When Ivonne Wallace Fuentes’ face flashed on the television screen during Rachel Maddow’s show, her mother’s heart skipped a beat. In Guatemala, the birth country of both Ivonne and her mother, the act of appearing on television and talking politics was deadly. But they were Americans now - her mother’s next breath was one of relief, maybe even pride.
A feminist historian and a college professor in Roanoke, Va., Ivonne had been always interested in politics. She typically followed the news and canvassed and voted for the candidates she found the worthiest. However, that year she had too much on her plate to volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. On top of her job and taking care of two kids, Ivonne had been working on her book “Most Scandalous Woman,” a biography of the Peruvian poet Magda Portal who became the only woman in a leadership role in the national resistance movement in Peru.
The topic resonated with the present American political landscape in ways Ivonne didn’t expect. In her book, she was analyzing the misogynistic attacks against Magda Portal in the 20th century, while in real-time, the same methods were being used against Hillary Clinton. Once the book was out and Hillary elected, Ivonne thought, she would write an editorial talking about the 70-year-old tactics that found their way back into our modern political discourse.
But Hillary didn’t win, and Ivonne felt devastated, bewildered, confused, and scared. “Very scared,” she said.
Like many, she saw the election of Barack Obama as a big step forward and realized that the world was more hateful and backward than she thought it to be.
The distress moved Ivonne to look for a more active way to get involved in her local community. A week after the election, a local group of progressives called a meeting to help Roanokers wrap their mind around reality and start organizing the next steps. Ivonne went. In the meeting attended by about 100 people, she listened to the organizers calling on the audience to identify what they wanted to do going forward and develop an action plan.
“I identified…that I wanted to get a group of people together that could move rapidly as any of the campaign promises that have been made by candidate Trump actually came to be policies,” she said.
She understood that life soon would become increasingly difficult for particular populations and wanted to do something about it.
“People who need birth control, people who are immigrants. All of those attacks that he had been leveling as a campaign… if they came to pass, I thought, we need to be able to mobilize quickly locally to protect our community.”
She found a group of people who felt the same way. They agreed to meet, but the meeting fell through.
“It was difficult to organize in that moment of great fear,” Ivonne said.
Despite that, Ivonne kept thinking about this vision and what she could do to make it a reality. That was when she came across “Indivisible” — a resistance guide published online.
“It was about how to leverage the power of constituency when it came to your elected representatives. It had been written by two congressional staffers who had seen how constituents had essentially derailed the healthcare debate in 2010 under the Obama administration,” Ivonne said.
“They argued that there were strategies people used in the past and we can use them now, he’s not a popular candidate, Trump lost the popular vote and his policies are not particularly popular.”
The ideas and strategies laid out in the guide resonated with Ivonne. Using the Indivisible website, she checked if there was a local Roanoke chapter and when she didn’t find one, Ivonne registered one herself. She added her friends and a few people she knew from the meetings to the mailing list, bringing the group to about 20 people.
The very next day, Jan. 3, was the first day of the new Congress. With surprise, Ivonne discovered that her local congressional representative, Bob Goodlatte, was the chair of the House of Judiciary Committee.
“Incredibly important and powerful position in congress. One of the powers that the Judiciary Committee has is to accept the rules for the new Congress. So, every time the new Congress is benched – opened, they get to set the rules of how this house is going to operate,” Ivonne explained.
“Bob Goodlatte presented an amendment to ethics policies that had been passed in the wake of the corruption of congress about 10 years ago. And these ethics modifications essentially made it easier to commit those ethical violations for which the rules were created in the first place. And this seemed like such a clear and open betrayal of anything anybody thought was going to happen.”
Ivonne was frustrated. She tried calling Goodlatte’s office, but the call didn’t go through. The disappointment with the committee was so widespread that “who is my representative” was a trending Google search.
Soon, Ivonne received an email from another Indivisible volunteer leader who looked up the Roanoke Indivisible group that Ivonne had just created.
“‘Hey, I just noticed that you registered a group in Roanoke, and your senator is doing stuff,’” Ivonne recapped the email.
“Yeah, let me tell you all about it, and we are so upset,” she responded.
The Indivisible guide called everyone to practice holding their representative accountable. If no one picked up the phone in Goodlatte’s district office, someone suggested, why wouldn’t Ivonne take a group of people there?
She discussed the idea with her friends, and they decided they wanted to do it. Before they worked out the details, the amendment Goodlatte’s committee proposed faced so much blowback that they had to pull it back.
Ivonne and her friends agreed to persist and keep their appointment at the district office.
“Let’s go, and let’s let them know that we are here and that he is still representing us. That we are still his constituents, and we are going to hold his feet to the fire,” they decided.
It was just a few days after the New Year, so they settled on the idea of bringing to Goodlatte’s office New Year cards with their wishes. On the morning of Jan. 4, 2017, about 12 of them went to Goodlatte’s district office, accompanied by reporters.
They were a little pretentious, Ivonne laughed, recalling the event. They brought a picture of a Swamp Monster and a piece of plastic wrap that symbolized the government transparency they wanted. They passed the plastic wrap and their New Year cards to a man who talked to them in Goodlatte’s absence.
In her card to Goodlatte, Ivonne wished they could work together to help the community become stronger.
“People want out of government a government that is clear, that is transparent, that works for their interests, and if we take ethics review and we move it from an independent to a partisan tribunal, conflict of interest becomes much more likely,” she told the reporter from the Roanoke Times.
On the way out of Goodlatte’s district office, the group members recorded a simple video describing what they did. Ivonne called on people to read the Indivisible guidebook and hold their representatives accountable. Once the video was uploaded, everyone went about their day without giving it a second thought.
Ivonne had a busy day planned after Roanoke Indivisible’s first mission was accomplished. She cooked for her children and voted on a special election Virginia held that day. When her phone started to blow up, she was tired and settled to watch a show.
Meanwhile, people saw their video featured in a segment of Rachel Maddow’s show where she talked about Indivisible as a new form of grassroots activism that was spreading over the country. Roanoke’s campaign to remind Goodlatte about the will of his constituency became the face of the message.
People who saw the show went online and joined the Facebook group Ivonne set up for Roanoke Indivisible. In no time, the group grew from just a few members composed of Ivonne and her few friends into a community of over 1,200.
“That, for me, was a total surprise,” said Ivonne.
That day, Ivonne’s life took an unexpected turn and catapulted her into one of Roanoke’s grassroots movement leaders. She wasn’t in it alone. Ivonne became one of a bigger group of leaders united under the Blue Ridge Resistance Alliance of Virginia. Together they organized Women’s March on Roanoke, town hall meetings, and other campaigns and events.
“It’s been three years since then, and they felt like three decades because so many things are happening. I don’t think I had any sense of how bad it [the political situation in the country] was going to get and how hard it was going to be. But we were also able…to create something new; this is a new movement out of grassroots.”
Despite all the people who reached out to Ivonne after the airing of the Rachel Maddow’s show, it was her mother’s experience that shaped the way Ivonne saw the events of that day and her vision of America.
Ivonne’s America is beautiful but broken.
“America is an inaugural promise that was never fully achieved, but it is precious and unique and our history, nonetheless. And that inaugural promise is that you create a PEOPLE, not out of shared heritage or common religion, it’s that you can create a civic culture that anyone can join…We can create a more perfect union and that we can create space for everybody,” said Ivonne.
“Democracy means that we are one for many and that everybody participates in the collective listening, deliberation, and decision making. That’s what it means to free people, to be able to govern yourself. That’s the beautiful promise, but it has never been fully achieved.”
Listening to her mother talk about the way her heart stopped when she saw Ivonne on TV, she understood that she had a role to play in ensuring that the American promise came true.
“I can do that. Not only that I can do that, I feel like I need to do it. I have a responsibility to do it. I am able to do it in a way that my own family members were not able to do to affect their world and their politics in their country,” she said.
As a historian, Ivonne believed that the work Roanoke Indivisible as a part of a larger grassroots movement were doing would be understood as the fourth wave of feminist organizing.
“All of it has been led by black women. And it’s a direct rebuke to the misogyny of the 2016 election. But it’s also just a recognition that the elites believe they can run our country to the ground this is ultimately our country. We have a right and responsibility to govern ourselves as free people that means contacting our representative, that means taking to the streets, all of these things that we had been doing,” said Ivonne.
“And, we are exhausted. When we think we can’t take anymore, we look around at places like Russia, like the Philippines and we say, ‘Yes we can.’ Because we are not going to leave our children a desecrated corpse of what was broken about this country. What we are going to leave our children is a promise that they would make this country better.”