Rutgers graduate student Andrea Catone started Pantsuit Nation New Jersey on Nov. 7, 2016, as a safe space to talk about this year’s historic presidential election.
Like the national Facebook group it was born out of, hundreds posted uplifting stories about overcoming obstacles to gender equality and their first experience voting for a female presidential candidate.
After the votes were tallied, the invite-only page turned into a safe space for its 14,000 New Jersey members to share frustrations about the election results. They expressed anger about increasing incidents of hate speech or actions they’d experienced, witnessed or heard of and fear of future human rights violations under a Donald Trump presidency.
In those conversations Catone, 35, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Graduate School-New Brunswick, recognized a common thread was a subject she’s studied for years: trauma.
“By getting together and sharing stories, we see that trauma is something shared in common, something outside of ourselves,” she said. “Soon after, that emoting and support turned into talk about what can be done to address hate and turn their feelings of despair into hope and action.”
But just as Pantsuit Nation New Jersey members – and members of other unofficial Pantsuit chapters – geared up to take political action in their communities, the Pantsuit mothership pumped the brakes by filing for nonprofit status.
“It is essential that no group using the name Pantsuit Nation engage in any attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities or participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates,” administrators of the national Pantsuit page announced in early December.
Pantsuit Nation wanted to steer clear of the political fray, while Pantsuit Nation New Jersey wanted to join it. After putting it to a vote among members, Catone renamed her page Action Together New Jersey. Pantsuit groups from other states and cities did the same, giving rise to a national Action Together Network (ATN) that includes 50 Facebook groups and 200,000 members.
“After the election the members of Action Together New Jersey as well as other groups in the ATN wanted to do more than just share their stories with each other,” said Catone. “ATNJ decided to create resources to help existing groups and provide the state with a cohesive network of passionate, similar-minded doers to enact legislative change. For example, we contributed to the Unite guide, a practical guide for people interested in using social media to build action groups like ours.”
Action Together New Jersey shares a similar mission with other groups under the ATN umbrella: provide resources to organizations advocating for human rights, push back against divisive elected officials and create sanctuaries within their communities to protect those targeted by discrimination. Local chapters have formed in every county in the state, and many members have met in-person to determine the issues that matter most to them.
Action Together New Jersey (which also maintains a website) is mobilizing their people power by advertising the services of existing nonprofits and grassroots groups. They encourage members to make daily phone calls or write letters, emails and tweets to state and federal legislators, and work county organizations to identify open seats for elected offices and recruit members to run. Nationally, groups in the ATN work to amplify local groups’ political actions or unite them behind calls to action.
“Ultimately, one of our goals is to elect progressive leaders that share our values at every level of government from every town council and school board to the White House and everything in between,” she said.
Catone has a long history as a community organizer, having helped organize mass anti-war mobilizations while interning with United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) from 2003 to 2005. As an undergraduate at Rutgers, she helped build and spread the Tent State University movement for improved access to higher education.
An American Association of University Women fellow, Catone expects to complete her dissertation this year. Hers research, which bridges the fields of sociology, psychology and molecular biology, examines the way parenting processes – from neglect to over attachment and child abuse – can trigger changes in the expression of the genes that regulate mental health. Identifying and understanding how those genes turn on or off could lead to interventions that alleviate the effect of childhood trauma. A self-described public scholar, Catone said her research dovetails with her community activism.
“My political work and academic research are connected by my desire to find interventions that help break the cycles of consequences of trauma,” said Catone. “Academically, I analyze how trauma spreads and operates socially and within the body. Politically, I work to intervene in the spread of trauma and to address its consequences.”
Right now that means empowering those who’ve felt powerless since the election. To do that Catone formed a team of volunteers with particular skill sets for Action Together New Jersey to better connect members with the resources they need to initiate social and political change. Among those volunteers is a pair of digital marketing consultants – Ashley M. Raymond, 31, of Hazlet, and Anna Dillulio, 30, of Old Bridge – who created the web app that Action Together New Jersey and other groups use to galvanize its members.
“Now we have 17 regional groups with eight live sites and are launching sites for nine other groups in the national network,” said Raymond, who graduated from Rutgers in 2010. “The whole thing has been moving and growing so fast.”
That surge in Action Together New Jersey membership and volunteerism is enormous in comparison with Catone’s previous activism efforts.
“The motivation, response and passion are extraordinary in my experience. What I think is different is the desire to sign up and do actual work,” she said. “It’s easy to get people to sign up for an email list, but now people are signing up by the thousands to do concrete tasks.”
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