Urban Bush Women at the Service Employees International Union Convention, May 2012

Guest Blog by Maria Bauman, Urban Bush Women


Maria Bauman, right, with Sonia Baez-Hernandez, Javiera Benavente, and Thenmozhi Soundararajan

Caron Atlas, Director of Arts & Democracy Project, recently recommended that Urban Bush Women attend and facilitate at the Service Employees International Union Convention. Caron is a longtime friend, colleague, and ally of Urban Bush Women (UBW) and as an organizer and champion of arts as part of citizenship herself she has seen the company in action in multiple contexts. Caron knew that UBW offers embodied synthesis--distilling ideas physically and relating movements to concepts--as part of our facilitation practice, in addition to our performative dance work. 

And so, I left LaGuardia Airport for the higher altitude of Denver, CO ready to synthesize and offer movement at the Service Employees International Union 25th International Convention. SEIU, as the union is most widely known, is “the fastest growing union in North America.” It unites workers in three sectors: healthcare, property services, and public services. I knew the SEIU crew as soon as I landed in Denver; there were pockets of purple t-shirts in some areas and a sea of purple in others. The SEIU members hailed from across the country and the world, and convention-goers seemed to be mostly janitors, health care workers, and window cleaners.

The convention felt like a family reunion, with members addressing one another as “Sister” or “Brother,” and receiving warm greetings and rousing affirmations from SEIU president Mary Kay Henry. The Colorado Convention Center had become the largest organizing hub I have ever seen; think of a kitchen or a black church and then magnify times 10,000! There were huge screens to ensure that everyone could see and feel the action no matter how far we were from the stage. Balloons and lighting finished the effect.

What came through the most, though, was the strong organizing culture of SEIU. Since the union holds this large convention only every four years, the members had much business to tend to—holding discussions, break-out groups, and elections. The topics were progressive: healthcare policies that are inclusive of transgender people and issues, young “Millenial” participation, and addressing laws that could preclude the people of color vote in the next national election. Meetings were spirited with many speakers from local unions beginning their timed address with a chant “Hello, Sisters and Brothers. Hello, Sisters and Brothers! The time is now and we are READY!” President Mary Kay Henry held the space such that all speakers followed the rules without letting the parameters blot the robust tenor of the elections. The union decided on their number one priority, in addition to a slate of secondary initiatives all using the lens of savvy organizers. The litmus test was clear: “How does this affect working people?”

The highlight for me—and many others who had a shine in their eyes after the performances—was the sprinkling of artistic presentations by local unions around the other SEIU business. Arts & Democracy Project was tapped by the union to help organize partnerships between local unions and artists in their areas. The partnerships were varied in how many union members participated and how long they had prepared their art. Yet each of the performances left the thousands of SEIU family members on their feet, clapping and often singing along or chanting. One group used trash cans, brooms, and mops to create a set and sang a moving original song about their janitorial work—the struggles and the victories their organizing had afforded them at work. 

Minnesota Local 26 Building Service Workers

The pieces were better than Broadway for me. Not only were they polished, with SEIU’s high priority of production value during the convention, but they brimmed with real emotion. We who watched felt anger, pride, frustration, and catharsis as we witnessed the woman who stood in front of us in the line for lunch yesterday or the man who spoke up an hour ago in favor of a candidate suddenly move into place to create a tableau and then share the legacy of their line of work. The artworks were the ultimate example of what we hope art can be: a clarion call to regular people, a caress of our deeply embedded extraordinary selves.

I left energized, proud to be an ally of Arts and Democracy Project, proud to be an Urban Bush Woman. Founding Artistic Director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar has long understood how to tap the power of ordinary people—us—to tell our own stories and to generate transformational art from them. Caron Atlas, Andrea Assaf, and Javiera Benavente of Arts and Democracy Project helped SEIU do just that. And it was good.  “The time is now, and we are READY!”

Note: You can see videos of the performances by clicking here