How to Start a Movement

By GAYLE JO CARTER January 21, 2019

For many women — and men — across the world, America’s 2016 election was a shock. For Emiliana Guereca, it was a life-changing moment both personally and professionally as she decided to not just join the protestors but to create a movement in her hometown of Los Angeles, California — the movement that has become Women’s March LA.

“The 2016 election was a wake-up call for our country; we can either stand on the sidelines or step into organising, Guereca told Aspire. “I haven’t looked back no matter how tough the conversations get,” says Guereca, who worked to keep the controversies of the Women’s March National away from her LA incarnation.

Before the March, Guereca held meetings with Jewish community leaders and reiterated a written statement by WMLA that makes it clear that the two are separate organizations and that WMLA does not share leadership, structure or funding with Women’s March, Inc. and has no input in Women’s March, Inc.’s leadership or decision-making. In addition, WMLA stated it “strongly denounces [Louis Farrakhan’s] statements and recognises the pain they have caused for the Jewish and LGBTQIA+ communities.”

What does it take to create a movement? How can we all become the change we want? What does the future look like to Guereca? We learn that and more from Aspire’s interview. Excerpts below:

Q. Why Women’s March Los Angeles? How did you fall into it?

“I didn’t fall into it, I like to say I stepped into it. I’m the founder of Women’s March LA because I felt that as a Latina Jewish woman I would be missed. We’re always the last to be reached out to. My community would get missed and if I didn’t step into it then who would be representing me? So I stepped into organising and haven’t looked back. As a Latina brought to this country as a child, undocumented and living in poverty, I always knew I had to organise and speak up or get ignored, both within my family and in society. I am one of thirteen kids. As a mother of two biracial kids, they need to know that if they want to see the change, they have to both demand it and work towards it.”

Q. How did you make it happen? 

“I am an entrepreneur.  I have businesses that I have left because I feel like this is important work, important work for women across the country. I own an event production company so I have experience in organising big, big, big events but didn’t have any political experience. I was not a political organiser. Community organising, yes – I’ve organised for housing discrimination, I’ve organised for equal pay, but I’m talking about organising for 20 people to stand up. But the experience I had in community organising is to me what has helped us be the largest march and the most diverse march as well.”

Q. Did you have moments of doubt?

“I had doubt in the beginning.  I thought it would be myself and 10 of my friends and a coffee cup.”

Q. You must have been surprised then?

“We were shocked. We were like, ‘Okay, everyone sort of felt the way we did.’ Along the way, we’ve had a lot of support but we’ve also had a lot of people who don’t support. It’s almost like they either completely don’t support or are totally in support so I’m meeting people halfway and saying, ‘You may not be for this but can we agree on this? Can we continue the dialogue?’ For me, it’s also the nonviolence; nonviolence is also the words. Words can hurt people, our language, our actions, actions speak for us as well, that’s key.”

"My community would get missed and if I didn’t step into it then who would be representing me? So I stepped into organizing and haven’t looked back."

Q. What do you believe about women’s ability to change our world?

“I believe women have been running the world. We just haven’t been recognised. We just haven’t been paid for it. So many of the volunteers that are out there are women. Women fixing what paid men have done to our country, our society. We’re always out here doing the work but we are not getting the credit or we are not taking the credit. Stepping into that [leading Women’s March LA], I had a lot of learning to do because I’m used to being an event producer in the background. For me to do interviews, for me to go out there, was probably one of the hardest things to do because I just wanted to do the work but again being a woman, being in the background and not getting credit wasn’t serving me well. I think that is part of the learning curve as women. Most non-profits are run by women. Their workers are women and the pay is low but management is male, so what’s happening? The profession of teachers, of nurses are predominantly women and guess what? The pay is low and again management is male dominated.”

Q. Why women now in 2019?

“We are 51 % of the population and we do not have the numbers both in the political world and the private sector. Once we start turning the tide in the political world, it will trickle into the public sector. I see it happening now. The number of women that have just taken office in D.C., just me even requesting from my staging company that ‘I need you to hire more women.’ There are women techs out there, there are women production managers and you know what they say, ‘Okay, no one’s asked for it.’ So I think women are stepping in and asking for more and wanting more recognition and wanting more power. We should have more females in boardrooms, more females in management. I think we’re getting there but we’re not quite there yet. I want to make sure it’s not a fad. I want to make sure it doesn’t just stop with the midterms, it doesn’t just stop with an election. I want women to stand up every day in every part of their lives, of their entities. How are we facing sexism at home? How are we facing sexism at work? And in the political world? Across all sectors we need to continue to stand up and voice our power.”

“We women have to believe that we deserve this -- that we’re willing to fight for it and that no one’s going to give us our power so we need to step into and demand it."

Q. How can the everyday woman make the change? 

“I’ve co-owned restaurants and women come in and say, ‘I’m not sure I can be a manager.’ Absolutely you can be a manager.  It’s the small things. For example, I have two boys and one of my boys asked me, ‘Mom, do only girls do dishes?’ Where would he learn that? I said, ‘No, you’re going to come and help me do dishes’ because if we’re going to be 50/50 partners, we need to start teaching them at a young age how we are facing sexism like that and walking into our power in our everyday lives because it’s a cultural shift. When we see that women are standing up and stepping into positions of power then that becomes the norm, women in management becomes the norm. But we need to do the work on a daily basis, we need to step into it on a daily basis. And they’re tough conversations. Sometimes someone will say, ‘You know, she wasn’t qualified.’ Well, she wasn’t qualified now but she may get to that position down the road and seeing yourself on a daily basis as a powerful entity as a woman is important. You’re no less than a man. Seeing yourself everyday as being important and your voice matters on a daily basis is important. “

Q. What are you doing to ensure that action is taken after this weekend’s march?

“We do work throughout the year. We definitely worked through the midterms. We do a lot of civic engagements. We ask people to show up at City Council meetings. I got sent an invite celebrating ‘The Year of the Woman’, yet all of the leadership on the flyers were male, and the speaker was male. I sent an email asking, ‘Are you kidding me?’ This is 2019, we’re 51% of the population. I think just continuing to engage, continuing to engage civically, continuing to engage with organisations that are doing this type of work as well, so that it doesn’t become a fad, so that it isn’t just a march. Women’s March LA has over 300 partners. We have nonprofit groups there where if you want to continue you can plug into an organisation —  ACLU, United Way, Planned Parenthood — where you can continue that type of work. If you’re marching and just marching and not plugging into other type of work then we’re doing it wrong because that’s what will sustain us, that everyday work. That’s what will sustain the movement. I’m looking at 2020, I want to see a female President. I think that that’s imperative for our society to see women in power. To see women speaking up even in our daily interactions is key. I went to a city meeting a few weeks ago where the security asked if the Women’s March brought lunch? I said, ‘We don’t do that. We’re here to talk about our march. Why don’t you bring your own lunch?’”

Q. What are your 3 biggest challenges to achieving your biggest goals and aspirations right now?

“We women have to believe that we deserve this — that we’re willing to fight for it and that no one’s going to give us our power, so we need to step into and demand it. That’s the biggest challenge, women really believing we are equals. Even just organising, women diminish their power. They say, ‘Well, I can only do graphic design’, ‘I can only do this’ or ‘I’m only that.’ No, you have the power, you have a skill set and we want to see it. That’s one of my biggest challenges. The other challenge is convincing people that we are not yet equal. Most people will say ‘Women are equal.’ Really? Then why does the Latina female make 54 cents on the dollar, an African American woman only make 63 cents on the dollar? If we were equal, we wouldn’t be fighting for reproductive justice. We’re not there yet and most people think, ‘Well, we are there, this is the United States.’ But when you talk about it to both men and women, talking through that, they’re shocked, even women. They think we make the same amount of money. No, we don’t. That’s part of it, convincing those in power that we’re coming and we’re not going away. The other challenge is funding. Our organisation is funded by small donors and most of our donors are female. We’re making less money, it’s hard, it’s difficult. Continue funding and continue to show up across the board for everyone. Some people think, ‘I don’t know if Women’s March is for me’ but realistically speaking women’s rights are human rights. We either believe and stand up for all women or we stand up for none.”

Q. What are your top tips for how you practically overcome these challenges?

“For us, what really has strengthened us is community organising, sending out the Women’s March Ambassadors to talk about what we are doing, to talk about civic engagement; to really, really educate on the reality of equal pay, on the reality of reproductive justice, on the reality of racial justice. You can’t talk about equality without racial justice, you just can’t. It’s more educating to continue to be that voice and for us it is continuing to tell our stories, to tell the story of women and how they’ve come up. I’ve had people stop me in elevators and tell me that ‘Because of this March, I quit my job and decided to go for higher education….’, ‘Because of this march I reported my boss, who had harassed me for three years.’ They feel empowered that we are still out there fighting the good fight. Our power comes from those people that are continuing to show up and organise with us and vice versa. We continue to feed off each other.”

Q. Do men have a role in this and if so, what is it? 

“Absolutely. We need allies. This year for Women’s March LA we had a lot of the furloughed TSA employees who will march with us, predominantly male. We also have Men for Women’s March, men who will come in yellow vests and march with us. We have a government shutdown, we have a teachers’ strike, there are so many things to fight for and we have to continue to support each other as allies. And men, if they are in a management position, what are they doing to make sure women get to a management position? What are they doing to advance women and support women both in the workplace and at home?”

Q. Is that what you’re teaching your sons?

“My sons, one turning nine and a six-year- old, both know they are 50% of the equation, that they can help. My son for History Week [at school] he says to me, ‘I’ll be Cesar Chavez, but, Mom, nobody wants to be Dolores Huerta.’ So then he says, ‘Without Dolores Huerta there would be no Cesar Chavez.’ I was like, ‘Yes.”

Q. How important is it to partner with like-minded organisations?

“It’s imperative. It’s not just grassroots, it’s not just political, it’s also the professional. What we do best is mobilise – partnership is imperative for the movement to continue to be empowered, for the movement not to go away. Realistically speaking to put together a huge conference takes about 200 partners with each one handling their piece and the true sense of a partnership – what does one bring to the table? For example – we’re mobilisers, that’s what we are; using all of our strengths is what will get us through. Partnering for us is imperative because we’re very new at this. Our organisation has been around only about 2 ½ years.”

Emiliana Guereca’s Top 6 Trailblazing Tips
  • Believe in your power. Demand your equality.
  • Recognise and use your skill set.
  • Know the facts. Use data to make your points. Educate others about the issues.
  • Join up with a community group focused on what you want to change.
  • Find partner organisations who support and work in your cause.
  • Grow the next generation of leaders.

Q. What are your big vision, goals and aspirations in 2019 for this movement?

“My big vision for Women’s March LA is that we definitely take the lead on getting more women into the pipeline of the political sphere but also making sure that there are systems in place to educate and teach women how to be leaders. A lot of people don’t know what that means, what does that mean? So making sure that there is space for that. We have our youth empowerment where on a weekly basis we organise and we have between 50 and 100 youth leaders that come in and we talk about what we are organising for this week. For example, L.A. has a teachers’ strike and high school students brought out coffee and donuts today for our teachers. Partnership, what support looks like and having them just see what it means to be a teacher and what they’re fighting for and how we’re supporting them was important. It wasn’t just about marching because we could have just gone and marched, but I said, ‘No, these are the people that are displaced, this is the income that they are no longer receiving and what are they fighting for? They’re fighting for smaller classes, they’re fighting for nurses,’ and the students said, ‘Oh, we didn’t know all this went into it.’ So the learning aspect is key and continuing not to fall off because I think a lot of organisations come and go and leave people in the lurch, especially after this last 2016 election. We’ve seen so many organisations pop up but how we are going to sustain it? How are we going to continue this conversation? So the bigger vision for me is making sure we have a pipeline of leaders in order to continue that type of work.”

Q. Are the young people stepping up?

“Absolutely. A lot of young people and we also have a ton of people that have been in this space, have been in this movement before and they want to mentor and just haven’t quite found the avenue. The space to do that. It’s two-fold —there’s young people that want to learn more, that want to continue the work and then there’s people that have seen this sort of work before and want to find the space to do it, so connecting those two has been what we’ve done this past year.”

Q. And a personal big goal for 2019? 

“For me it’s unity because there’s a lot of infighting in this movement, the movement split. I’m hoping we all come to unity, continue to work in tandem, that we continue to work towards female empowerment because if we don’t get along, what makes us think we can unite the nation? It’s imperative that we find unity and work in tandem on a national level, on a global level as an organisation. My hope is that the organisation truly goes global because currently we’re all operating as separate entities.”

Photograph of Emiliana Guereca at Women's March LA | Courtesy of Emiliana Guereca

Sign from Women's March LA | Photograph Courtesy of Stephanie Dimont

*Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Write to Gayle Jo Carter

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