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One year ago, she marched. This year, she's a councilwoman

For years, Stephe Koontz considered running for city council in Doraville, Georgia. But she let others talk her out o...

Posted: Jan. 19, 2018 12:26 PM
Updated: Jan. 19, 2018 12:26 PM

For years, Stephe Koontz considered running for city council in Doraville, Georgia. But she let others talk her out of it, she said.

The Atlanta suburb had opened its doors to immigrants in recent years, but it wasn't yet ready for a transgender woman in public office, she told herself. After all, she was still in Georgia, where LGBTQ rights were tenuous at best.

Then an unlikely Republican candidate won the 2016 US presidential election, and everything changed, she said. On January 21, 2017, she found the courage to pursue her dream at the Atlanta Women's March, one of many protests held the day after President Donald Trump's inauguration.

"Seeing all those progressive people gathered in solidarity gave me hope that maybe being trans wouldn't be the huge problem running for office I had always feared it would be."

Now she's a member of the Doraville City Council, and she's encouraging others to follow her example. On Saturday, she's returning to the venue that galvanized her into action, this time as a speaker.

Her message: If I can win office as a small business owner with a high school education and a background in church administration -- who happens to be a transgender woman -- so can you.

"You don't have to be a lawyer or groomed politician to sign up for office, because I sure wasn't," she said in a phone interview. "What we need to be seeing in government is the diversity that actually exists in the community."

A new focus on voter turnout

Koontz's journey from political paralysis to participation embodies what Women's March organizers describe as the movement's next phase. This weekend, the national organization commemorates the march's first anniversary with a new campaign that aims to send people to the polls for the 2018 midterms and other local elections.

Organizers have dubbed this year's march "Power to the Polls," underlining a focus on training for people who want to increase voter participation in their community, said Women's March communications director Cassady Fendlay. The group wants to help people advocate for policies and candidates supportive of the progressive causes targeted by the Trump administration, including rights for immigrants, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

"We've had to resist so many policies rooted in racism, sexism and xenophobia," Fendlay said. "We want to see activists creating a groundswell around candidates that recognize what our nation looks like, and protecting those under attack."

The main gathering is a launch party of sorts for a national voter registration tour, taking place Sunday in Las Vegas. Elsewhere across the country, local Women's March chapters and unaffiliated groups are holding a variety of events on Saturday and Sunday.

Some communities will hold marches and rallies resembling last year's events. Others are focused on specific activities, such as registering voters or training people to register voters. Bigger events like the one in Atlanta are convention-style gatherings where people can find out how to run for office or participate in campaigns or voter engagement efforts.

The diffuse activity reflects the state of the movement and its evolution over the past year. More Trump opponents are shifting from social media activism to real-life engagement. But priorities vary from one community to the next.

The national Women's March organization has been criticized for leaving out people of color and those in conservative parts of the United States.

Some organizers of the 2017 Women's March in DC have since formed other groups. One of them, March On, focused from its inception on local electoral politics, including the hotly contested Alabama Senate race. Its members are taking to the streets this weekend, too, and the group is launching its own voter engagement campaign, March to the Polls.

"We're different organizations born out of the same enthusiasm for activism that came out of Donald Trump's election," said March On board member Penelope Chester. "It makes sense that different strands have emerged and we're all united in our goal to bring our country on the right track."

'The march is the first step'

The 2017 march helped like-minded people find each other and build a sense of community around progressive causes, said Janel Green, executive director of Georgia Alliance for Social Justice, the Women's March affiliate organizing Atlanta's Power to the Polls event.

"There was an assumption that Georgia was a lost cause, Georgia was conservative and it was not going to change," she said. "And through this movement we have found tens of thousands of Georgians with progressive values that would like to see their communities become more inclusive."

This year is about harnessing that sense of community to push against policies that harm women, people of color, and immigrants.

The group decided against a march, Green said -- they could never recreate last year's energy. What Georgia's activists need now is a place to network and learn to be effective advocates for progressive values, she said. To that end, issue-based groups will table at Sunday's gathering. So will candidates for city council and the state insurance commission. People will have the chance to learn about them and volunteer for them if they choose, and that's a form of action, she said.

Rallies, protests and conventions energize communities, but the real work begins when participants return home, said Libby Chamberlain, founder of the Facebook book group Pantsuit Nation. For all its ups and downs, 2017 has shown that anything is possible, from flipping delegate seats from red to blue to putting more LGBTQ candidates in office.

"The march is the first step in being an engaged citizen, and that's what we're really interested in," she said, referring to the group's emphasis on posts showing people taking action in their communities. "It's the interplay between the moment and the less visible but completely essential work of looking for candidates, showing up at town halls, and writing to representatives."

Light at the end of the tunnel

Before the election, Koontz was the type of person who attended city council meetings and spoke up against perceived injustices. The election of Trump made her think seriously about running -- yet she had doubts. What if her opponent made her gender the focus of the campaign? She wondered if she could she endure such personal attacks.

It was pouring rain on January 21, 2017, when she boarded the MARTA train in Doraville. To her surprise, crowds of soggy people filled the train. When she arrived in downtown Atlanta she was shocked by what she found: People in all directions as far as she could see, coming together behind the same progressive ideals in a state that elected Trump.

"It brought tears of joy to my eyes to think that change was actually happening," she said. "There was light at the end of the tunnel."

She knew what she had to do to steer the country in a different direction, starting in her community.

"I don't think enough emphasis has been placed on local elections. The progressive focus seems to have been on congressional seats on up instead of state legislative seats on down."

'The old South is dead'

Talamieka Brice had a similar awakening in front of the Mississippi State Capitol at last year's Women's March. She was worried about what the election meant for her son and the daughter she was pregnant with at the time. White supremacy reigns to this day in Mississippi, she said, and the election appeared to have brought out a fresh wave of racist vitriol from members of her community and local politicians.

She sought solace in Pantsuit Nation, and shared her feelings in a post that went viral beyond the group. It was included in a book about the group, and raised her profile through speaking events that allowed her to share more of her story.

The experience motivated her to have tough conversations wherever she finds herself -- from social media to the local supermarket -- about racial inequality and Trump administration policies that she views as furthering the racial divide. Through friends, she got involved with the group Indivisible and joined them in rallies and demonstrations, including a protest of Trump's visit to the opening of a new civil rights museum.

"The old South is not gonna rise again, the old South is dead," she said. "What we're doing now is establishing the voice of the new South."

This year, she's going to deliver a speech from the steps of the same Capitol building. The event is billed as a family-friendly empowerment rally that will offer information about running for school board seats and other local elections, she said.

Mainly, it's about convincing Mississippians -- especially people of color -- that they have a stake in their communities. In her speech, she plans to encourage progressives and conservatives to find middle ground so everyone can work toward elevating Mississippi from its low standing on the national stage.

"A lot of us in Mississippi are tired of being at the damn bottom of everything and we're trying to change that," she said.

"Silence is complicity and I don't want my kids to look back in history and say, 'Mom, what were we doing then?'"

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