By Leonard A. Robinson
A lifelong pursuit of justice has led Dora Chen to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the nation’s second-largest union, where she is associate general counsel for public affairs.
“A dream job” is how Chen, 43, describes working for the union, with its 2 million members in the health care, service, public sector and property services sector.
“Working at a progressive union brings together so many important justice fights that are crucial to working people, whether it’s economic justice, health care access, climate change, immigrant justice and a path to citizenship,” she said.
She grew up in Connecticut, the child of Asian immigrants, which she said contributed to her passion for progressive causes, civil rights and combating discrimination. She graduated from Cornell in 1998 with hopes of attending law school. “I knew early on that I wanted my career as an attorney to be about fighting discrimination, for workers’ rights and for the public interest,” she said.
After law school, she moved to Washington, where she lives with her husband, Jon Nathan, and their two children, Max and Mira. Chen converted to Judaism in 2003. She credits Judaism’s emphasis on social justice as inspiration for her conversion.
Hired by the SEIU in 2007, Chen spent the next six years providing counsel to hospital-organizing campaigns in Texas and Florida. She supported union members who were trying to prevent expansion of for-profit hospitals. And she worked to hold hospitals accountable for poor patient care and mistreating workers.
Chen is a member of Temple Sinai, in Washington, where she serves on the board of trustees and is active in Multiracial Sinai, which supports Jews of color. One of the group’s projects is “Building Racial Stamina,” a course with discussions on systemic racism, racial bias and white privilege. The group reads and discusses works such as Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be An Antiracist.”
Amid the social unrest protests last summer following George Floyd’s murder, participation rose, Chen said, as members gathered on Zoom not only to educate themselves on topics around race, but also to seek ways to change the status quo.
Moments like these have not only encouraged Chen, but served as a crucial reminder of the importance of showing up in Jewish spaces even when doing so as a person of color can the risk of uncomfortable interactions. Chen skirts the issue, but she does say she has been the recipient of “inappropriate questions” and has felt unwelcomed in some Jewish gatherings.
Often, people underemphasize the importance of achieving racial justice and equity, she said. “You can’t have economic justice without racial justice — the two are inextricably linked. We must believe in a vision of a just society where all workers are paid a fair wage, treated with respect and have the freedom to form a union in their workplaces.”
Temple Sinai, through its support for Rev. William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign and initiatives as part of the Washington Interfaith Network, shows that they recognize this link, she said.
“Our community is receptive and believes our goal can be reached,” Chen said. “They also recognize that these efforts are part of an ongoing cycle and that there might not be an end in sight. We just have to keep striving for justice when we can.”