by Sharon H. Chang
Over the last decade and a half the March For Workers & Immigrants Rights has been the largest May Day event in Seattle. Led by El Comité and May 1st Action Coalition, the main march sees thousands walk from Judkins Park to the Seattle Center with, this year, nearly seventy organizations represented.
But for the last three years womxn of color have been growing their own home inside and outside this main march.
We call it the Womxn of Color and Families Contingent though really, I think, it’s become more than just a subgroup. I wrote about the launch of this special May Day contingent for an International Examiner cover story in 2015. The effort was organized by GABRIELA Seattle which had always joined the API contingent or youth contingent. But as the women’s movement and GABRIELA was growing, members told me then, international solidarity with womxn of color and their families felt essential.
Indeed. International Worker’s Day, or May Day, is an uplift of laborers and the working classes which occurs every year on May 1st. It is a commemoration of the Haymarket affair–a pivotal moment in U.S. labor history when an 1886 Chicago protest for the eight-hour workday turned violent garnering worldwide attention. May Day demonstrations have continued since with shifted focus depending on political climate. In the U.S. immigrant rights moved to the fore in the 1990s and clearly that focus remains vastly important under the current administration. And, also clearly, womxn and families of color are central in this contemporary discussion.
But do we always factor in? I think sometimes yes and sometimes no. And that’s how it usually goes. As a writer-activist womxn/mother of color/child of an immigrant I generally struggle to find representation of my lived life or the lives of the many warrior womxn and queer people of color that I’m in community with. Case in point, a Seattle Times sum-up of how May Day events unfolded this year is predominantly about men, men being arrested, the police (pictured mostly male), Donald Trump, war and traffic. Another case in point, mothers are workers who labor to care for their families many hours beyond eight-a-day; but our unpaid domestic labor is not seen as work and subsequently we are often not seen as workers deserving of rights and protections too (e.g. mandatory paid maternity leave, fully-funded childcare, guaranteed women’s healthcare, unrestricted access to family planning services, etc.).
Enter the Womxn of Color and Families Contingent. “We stand up against racism, colonization, imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy,” was the proud and strong proclamation this year. “We are marching for the dignity and respect of communities worldwide and Mother Earth.” You can see the difference in focus, obviously. Which is why I love this contingent more and more every year.
Back in 2015 there weren’t many of us. We met on a corner down the street from Judkins Park and–I think–really felt like a subset of everything else. And probably that was okay. And probably I just assumed that’s how it would always be because, as I said, that’s how it usually is. But then this year I got tagged on Facebook for the newest synthesis of the Womxn of Color and Families Contingent and it was literally incredible.
This year the contingent made a bold move to meet separately, for the first time, at the midpoint of the march route at McGraw Square for a mini-rally to highlight issues impacting working families. The list of joining organizations also expanded greatly from GABRIELA Seattle to Families of Color Seattle, Got Green, Anakbayan Seattle, Tenants Rights Union, Social Justice Fund NW, Youth Speaks Seattle, Parisol and Rainier Valley Corps. Following the mini-rally the contingent joined the bigger march to the Seattle Center.
The 2017 event description further read:
“The pace of our marching contingent will be set by the children, womxn of color, and those with disabilities. We welcome people with families (blood and chosen), children, disabilities, elderly, queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folks, allies, friends, and comrades to join us. Youth will be supporting us with a marshall escort. We will provide our own van shuttle for the contingent to get folks around.”
If none of this is sounding incredible to you so far then you probably don’t know what it feels like to be a womxn of color and mother with a disability. I do. I live with an invisible disability that often prevents me from doing everyday stuff. Even walking can be tough sometimes. Now, consider that the May Day March from Judkins Park all the way to the Seattle Center is over seven and a half miles. That’s not doable for me even on a good day. In fact, though I am often at marches I have never completed an entire march yet.
Add to this the difficulty of being a parent with a small child in a stroller or carrier, or even an older child who could maybe walk for a bit. That’s still a tough or completely undoable seven and a half miles. I certainly would never attempt this with my disability and my seven-year-old son. Ever. Then add to this a larger group mentality that may or may not speak directly to the experience and needs of being a womxn of color, queer, trans, and/or gender non-conforming person of color. That makes an even tougher seven and a half miles.
So the Womxn of Color and Families Contingent is special. Really special. And while it’s smaller than the main event, it’s growing and certainly not any less powerful. At the mini-rally for instance we heard from so many greats: passionate rallying cries from reps like JM Wong of Parisol and Donna Denina of GABRIELA Seattle; two slams by Youth Speaks poets including Ezra Conklin one of this year’s top six finalists; a report on the women’s hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center; a fiery speech by Senait Brown of EPIC; and even a rad Anakbayan choral performance accompanied by guitar.
We then received some of the most organized organizer instructions I’ve ever seen on how we were going to march as a contingent: detailed explanations and demonstrations of various hand signals; handing out, reading and practicing a chant sheet; as well as in-depth instructions about safety and emergency point persons. The result being that when the Womxn of Color and Families Contingent joined the main march we were unmistakable.
Actually, I lost the Womxn of Color and Families Contingent at the joining because I rushed over to get photographs of the main march and then realized I didn’t know where my contingent had gone. I was about to give up when I heard them (remember the practicing of chants?). The sound, the unison, the chorus, the life and liveliness, carried way beyond anything I could see at first. I waited. And soon I saw our contingent too.
Stretched across the entire street, banner-to-banner-to-banner, full of colors, sound, ferocity. Our point persons were using their hand signals to shepherd with precision (again, remember the practicing?) so everyone knew when to move and what to say in step together. Instead of being crammed in with everyone else our marshals also created physical space in front of our group. The breathing room allowed us to hold our banners in a solid, unbroken line which then marked space for the rest of our contingent. The result being that the Womxn and Families of Color could walk apace with one another, be seen and heard, be in our truth, in community, and honestly just have fun.
I spoke to several moms with little ones who had rushed to this contingent from work where starting later and joining midway was extremely important for their participation. Then getting to hear folks speak directly to our lives, in a space set up for our inclusion, followed by marching together in an safe, energized, organized cohort–if that isn’t power what is? This is why it’s so important and necessary to create our own space at times, not to divorce ourselves from main movements but to care for each other so we are stronger in all our efforts.
To me? It felt nothing less than revolutionary. Which leaves me with nothing else to say but: Power and Liberation to our womxn, mamas and families of color! And, see you next year.
Sharon H. Chang is an award-winning author, scholar, and activist who focuses on racism, social justice and the Asian American diaspora with a feminist lens. Her inaugural book Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children In a Post-Racial World was released in 2015 to very positive reviews. Some of her short-form pieces have appeared in BuzzFeed, ThinkProgress, Hyphen Magazine, ParentMap Magazine, The Seattle Globalist, AAPI Voices and The International Examiner. In 2015 Sharon was named Social Justice Commentator of the Year by The Seattle Globalist.