identities, sexual orientation, religion, and abilities.
“I am excited to see feet in the street everywhere,” Baton said. “This march is not about me, the previous committee or the current committee. It is bigger than all of those things. As a woman of color, I bring all that I can to change, and I hope that everyone will join me anywhere they can.”
Virginia Alvino Young (@VirginiaAlvino) is a native of Las Vegas, Nevada, and has been reporting at public radio stations across the country since earning her MBA at Willamette University. She currently reports on race, identity and equity for Pittsburgh’s NPR station, WESA. Virginia lives on the north side of Pittsburgh with her husband Jeremey, and cat Bean.