The last time Jessica Boylston-Fagonde felt this sort of despair, it was after the June 2015 massacre at the Emanuel AME church that left nine innocents slaughtered on the church basement floor. Overwhelmed with grief and anger, she felt compelled to do something, and so she helped her friend and neighbor Meghan Trezies organize Gun Sense SC (GSSC), a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to building awareness and supporting legislation to reduce gun violence.
Boylston-Fagonde was reminded of those dark feelings on the morning after the 2016 election, when instead of America electing its first female president, it elected Donald Trump, a leader who threatened to undo so much that had been accomplished under a liberal president.
"There were overwhelming feelings of sadness, frustration, disbelief, and anger among all of my friends and most of my networks," she says. "These were the same feelings and emotions I experienced after the Emanuel AME tragedy."
Just as she had done after the church shooting, Boylston-Fagonde was propelled to action. "I refused to go back to business as usual and became committed to civic engagement — it became my new norm. ... Meghan and I have learned so much on the GSSC journey that we felt our experiences (failures and successes) could lend a supporting hand to our friends and community who are seeking productive action — and want to do something."
The two women reached out to Guang Ming (GM) Whitley on Facebook, a lawyer turned stay-at-home-mom who was using the social platform to move the conversation beyond the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that so many liberals were indulging in, and invited her to co-host a meeting of like-minded people. In turn, Whitley looped in her friend Jessica Maginsky. They called it Ideas into Action and asked their respective networks to come and learn how to channel their energy and emotions into productive work.
"Jessica and I were always trying to engage our friends in aligning with us," says Trezies. "But it didn't really happen until the election. We talked to each other and said, what if we gather our friends and have a discussion about getting involved? We knew what to do because we'd been doing it with Gun Sense."
The first meeting took place a week after the election and more than 50 people showed up. Instead of talking through the emotional fallout, the organizers invited speakers from the Democratic Party, Center for Women, and League of Women Voters among others and identified four areas to focus on: women running for office, registering voters, supporting nonprofits, and engaging within the community.
Brady Quirk-Garvan, chair of the Charleston Democratic party, stood up at the meeting and urged women to run for office and not cop out with the, "I'm not qualified" statement. Men never say that, and women shouldn't either, he said.
Ideas Into Action wasn't the only group to meet after the election. Indeed, women and men across town — and the nation — were coming together spontaneously, some united by their shared interest in the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, which was created a few weeks before the election to support people in red states who were planning to vote for Hillary Clinton. By November 9, that group was 4 million strong, and a local offshoot of about 40 women, organized by college professor Amy Hudock, met post-election at Mercantile and Mash. That event was definitely emotional, says Hudock, but they too hit upon ways they could channel their energy, and this group also decided to focus on civics, service, and support — a very similar agenda to the Mt. Pleasant group's.
A small group from that meeting mobilized to create an event they're calling Incluza-Palooza, which will serve as a sort of nonprofit information fair with plenty of entertainment. Organizer Linda Eisen, who is still working on securing a venue and date, sees it as a proactive opportunity to show people they are not alone and to bring them together to celebrate diversity and encourage them to sign up for causes and volunteer opportunities.
Personally, my friends were texting furiously the night of and the day after the election. One friend, a mother of three and a business owner, sent a missive that hit me square in the face:
"I'm going to use this as a springboard to do more of the 'right' thing in my personal, business, family life. Fucking volunteer like a maniac for those who are not as fortunate as me, fight for freedom, social justice, environmental justice. A call to arms in a way. We can make sure that we and our kids live in a better world — we have no choice but to fight for it now. I don't want to just complain how Americans suck — I want to be sure those Americans that woke up sad and scared this morning know they aren't alone! Can you imagine being LGBT, black, Muslim, Latino, an immigrant this AM. You were just told by your country to go fuck off."
By the end of the week, that friend had rallied a group of women — two lawyers, an ob-gyn, a nonprofit executive director, two gallery owners, and several small business owners — to get together to meet and discuss ways to activate.
Amid sharing the collective emotional distress caused by the election, one woman in our group, Caroline Mauldin, provided a clear sense of purpose, a path beyond the despair. A graduate of Tufts University, the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Harvard Kennedy School, she had spent years traveling the world, most extensively in Latin America and Africa, and working within the fair trade and micro-financing movements before accepting an appointment at the state department as a speechwriter and special assistant to the undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights. During that time, she became close friends with many of Secretary Clinton's inner circle and had even been asked to serve on the transition team. That night in Mt. Pleasant, she shared her devastation at the outcome of the election, telling us stories of what happened behind the scenes as Clinton conceded to Trump.
But more important than those insider tales, Mauldin helped identify areas of focus, reminding us that our politics are rooted in our values first and our fears second. So we must take an approach that starts with our personal passions: attending meetings, volunteering, and becoming involved in the community. Next, we must not just vote, but run for office and support candidates that share our values. And we must speak up for social and racial justice. Civil society involvement means volunteering, fundraising, and strengthening the nonprofit sector that works on the front line.
We had a purpose, and so did many other women around town. Now what would we do next?
Author Rebecca Soltin, in her powerful book Hope in the Dark, which was written after George W. Bush won his second term, provides a template of hope for progressives during dark times, telling stories about the power of the people. "Your opponents would love you to believe that it's hopeless," she writes, "that you have no power, that there's no reason to act, that you can't win."
She goes on in the new foreword to the third edition, written in 2015, "This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It's also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both."
Soltin's ultimate premise is that hope doesn't mean we deny the harsh realities of social injustice, rapid climate change, and all the other challenges to our human rights, but to face them and act. "It's important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine.... Hope locates itself in the premises that we don't know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others."
I wondered if the women involved in these three groups would be able to find hope in the dark of the future that lies ahead or would they feel overwhelmed by how much needed to be done?
The second meetings of my personal group and the Mt. Pleasant group Ideas into Action both seemed to struggle with questions of what to be, how to be it, and where to go next. But everyone was still showing up, anxious to get to work and learn about opportunities for action. The women organizing Incluza-Palooza also met again in December and were moving right along with plans for their big event, galvanizing each other to push forward. My group decided to spend the next few weeks focusing on the Women's March on Washington and helping South Carolina organizer Hayne Beattie-Gray with anything she needed to make it happen.
The biggest test, in my mind, would be after the glut of the holidays. Would the despair slip away? Would that fire in the belly cool? Would these women lose their way?
On Renaissance weekend, an elite ideas festival that takes place in Charleston every New Year weekend, Mauldin took a quick break from her jam-packed schedule of brainy seminars to talk about how she was feeling two months after the election.
"My confidence in humanity was shaken after the election," she says. "But we have to be careful about drawing too many conclusions about goodness in each other, and I've found some comfort in this."
Mauldin returned to her home state a year ago after a mentor asked her pointedly when the last time she'd been to rural South Carolina. "He said, well, I would highly recommend you look at issues your state is facing and see what you can do there."
She was hired as executive director of South Carolina Future Minds, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education in the state. "What made me different among my friends and colleagues was that I was from the South, and the issues we face in the Southeast are the same ones I experienced in other countries."
Since the election, Mauldin has come back around to remembering the long game. "Frankly, since I moved back to South Carolina, I knew I was not going to have as many visible wins as I did back in Boston. We're progressing reform on the margins before it becomes mainstream and it takes years of agitating."
Mauldin sees value in helping strengthen the philanthropic networks in South Carolina to raise up those that have been left behind and fight for racial and social justice. She's already rolled up her sleeves and gotten to work.
In mid-December, a group of former congressional staffers released an online document called Indivisible: The Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda, which promised to reveal best practices for making Congress listen.
Taking a page from the Tea Party movement, these anonymous writers have provided a step-by-step playbook for standing up to Trump and the Republican agenda, which seemed just the thing these three Charleston groups need.
The writers are seeing similar gatherings of people across the nation and are trying to lasso them into action: "The Tea Party formed organically as conservatives upset after the 2008 election came together in local discussion groups. We believe the same thing is happening now across the country as progressives — in person, in already existing networks, and on Facebook — come together to move forward. The big question for these groups is: what's next?"
By the first week in January, Indivisible had received enough press and attention that it was being discussed by many of the women I had been meeting with over the last two months.
"If you're reading this, you're probably already part of a local network of people who want to stop the Trump agenda — even if it's just your friends or a group on Facebook. This chapter is about how to take that energy to the next level, and start fighting locally to take the country back."
Rachel Maddow profiled Indivisible on her show last week, and chronicled the rapid success of the Tea Party. By the spring and summer of Obama's first term, they were agitating nationally, steering the conversation to their issues, bullying Republicans into listening to them, and effectively stumping Obama who had a supermajority and seemed unstoppable.
If they could do that to Obama, surely a progressive movement could do the same with Trump.
The Indivisible authors provide a simple four chapter outline for action. In chapter one, they describe the success of the Tea Party and pull out two components for success: "local strategy targeting individual Members of Congress (MoCs), and a defensive approach purely focused on stopping Trump from implementing an agenda built on racism, authoritarianism, and corruption."
Members of Congress, they point out, are motivated by their re-election. They want to look good to their constituents and get good press. The best way to hit them where it hurts is to attend their town hall meetings, protest at their other appearances like ribbon cuttings, conduct sit-ins and meetings at their offices, and coordinate a barrage of calls when legislative votes are coming up. Indeed, a few weeks ago, phone calls proved to be a very big factor in the Republicans withdrawing their plan to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics at the beginning of the session.
Indivisible promises to galvanize the people who've been coalescing around the nascent women's movement in Charleston. Already, the guide is being shared and discussed on Facebook group pages and emails. The call to action is not subtle but neither is it very hard.
And the message, ultimately, is one of hope in the midst of despair: "The best way to stand up for the progressive values and policies we cherish is to stand together, indivisible — to treat an attack on one as an attack on all."