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Philadelphia Story

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PHILADELPHIA TENANT ORGANIZER Asia Coney found Louis Farrakhan’s October 1995 Million Man March awe-inspiring, so when her old friend Phile Chionesu asked her to help organize a Million Woman March, she had a powerful reaction. “I told her the idea for a Million Woman March was fantastic,” Coney recalls. “I told her the idea was visionary. And I told her in no indefinite terms that I was not the one to do it.”

After all, Coney, a former welfare mother, had no resources, no connections and no experience to contribute to a mammoth national enterprise. “But Phile is nothing if not persuasive, and the next thing I knew, I was co-chair,” Coney laughs. “I’m still not quite sure how it happened.”

Somehow, thanks largely to the efforts of Coney and Chionesu (owner of Stiltwalkers, a local African clothing-and-crafts store), hundreds of thousands of African-American women gathered on Oct. 25 in Philadelphia to demonstrate their commitment to one another and their communities. A parade of speakers, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of South Africa, actress Jada Pinkett, rapper Sister Souljah and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, often went unseen and unheard for lack of expensive audio-video equipment, but the crowd itself was the star attraction. “Sisters needed and wanted to get together, just as men did, to show a force of unity and support for each other,” Coney says. “That’s why they gathered here—because they needed to.”

Uniting people around a common cause is something Coney has been doing for more than 20 years. Soon after moving into South Philadelphia’s Tasker Homes public-housing project in 1975, she heard that the city was planning to shut it down. She started attending community meetings simply to get more information, but quickly went into action to organize tenants. Her hard work ultimately helped save Tasker.

That track record failed to impress potential donors to the march, who were leery because Coney and Chionesu (who did not respond to a request to speak with PEOPLE) were not affiliated with any major national organization. Yet thanks to word of mouth, small contributions started trickling in. “The most touching donations were those from brothers and sisters who are incarcerated,” says Coney. “Some of them sent $1 or $5. Some just sent postage stamps because they didn’t have any money but wanted to contribute something.”

Theirs is a condition with which Coney can identify. The South Philadelphia native once lived in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, Jane, a hospital cook; her stepfather Robert Foster, a jack-of-all-trades; her grandmother Mary; and her five siblings. “I learned from my mother and grandmother how to stretch one pot of stew to feed two families and how to make bread on a hot plate,” she says. “I learned from them how to survive.”

Coney gave birth to her first son, Duane, now a 30-year-old construction worker, when she was only 16. After she was abandoned by her husband (who is the dad of neither son), Coney went on welfare for several years.

But her worst travails were yet to come. Her other son, Roland, was the victim of a still-unsolved murder four years ago at 23. In 1993 he was found dead, with a single bullet in his head, near a South Philadelphia dump. From that moment on, she threw herself wholeheartedly into community activism. “It’s not that I was trying to forget what happened,” says Coney, “but I had to try to find a way to keep myself focused on life.” She eventually won herself a position as the president of Tasker Inc., a nonprofit construction business, owned by Tasker residents, which specializes in asbestos removal.

Coney remains at home among the poor—so much so that some fault her for it. As the march approached, some activists criticized what they perceived as the organizers’ shunning of professional women in favor of those with little education and limited means. Coney denies this: “We wanted this to be a grassroots operation, and we wanted everyone included.”

Now, Coney and Chionesu plan to compile a directory of all the women who registered with them at the rally and sponsor workshops to teach women around the country how to gain economic power through entrepreneurship and collective buying. “I have found that women are so busy dealing with their own individual problems that we don’t recognize our collective power,” says Coney. “Saturday was just the beginning.”