Before the 2016 presidential election, Elizabeth Meyer was an apolitical “stay-at-home mom” who had worked as a middle school teacher and a radio disc jockey before transitioning to raising her 5- and 7-year-old daughters on a full-time basis. Then on Election Night, she watched the returns as Donald Trump lost the popular vote yet won the presidency by amassing 306 electoral votes over Hillary Clinton’s 232. She distinctly remembers the shock “and great sadness that just hit me in the gut. I had no idea what to do. But I knew I had to do something.”
That something turned out to be spearheading two successful women’s marches in New Jersey, the most recent held last Saturday, Jan. 20, in Morristown, and which was attended by brand-new Gov. Phil Murphy and his wife, Tammy. Meyer estimates that there were 15,000 people in the crowd.
The first march, held exactly a year earlier in Trenton, coincided with the national Women’s March on Washington. As it would have been difficult to travel to the capital with two little girls in tow, Meyer reached out to national march organizers, who gave her “the green light” to organize a companion event in Trenton.
“I felt I need to use my voice for dissent,” she said. “It was not something I wanted to do, it was something I needed to do…It is only when you step outside of your comfort zone that you begin to change and grow.”
Meyer was one of four speakers on Jan. 17 at Temple B’nai Abraham’s (TBA) 24th annual Women’s Interfaith Forum sponsored by the Livingston synagogue’s social action committee and sisterhood.
The event, which is always held close to the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a gathering of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim women from Essex County to discuss issues of interest to women from all backgrounds.
Fired up over the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment, the threats to abortion rights, and a presidential administration perceived by many to be racist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant, the crowd of approximately 140 people cheered loudly and often as panelists urged them to become increasingly engaged in the political process.
Leading off what became a pep rally for activism was Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Boston-based Albert Einstein Institution, which promotes the study and strategic use of nonviolent action. Unable to attend in person, the Afghani-American Raqib appeared on a video screen and called on the audience to “offer people a tool that is at least as effective as violence. The greatest hope for humanity lies not in condemning violence, but in making violence obsolete.”
Following Raqib, Cuban-born attorney Saily Avelenda, a founder and leader of NJ 11th for Change, delivered a fiery address on the need to overcome personal fears and become politically involved. Avelenda has been a vocal critic of Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11), trying to hold the congressman accountable for his support of Trump administration policies and his avoidance of face-to-face meetings with constituents.
Waving her arms repeatedly during her 15-minute speech, Avelenda urged healthy dissent from issues which people oppose, and the audience responded with cheers.
After Trump’s election she told her husband, “I will not be silent,” but she said she first needed to learn to use her voice. “It’s the ability to exercise that voice that is going to create dissent,” she said. “Dissent doesn’t have to be flashy, but it has to be effective … Don’t ever lose your voice and don’t ever say ‘I just don’t agree with that.’”
Rev. Robin Tanner, the minister of worship and outreach at the Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, told the crowd that she had been a rule-follower as a divinity student at Harvard University. Less than a decade later, she is a veteran activist whose commitment to social justice was honed while protesting the 2016 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C. Scott was a 43-year-old African-American man whose family said he was unarmed at the time. Police and prosecutors disputed that assertion, and declined to prosecute the officer who killed Scott. It was then, seven years after Tanner was ordained, that she joined a non-violent interfaith movement to protest the shooting.
As a result of her participation in street demonstrations, she got swept up in another controversy. When a local newspaper outed her as a lesbian, Tanner was barraged with hate mail and threatening phone calls from townspeople angered by her lifestyle and support of marriage equality.
“Justice isn’t something we do in our lives,” Tanner said. “Justice is not an activity. It is who we are called to be in these times as people of faith if we are to move forward together.”
During her remarks she paid tribute to the country’s anonymous activists, “all the unnamed women and men who typed the minutes, who made the coffee, who made the phone calls, who walked down the dusty roads, or sat in jail for days.”
Without mentioning a name, she said, “In these times we focus on hatred, and there is a lot of focus right now on one person. But if we become consumed by what we hate, we will lose the core values, the center of the world we are working for…I still believe we shall overcome.”