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More than 600 people gathered in Mitchell Park in downtown San Luis Obispo to participate in Women's March SLO's “Engage for Equity” rally Saturday.  People sported interesting signs.

More than 600 people gathered in Mitchell Park in downtown San Luis Obispo to participate in Women’s March SLO’s “Engage for Equity” rally Saturday. People sported interesting signs.

ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

More than 600 people gathered Saturday in Mitchell Park in downtown San Luis Obispo to participate in Women’s March SLO’s “Engage for Equity” rally.

The rally added calling for solidarity with Ukraine to the social justice causes it addressed, along with reproductive rights, racial justice and LGBTQ+ protection. It also celebrated the five-year anniversary of the first march in 2017, which drew thousands to rally through the city after Donald Trump won the presidency in the 2016 election.

SLO County social justice and women’s organizations had booths at the event along the “Call to Action Alley,” a pathway that led to the gazebo in the park.

Jenna Vokolek, a third-year Cal Poly student, was working at a booth with the Planned Parenthood Generation Action, a club at Cal Poly that advocates for reproductive freedom and health. They had condoms, information pamphlets on reproductive health access in the county, T-shirts and stickers.

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Chloe Jones cjones@thetribunenews.com

Vokolek said one of their favorite things about attending events like the rally is connecting with people, especially longtime advocates.

“It’s so great to see these older ladies who have been fighting for what Planned Parenthood stands for long before I was born,” they said.

Attendees were encouraged to bring signs that “illustrate the issues that they care about.” Both Ukrainian and pride flags could be seen throughout the crowd, and signs called for peace in Ukraine, reproductive freedom, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights and other social justice issues.

Sandra Mathias of Paso Robles wore a blue cardigan with a yellow paisley shirt, adorned with a bright yellow sunflower, with blue pants. She said it was to show solidarity with Ukraine.

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Sandra Mathias poses in her yellow and blue outfit at the Engage for Equity Rally in San Luis Obispo, CA on March 5, 2022. Chloe Jones cjones@thetribunenews.com

She loves attending social justice rallies because she loves connecting with old friends and meeting new people. “It’s just good to get out and see everybody. But our hearts are broken for Ukraine and our prayers out there,” she said.

Toni Boykin and Karen Burish Wyke are longtime friends and have lived in the county for decades. They attend social justice rallies often, because, they say, it is important to make yourself visible.

“Everyone you see here is responsible for world change,” Boykin said.

Wyke was supposed to travel Saturday to the Grand Canyon, but she pushed back her trip a day to ensure she could attend the rally.

“That’s how important it is to be here and be visible in the world and to speak out against what’s going on in Ukraine and say, ‘you know what, we’re united for peace, we need peace in the world,’” Wyke said.

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Toni Boykin, left, and Karen Burish Wyke pose with their signs at the Engage for Equity rally organized by Women’s March SLO in San Luis Obispo on March 5, 2022. Chloe Jones cjones@thetribunenews.com

Speakers call for change and community

Speakers began speaking to the crowd about 1 pm Andrea Chmelik, co-executive director of Women’s March SLO, introduced the speakers. She also spoke about her experience growing up in the former Czechoslovakia, which borders Ukraine, while it was occupied by the Soviet Union.

“Watching Russian invasion of Ukraine is like déjà vu, and I can only imagine what this must be for those who have a direct experience with violence, who had to flee their country and whose families are torn apart because of it,” Chmelik said.

Speakers at the event included San Luis Obispo Mayor Erica A. Stewart, Eve Barajas, Paso Robles High School Equality Club president, Serrina Ruggles, with the GALA Pride and Diversity Center, Yessenia Echevarria, with Paso People’s Action, and Jackie Beatty and Gracie Edler with Planned Parenthood Generation Action. A poem by Dian Sousa, a poet and activist who couldn’t attend the event, was also read.

Stewart called for more women, especially women of color, to run for office in San Luis Obispo County. She also encouraged people to get out and vote despite the new gerrymandered map that has been criticized by community members for disenfranchising Democratic voters and voters of color in the county.

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Erica A. Stewart, San Luis Obispo Mayor speaks at the Women’s Rally. More than 600 people gathered in Mitchell Park in downtown San Luis Obispo to participate in Women’s March SLO’s “Engage for Equity” rally Saturday. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

“I never thought I’d be in a county where we’re questioning who can vote and whose voices would be shut down in voting,” she said. “But we can save our democracy if we act now, if we run now, if we volunteer now, if we support others now. Because when women and people of color run and win, it’s not just us that benefits.”

Echevarria spoke about the beginnings of Mujeres de Acción, the organization she founded to empower and increase education the Latinx community in SLO County, and the beginnings of Paso People’s Action, which was founded after George Floyd’s murder to advocate for racial justice in Paso Robles.

She also introduced a new group she co-founded called Chicas Politicas, which aims to help more Latina women run for office and mobilize the Latinx community in SLO County. Their first meeting will be at 5:30 pm March 25 at the Sunken Gardens in Atascadero.

“We need to show up. We need to speak up. This is how change is made. We have to get uncomfortable. Building community is powerful,” Echevarria said.

This story was originally published March 5, 2022 5:55 PM.

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Chloe Jones is a courts and crime reporter at the San Luis Obispo Tribune. She is originally from Phoenix, where she earned her BA in journalism and MA in investigative journalism at Arizona State University. When she’s not reporting, she loves exploring the outdoors and spoiling her two rescue dogs, Camilla and Bugsy Malone.

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