Carmen Perez was a galvanizing force behind the Women’s March on Washington, one of the largest, best-publicized, and impactful demonstrations in history. She was also a co-organizer of International Women’s Day, “A Day Without a Woman.”
Soon, Perez, who attended UC Santa Cruz in the late '90s as a psychology major (Rachel Carson College [formerly College Eight]), will return to Santa Cruz to deliver her keynote address as part of UC Santa Cruz’s Alumni Weekend 2017 festivities, which take place April 28–30.
The keynote, at the Cocoanut Grove, is $35, or $40 combined with a pre-keynote Kick-Off Party/Beer Garden. During her speech, she will talk about the origins of her activism, the role and importance of protest, and why her optimism is undimmed.
Perez, calling from Phoenix, Arizona, in the midst of a busy speaking tour, talked about her key role in a movement that began to take shape the moment Donald Trump won the presidential election in November. “January 21st turned into a powerful day when millions came out all over the world to demonstrate radical resistance,” said Perez. “The march was just a catalyst for many to get involved. The work really began after the march, and what we created was an entry point for people to be part of a larger movement.”
Seventy percent of the people at the march had not been to a demonstration before the Women’s March, Perez said.
"And now people are showing up to protests at airports, fighting against the Muslim ban,” she said. “(Because of public outcry), the government was not able to carry out the executive order the way it wanted to. What we are seeing is a new wave of activists, and our role is to channel the rage, the anger, into action.”
Origins of a movement
The epic march drew millions of participants across the nation—and around the globe—but it began modestly; in early November of last year, Teresa Shook, a retired lawyer and grandmother who lives on the island of Maui, published a Facebook page, venting frustration about the election results and making a fateful proclamation: “I think we should march.”
Shook posed a provocative question: Could women show up in Washington en masse to stage a protest on Inauguration Day? Initially, she extended the invitation to only 40 people or so, but the initial trickle of interest soon became a torrent; within 24 hours, people clicked on “attending.”
Around the same time that Shook made her fateful Facebook post, Perez, executive director of The Gathering for Justice, a New York–based civil rights organization, was joining forces with Bob Bland, who became co-chair of the march.
As the movement took off, Perez signed on as one of the four key women planning the demonstration’s logistics. In short order, she found herself part of a coast-to-coast movement, and in the spotlight as one of the march’s public faces. “Our role, really, was to ensure that the most marginalized communities in America, the targets, were the people we were representing in this march," Perez said. Perez, who is Latina, pointed out that other key organizers include black and Muslim civil rights activists.
Perez, who was also the keynote speaker at last year’s Cesar Chavez Convocation, held in May on campus, had long been a force in feminist causes before the march began to take shape. A traumatic event galvanized her early activism. After the death of her 19-year-old sister when she was 17, Perez began dedicating her life to creating programs and initiatives that would help transform the lives of young people.
Her years at UC Santa Cruz inspired her, in large part because of Aída Hurtado, whose Chicana feminism class was a political and spiritual awakening for Perez.
“She gave me an identity that I thought existed but I never knew how to articulate it before,” Perez said. “It was really important for me to see myself as a feminist in a world that constantly erased our stories.” Perez made a point of inviting Hurtado, who now holds the endowed chair of the Chicano Studies Department at UC Santa Barbara, to speak at the Women’s March.
A history of community activism
After attending UC Santa Cruz, Perez became a staff member for Barrios Unidos in Santa Cruz, which offers training in non-violence as well as re-entry services for the incarcerated.
A face-to-face meeting with the legendary entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte only increased her focus and resolve. At the time, Belafonte was putting together an organization called The Gathering for Justice and organizing marginalized communities in non-violent actions across the country. Soon afterward, Belafonte asked Perez to join him.
While working at both Barrios Unidos and The Gathering, she started crafting her own programs focused on young girls and youth justice. In 2006, Perez became a bilingual probation officer with the Santa Cruz County Probation Department, working to provide appropriate programs and re-entry services for young women in the juvenile justice system.
In 2008, she became national organizer of The Gathering for Justice; two years later, she was named executive director.
In November 2013, she founded Justice League NYC, a task force of juvenile and criminal justice advocates, experts, artists, and formerly incarcerated individuals brought together to build “Growing Up Locked Down” (GULD), a three-day juvenile justice conference. And in early October 2016, she expanded Justice League to California.
Perez led the March2Justice, a 250-mile march through five states from New York City to Washington, D.C., which drew Congressional attention to key legislative reforms to confront the national crisis in police violence.
A respected expert in the field of juvenile and criminal justice and system accountability, Perez was invited to testify before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, was a featured speaker and co-convener of Justice Or Else! The Million Man March 2015 20th anniversary, and has been featured in numerous media and TV outlets.
In her role as the national co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington, Perez’s work drew more than 5 million people across the globe to march, said Perez, "in resistance of hatred and bigotry, affirming women of all identities’ rights as human beings."