Higher education members read at first-ever SEIU 1021 Lit Crawl event, “Unionized Words”
The event included adjunct professors from California College of the Arts and Dominican University
Saturday, October 21, marked a first for our union: a special reading by SEIU 1021 members working in higher education at the annual San Francisco Lit Crawl. Elizabeth Travelslight and Hugh Behm-Steinberg of California College of the Arts (CCA) and Robert Moses and Bobby Bradford of Dominican University read their writings at “Unionized Words” at Sour Cherry Comics.
San Francisco’s Lit Crawl, a massive, one-night literary pub crawl throughout the city’s Mission District, featuring 500+ authors and close to 10,000 attendees, is the world’s largest free pop-up literary event. Started in 2004, its events are presented in both venues usual (bars, cafes, galleries, and bookstores) and unusual (police stations, tattoo parlors, barbershops, and laundromats).
“I don’t consider myself a writer. I write a lot as part of my work but it’s not something I practice,” said Elizabeth Travelslight, an adjunct professor of critical studies (math/sciences) at CCA. ”But in 2022, a colleague of mine, an activist in the city, invited me to contribute to an anthology of BIPOC artists and activists. This was right after our union strike at CCA, so she was asking me to reflect on my journey to creative activism.
“I used it as an opportunity to document why I started working in higher ed, what my hopes around that were, which really coincides with SEIU entering my life. Six months after I started at San Francisco Art Institute, SEIU started organizing for our union election. As someone who spends time trying to organize members, I was reflecting on that time and how much I wanted nothing to do with it. My husband was the one who pushed me to go to that meeting. That process, and the union election and seeing the solidarity that 1021 turned out on our behalf, that fast-food workers showed up to help us win our union election, was totally transformative for me.
“What happens as I’m writing this is realizing what an important through line the union has been in terms of my own experience in higher ed. So I had written this chapter for this anthology, then [SEIU 1021 Collective Bargaining Coordinator] Nato Green came up with this idea [of having an SEIU 1021 session at Lit Crawl], and I said I’d be happy to read it. It makes it for me clear how important the union has been to me as a worker in higher ed.”
Besides reading for the audience at Lit Crawl, Travelslight also enjoyed hearing her fellow union members share their writing. “It was really fun to hear my union colleagues doing the thing they are trained to do. Often with labor organizing in higher ed we show up to our meetings and it’s very practical, spreadsheets, meeting agenda, strategy, lists, very rarely do I get to see my colleagues actually working in their field of expertise, so that was really fun.”
Below is an excerpt of Travelslight’s writing about her union experience that she read at Lit Crawl. You can read her full chapter in Uncommon Ground: BIPOC Journeys to Creative Activism.
“I was hired to teach mathematics at [San Francisco Art Institute] in the Spring term of 2014. I learned that even after many years, our forgotten dreams can come back for us. My daughter was 6 months old. My mother watched her on the one day a week I went to campus to teach. The course was called “MATH 108-1: The Shape of Space.” Envisioned as a survey of the history of mathematics and geometry, it was a harmonious rejoinder to the thesis I had been writing in that library seven years prior.
“At the time I was hired, the adjunct faculty was organizing a union drive with Service Employees International Union Local 1021. I wanted nothing to do with them. I had a baby, a dream vocation I aimed to take Very Seriously, and Art to Practice. It seemed best to leave the union folks well enough alone and not waste my time.
“The union organizers were clamorous and loud. Disruptive. Confrontational. Polarizing. They disturbed the polite veneer of “academic” collegiality by claiming noisily that adjunct faculty, among the lowest paid members of the community, deserved better salaries, stronger job security, and clear pathways to advancement and benefits. They scheduled so very many meetings.
“I felt that I didn’t have time for it and prepared the awkward excuses that would leave others to do the work. Also, I was good at getting along with white people. If I wanted job security and the opportunity to advance, I could succeed on my own.
“My husband had more clarity. He encouraged me to go to meetings. He adapted his schedule and took care of our baby so I had more time. He supported me so I could get involved and come to see why I should.
“We won our union NLRB election despite the administration’s pleas to wait, and the president’s promises that we did not need a union. I learned that those in charge are not necessarily competent nor compassionate. SEIU 1021 by contrast turned out so much support on our behalf. I was permanently transformed by the solidarity of the fast-food workers who showed up to demonstrate with us. I have been organizing adjunct labor ever since.
“Organizing more equitable, accessible conditions for art school labor has become an integral part of my creative practice. Beyond making art, it fosters new conditions for belonging in these creative communities, transforming institutions through which so much art does, or does not, get made.”