Activist Jan Saiz and Native American Heritage Month
Natively Proud
By Jonathan Gramling

Part 1 of 2

       As we meet at her favorite coffee shop, La Baguette, on the far west
side near where she lives, Jan Saiz gave me a big warm smile. She had
just gotten back from a trip to Europe, a trip she made with one of her sons
who had just gotten his Ph.D. from Purdue. She was enthralled with the
experience.
       “I expected some of the same kind of things, the cobbled streets and the
steep and narrow walkways between big, old buildings that I experienced
back in 1996 when I was last in Europe,” Saiz said. “It was the same kind of
thing. I don’t know what I expected in the Vatican. It wasn’t quite what I
expected. The Sistine Chapel was impressive. I could have laid down on the
floor and just spent hours there looking at all of Michelangelo’s work there. It
would have been great. You go back centuries; our country is so young in
comparison to old European cities and towns. We looked at art and the
landscape for nine days. There were a lot of American tourists, older, retired
people for the most part. That was good to see. I like to see people enjoying
Jan Saiz, an activist in the Madison area for almost 40
years, is currently president of the Wisconsin Women of
Color Network..
the latter part of their lives out there.”
       Saiz is enjoying the latter part of her life, a life filled with obtaining an education, working and supporting a family and community
activism.

       Since she was young enough to walk on picket lines with her father who was a union steward at the Swift Packing Company in
Omaha, Nebraska where Saiz grew up, Saiz has been an activist. During the height of the Vietnam War when Saiz lived in Iowa City
raising a young family and working for the telephone company while her husband studied at the University of Iowa, Saiz managed to stay
involved in the anti-war protests.
       “We demonstrated after work and during lunch hours,” Saiz recalled. “You work split shifts when you were an operator. So there
was time to be a part of that. I remember there was a young woman from New York and her husband was going to school. So we would
demonstrate and everyone thought we were kind of strange. There were small town people there and the Amish who live around Iowa
City. They thought that we did strange things sometimes. Why were we even involved in this kind of thing? But I think it shows we were
every day people like they were. It wasn’t just the college students who were protesting.”
       Like her father, Saiz was also a union steward, she for the Communications Workers of America who represented the telephone
company employees. She felt it was important for her as a woman to get involved in the union because the interests of the female
workers were not always seen as the interests of the union.
       “Being a steward, there were responsibilities,” Saiz said. “One of them, for me, was to point out some of the inequities that were
there between management and non-management. I was somewhat of a radical. There were a lot of things that were happening at the
same time such as the feminist movement. There were things like providing daycare for union meetings so that the women had a
stronger voice in what was being said and some of the things that the union was doing. That’s what I tried to foster. We had to make sure
that our issues were at the bargaining table along with the rest of the stuff.”
       Saiz must have been effective for eventually she was offered a position in management, which she took. “I thought being a manager
gives you different opportunities to help the workers,” Saiz said. “I never forgot about being an operator as opposed to being the
manager. I never forgot that. Being a manager doesn’t release you from treating those people like you would like to be treated. I felt I was
effective there too.”
       In 1984, the CWA went on strike and Saiz found herself on the other side of the picket line. “We brought management workers in,”
Saiz recalled. “It didn’t last very long. All I remember is that as managers we worked long hours during the strike. The workers whom I
knew — I knew a lot of them — understood my position. I had to be on this side and they were on the other side. I continued to have a
good relationship with the workers, the people whom I supervised and the others in my office. The relationship continued until I retired. It
was hard in a way because a lot of my sympathies went back to the workers. I remember even when I took a supervisory position — it
was the middle person between the management and non-management — and my father told me not to do that job. I started out being an
operator in Omaha. And my dad told me that a supervisor was a hard job. My cousin had been a supervisor and went on to management
with Swift. But I felt I could negotiate that supervisory position.”
       Saiz spent the next 10 years after the strike with Wisconsin Bell and then AT&T before she retired and decided to go back to school.
“I took classes through work at UW-Madison Continuing Education,” Saiz said. “I did management courses. I could paper a whole wall
with the certificates from courses that I took. But I thought all of that helped me with my job. Education has always been my big focus
ever since I was little. That was the way to combat the things that I saw from a young age, inequities, racism, classism. The only way you
can get around that is to become educated yourself.”
       And so she decided to get her undergraduate degree from UW-Madison. Up until this time, Saiz had remained relatively isolated from
the Native community, being consumed with working full time and raising her children. When she became a UW student, that changed for
her.
       “When I first came here, there were Native people around here,” Saiz said. “I knew the Ho-Chunk. I know they were always called
the People with the Loud Voices by my mom. She went to boarding school when she was five years old. There were Ho-Chunk people at
the boarding school where she went. Working at the telephone factory, as we called it, I was the only Native person there. In fact, there
were probably a handful of people of color working there. It was a long process trying to connect with other Native people. It wasn’t until I
started taking classes at the university and then finding out about the student organization of Wunk Sheek, then I started seeing more
Native people. Then when my youngest son Shaun started going to the university, he got connected with Wunk Sheek. Then I started
dancing again. I hadn’t danced since I was a little girl. It was like getting involved. Even though most of them were younger than I was, it
was still just good, good to be back with Native people. My real feeling of the community came when I went to a conference that was
being held for Native women in Milwaukee. There were all of these Native women there. It was such a feeling that I cannot describe. It
was a good feeling to be among all of those Native women. During my adult life, I was definitely isolated. For many of us, it is a matter of
finding our identity again. I mean I always knew who I was in the sense that I knew who my people were. I always had that knowledge.
   
But it was connecting with other people that was important.”
       And what she found was a diverse and diffused Native community. “You not only have people here from all of the different tribes of
Wisconsin, but you also have people who come here to go to the university or to take positions at the university. We’re getting more
people in positions at the university and some people on staff at MATC. So it is very diverse. And it is hard because where are they? Well
they are all over the city. So it is kind of hard to get them together.”