When a group of organizers in SLO decided to hold a march in solidarity with large demonstrations scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C., and other major American cities, they expected a small turnout of about 200.
On Jan. 21, the day of the National Women’s March, the size of the crowd that gathered at Mitchell Park braving the cold, wind, and rain numbered between 7,000 and 10,000. The throng flooded the streets of downtown SLO. Men, women, and children chanted and held up colorful signs with slogans like “keep your tiny hands off my rights,” “love makes America great,” and “I will not go quietly back to the 1950s.”
Held the day after the presidential inauguration of reality television personality Donald Trump, the national women’s march movement was an outpouring of concern, a show of solidarity, and a beacon of hope for women, people of color, immigrants, and others who felt vulnerable and targeted by the incoming administration. On that day, the SLO marchers joined more than 4.9 million others worldwide, participating in one of the largest protests to ever occur in the United States.
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- ON THE MARCH: The SLO Women’s March drew thousands and helped spark a renewed interest in political activism in SLO County.
After it was all said and done, Women’s March SLO organizers like Dawn Addis sat down and asked themselves a very important question: What do we do now?
“We had a dinner where we kind of got together and had to decide if we are in this for the long haul, or it was a one-off,” Addis said.
The answer was obvious to anyone who came to Mission Plaza on Feb. 1. Just 11 days after the march, Addis and the group’s other members organized a vigil to support Muslims and refugees targeted by Trump’s recent executive orders. The event drew more than 300 people. As she stood handing out candles to attendees, Addis said the choice to continue was a no-brainer.
“I think we all knew when we left the march that we were in for the long haul,” she said. “Seeing so many people come out of [the march] with hope sent us the message that it’s impossible to stop if you are moving forward. There’s no way to walk away from that.”
The organization’s efforts are a new chapter in a surprisingly long history of women spearheading large political activist movements in SLO County, from as far back as the women’s suffrage movement of the late 1890s to the massive protests against the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in the 1980s. Today, Women’s March SLO and other local groups are looking to carry on that legacy, and turn the post-election anger and anxiety into solidarity and a drive for local, state, and national change.
A growing movement
Today, the SLO Women’s March has an email list of more than 7,000 people and a little more than 3,200 followers on its Facebook page. That’s thousands it can reach out to and call on to support action and activism in the community. It’s a ready-made pool of motivated area residents Women’s March SLO called on to bring hundreds to the vigil. It called on this pool again when it partnered with other area organizations to support a more than 700-stong silent counter-protest to a demonstration against SLO’s Planned Parenthood. Members also showed up in force to a recent town hall meeting hosted by Republican Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham, and are organizing local participation in a national “Day without a Woman” protest March 8.
And it isn’t just the Women’s March that’s reaping the benefits from a renewed interest in protest and activism. Galvanized by their concern over the actions of the Trump administration and bolstered by the energy and momentum of the mass protests, an increasing number of SLO residents, including veteran activists and newcomers, feel called to get involved and take action on a local and national level.
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- SPEAKING OUT: Many of the recent protests in SLO were direct responses to actions taken by the newly elected administration of President Donald Trump.
The wave of protests began almost as soon as the election ended. On Nov. 12, 2016, hundred’s of SLO residents took to downtown to march against Trump. After the Women’s March in January 2017, the public demonstrations continued. On Jan. 31, Cal Poly students rallied against a visit by white-nationalist darling and “alt-right” Breitbart ex-columnist Milo Yiannopoulis. On Feb. 2, a crowd of about 100 people gathered in Mission Plaza to show support for the proposed Chumash National Marine Sanctuary and speak out against offshore oil drilling. That demonstration was organized by the SLO Progressives, a rapidly growing club formed by former supporters of populist presidential primary candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.).
The progressive group emphasizes taking action that has a direct impact on the local community. Tarrah Graves, secretary for the SLO Progressives, said the organization’s membership grew rapidly in the wake of the election and subsequent protests. The group’s first three meetings had just 15 to 20 people in attendance. At its most recent meeting, the venue was too small to hold everyone who showed up, leaving some waiting outside in the rain and trying to get in, according to Graves.
“The membership has just exploded,” Graves said. “I think people really want to get out and do something. … They feel like they are doing something proactive and not just sitting by and taking it. They are able to stand up and do something to respond to it.”
It’s those individuals seeking to “do something” who have allowed the group to rally its supporters in large numbers. The group turned out hundreds of local progressives to elect 14 of its own members as delegates to the Democratic Party, within which they can work to shape the party platform and endorsements on the national level. Twice since its formation, members of the group packed a SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting to speak out against actions by the board’s three-member conservative majority.
- PHOTO BY CHRIS MCGUINNESS
- KEEPING IT LOCAL: Organizations like the SLO Progressives hope to channel renewed interest in activism into local causes, like opposing offshore oil drilling on the Central Coast.
“One of the club’s main focuses is finding change that we can do at a local level,” Graves said. “Even small actions can make a really big difference.”
Courtney Haile—co-founder of R.A.C.E. Matters SLO County, a nonprofit activism group that focuses on issues of racial and social justice—said she’s also seen an uptick in the interest about her organization since the election, particularly after she was invited to speak at the Women’s March.
“It was a great opportunity to challenge the audience and the marchers to continue the engagement and activism after the march,” she said. “I think we’ve seen that.”
Post-march, Haile and R.A.C.E. Matters are practicing what they preach and participated in the sold-out “get to know your Muslim neighbor” event in SLO, as well as Change the Status Quo, an annual social justice conference held at Cal Poly.
“There are a lot of people feeling very vulnerable in today’s America,” Haile said. “On a local level, it can feel really good to make a tangible difference.”
While the Women’s March and subsequent protests in SLO continue to make headlines, it isn’t the first time the county has been caught up in a wave of political activism.
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- BAD WEATHER, GOOD VIBES: Thousands of men, women, and children braved the rain to turn out at the SLO Women’s March Jan. 21, joining an estimated 4.9 million others participating in similar marches in the U.S. and around the world.
It dates back as far as the 1890s, when some of the country’s most prominent suffragettes, including Susan B. Anthony, Harriet May Mills, and Sarah Severance, made stops in SLO County on a whirlwind tour of California as the state prepared to vote on whether to allow women the right to vote. One local paper described a “mass of San Luis Obispo people” who crowded Maennerchor Hall on Marsh Street in May of 1896 to hear Mills and another well-known suffragette, Elizabeth U. Yates, deliver an impassioned argument for California to join other states that already allowed women to vote. As she closed her speech, Yates reportedly quipped that by the year 1990, the greatest curiosity in any museum would be “the skeleton of the man who last opposed women’s suffrage.”
“Men claim that the pool of politics is too dirty for women to enter,” the 1896 newspaper article on the speech reads. “[Yates] thought it better that if the men were subjected to such terrible experiences in ‘doing politics,’ it would be well that women give them a rest altogether and attend to it themselves.”
It wasn’t just the barnstorming suffragettes from other states who rallied the pro-suffrage movement in SLO. Local residents, many of them women, used grassroots organizations like the Farmer’s Alliance, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and Political Equality Clubs to push men to vote for suffrage at the polls. In the 1896 election, 54 percent of SLO County voted in favor of allowing women to vote. The measure failed at the state level that year, but was eventually passed in 1911.
Less than 90 years later, SLO County would again become a hotbed for protests and activism, this time centered on the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. In 1981, a group called the Abalone Alliance organized a two-week-long blockade aimed at stopping construction of the then-unfinished plant. Reports from the Los Angeles Times stated that thousands of protesters turned out at the gates to try and stop workers from entering, resulting in nearly 2,000 arrests. The blockade eventually ended and construction continued.
Three years later, the plant was scheduled to come online, sparking a new wave of protests and vigils from activists. Longtime SLO resident Linda Seeley was among them. Seeley, who cut her teeth protesting the Vietnam War, had recently moved to SLO and was alarmed at the possibility of the plant, which she believed was a danger to the environment. Seeley immediately began working with the Abalone Alliance.
“I found they were a very focused and capable group of women who were highly aware of what was going on at Diablo Canyon,” Seeley said.
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL: After the success of the Women’s March in SLO, local organizers and groups have been working together to carry on its momentum, including organizing a 700-person silent counter-demonstration to a protest of SLO’s Planned Parenthood.
Seeley, a working mother at the time, was a member of one of several “affinity groups,” small gatherings of activists who would meet and organize actions or activities. Seeley’s group, called Oaks and Acorns, was primarily made of families with children. Seeley said the members of the group formed deep friendships, and many of them remain her friends to this day.
“You form a strong bond personally. They have your back,” she said. “You know you are going to break the law, so before you even do it, you all talk about your reasons, and why you are willing to do that. You are answering to a higher law. A law of the greater good.”
While Diablo eventually went online, Seeley continued her activism, joining Mothers for Peace, which today still lobbies for the plant’s immediate shutdown. Seeley participated in the SLO Women’s March and said she was happy to see so many people attending what she characterized as an “uplifting” protest. She felt it echoed the motivated energy that fueled the protests against Diablo in the 1980s.
“The Women’s March is doing the same kind of thing,” she said. “The way it’s mobilizing the general population. It’s not a top-down thing. It’s people coming together because they feel a call.”
Seeley said it was particularly inspiring to see young people, young women in particular, out marching.
“It’s a time of very, very creative work, and women are leading it,” she said. “That’s very, very important.”
New to the fold
If you are looking for an example of the next generation of activists moved to action by the election, look no further than 18-year-old SLO High grad Bella Stenvall.
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- THE TRUMP EFFECT: The election of Donald Trump triggered protests in SLO and across the country.
After spending the summer abroad and volunteering in a Syrian refugee camp in Greece, Stenvall is now living in Washington, D.C., where she works as an intern for 24th District U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara). Stenvall was one of an estimated 500,000 people who participated in the Women’s March at the nation’s capital. She said the sheer size of the crowd that turned out was inspiring, especially in light of the fear and anxiety many women, minorities, immigrants, and others marginalized groups were feeling after the inauguration of President Trump the day before.
“[At the Women’s March], I finally felt hope,” she said “I finally felt like I could go to bed at night and feel confident that people were trying to do something.”
She didn’t stop there. Since the march, Stenvall said she’s continued to attended protests and rallies, connecting with other passionate activists both in person and online. On Feb. 4, Stenvall spoke in front of the White House to a crowd of hundreds of protesters gathered to oppose the recently signed ban against individuals and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. On Jan. 23, she participated in a rally to encourage more women to run for office. Taking direct actions, large or small, has become part of her everyday life.
“It’s a gut reaction when you wake up every morning and you look at the news and you feel like they are targeting the people you care about,” she said. “It becomes a priority.”
Similar to SLO, Stenvall said that D.C. has seen a renewed interest in activism and protests. There are many, many others like her.
“The saying that’s been going around in D.C.,” Stenvall joked, “is that protest is the new brunch.”
- PHOTO BY BELLA STENVALL
- FROM SLO TO D.C.: The rise in activism and protest in SLO is part of a larger national wave of protests sweeping the country after the 2016 presidential election.
On the Central Coast, groups like the Women’s March SLO, the SLO Progressives, and others are trying to welcome energized newcomers into the fold. In part, they hope to show them that large marches aren’t the only way to contribute to the cause. Small and measurable actions that work toward a larger goal are often the stepping stones that make a one-time marcher into an everyday activist. Women’s March SLO encourages members to participate in a national strategy asking members to take on small goals, such as sending letters or making phone calls to their representatives opposing the president’s cabinet nominees and executive orders. The march’s members are also forming “huddles,” small gatherings similar to the affinity groups Seeley participated in, which will set short- and long-term goals on specific policy issues.
The SLO Progressives have a similar approach. Its website features an “action center” that provides information on how to call senators and other representatives or write letters to the editor to area newspapers. In addition to getting members out to the Board of Supervisors meetings, the group also got members to write and mail 500 postcards to state representatives for the Democratic National Committee in support of naming Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) as the Democratic National Committee’s national chairman.
“We are trying to make activism accessible to people,” said Heather Gray, a mother of two and member of the SLO Progressives. “We want to make it so that whatever time you have, however you are coming to the table, we can give you information on how to incorporate activism into your everyday life and make it a habit.”
Haile, of R.A.C.E. Matters SLO, echoed a similar sentiment.
“There’s been all kinds of calls to action, and I feel that different people have been called to different causes under the progressive umbrella,” Haile said. “If you have money, donate. If you have time, volunteer. We are all called to different things, and that’s OK.”
Increasingly, those different causes appear to be banding together in SLO. The Women’s March SLO, SLO Progressives, and the other individuals and organizations under that “progressive umbrella” have been networking more often since the election, creating a broader coalition of support.
“We’ve been out beating the pavement,” Addis of Women’s March SLO said. “Finding out who are the people in the community doing human rights works, women’s rights work, LGBTQIA rights work, climate rights works, and immigration work. We’ve all been getting out and personally meeting [them]. We are looking for organizations we can build a collaborative relationship with.”
As burgeoning activists continue trying to make progress in SLO and across the United States, the question remains about just how much of an impact they can make, and how sustainable their efforts are.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF BELLA STENVALL
- NEW VOICES: San Luis Obispo High School graduate Bella Stenvall addresses protestors at a Washington, D.C., rally in support of Muslims and refugees.
So far, there are some promising signs for their movement. After mass protests at airports across the country, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on the controversial travel and refugee ban. After a tidal wave of phone calls, letters, and emails, Senate Democrats fought Republicans to a draw and nearly stopped the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsey DeVos. Soon after, Trump secretary of labor nominee Andrew Puzder pulled his name from the Senate confirmation process.
Haile said she was cautiously optimistic about the early successes, but noted that the work of achieving long-term goals means continuing the momentum of large public outpourings like the Women’s March over the coming weeks, months, and possibly years.
“Seeing a tangible result is definitely hopeful,” Haile said. “But at the same time there’s always the caution not to celebrate too much, because there’s a long marathon ahead and you never know what’s going to be next.”
Veteran organizer Seeley agreed, and said that continued progress will come from the nitty-gritty and less glamorous organizing work that comes after the marches and protests.
“The inspiration comes from things like the marches, and then you have to get to work and do some of the more tedious work, the work that isn’t so gratifying,” she said. “But ultimately, who is going to stop this madness unless we persist?”
- FILE PHOTO
- A BLAST FROM THE PAST: Crowds of activists work to stop the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plan from opening in the 1980s.
That “tedious” work—the phone calls, the letters—has an impact, according to activist and congressional intern Stenvall, who said the recent wave of collective action is having an impact in Washington, D.C.
“People need to know that their officials do see those organized protests. … It sends a powerful message to those officials,” Stenvall said. “No matter how frustrating and slow the process can seem or how government works, it is how we can create the change.”
Her boss, Rep. Carbajal, agrees.
“This is an unprecedented time that calls for unprecedented engagement of our constituents to be heard and to create a critical mass of concern in the face of policies that we disagree with,” he said.
Those who seek to maintain that critical mass still have a long and uncertain road ahead of them. The success of their efforts, and the result of their work and organizing and activism, remains to be seen. Seeley knows better than most that that road is not always easy, nor is victory always guaranteed. Still, she insists that the fight is worth it.
“You’re not going to win all the time, but the thing that’s important is how we live our lives,” she said. “That we live our lives in a way that, when we are on our deathbed and we are looking back, we can say we lived our lives trying to make it a better world.”
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.