The way Amanda Gormley describes her hometown, it sounds a little like "Leave It to Beaver" or "It’s a Wonderful Life." Everyone knew each other and looked out for each other.
And everyone was white.
"Literally, there was a little girl that sent her grandma a postcard and didn't know her address so she wrote 'Grandma, Elbridge, New York,'" Gormley remembers. "And it showed up at the grandma's house because everyone knows each other and they knew when the grandma’s birthday was."
As an adult, Gormley experiences a very different America. She converted to Islam, married a black man, started covering her head, and has mixed-race kids. Along with a lot of people in America right now, she feels like the implications of her identity are changing in the Donald Trump era.
The first sign Gormley got of that came the morning after the presidential election last November. Someone tagged her in a post on a new Tucson, Arizona, page for Pantsuit Nation — a big Facebook group created to support Hillary Clinton. It got really popular during the presidential race, but also got flak from critics who said the group's white feminist voices drowned out the voices of women of color.
The post Gormley was tagged in was an offer from a Tucson woman volunteering to accompany Muslim women who didn’t feel safe in public. Lots of other people also offered to volunteer.
It actually pissed Gormley off a little. She didn’t want people to think of Muslim women as victims.
"We've been dealing with people staring at us and giving us weird looks and feeling a little bit out of place for a really long time," she says. "We know how to handle that pretty well."
Another sign of this new era came during a meeting at her mosque. Fellow Muslims said they felt like they had to prove they weren’t some kind of terrorist threat. They were doing things like taking cookies to neighbors and introducing themselves.
"To hear them talking about their struggle to try to prove to their neighbors that they’re good people, that don’t want to hurt anyone, was really hurtful," Gormley says. "It just made me start to feel so angry and just feel like it is not our burden to carry this. It’s not our job to teach other people who we are and that we don’t want to hurt them. That should be the assumption."
She was angry for a while. A little defiant, too. But things seemed to get worse fast. Lynn Hourani, an Islamic Center of Tucson board member, remembers getting a call from a young Muslim woman who’d woken up to find herself in the desert. The last thing she remembered was being out with friends.
"She had her drink drugged. She was taken and she was basically beaten and raped and left by the side of the road," Hourani says. "When we picked her up she just kept saying, 'they're going to kill all the Muslims' and 'they hate us' and that for me was — it was a shock."
Gormley started imagining frightening scenarios, like people showing up at her front door to take her kids. Things like that felt possible now.
Suddenly taking cookies to the neighbors seemed like a pretty good idea. But Gormley wanted to do something more meaningful. She messaged two other members of the new Tucson Pantsuit Nation group: Emily Joseph, a local scientist who’d put up that original post, offering to escort Muslim women; and Esther Brilliant, a local county public defender. Both are from social-justice-minded Jewish families. Brilliant says, until the election, she thought she understood the extent of American racism.
"Now that I say that out loud, it’s super naive," Brilliant says. "But I mean, Barack Obama was president. You know what I mean — like, I thought things were OK."
The three of them agreed to meet at Joseph’s house.
“I’ve never cleaned my house that quickly in my life," Joseph says. "None of us had any idea what we were doing."
"I think Amanda kind of did," Brilliant responds. "Amanda had agendas made up for meetings and things like that, when I was just like 'we’ll just go and talk about it.' And she was like, 'that’ll be a nightmare. You don’t know what you’re doing.' In a very nice way."
Their next meeting, with a bigger group, still had some flaws. There were too many white people, Brilliant says.
"We had to examine that — how we were going to not be awful, I guess," she says.
The three of them — Gormley, Joseph and Brilliant — agreed the Tucson Pantsuit Nation group's basic philosophy should be to amplify unheard voices and to get people to listen to each other. That middle path really made sense to Gormley, as she tried to navigate being both a white woman with privilege, and a member of the Muslim community.
"I'm trying to find a way to be more for my community and also at the same time be less, because I don't want to take up space the other people maybe could be occupying and telling their story," she says.
So they organized dinners and moderated difficult discussions about all kinds of things. When Trump announced his travel ban, the Tucson Pantsuit Nation group raised thousands of dollars for the American Civil Liberties Union. By the time summer started, their group had 5,000 members. They were on a roll. Joseph and Brilliant felt like they were finally getting activism right. Gormley felt empowered. They planned to go even bigger, and bought the domain pntucson.org, for Pantsuit Nation Tucson.
Then, a funny thing happened. The national Pantsuit Nation group seemed to change course, and go in a less political direction. The Tucson group decided that wasn't good enough for them.
"They wanted to be just about storytelling. And we weren’t about that," Brilliant says. "Politics is life. These decisions are affecting every aspect of our lives."
Later, Pantsuit Nation founder Libby Chamberlain told Otherhood that the Tucson group (along with many other former Pantsuit Nation groups) had misunderstood; the national group remains political. But Brilliant, Gormley and Joseph decided to break away, hoping they could still keep their momentum going. They brainstormed for a new name that, preferably, started with P and N, since they’d already bought a domain with those letters.
"So 'Project Nexus' came out of that struggle," Gormley laughs. "But we think it's a good fit."
Project Nexus Tucson conveys what they hope to continue building — a connected group of diverse people who recognize their own privilege, listen to each other, and look out for each other. Just like people did back in Gormley's hometown, in New York.