Winneshiek County, IA went for Trump just barely, shocking the environmental activists and many of the Luther College professors, staff, and students that live here. As soon as activists announced the Women’s March on Washington, longtime women’s rights activist Shirley Vermace started organizing a sister march here. An Africana Studies and History professor at Luther College, I was honestly unsure what this event would turn into. Would organizing around a gender binary with pink hats as their symbol result in the exclusion of my community, LGBTQ, and/or people of color?
Perhaps in response to these concerns, in the last week, the leaders made an intentional decision to diversify the speakers. I got an invitation to speak, and so did four others I suggested. The four included two students, a Black Muslim American, and a perceived to be Black (though, as she reminded us, mostly Norwegian and Native American) woman from rural Nebraska; and a Luther College graduate who is the assistant director of the Diversity Center, an Indian American woman. The fourth was another graduate, now living in Chicago, a white transgender divinity student.
In the days leading up to the march, I wondered what I could possibly say that would encompass every issue and group of people who I knew deserved to be recognized. How would I fit them all into the 3 minutes I had been given? Organizers sent out a note a day before giving instructions and encouraging us to meet after the march in a local pub’s backroom for an after party. I thought, “Maybe 50 people on a good day could fit back there — is that all they expect?”
The day of the march dawned gloomy, a warmish mid-40s, and with a threat of rain. As we stopped in a local coffee shop for caffeine fortification, we saw many friends, neighbors, and (amazingly) people we didn’t recognize walking with signs, pink hats, and eager anticipatory smiles. We gathered in a gravel driveway next to an ice and snow clogged park. Around us were people greeting friends and neighbors. The nationally known local artist Brian Andreas of “The Story People” handed out commemorative prints. Alongside one of his signature colorful people, the print said, “We promise not a moment will Be lost as long as we have Heart + voice to speak + we will walk together with a thousand others + a thousand more + on + on until there is no one among us who does not know the Truth: There is no future without Love.”
My wife, Heidi, and I found my trans friend River Needham standing apart looking lost and lonely — they had gotten there early for the group photo of speakers that didn’t end up happening. I was grateful I’d been overambitious with the size of my sign and could hand one side to River to hold, thus making it clear that they were part of this community. Our backyard neighbor gave us handmade earrings with a pink ribbon bead. We loved reading all the signs — WTF on a woman walking a black lab with a pink tutu, a silver haired life-long activist carrying a sign with “Gender Justice = Tax Testes,” a baby on her father’s chest, with a sign around her neck proclaiming “sugar and spice, I demand equal rights,” and many more.
Shirley and the two other leaders climbed into the bed of a truck while a man in a camo hat and pink-t-shirt fiddled with the speakers. The march began with Shirley reminding us we stood on Native American land and saying we walked in solidarity with the water protectors at Black Rock. Liz Rog, a longtime leader of community sings, led us in a song she had written after Trump’s election. A Luther pastor, Anne Edison-Albright, gave us Erika Hewitt’s “Blessing for the Women’s March.” “In your hour of need, may you easily find a restroom, and may it accommodate your body’s gender, size, and abilities. May the line for the restroom be short. If not, may you delight in the impulse to connect in ways mundane and profound.”
Then we marched. The police gave us permission to walk down the main street instead of on the sidewalks as we had planned. Students held a sign with the Iowa state motto on it — “Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain.” We passed our small local shops, some with proprietors out on the sidewalk to wave.
When we arrived at the Courthouse, everyone was encouraged to fill in the grand stairs. I couldn’t help but think of when we held a rally the December that Darren Wilson was not indicted for Michael Brown’s murder. That day, we all fit nicely on one of the staircases’ landings. Today, though, we filled sidewalk, the stairs, the first and second landings, and all the rest of the stairs — two stories full of people crammed together. Later the organizers announced 1000 had people gathered (out of a town of only 8000). People from surrounding areas cheered when Shirley called out the names of their smaller towns.
I asked a student to hold my side of my sign quoting James Baldwin, “Make America What America Must Become,” so that I could climb onto the truck and be the first speaker. I used Baldwin’s words to introduce my story of marrying Heidi last October — an improbable love story whose legal existence now feels under attack — and concluded with Audre Lorde’s words, “Without community there is no liberation… But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” This set up my call to action — “In community, we must fight to extend equal rights and protections to all of us within America’s beautiful diversity!”
Following my statement, a Latina woman spoke about the family impact of demonizing immigrants. The “local curmudgeon” read a poem. Asha Aden spoke eloquently about the beautiful insights Islam gave to her. After Asha’s speech — one that cemented my belief in her political future and made me happy she is a political science major — others spoke on healthcare for women, a living wage for all, the power of mothers, and legislation we need to protect women’s rights. River gave a powerful message about new life rooted in the Exodus story of the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s order to kill all Jewish newborns. Our final song was “This Little Light of Mine.” A colleague said afterwards she and her husband had sung, “Trump is the Anti-Christ” for one verse.
As we walked away, Heidi admitted a fear that this exultant march would still only be one day and not translate into real change. Then she remembered the words of the young woman from Nebraska who said we must cling to hope for real change to occur.
Since the march, the community has discussed its impact as we run into each other in restaurants, coffee shops, and on sidewalks as well as through social media. It’s hard to translate just how powerful hundreds of marchers felt in the face of reports of hundreds of thousands in big cities. But this is rural America in a county that went for Trump. As our song leader wrote in a letter to all us speakers, “In 37 good years of loving this place, yesterday took the cake. Unforgettable.”