The Intersectionality of A New Class of Senior Citizen Activists 

Jon "Bowzer" Bauman of Sha Na Na fame plays 50-60 shows for candidates every election cycle. Here he plays for Conor Lamb in 2018 (REUTERS/Maranie Staab)

Jon “Bowzer” Bauman was a household name in the 1970s and 1980s as the leader of the band Sha Na Na. However, he’s not very well known to a generation of Americans under 45. 

Bowzer both starred in Grease in the band at the school dance, and performed the bulk of the movie’s soundtrack. Later, the band hosted a hit variety show called “Sha Na Na,” and Bowzer became one of the first VJs on VH1. 

Today, Bowzer, who now serves as President of Social Security Works PAC and as Vice Chair of the DNC’s the Senior Council, still tours and plays shows, but for different reasons and venues.

“I love this crowd. This is exactly my kind of crowd!” Bowzer told me he set up his piano in the back room of Lilja’s Pizza in Hempfield, PA, to play for a crowd of approximately four dozen activists during the 2018 election. (Read our full dispatch on Bowzer barnstorming throughout Western PA)

Now, Bowzer plays approximately 50-60 shows every election cycle on behalf of Democratic activists, often in the back of pizza parlors, VFWs, and Get-Out-the-Vote rallies, posing with old fans with his signature arm flex move. 

However, under the age of 45, few have watched his TV shows. Often, they are first introduced to Bowzer when they hear him play at an activist event. 

“I love it, it’s allowing a whole new generation of fans,” says Bowzer. 

Most importantly, Bowzer loves connecting with younger fans because it allows him to demonstrate how intersectional senior issues are. 

“One thing I love about organizing seniors is that seniors cut across a lot of the other kinds of silos, “says Bowzer. “You know, African Americans, Hispanic, Jewish, all kinds of categories, well, seniors cut across all of those.”

Bowzer also says that senior activists, many of whom got their starts in their civil rights and anti-war movements, also care deeply about many other issues. 

“Older people are very much conscious of what kind of world are we leaving to our kids and our grandkids,” says Bowzer. “So it’s not like seniors just deal with Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and drug prices. We’re constantly in seniors organizing, dealing with climate, voting rights, and, and women’s issues”. 

78-year-old Robby Stern, President of Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action, is emblematic of a new generation of senior citizens that is much more radical in their activism than previous generations. 

“I started with the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement, became an activist in the labor movement,” says Stern. “And so it’s just simply carrying on the work that I’ve done all my life, different issues, but just continuing to do it.”

When Stern set out to help start Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action, he and many activists didn’t just want an organization that took on what were traditional senior issues. 

“Of course, we became active on issues like climate change and racial justice, racial and economic justice, and became also a senior supportive group for younger people that were fighting the battles that come up around income inequality and respect on the job,” says Stern. 

Often, the key to successful intergenerational organizing is finding links between struggles. 

Marianne Pizzitola is the president of the NYC Organization of Public Service Retirees. A 53-year retired, disabled EMS worker, she leads one of the most vocal and militant retiree organizations in New York City that has been taking on Medicare Advantage plans. 

“Younger retirees were mostly fired EMS police, where most of us are disabled on duty,” says Pizzitola. 

Many disabled Americans have relied on Social Security and Medicare for decades. However, these 

issues are primarily seen as issues affecting older people. 

Pizzitola finds that in organizing seniors, younger disabled Americans play a crucial role in connecting older Americans with younger Americans. Technology is often the biggest barrier to connecting with older Americans. 

“We don’t have the money to do [print mailings]” says Pizzitola. “And you’ll struggle with educating seniors, to learn how to utilize the tools of Zoom, mute buttons, where the camera is, how to even work their camera, and it requires a lot of patience.”

However, in addition to teaching seniors how to utilize social media, Pizzitola says that her group regularly does in-person meetings, flyers at senior citizens’ centers, and does active phone outreach to senior citizens with limited mobility. 

Senior citizens of this era may be some of the most progressive senior activists in history; focusing on issues that traditional senior groups did not focus on as much in the past. However, massive barriers exist to connecting this new class of senior citizen activists to younger activists. 

“The biggest challenge in intergenerational organizing is the way in which everybody tends to be siloed. And we need to get over that, you know, the siloing in general is just a mistake,” says Bowzer. 

As for the 74-year-old Doo Wap star, who spent two years off the road because of COVID, he is hoping once again to get out on the road this election. Already he has played four shows for candidates this election cycle and plans to play 50 shows for candidates throughout the nation ahead of this year’s midterm elections. 

“I love getting out the road. I really missed it,” says the aging Jewish Doo Wop Star. “I love interacting with young activists because that’s who we are going to leave this mess to when we are gone. They are the ones that gonna have to figure out how to fix this”. 

This is the first of a three-part series on “The New Class of Senior Citizen Activists,” underwritten with a grant from Social Security Works. 

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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