‘Your Struggle Is Mine’

Women's March 2017 Knoxville

'Your Struggle Is Mine'

The organizers of the 3rd annual Knoxville Women’s March this Saturday say they are building a platform to empower others.

by jesse fox mayshark • January 15, 2019


participants in the first knoxville women's march on gay street, january 2017. (photo by compass)

When the third annual Knoxville Women’s March kicks off with a rally at 2:30 p.m. this Saturday at Chilhowee Park’s Midway on Magnolia Avenue, the three women most responsible for it will be there, but mostly behind the scenes.

Organizers turn a one-day event into a progressive network.

“A main focus of our push is to let others lead,” said Kimberly Peterson, who with Caroline Mann and Kendy Altizer is one of the unofficial board of directors of the Women’s March Coalition of East Tennessee. “Let those that are in the most affected communities lead. I can tell people about the struggles of African-American youth in inner-city environments or other things that go on in Knoxville, but I don’t face that personally. So we need to be getting behind those local community leaders and on a national level to stand in solidarity and say, what can we do to help?”

The first Knoxville Women’s March, galvanized by the election of President Donald Trump, drew an estimated 7,000 people to Market Square and the streets around it in January 2017. Last year, the second march attracted double that number.

Gathered for lunch at the Sunspot on Cumberland Avenue, the three organizers agreed that to build on that momentum, it will take a lot more than a trio of college-educated white women.

“We acknowledge that we have big mouths, we have a lot of privilege, we garner lots of crowds, and we can use that to create space for these folks so that they can have a voice too,” said Altizer, who is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Tennessee.

This year’s march will include more partner organizations, which will have tables to promote their causes and enlist volunteers. The gates at the Midway will open at 11 a.m., allowing several hours for the crowd to gather and talk to representatives from more than 25 local nonprofits and social justice advocacy groups. (There will also be food trucks on site.)

The program of speakers at the rally is also diverse, including: Sara Baker, a feminist activist who specializes in digital movement building; Claudia Caballero, executive director of Centro Hispano of East Tennessee; Renee Kesler, president of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center; and keynote speaker Renee Hoyos, who ran a spirited but unsuccessful campaign for Congress last year.

"I was privileged enough to be living my life and not have to worry about all the stuff going on. But then 2016 was a slap in the face.”– Caroline Mann, Women's March Coalition of East Tennessee

Mann, who was one of the organizers of the first Knoxville Women’s March in 2017, said she hadn’t been an activist before the 2016 election. “I was privileged enough to be living my life and not have to worry about all the stuff going on,” she said. “But then 2016 was a slap in the face.”

Peterson and Altizer weren’t at that first march on Market Square -- they joined the nearly 500,000 people at the national march in Washington, D.C., who flooded the capital’s mall with pink pussyhats and protest signs. For all three, the day was both cathartic and energizing.

“I remember we were right near a Native American activist group,” said Peterson, who describes herself as the primary caregiver to a disabled child and three other children. “That was the thing that gave me goosebumps was, like, for the first time you’re really seeing everyone rally around. And I thought, this is where this movement is different -- you see the commonality that your fight, your struggle, is mine.”

Although not explicitly partisan, the march is decidedly progressive in its orientation. Several local elected officials attended last year, including Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and the four women who won election to Knoxville City Council in 2017, but none were Republicans.

Mann, who works in the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment at UT, is in the current cohort of Emerge Tennessee, a training program for Democratic women who want to run for office. (Knoxville mayoral candidate Indya Kincannon was in last year’s class.) Although she hasn’t yet settled on an office to run for, Mann said she thinks the Women’s March can help serve as a rallying point and base of support for other progressive women looking to get involved.

“That’s where I personally want to put a lot of my focus, in building a progressive bench,” Mann said. “So that involves keeping people engaged, keeping people interested, educating them on the local issues, state issues, how do they get involved in parties and how do they get into office.”

The three women promise that this year’s event will be better organized than the first two, which succeeded despite cramped quarters and insufficient sound systems. Moving from downtown to Chilhowee Park will give them more room, plenty of parking and a march route through East Knoxville that will follow close on the heels of Saturday morning’s annual Race Against Racism.

The organizers expect an even bigger crowd than last year, 15,000 to 20,000. The march now seems embedded in the local calendar.

“I think what we’ve done,” Altizer said, “is kind of created a space where people feel empowered to come forward. And we’ve decided that there are a lot more of us than we thought there were.”