Accidental activist becomes voice for Michigan feminists

2017-02-17 | Detroit Free Press

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. _ Phoebe Hopps has her laptop open late on a Friday morning in February at Bubba's, a downtown bar and restaurant that screams Up North hip, with honey-hued wooden tables and benches, specials scrawled on chalkboards and strappy teal leather chairs.

She types as she talks about all the things she is organizing now: a solidarity sister march in Flint to commemorate the 1965 civil rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala.; counter protests at Michigan Planned Parenthood clinics, rallies for International Women's Day, and more.

She has become an accidental activist, tiptoeing into politics after the Nov. 8 presidential election by simply creating a website for Michigan women interested in attending the Women's March on Washington.

Working on her laptop at cafes and restaurants in Traverse City and from her living room in Kewadin on the Lake Michigan shoreline, she organized thousands of women and their allies who took more than 100 buses from around the state to Washington, for the Jan. 21 Women's March; thousands more marched in cities like Lansing and Ann Arbor, Detroit and Marquette on the same day.

A week later, she partnered with other organizations to stage a massive protest at Detroit Metro Airport to challenge President Donald Trump's executive order to temporarily stop the admission of refugees, bar Syrian refugees indefinitely and halt travel into the U.S. by people from Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

That executive order now faces court challenges.

"This is the birth of a new type of activism," said Hopps, 35, a millennial who never envisioned she'd get into politics. "It's about how you make a difference on a local level. We're going to do as the Tea Party did. We're going to attend meetings of people with opposing views, get people involved and running for office. I want to run for office."

It all started with a Facebook page for Michiganders interested in the Women's March.

"At first, it didn't even occur to me that I'd be going. It was just to enable other people to go," by creating the webpage. But, she said she knew it was going to be huge when "three days in, when we had over 250,000 views _ over a quarter of a million people _ view our Michigan page, at that moment, I knew this was something more than just a march. It was a movement, and we were going to be able to harness this energy and make a difference.

"We knew (Donald) Trump was going to be president, and we wanted to make sure our ideals and our beliefs were not going to be trampled on as women. The Women's March walked right into that. It was important to let our new government know how we felt."

Since then, she's been pulling 18-hour workdays with more regularity than she'd like to admit, and has become among the loudest feminist voices in Michigan.

Hopps declined a paid job offer working for an area insurance company to take on the role of full-time activist. She's applied for nonprofit status for Women's March Michigan, which, she said, will work to support female candidates for every level of elected office in the state. Her organization also will uphold the principles of the national Women's March, which centered around not only women's rights, but the rights of all marginalized people and the issues of racism, classism, xenophobia, sexism, and ableism.

"We're trying to be really clear about the Women's March not being anti-Trump. We hope he makes the right decisions for this country. But every decision he makes seems to be anti-women, and against our ideals. It's hard to support him when he's making such bad decisions. ... So people aren't just going to chill out and go about their day-to-day activity. People now have new room in their life to be active."

Although Hopps never imagined she'd become a community organizer and lead thousands of Michigan women in protest, her mother, Thea Haaren-Johnson, said she always saw leadership and a passion for justice in her daughter.

"Phoebe is not afraid to stand up and speak about how she feels," said Haaren-Johnson, who lives in St. Augustine, Fla. "I gave her a pretty good sense of right and wrong, and that was one thing that was always paramount: You have to always respect people and if you see something that isn't right you talk about it."

She tells the story of a time when Hopps was in fifth grade, and a boy was being teased for his NASCAR pencil sharpener.

"Phoebe stood up, grabbed him and left the classroom with him, consoling him, and of course she got sent to the principal's office for it," Haaren-Johnson said. "So I went in and I stood up for her because she did the right thing.

"She saw tears in his eyes, and she didn't laugh with the others. She said, 'I had to get him out of that classroom and get him away from that negativity.' It was more than she could bear. She feels things in her heart. And I thought, if I never did another thing for this child, at least I gave her the sense that we're all just taking each other home. You see someone who needs help, you help them. If everyone helped one person a day, what a wonderful world this would be.

"I think what got to Phoebe most was the hatred. Even if somebody is kidding around and makes a joke, maybe it's racist, she'll point that right out, and say, 'That's not funny.' And I'm proud of her for that."

Hopps _ then known as Phoebe Johnson _ grew up in an old sawmill on Long Island that her parents converted into an artsy home for her and her younger sister. Her parents owned a print and frame shop in town, and her father also worked in landmark restoration and construction.

She took acting classes and was an extra in the 1989 film "Cookie," her mother said, noting that she was never afraid to speak to big crowds or be in the spotlight.

Hopps spent her formative 20s in New York City, studying business management at Marymount Manhattan College.

She recalls skipping philosophy class on the morning of 9/11.

"I hated that class," she said between bites of her shrimp wrap at Bubba's. On that historic morning, she was at a food truck getting coffee, when she saw smoke billowing out of the first World Trade Center tower.

"We had a clear view of the towers from where we were in the Village, and we saw the second plane come in," she said. "And we knew that this was intentional. This wasn't just a random accident.

"I got involved, and did a lot of volunteer work. I think every New Yorker signed up for the Red Cross that week. But you weren't allowed in the downtown area, so the best we could do was hang out at the Raccoon Lodge and buy drinks and make brownies for the first responders."

Hopps got a job in 2004 working for Lindblad Expeditions, which is affiliated with National Geographic, when she was a few credits shy of her bachelor's degree from Marymount.

"At the time, I was working at National Geographic, and it didn't really matter. I was doing my passion, I was traveling," she said. Her wanderlust and her roots in New York City informed her beliefs about inclusion.

"There's a part of me, being a native New Yorker, that wants to bring this dynamic multicultural experience to Michigan, no matter where I go. I mean, getting a Korean spa and barbecue up here, that would be amazing. The only Indian restaurant in Traverse City is out of a deli. ... We need more multicultural experiences up here."

She canvassed and knocked on doors for Obama in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election because, she said, the possibility of electing the first African-American president was "huge. We also believed that things like universal health care, these things were not just dreams. They were things that could happen. We needed a leader who could step up and do that. Looking back, I don't know what led us to get so involved, but that was the moment we started."

She came to Michigan "because I fell in love with a Michigan boy," she said of her husband, Christian, who grew up in Royal Oak. They met in New York City, and fell for one another talking late into the night, drinking beer and looking at the Empire State Building from the roof one building over from her own.

When they were looking for apartments together in 2012, they were struck by how much more they could get for their money if they moved to Detroit.

Her husband's job as a network engineer for Deutsche Telekom, rewriting fiber-optic network cable programming, gives them flexibility to work just about anywhere, she said. Phoebe Hopps quit the job she loved at Starcom Mediavest Group, an global advertising company, where she coordinated corporate travel, banquets, and booked massive events.

They got an apartment at Millender Center, where "when Cabrera would hit one out of the park, we'd see everyone would rise," and Hopps started a online meetup group called Detroit Girlfriends the City.

"We had over 1,000 members at one point," she said. "We would do things like go feed the homeless. We would have members say, I'm going to bring 20 bag lunches, or hygiene kits, an then we would go out, meeting up in the Cass Corridor, and just feed the homeless.

"That was the first time I became like a community organizer, and I realized a lot of women needed this."

She had a few paying jobs, too, working at Mudgie's Deli Wine Shop, Ottava Via and Hello Innovation. She planned their destination wedding in New Orleans, too.

But when the couple started looking at buying homes in the Detroit area, they realized they wanted to go north.

They opted for a small, two-bedroom home on wooded property on the shores of Lake Michigan, where Hopps and her husband live with their dog, Henry, and cat, Rena.

She is bubbly and makes jokes often at her own expense. She says she is like the millennial version of the Samantha Jones character on "Sex in the City," and the morning the Free Press met her in Traverse City, she'd already had her hair and makeup done.

She talked about starting a family one day, noting that at age 35, her time is limited. She said they're considering freezing her eggs now, and trying in-vitro fertilization when she's older.

Right now, the work comes first.

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Hopps talks about how her brand of feminism is intersectional, which means she seeks to advance the rights of all women _ regardless of race, class, gender identity, nationality or disability, and acknowledges that all people have parts of their identities that play a role in oppression. For example, a poor Asian immigrant who happens to also be a lesbian would have several intersecting identities _ those of a woman, an immigrant, a racial minority, a gay person and also face economic disparities and classism that comes with living in poverty _ that could have a role in how she experiences oppression.

"It's not enough to say you represent all women if not all women actually are represented," she said. "That's the biggest challenge right now, it's connecting with people, finding people who don't share the same views as me. I think if you're not uncomfortable, then you're not doing a good job. You need to be out of your comfort zone or you're not making any progress."

She was nervous about attending her first board meeting of the Grand Traverse Democratic Club, where members sat around a conference room table at a downtown Traverse City law office, talking about their next steps.

"I've never been to anything like this!" she said, climbing the stairs to the office. "This is like the establishment, and I think am the opposite of the establishment."

She sat at the table and introduced herself, and left with a new assignment to report back with details about upcoming town halls and office hours with area state representatives, so the group can meet face-to-face with elected officials about their policy priorities.

While she is the founder of Women's March Michigan, and its leader, Hopps acknowledges that she doesn't own the movement, and nor does she lead alone.

She has recruited other women to help her organize protests, schedule buses and coordinate rallies. One of them is Fatima Salman, executive director of the Muslim Student Association and is on the board of directors for the Michigan Muslim Community Council.

"I've known her for two weeks and I love her," said Salman, who helped Hopps organize the Metro Airport protest in a 20-hour timeframe. "I think this is indicative what kind of a person and activist and leader Phoebe is. ... I do a lot of organizing myself, and a lot of community building. I think what she did was remarkable. Her openness to bring on somebody else, it speaks a lot to Phoebe and the kind of person she is.

"It shows to me a leader who is open to having other groups leading the way. I've worked with so many different people who have turf wars and competition, but she is a true leader that really just wants to do good and help the community and help others in doing that good. That is remarkable. She's also in control and confident, and yet willing to empower others."

Megan Collier, a stay-at-home mother who lives in Sault Ste. Marie, found a similar ally in Hopps when she offered to help organize women in the Upper Peninsula who were interested in going to the Women's March on Washington.

"I organized a bus that left from the U.P. and picked up some people in the Lower Peninsula, too," said Collier, a member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Since then, "every day, I communicate with Phoebe," she said. "You run into people who are kindred spirits. And she's not even from Michigan, and we've only met a few times in person. But the way I operate, the way she operates, our senses of humor line up. It's easy for us to communicate.

"The national organizers push that the march and the movement didn't belong to one person; it didn't belong to even one singular group of people. It belonged to everybody. And that is kind of the way that Phoebe has set up how we organize in Michigan. It's never come off like this is her organization, even though moving forward she's looking to start this as her nonprofit. It's never really been hers. It's always been a collaborative work in progress. Everything is always an open conversation."

And while Hopps' work has been praised by those who know her and work with her, it hasn't been all rainbows and sunshine, either. Hopps had to scramble the day before the Women's March when a charter bus that had been scheduled to take 47 people from the MGM Grand Detroit Casino to the nation's capital didn't show up. The women had been scammed.

She tried to make new arrangements for the women to get them to the march, and said all but a few were still able to get there. And she's now trying to track down the company to get compensation for the women who lost their money.

"You learn a lot about a person when you see them problem-solve in stressful conditions," Collier said. "That says a lot about character, and planning the march was one nonstop set of stressful conditions. So Phoebe's role there was really important to have a level head an a consistent vision and a consistent message."

Hopps also struggled with opposition to a planned LGBTQ rally earlier this month in Detroit's Grand Circus Park, which she ended up canceling.

"It's horrible to see things fail, like the LGBTQ event," she said. "I realized we didn't have enough intersectional leaders to pull off an event worthy of our name. It requires us to be inclusive and it's something that we could not pull off in a few days."

Still, she said she won't be deterred by Internet trolls or others who want to stifle the expression of her views, and the views of others.

"I found my true calling and passion with activism and community organizing," she said. "It's the only thing I want to do, and I'm good at it.

"We had this movement and it turned so big, and we really want to make this even bigger."

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