CHICAGO — Instead of a Women's March in Grant Park this January, local organizers are calling on supporters to coordinate their own political or service activities _ from hosting smaller marches to contacting legislators to helping the homeless.
"All of those things that would have an impact on your community," said Women's March Chicago board member Sara Kurensky. "The idea is to empower our marchers. Now we want them to take that power and organize in their own communities."
Women's March Chicago recently announced it won't be organizing a march and rally in January, citing the high costs of the event, which has drawn hundreds of thousands of participants in the past two years in solidarity with marches in Washington, D.C., and around the globe.
The shift comes amid a splintering of the national Women's March leadership, which faced claims of anti-Semitism and ties to Louis Farrakhan, whose Chicago-based Nation of Islam has been labeled an anti-Semitic hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Farrakhan, in a February address, praised a Women's March Inc. co-president, and in the same speech declared "the powerful Jews are my enemy." The national organization denounced Farrakhan's comments in March, but many criticized leaders for not doing so immediately. The co-president had also previously expressed support for Farrakhan on social media.
A founder of the national movement in November called for the resignation of Women's March Inc. leaders, accusing them of allowing "anti-Semitism, anti-LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs," according to a social media post.
Women's March Inc. leaders said in an email that the organization rejects all forms of bigotry.
"The organization and its leaders have dedicated themselves to liberating women from all forms of oppression, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, white supremacy, xenophobia and Islamophobia," the group said.
Women's March Chicago says it's a grassroots group not affiliated with Women's March Inc., though past local marches were held in concert with the national group's events.
While the decision to forgo hosting a January 2019 march wasn't based on recent controversy, Kurensky said the chance to further distance the Chicago organization from national leaders was a "side benefit" of the break from tradition.
Marches are still planned on Jan. 19 in Washington and around the country, as well as other parts of Illinois like Rockford, south suburban New Lenox and northwest suburban Woodstock.
A group of activists recently began planning the first Women's March in west suburban Geneva. Organizer Mary O'Connor of St. Charles said she and others involved had anticipated marching in Grant Park, as they had in January 2017 and 2018. Once they heard there would be no main Chicago march, they opted to form their own smaller rally.
"We want to continue this global day and be part of this global experience," she said. "In my head, this will be a global day forever."
Following the 2017 inauguration of President Donald Trump, the first Women's March in Grant Park unexpectedly drew a crowd of about a quarter million, shutting down parts of downtown Chicago. The anniversary march in January 2018 topped that participation, with some 300,000 women and their supporters taking over the Loop.
Chicago then hosted a solely local Women's March and rally in October dubbed "March to the Polls," which was designed to spur voting in the midterm elections. Organizers said the event attracted some 100,000 marchers, but coordinating it cost around $150,000 and countless volunteer hours, and they lacked the resources to plan another march and rally in January.
The decision elicited a range of reactions on the Women's March Chicago Facebook page, including many critics.
"I understand that time and money was put into the October (march) but the January march is what unified us across the country and world!" one member said. "Chicago was one of the largest groups and now we are not even on the map for a sister march! Very disappointed."
"All I'm going to say is we should be marching," another member commented. "I didn't know it was an either or back in October!"
Others seemed excited by the change.
"We can all unite the women in our communities too!!" one member commented.
Kurensky said the Jan. 19 anniversary will be dubbed "Operation Activation," and Women's March Chicago will track all the self-coordinated events and acts of service, as well as offer members support.
While marching and protesting are important, Kurensky said it's also critical to translate that energy to promoting tangible change.
"We need to move from marching to action, so this is a way to try and do that," she said. "It's not going to be enough to march, we have to act as well. You cannot sustain a movement that is just marching."