The Pioneer Valley Women Bring the March to Springfield…
SPRINGFIELD—It may have been the largest New England city without a Women’s March in 2017, but this year Springfield hosted the Pioneer Valley chapter of the nationwide, intersectional women-led movement. After three years in Northampton, last Saturday the local Women’s March held its first event, marching down Main Street from Northgate Plaza and concluding with a rally on the steps of City Hall.
However, the added inclusion did not just end at bringing the march here. As the speeches got underway in the brittle temperatures outside, there was quite a bit happening inside. On three floors of City Hall, organizers held an activism fair, showcasing opportunities to get involved and connect them to marchers. In short, the Women’s March may have opened, both literally and symbolically, the sometimes insular seat of city government to the people, too.
“It’s wonderful,” Sylvia Staub, a Springfield resident and activist, said. “Opening the doors [of City Hall] to the public is fantastic,” Alone it may not up the city’s notoriously low voter engagement, she added, but it could inspire people to join movements working to advance women’s rights and action on climate..
Three years after it launched not a day after Donald Trump took the oath of office, the Women’s March itself has been at something of a crossroads. Its inaugural march, first intended only for Washington and then went global, exceeded virtually all of its organizers expectations. It became the largest single-day protest in American history, with a million or so marching across the world.
The Pioneer Valley Women’s March itself arose interest blew past the availability of buses bound for Washington and then Boston.
However, the Women’s March national umbrella group has faced pressure, both internally and externally. Disagreements about direction and alleged coziness with antisemitism on the part of since-resigned leadership gave the group a black eye. Meanwhile, it also became a victim of its own success as competing marches, movements, and organizations sprung up. Democrats victory in the 2018 midterms provided gave opposition to Turmp a lever of power, reliving some activist pressure.
However, here in the Pioneer Valley, the goals, to some extent are a bit more modest. Organizers, cognizant of the distance between Northampton and the lower Pioneer Valley’s communities, wanted to magnify the voice of groups working on behalf marginalized groups in cities like Springfield.
In addition to local organizers and volunteers for a range of issues, politicians joined the March and rally on the steps of City Hall. Among them were much of the Springfield City Council, state reps—including Lindsay Sabadosa, who co-organized the original march in 2017—and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.
The city is no stranger to protests. The late Michaelann Bewsee, co-founder of Arise for Social Justice, had held many of lonely and no-so-lonely protests on the steps of City Hall (Bewsee was honored at the Women’s March Saturday). Opposition to biomass prompted demonstrations and controversial federal action would often bring pickets to the federal building on State Street. Certainly union actions have occurred.
In the Trump era, the tempo of protest has increased here. Women’s rights rallies, if not the Women’s March have happened here. Local teens organized a March for Our Lives demonstration.
However, the activism here and across Hampden County could have benefited from the synergy of the higher-per-capita activism found in Northampton and points north.
“We wanted to get beyond the Tofu Curtain,” said, Megan Johnson, referring the socio-cultural line between Hampden and Hampshire counties.
Johnson, formerly of Holyoke and now of Ellington, Connecticut, had helped organized past marches. She said organizers wanted to be more inclusive and bring in more people affected by the policy coming out of Washington, especially Springfield women.
“We would get a diverse range of speakers, but it’s hard to get people up to Northampton from Springfield,” she said. Now, “People are able to come.”
The goal now is to rotate futures marches to various locations in the Pioneer Valley.
Downtown was unusually busy last Saturday with a Red Sox event at MGM. At the nearby Sheraton, city leaders, including US Rep Richard Neal and Mayor Domenic Sarno, attended the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. scholarship.
However, Saturday would not normally be a busy time for Springfield’s Greek Revival City Hall. Even during the week, unless one has business there, the 36 Court Street is not the most welcoming place. The City Council has tried to make its own operations more inviting, however it doesn’t control all of government.
The activism fair changed that.
Greeting attendees as they entered from the vestibule at the top of the stairs were booths for local voting rights groups and Arise. Elsewhere were tables with information about women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and environmental protection. Reproductive rights were high on the agenda. Both NARAL and Planned Parenthood, keen to pass a codification of abortion rights this year on Beacon Hill, had a presence.
“Women need to know what is going on across the region and who is fighting for what,” said Yolanda Cancel, a Springfield activist who ran for mayor last year.
Cancel admitted she would have liked to have seen even more women there. Yet, she was pleased the Pioneer Valley Women’s March had made the decision to bring the event to Springfield and have activists fight together, across community lines.
There are a lot of reasons activism froths more readily north of the Tofu Curtain. Not the least of which is the plethora of large, politically-minded colleges in Amherst, Northampton and South Hadley. The nature of media and social channels in Hampden County have not always encouraged demonstrations or protests either.
However, in line with local Women’s March organizers, that activist energy is needed here as much, if not more so, than in Greater Northampton. The populations of Springfield, Holyoke and parts of Chicopee, Westfield and West Springfield take the brunt of xenophobic and racist policies.
“It’s been beautiful in Northampton,” Rachel Maiore, a city councilor there said. But it was important be “showing up especially in communities hurt by the current administration.”