Forward March members gather for a meeting in Bethesda. Photo by Liz Lynch
The morning of January 21, after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th U.S. president, four minibuses pulled out of Valerye Strochak’s Bethesda neighborhood, each with about a dozen of her friends onboard. They were bound for the Women’s March on Washington, just blocks from the Capitol. Posters conveying messages of compassion and defiance—“Love Thy Neighbor, No Exceptions” and “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance”—were propped between seats. Strochak settled in for the ride, pleased that she had stayed in town for the weekend. She’d considered traveling far away to avoid the inaugural fuss. Then she learned about the march.
To Strochak, it didn’t matter that her busload of friends got separated from the larger group from Bethesda and that she couldn’t get cellphone service. She wasn’t annoyed that she couldn’t get anywhere near the main stage or that she couldn’t hear the celebrity speakers, not even on the large video screens. She didn’t even mind being stuck standing at the corner of 4th Street and Jefferson Drive SW for three hours, caught in a logjam of bodies waiting to march down Constitution Avenue. In the crush of people—their signs piercing the air and spontaneous chants erupting all around her—Strochak felt invigorated and even hopeful for the first time since the election. The marchers wound their way to Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Trump International Hotel, and Strochak screamed in unison with other protesters—“This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”—surprised by how visceral it felt, jarred by the pitch of her own voice.
That’s because Strochak, 56, never considered herself much of a political activist, just a reliable Democratic voter. Barack Obama inspired her so much that she helped raise money for his presidential campaigns. But during Hillary Clinton’s most recent White House bid, Strochak says she lapsed back into her usual complacent mode because she never expected Clinton would lose. After Trump’s victory, she felt like she’d dropped the ball, which is why she showed up at the Women’s March, to counteract the ensuing despair and depression. She wanted to voice her rage at what she characterized as Trump’s misogynistic views, his hate-mongering and his threats to repeal Obamacare.
Six hours later, homeward bound on the bus, Strochak didn’t want the day to end. She invited fellow marchers to dinner at her Bethesda home to swap stories, share photos and eat chili. Before three dozen of them reconvened, Strochak posted a photo to her Facebook page. In it she’s beaming, surrounded by friends, all of whom are wearing American flag hijabs; a group of Muslim women at the march had handed the head scarves to them. Strochak’s daughter, Sarah, a 21-year-old college student, texted her a string of hand-clap emojis. After dinner, Strochak and her closest friends kept mulling over one question: “How can we keep this momentum going?” They agreed to meet again and discuss what they should do next.
Four days later in Bethesda they launched Forward March, one of thousands of anti-Trump activist groups that formed nationwide in the wake of the Women’s March. This surge in progressive activism has given rise to more than 140 groups within 20 miles of Bethesda, according to an online search tool created by Indivisible, a resistance movement with several local chapters. In Montgomery County, many of the activist groups have organized under Indivisible’s banner. Others, like Forward March, are homegrown. The Bethesda group already has amassed nearly $20,000 in a single fundraiser to support Democrats running for Congress, and it has organized two phone banks on behalf of a Democratic candidate in Georgia. A six-person executive committee directs the group’s day-to-day operations with support from 40 members, about half of whom pay dues. Forward March has more than 400 Facebook members and about 80 subscribers to its group email list.
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, spoke at the Forward March fundraiser in April. He says he’s been meeting with two or three local activist groups each week since the Women’s March. Some consist of just a few people on a neighborhood block. Others have more than 100 members. But one thing is certain, he says: “Donald Trump has awoken a tiger, and I don’t think it’s going back in its cage.”
Roughly three dozen people crammed into LuAnne Spurrell’s home in Bethesda for the first Forward March meeting. They sat on the floor, on counters, they stood where they could. The group didn’t have an official name (that would come a month later). All it had was a loosely crafted agenda and sheets of paper lining the foyer wall, each labeled with an issue. Those in attendance were asked to mark the ones of most relevance to them. Four emerged as focus areas: health care, the environment, civil rights and women’s rights. Teams coalesced around each topic. “We were flying by the seat of our pants,” says Amy Carroll, a North Potomac resident and one of the group’s founders.
The handful of women who were most heavily engaged in arranging the meeting and creating Forward March go way back. Most met when their children were in elementary school together about 17 years ago. They’d talk about their kids. Rarely, if ever, did they discuss politics.
They came to learn a little something about fundraising only because they organized local “Rock for Barack” events in 2008 and 2012. At those events, each filled a niche. Strochak, a self-employed baker and baking instructor who runs a summer camp, handled the food. She did so again when Forward March hosted its April fundraiser. Carroll, 54, owns a consulting firm that creates websites, logos and advertisements. For the Obama fundraisers, she created T-shirts, merchandise and posters. Her role evolved with Forward March to include handling the group’s social media accounts. In the week leading up to the Forward March fundraiser, Carroll devoted 30 hours to logistics. She designed the banner and fliers. She unpacked 300 T-shirts bearing the logo she designed and arranged them by size and style. She made sure there was a cash box and change, and credit card forms.
“When the core group got together again, we knew from experience that we could lead and make something happen. Each of us brought strengths,” says Spurrell, one of the group’s founders. (Spurrell is an advertising account executive for Bethesda Magazine.) “What we didn’t know was how many more people felt the way we did and how many of them would be willing to be as engaged as we were.”
After the group chose the name Forward March and set up the Facebook group and an email list, a few people a day signed up to join. The requests to join kept coming, many of them from out of state, Carroll says. “People like to post comments and track what’s going on,” she says. “It makes you feel like you’re not alone in your frustration and outrage.”
As Forward March gained momentum, it didn’t take long before the group pivoted toward the midterm elections. By the third meeting, most of the members realized that they needed to get more representation in Congress if they were to have any effect on the issues, says Strochak, who serves on the executive committee.
Another executive committee member, who asked not to be named, took the lead on the election front. She turned to a friend at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which is charged with helping to elect Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives. She also got in touch with Swing Left, an organization with a website that enables users to plug in ZIP codes and locate the nearest district in which a Republican won a House seat by a slim margin in the most recent election.
All her contacts told her that the House would be up for grabs next year and that Forward March should focus its efforts on flipping that chamber. Other advice: They should focus on only a few elections, avoid sitting idle for too long, and get people rolling so they don’t lose interest. And the group should take a look at Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, just north of Atlanta.
In that closely watched race, Democrat Jon Ossoff was just weeks away from duking it out with 11 Republican rivals in a special election. They were all vying for a vacant seat long held by the GOP. However, Trump had barely eked out a victory in that district, suggesting Ossoff had a decent shot at winning. Helping Ossoff would be a good test run for Forward March, enabling its members to immediately spring into action.
Liz Cummings of Kensington remembers when the executive committee first flagged the Ossoff campaign. Having Forward March commit to a more active role in the elections cemented her confidence in the group’s future, she says. “That’s when I thought: ‘Yup. This is going to work for me,’ ” says Cummings, 57, a retiree who has worked for several trade associations. “Instead of doing all the work ourselves, we were plugging into other resources that were out there. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We were being efficient. Most of these women work. They don’t have a lot of time, and they want to use the time they do have to produce a result.”
Plans quickly fell into place after that. The group would organize a get-out-the-vote phone bank for Ossoff in March. It would press forward with its plan to host a “Flip the House” fundraiser in April for the DCCC. Afterward, it would maybe turn its attention toward ousting a few Republican lawmakers.
As a Democrat in a solidly blue state, Cummings says the thought of reaching outside of Maryland to wrest control of the House away from the GOP energized her. “I’ve always thought we should target the coming elections,” she says. “To me, it is a direct line to sanity.”