Eileen Freed of Ann Arbor with her daughters Michele and Ariel
Signs, pink hats and people united

I’ve seen what democracy looks like.

I’ve been living in Washington, D.C., for about a year and a half. At times, I’ve felt inspired, but mostly overwhelmed by the focus placed on the office of the president. This attention leads to feeling as though the fate and direction of this country and everyone within it relies on just one person.

However, a democracy is not run by one person alone. Democracy is fueled by the power of the people. WE the people. All the people — encompassing all our identities. At the Women’s March on Washington, I saw the people. I saw what democracy looks like.

Like a true democracy, the Women’s March was messy, confusing and imperfect. It was also full of passion, love, support and determination. And because both were present and embraced, it was beautiful.

Walking to the march with my mom, sister and partner, we joined a mighty Jewish delegation from Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. We expected 200,000 people on the National Mall; instead, we encountered nearly 600,000 indomitable Americans. Along the way, I ran into old friends, classmates and teachers, all converged on this spot to make herstory.

Eileen Freed of Ann Arbor with her daughters Michele and Ariel

Although too far  away to hear the speeches, being at the march was one of the most profound and meaningful experiences I have had. I was entertained and inspired by the creative, poignant and often humorous signs and symbols carried by those around me. I was surrounded by colorful, beautiful people with whom I chanted, laughed and sang.

A Muslim-American woman saw my sign — “Jews March For Justice” — and reached out to me in a beautiful act of interfaith solidarity. An elderly man encouraged chants to support women’s rights, health care, voting rights, education, immigration, black lives, protection of our planet and LGBTQ rights.

Each issue was met with enthusiastic re-sponses to step up and fight against oppression. This is what democracy sounds like.

After four hours, the restless crowd began marching in different directions, but with a clear destination. We marched through the streets in a sea of pink hats and bold signs, converging on Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House — the People’s House.

We arrived at our final destination with one final unifying chant: “Welcome to your first day; we will not go away.”

And Now What?

The most important question to take from this momentous day is, “What are you going to do after the march?”

Michele Freed, center, with other march participants

For me, this march was energizing, uplifting, inspiring. It gave me a new sense of hope and pride in the people of this country, reminding me the vision of equality, justice and freedom for all is shared by the loud and enthusiastic majority.

But this march was one day, and that day is over. We must now focus on what happens today, tomorrow and the next four years.

At the march, I learned I have far more to learn. I will educate myself about the many histories of the U.S. experienced by a diversity of groups. By understanding stories of the oppressed, I can — we can — begin to truly understand the threats to our democracy.

At the march, I learned to listen to the voices around me and used my own to strengthen those voices. Following the march, I will listen to people of color oppressed by systematic racism in the U.S. and carry those voices to my own white communities.

At the march, I learned the struggle for women’s rights is an intersectional struggle, and that we do not experience oppression in the same way. Following the march, I will stay humble and listen to the stories of others so I can make sure I am not oppressing others while working for my own liberation of gender equality and religious freedom.

I also learned a threat to justice for anyone of any identity in any place is a threat to justice for everyone of every identity. Now, I will work to fight injustice not only as an ally to others, but because my own justice is bound with all those who are suffering.

At the march, I learned to go forward, even when the path is chaotic and difficult, and to not allow perfection to be the enemy of the good. After the march, I will do the same. Our path is confusing, but our destination is clear.

At the march, I saw what democracy looks like: It is participatory, accountable, and powerful. Afterward, I will continue to take part in that democracy through community organizing, showing up in support of marginalized communities, staying active in each election and believing in the power of the people.

Because if not now, when?

Michele Freed, 25, of Ann Arbor is a University of Michigan graduate. She was chair of Michigan Hillel and a facilitator for the Program on Intergroup Relations. She is a fellow at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in Washington, D.C.