The year of women, in policy and politics

Groups gather for the Women's March on Washington on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Washington.

When more than 2 million people united in Washington, D.C., and around the world for women-led rallies and protests on Jan. 21, 2017, the effort was meant to bring about hope for change on the first day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Centex Action Network council leader Meredith Dempsey said.

“I was in D.C. It was a moment of solidarity with thousands of other people — men, women,” Dempsey said. “It was fun. It was hopeful. It was energizing and it was inspiring.”

Marches were held in more than 600 towns and cities, and thousands of women have taken a stand through activism for the first time, often in conservative states, according to The New York Times. People involved in the Women’s March were fighting a wave of negativity and divisiveness felt after Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, and each day’s news cycle came off as some sort of sensationalized reality show, Dempsey said.

A year later, she and four other council leaders of the local social action network are trying to bring that sense of unity to Waco by hosting a Women’s March anniversary rally to refocus the effort and celebrate accomplishments made since the march, she said.

“Last year, we were kind of stranded on our own in Waco. We didn’t have a march in Waco last year. We were all spread out,” said fellow organizer Cheryl Foster, who attended Austin’s march last year with more than 500,000 people. “The fact that we’re now organized enough to put one on is a testament to all the network connections we’ve made.”

The rally goes from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday at Heritage Square, at Third Street and Austin Avenue in Downtown Waco, according to a press release from the group.

It will include guest speakers, live music and more, Dempsey said. Participants will not move much beyond the square, because obtaining a marching permit from the city was too expensive, but Centex Action Network will also host an after-party at Klassy Glass Wine Bar and Bistro, 723 Austin Ave., Foster said.

And in an unrelated event, Barnett’s Public House, 420 Franklin Ave., will host a Women of Whiskey event from 2 to 4 p.m. directly after the rally to honor the women of the whiskey world.

“The Women’s March was about getting away from that (negativity) and finding out the issues you care about and what you can do about them nationally, but bringing back that energy back to your local community,” Dempsey said. “And the Centex Action Network’s purpose is to connect people with those local groups to find out how you can make a difference here. The march this year is to remember that hope.”

Dempsey anticipates 200 to 300 people will show up for Saturday’s event, she said.

Since the 2017 Women’s March, more than 110 women have signed up to run for seats in the Texas Legislature, more than ever before, according to Houston Public Media. And more than 40 openly LGBTQ candidates are running for various Texas public offices, according to Outsmart magazine.

Locally, Centex Action Network has helped two other organizations register more than 5,200 new voters in McLennan County since Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election, Foster said.

Saturday’s rally will help showcase those achievements and remind participants about the important role activism and civil public discourse have in democracy, Dempsey said.

“We’ve lost the ability for civil public discourse,” Dempsey said. “And when the pendulum swings so far to one side that some groups aren’t represented at all, that’s a sickness in democracy, and we want to bring (civil public discourse) back.”

Though the Women’s March brought some unity last year, Foster said there is still more work to do in Waco. She said she hopes attendees will use the event to network with other organizations. The biggest issue going into 2018 is getting out the vote, she said.

“Voting is where it all starts. Waco has such a horrible voter turnout number, and I would give my right tooth to change that,” Foster said. “We need to get people to realize their votes really do matter. You get the government you show up for and people need to show up.”

In November’s election, 5,266 McLennan County voters turned out, less than 4 percent of the 132,556 people registered. The last election that included congressional midterms, in 2014, saw 35 percent turnout in McLennan County, with 44,982 voters of the 128,120 registered casting a ballot. The 2016 election, which included the presidential election, saw 59 percent turnout, with 80,544 voters of the 136,333 registered casting a ballot.

“The (marches) in Austin and D.C. were so positive and so fun and amazing, and we want to catch a little of that magic here in Waco, and we just want to have that affirming, fun event,” Foster said. “We hope to keep it positive, light, but energizing.”

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