Looking out over the steps of the Statehouse Saturday morning, a sea of pink hats and posters — bearing messages like “EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL,” “LOVE TRUMPS HATE” and “BE KIND” — stretched out in all directions.
In all, organizers said more than 5,000 people showed up for New Hampshire Women’s Day of Action and Unity — a series of rallies, activist trainings, songs, prayer and protests. It was the biggest crowd seen at the Statehouse since thousands gathered to oppose state budget cuts back in 2011.
This time around, the causes drawing people to Concord were many: gender equality, racial equality,protecting the rights of immigrants, the LGBT community and those with disabilities, among others.
Author Jodi Picoult, one of a long list of keynote speakers, urged attendees not to underestimate the power of personal stories to spur change — and not to “sink into complacency” once the rally wrapped up.
“Everybody has a story, and the way to move the needle forward progressively is to make sure they are all heard,” Picoult told the crowd. “If you are any combination of white, male, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, socioeconomically secure — you always have a podium. Someone always listens to what you have to say. Sometimes, the best thing you can do with that privilege is to say, ‘Hello, are you all listening?’ And then pass the microphone to someone who has been historically marginalized.”
Later, former Governor, now Senator, Maggie Hassan reminded the crowd to pay attention not just to what’s happening in Washington, but also to what’s happening in the halls of the building right in front of them.
“Don’t lose sight of what’s happening here at this Statehouse, either,” Hassan said. “We can’t make our voices heard, we can’t do what we need to do to ensure that democracy is functioning if workers can’t organize and voters can’t vote. So make sure you keep your eye on this capitol, too.”
It wasn’t just politicians and Picoult speaking out on Saturday morning. Eva Castillo, a longtime activist from Manchester, called on those present to take a stand to protect the rights of immigrants and others — but she also cautioned against assuming ill will among all Trump supporters or those who disagree.
“You don’t know why people vote the way they do,” Castillo said. “If we’re advocating for equality, we have to give it to them, too. And I have been guilty of that, too. Sometimes we are as intransigent, if not more, as the ultra-right is that we criticize so much.”
That message resonated in particular with Marisa Benson, a holocaust and genocide studies major at Keene State who traveled to Concord to attend Saturday’s rally.
“Somebody in particular said something that stood out to me which was, you know, there’s a lot of focus on these people are bad, but we all need to come together,” Benson said. “And it’s not about blaming everybody but it’s about unity and finding our commonalities.”
Despite the disparate causes, one common thread ran throughout all of the speeches and events of the day: This rally was not meant as a one-time, standalone show of solidarity, and there’s plenty of work to be done once the crowds disperse.
A few blocks down from the Statehouse plaza, about 150 people made their way to a training session co-hosted by the New Hampshire ACLU and Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund designed to teach people how to engage with their elected officials.
The hope, organizers said, was that this would help people channel their enthusiasm from this weekend into concrete acts of civic engagement: getting to know their elected officials, attending hearings at the Statehouse, organizing around causes they believe in and staying more politically active at a local level.
“I wanted to take the energy and anger I felt since the election and put it to good use,” Denise Scardina, of Boscawen, said after sitting in on one training session designed to teach people how to use their personal stories to influence policymakers. “Instead of just complaining, I wanted to learn how to make a difference.”
Elizabeth Burton, of Goffstown, said she’s never been politically active before, and “it’s daunting to think about where to start.” But the guidance she received Saturday — to pick up the phone and start introducing herself to her local lawmakers — seemed like a good place to begin.
“This is a very realistic place where you can start, on a people level,” Burton said. “These are your neighbors, these are your friends, they’re parents of the children your children go to school with. I might even know some of them already. So it’s a really manageable place to start your political journey.”