Emiliana Guereca is a Latina Jew activist, feminist, entrepreneur, and President of Women’s March Foundation, which she founded in 2016. Along with her team at Women’s March Foundation, Emiliana has been the driving force behind the annual Women’s Marches in Los Angeles since 2017. She devotes much of her time to advocacy programs for women’s rights, Latino education, and gender equality and has served as the bridge between community organizations and coalition building that spans national levels. Her most recent endeavor includes launching Women’s March Action, the 501(c)4 political arm of Women’s March Foundation.
We connected with Emiliana last week to hear about what fuels her activism, how the advocacy landscape has changed since 2016, and how the organization has pivoted since the start of the Covid pandemic.
JEFF: Hi Emiliana, thank you for joining us today! Can you start by introducing yourself and the work you do?
EMILIANA: I’m Emiliana Guereca, also known as Emi. I am the President and Founder of Women’s March Foundation and currently the Executive Director of Women’s March Action. I am what folks call a social entrepreneur.
Prior to Women’s March, I owned an event production company. I also co-own restaurants. But I always found my way towards my purpose. I fully believe my purpose in life is to advance women’s rights. I decided to co-organize Women’s March Los Angeles, and I haven’t looked back for the last four years.
I really thought that we were going to put the Women’s March out on social media, go march, and then go back home to our normal lives and our normal jobs. But we just couldn’t. The need for the fight for women’s rights continues.
I am so interested in the story of how you went from being a professional event organizer to organizing one of the largest marches in 2017. Can you talk about that journey?
For me, the day after the election, I was floored. I’m a business owner, and as a mom, as a woman, I really felt within me that the best person for the job was not chosen based on her sex. So I saw a post online that they were going to organize something in D.C., and so I sent out for permits the day after the election. I signed permits for the City of LA because this was in my toolbox. As an event organizer, I was organizing massive street festivals including Coachella. So I knew how to close down streets but also logistics around getting people to the streets and messaging.
So I reached out first from within my community, and the reason I really stepped forward to organize was because I was afraid that there was another wave of a women’s movement that would not include Latina women, would not include Jews, even business women.
So I stepped into it and before I knew it, I was literally working 18-hour days to make sure that it happened. That November event, from the time we planned it from November to January, that should have taken us a year to plan, knowing what I know about events. But knowing how many women were supporting us and donating time, organizing from my garage, from my backyard, was incredible. So we knew that we had to keep going.
And in Los Angeles, unlike our east coast sisters, none of us knew each other. All of the organizers were strangers, and we had to actually really get close within a month. That was my journey to the start of it.
That’s an incredibly compressed timeline to pull it all together within a month! What do you think were some of the keys to making that all fit together on such short notice?
Coalition building was critical to the success, and continues to be critical to the success of the Foundation and Action. And what that looks like is really working with different organizations across the country to help us towards the same goal of equal rights and women’s rights. What it means is reaching out and really partnering with a lot of organizations, asking ‘Will you help me with social media? Will you help me with PR efforts?’ Because we weren’t well-funded — we were all volunteers.
We weren’t the organization that was getting millions, but we were the organization that had volunteers that showed up on a daily basis. It was the leaders from Los Angeles CHIRLA (the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights), for example, who organize a yearly march on May Day. They came out and helped us to train safety ambassadors. I remember clearly the Nurses Union showing me where to organize first aid stations. The Lawyers Guild — about 50 lawyers in a room — talking about what could happen.
But the fact is that making those phone calls and building those relationships is what sustained us. Knowing that we have built coalitions that support us and that will stand with us throughout the good times and the bad times — that’s part of the work.
How has your relationship with organizations grown and evolved over the last four years? I imagine there have been people who started as interns who have turned into key organizers, small community organizations that have turned into regional nonprofit powerhouses, and I imagine those bonds have to shift as that happens.
I think the Women’s March movement gave people the permission to form their own organizations. There are tons of organizations that have started from folks that volunteered at Women’s March, for example Field Team 6 and She the People.
For us, the work shows when we have built other leaders within the movement. And we can clearly see that.
That’s a beautiful thing that came out of it: so many people found their voice and discovered their ability and their power. You used a really interesting phrase, which was “the Women’s March gave people permission to form their own organizations.” It’s a funny phrase to me because anyone can start an organization at any time, but it’s really not that simple. It’s about feeling the confidence, feeling the need to do it.
It’s feeling the confidence, but I think it’s more feeling that that is your purpose.
I have to give a shoutout to Action Network. I would not have known how to send an email to thousands of people before getting an email from Action Network saying, “Hey, would you like to partner?” I think for us it was finding those partners that gave us tools, because it isn’t that easy. People are like, “We want to collect emails.” Sure, you can collect emails, but what are you going to do with them? What is the action? What petitions do you send them? How easy is that? Most people think, “Just do it Facebook, just do it on Twitter.” That’s slacktivism, that’s not really activism.
“The fact is that making those phone calls and building those relationships is what sustained us. Knowing that we have built coalitions that support us and that will stand with us throughout the good times and the bad times — that’s part of the work.”
So I think it became easier for us once we had the tools that were easy to work with, once we knew that anybody can form a petition, anybody can send out a form. We didn’t have those tools not too long ago.
So you successfully pulled together an event that should have taken a year to plan in only a month, which was the very beginning of your organization. Then you go through the tumult and the heartbreak of the Trump years, and now all of a sudden it’s a global pandemic. What was it like to be running an organization like Women’s March Foundation over the past year? What’s that been like for you and the folks who volunteer with you?
I’m going to say that keyword, ‘pivot’. And you may see my kids in the background. I am homeschooling as I am trying to organize folks to fight for women’s rights.
I think this past year has been difficult and challenging for us and for most people, where a lot of our volunteers, most of whom are women, are having to say, “I don’t have the time, I am taking care of kids, I am taking care of my parents.” I think what people didn’t see was how much we were fueled by women’s work. I think that even we took it for granted.
That first week when we knew we were going to close as a country and that the schools were going to close, we trained all of our volunteers on Zoom. We launched the Connecting Community for those first few months, and we saw women across the country connect and know that we were going to be okay because we were together in that virtual space.
Some of what we saw in those meetings on Zoom really gave us an insight into how women were struggling and how we were coping. One of our most successful programs was our People, Politics, and Drinks, which is basically, bring a drink to the table, doesn’t have to be alcoholic, and let’s just talk. We had thousands of folks on there that really felt like, “Okay, our coordinating space was the Women’s March.”
What kind of actions or activities are you planning for the year, assuming things start to open back up again and people can start to go outside and be in community together?
Right now we’re working on two big actions. One of them is the March Towards Vaccination. We are fighting disinformation in the Latinx community around the vaccine. We are currently working on a program to reach half a million women with the information both online as well as in the streets of Los Angeles, and we were just asked to present to New York as well, because the disinformation is out there as well.
You’ve made a huge impact in a short amount of time. It’s been less than five years since the launch of Women’s March Foundation, you’ve won several awards, and you’ve built a really incredible organization that is pivoting to address all the crises coming from every direction. What advice would you give to new organizers who are just starting out now? Or what do you wish you had been told when you were just getting started in 2016?
I think it would have been ‘focus’. Focus and really, truly find your purpose.
I think for new organizers, there are two trains of thought: people would say, “There are already enough organizations, join an organization that’s already doing the work.” But why? There’s a lot of work out there. If you want to start an organization, find your purpose and do it. I think the more organizers that are out there, the more experienced organizers we will get once we go out and coalition build.
VALERIA: I’m curious about the program you’re doing to fight disinformation within Latinx communities, and I’m curious if there’s anything you’re incorporating in this program with language, especially because sometimes communities only speak Spanish.
Yes, as a matter of fact we translated our websites. For us, it was critical that we have that information in Spanish, and we’ve delved a little bit deeper. As we all know, not all Spanish is Spanish, right? Newyorkican Spanish is very different from Mexican, so we actually delved into that as well with a lot of our pamphlets.
“If you want to start an organization, find your purpose and do it. I think the more organizers that are out there, the more experienced organizers we will get once we go out and coalition build.”
And now we’ve pushed it further into issuing iPads for the volunteers so folks can find a vaccine appointment, because not everyone has access to a computer or internet at home. And going through the questions was insane. Folks thought they were being charged for the vaccine and that they didn’t have the money to pay for this. Even I thought, “Why does it say, ‘Will you allow us to bill your health insurance?’ I don’t need health insurance for this.’”
So it was just the process of reeducating folks on what’s out there that they should have access to.
You mentioned you were a business owner before this, an entrepreneur, and I was wondering if there were any principles or values as a business owner that you were able to incorporate now leading this foundation.
I found it incredible that most nonprofits don’t do research and development. I came in with research and development thinking, “Does this work? Do we have funding for research and development?” And I was told, “No, we’re just going to run the programs.” Well how do we know if they work or don’t work? So I brought that piece into it.
What I also brought into it was, from being a female business owner, I always came into the room alone. I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve interviewed and it’s a room full of men. As I was organizing this first march with our staging company and saying, “I need you to hire 50 percent women.” They were like, “There are no women for this.” I said, “Then you can’t get hired.” But in two days, they would magically find women. So I already had that from my event production and from my restaurants. My restaurants have about half of the managers are women, which is another really difficult thing to do within the restaurant industry. So I made sure that when we’re hiring, when we’re bringing in interns, that we’re looking at all the possibilities. What are all the possibilities? Where is the talent coming from?
So I brought that piece to it, but I think the biggest piece was the research and development. Let’s research this, let’s take a poll, let’s figure out what works and what doesn’t work, and then do what folks want us to do.
Thank you to Emiliana for taking the time to speak with us about this crucial work!
You can read more about the Women’s March Foundation, including the Marching Toward Vaccination initiative, here: womensmarchfoundation.org
Partner Profile: Emiliana Guereca of Women’s March Foundation was originally published in Powering Progressive Movements on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.