How the Women’s March on Washington is mobilizing a new generation of organizers

How the Women’s March on Washington is mobilizing a new generation of organizers

Like many women across the country, Therese Cochran was nauseated when Donald Trump won and accepted the presidency on Nov. 9. Like many of her peers, she found an outlet for her frustration and anger on Facebook. Now, she's puzzling out an unexpected problem: how to transport thousands of people from Indiana to Washington, D.C., where they will join an estimated 200,000 marchers for a human rights demonstration of historic proportions.

"I was just physically ill after the election, and went online just looking for something positive to do," Cochran, a senior manager at an Indiana real estate company, said by phone. She made a Facebook event for an Indiana chapter of the Women's March on Washington, a grassroots organizing effort to bring demonstrators from around the country to the nation's Capitol on Jan. 21, Trump's first full day in the Oval Office.

Through Facebook, Cochran found Denise Valkyrie, an Indiana woman who works in the business office of a regional public broadcaster and had created a separate Indiana event for the national march. Cochran and Valkyrie combined their efforts and now co-chair the Women's March on Washington Indiana.

Working to book some 5,000 marchers on the 10-hour journey to Washington, they're relying on the help of volunteers, such as Khadijah Shareef and Nikki Malley, a jazz professor at a small private college in Illinois.

"The women are focused; the women are determined," Shareef, president of Muslim Women of America and WMW Indiana's regional organizer for Indianapolis. "This has all just been kind of like a divine order, just like-minded beings finding like-minded beings."

The success of the march depends largely on these people: organizers who, though many of them have never met in person, are investing their time, their energy and their own money into making the Women's March on Washington a powerful rejoinder to Trump's inauguration that no one can ignore.

"The women are focused; the women are determined."

The logistics, though, are daunting. These women, some of whom are novice activists spurred into action by Trump, have to facilitate staggering numbers of buses, ride shares and lodging for thousands of strangers. It's a "silently heroic" effort, as Malley put it, made by women who have other jobs and responsibilities, but won't let an opportunity to send a strong message in support of women's rights slip away.

Shareef, like Cochran, became involved with the Indiana group after looking up the Women's March on Washington on Facebook. "It's been nonstop since then," she said. Shareef works as a consultant and owns a food truck. On top of her day jobs and caring for a 2-year-old grandson, the 55-year-old is helping secure charter buses for Indiana-based marchers. Renting buses is not cheap — $5,700 to $7,500 from Indianapolis, according to Shareef — and the sum comes either from crowdsourcing on platforms like GoFundMe or out of the organizers' own pockets. Shareef ended up footing the bill for a bus.

Volunteers are operating "with the faith that we'll see riders and get refunded," said Malley, who is coordinating efforts for the Indiana cities of Columbus and Bloomington, along with surrounding areas. Built into the cost of their bus tickets — roughly $190 for the trip — are funds for parking fees, for "scholarship" seats, given to marchers who can't afford to pay the full fare, and money to pay for hotel rooms for drivers who are expected be on the road from late Friday evening to early Saturday morning — then again Saturday night for the trip home.

The women are signing up passengers using Google Docs posted to their Facebook page, a Herculean organizational effort executed in the weeks since the election, thanks to conference calls that stretch for hours after their work days are over.

"It's really the power of cooperation, you know?" Shareef said. "If we could do this all over the country and just stay focused on what the prize is, what the goal is, we can really make a difference. I can't say it enough, how much they've gotten done — you know, it's just amazing."

For the Indiana organizers, though, the more successful they are, the harder their logistical hurdles are to overcome. Bus numbers are dwindling — one rental service, Rally, saw its buses booked solid early on, and on Thursday afternoon, the coordinators knew of only one bus left in the state. With one week to go before the march, the organizers' next and likely last hope lies in ride sharing, which they'll set up the same way the did buses: through Google Docs linked to their Facebook page. 

The Women's March on Washington Indiana organizers' struggle to move thousands of ready and able bodies to Washington, D.C., for the march is just one facet of a nationwide patchwork of bus caravans and carpools moving hundreds of thousands of women and allies to the march on Jan. 21. And, as in Indiana, the private transit industry's supply of available buses has run thin. Organizers are struggling to accommodate travelers for what's become possibly the largest charter bus event in history.

Most of the buses for the Women's March were booked through Rally, a service that's like GoFundMe-meets-Uber for buses, that was created in order to book buses for Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010 — users set up an event, and once the a certain tipping point is reached, local charter bus companies can take your request for a bus.

"My understanding is that the Rally to Restore Sanity was the largest Saturday rally in D.C. in a while," Rally co-founder Siheun Song said. "This is going to blow those records out of the water."

By the end of December, Rally announced that its network of bus companies was tapped out. Over 800 of the buses bringing attendees will come through the company, with a confirmed 40,000 riders. Song believes the journey to the Women's March could be the most significant single mobilization of buses in U.S. history.

"No other company has moved this many people at this scale before," Song said.

Rally, though, can't book any more buses, because the supply of available charter buses has run dry. In response, the Rally team is dipping into a reserve supply of 400 or so school buses. Many school buses sit idle on weekends, but — because of long travel times for driving — only work as a fix if groups of would-be marchers are not traveling from too far outside the Washington metropolitan area.

Arranging for the bus trips isn't the end of the logistics required for transportation to the march. The buses need to park somewhere once they finally arrive in Washington, D.C.; 1,400 buses have applied for parking at RFK Stadium, the go-to for Inauguration Day bus depot in the past. After that, Song and her team arranged for hotels so that as many as 2,000 drivers can get their rest after long trips that started early in the morning and, in some cases, the night before.

The number of bus drivers, however, pales in comparison to the number of planned attendees at the march — and those of them planning to stay overnight in the Washington, D.C., area will need someplace to crash as well. Hotels over the weekend are locked tight for reservations, but couches in the area are still up for grabs on sites like MarchBNB, which links those looking for housing with locals who have open rooms. Another website, CouchSurfing, also has a special page set up for marchers looking for a place to stay.

With buses, rooms and couches all rapidly filling up, a hopeful Women's March on Washington attendee who hasn't nailed down their transportation and lodging yet may be facing an uphill battle. The best avenue for them, several organizers said in interviews, is to reach out to the local Women's March organizers and Facebook pages in their states or cities. There's also MarchMatch, a forum where people can post what they need — whether it's accommodations, transportation, funding or all three — to appeal for aid from others.

"No other company has moved this many people at this scale before."

Then there is the network of Sister Marches to attend in every state — and around the world. Organizers are hoping for a cumulative turnout in the hundreds of thousands at local marches in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Austin, Texas, and a slew of other cities.

The Women's March is the first major event organized after the wake-up call of Trump's election. For many coming in, it will be their first time facing and — they hope — overcoming the challenges of mass mobilization, and they're doing so on a perhaps unprecedented scale. It would be a remarkable feat for those just beginning their lives as activists.

"I've seen a lot of people in this group and friends that I know in other states who have never really been politically active in anything close this manner before," Cochran, the WMW Indiana organizer, said. "And I think there's a story there that we haven't yet seen unfold: You're seeing hundreds of thousands of people who may've given something to a charity that means something to them, or posted a bunch of stuff on Facebook for the last few years. But these are people" — the activists toiling to put together the Women's March — "who are putting their money and their time where their mouth is in a way that they never have before."