When Arlette Morales heard that the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was threatened to end, “my whole world crashed,” she said.
At the time President Trump announced he aimed to terminate the program, in September 2017, Morales was two weeks away from turning 15 — the age at which DACA recipients are allowed to apply for work permits, solidifying their lives in the United States.
“I’m not just fighting for me,” Morales said. “I’m fighting for all of those families who are living in fear.”
Morales was one of several featured speakers at Saturday’s Women’s Rally on the Square in Carlisle, an event that covered issues not just of women’s rights, but of social justice in a broader sense.
“Do believe that women’s rights are human rights, that feminism is another word for equality, and that the only body that needs regulating is the legislative body,” Robin Scaer, Executive Director of YWCA Carlisle, told the crown of roughly 300 people at the event’s close.
Saturday’s Carlisle rally was held in conjunction with the nation-wide Women’s March movement, currently in its third year, although this was the first event for the Carlisle event.
Call to action
The rally wasn’t just intended to be inspirational, it was also a concrete call to action on several specific policy issues, many of which hit close to home for the women, racial minorities, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups who attended the rally.
“Our shared humanity is greater than any of the differences we might have,” said Aaysha Noor of the Community Responders Network and Asian American Pakistani Heritage Group.
Morales’ topic was likely the most unintentionally timely, coming only a few hours before Trump announced he would be willing to trade temporary protection for DACA recipients in exchange for border wall funding as part of his ongoing battle with Congress to end the government shutdown.
Morales was brought into the United States as a small child, without the proper paperwork. Her lifeline to legal status in the only country she has ever known is DACA, as it is for roughly 700,000 other young immigrants who may face deportation if the Trump administration continues its court battle to end the program.
“I have lived in the United States my whole life. I know the language, I know the culture. The United States is my home,” Morales said. “DACA provides a license to dream. DACA needs to stay.”
Another prescient issue raised was that of family separation at the border, with Saturday’s rally falling just two days after the release of a federal report finding that thousands more children of asylum-seeking immigrants had been separated from their families at the border than previously admitted, even though the Trump administration was, at the time, denying that such a policy existed.
“We ask, we plea that the separation of our families stop,” said Maria Alejandra Hernandez with the Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania, describing recent immigration policies as “inhumane.”
Hernandez pointed to a recent report finding that 22 immigrants have died over the past two years in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. Many were children, who often died of neglect or medical maltreatment, according to ICE data reviewed by NBC.
Hernandez led the crowd in a chant of “shut down Berks” in reference to the Berks County Detention Center, which contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to confine immigrants awaiting adjudication. The facility has been the site of several cases of abuse, and activists have called on the state to force the center to sever ties with ICE.
Hernandez also decried the proliferation of privately-run prisons and detention centers, an issue also discussed by Stephanie Jirard, a criminal justice professor at Shippensburg University.
“We need to flip the script,” Jirard said. “When there are quotas for prison beds, that means they need bodies.”
The rally crowd, assembled at the plaza next to the old county courthouse, was relatively diverse in age and race. Some wore the signature pink hats of the Women’s March movement.
The rally was non-partisan, with none of the speakers telling rally-goers explicitly who to vote for. Many attendees, however, brought along picket signs — at least a few of which were explicitly anti-Trump.
Others waded into today’s cultural politics, with one man carrying a poster that read “my razor gets it, why doesn’t the White House?” in an apparent reference to the conservative backlash on Gillette’s recent advertising campaign discouraging toxic masculinity.
Since the original Washington, D.C. Women’s March in 2017, the leaders of the national movement have been dogged by infighting and allegations of anti-Semitism. But Ann Pehle of AAUW Carlisle, one of the rally’s organizers, said that locally-organized events have sought to distance themselves from problems at the top.
“By no means do we support the anti-Semitism that has been problematic for those at the top of the national organization,” Pehle said.
At various points throughout Saturday’s rally, members of the Carlisle Area Youth Council, an advocacy group of Carlisle High School students, led the group in chants that advocating for inclusion.
“Women are too large a group to be of one mind. We have all lived different lives and experienced varying hardships,” said CAYC founder Samantha Martin. “If I assume every woman has the same perspective as me, just because we are both women, then I will never be able to understand the struggle of any woman besides myself.”
Fellow CAYC member Taytum Robinson-Covert spoke about the experience of black female students, citing a report from the African American Policy Forum finding that suspension rates for black girls are at least six times higher than their white counterparts, a major contributor to what is often called the school-to-prison pipeline.
Lilly Sellers, another CAYC member, spoke about the struggle of women with disabilities, who often find that their avenues to success are limited, and are viewed with skepticism when they’re achieved.
“Our jobs, our diplomas, and our accomplishments are seen as something given out of sympathy and not the hard-earned achievements that they are,” Sellers said.
Joanne Carroll, director of TransCentralPA, an advocacy group for transgender residents, also presented another concrete call to action, encouraging the passage of more municipal anti-discrimination ordinances like the one that was passed in Carlisle in 2016.
Carroll also called for the passage of the PA Fairness Act, which would add protections for gay and transgender people to the state’s employment and housing anti-discrimination law. The legislation is supported by Gov. Tom Wolf, but has been blocked in committee by the legislature.
“People are experiencing those five words all over the country, especially at this time in our history,” Carroll said — those five words being “you are not welcome here.”
Unemployment among transgender people hovers around 14 percent — over 25 percent for non-white transgender persons — and poverty rates are much higher than the rest of the population, Carroll said.
“It’s not about a pay gap, it’s about a living gap,” Carroll said.
The economic disadvantage faced by women and other marginalized groups was a frequent topic of discussion.
Chavone Dantrell Momon-Nelson spoke about her path to becoming a medical doctor. Only three percent of physicians are black women, and Momon-Nelson said she faced a steep uphill battle of institutional racism from those who were “really not happy to see me be part of the club.”
Black women in the workplace are often told to assimilate with their white peers, said Safronia Perry, director of Hope Station, a Carlisle community aid foundation. But if they assimilate too well — straightening their hair, hiding their bodies — they are criticized as opportunistic and expected to conform to the stereotype of the sassy black woman.
“Being a black woman in America means realized that doing everything right might not be enough,” Perry said. “We are constantly made into gimmicks ... but nobody fights as hard as we do.”
Rally attendees were encouraged to engage their political leaders on such issues, continue to organize public interest, and — if they can — run for office.
Carlisle Borough Council Member Deb Fulham-Winston noted that Pennsylvania is 49th of the 50 states for the ratio of women in elected office. Nationally, one of the highest levels of female representation is on school boards, where women are estimated to take up 43 percent of the seats, Fulham-Winston said.
“These are the perfect prospects to encourage to run [for higher office],” Fulham-Winston said.
She also noted that the voting rate in Cumberland County hovers around 30 percent, meaning that concerted turnout, especially among women, can sway elections.
“Just think if 80, 90, or 100 percent of women in this county got to the polls on Election Day,” Fulham-Winston said. “We would see change.”