Ai-jen Poo organizes labor with love
She battles for those on the economy's bottom rung – nannies and housekeepers.
Talk to Ai-jen Poo about her work and it won’t be long before you hear language you don’t often hear in the midst of intense social movement campaigning. For one, she does not shy away from talking about “organizing with love.”Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
A 37-year-old organizer based in New York City, Poo is founder of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a group that waged a successful campaign for landmark legislation in New York state recognizing the labor rights of nannies and housekeepers. Now, as director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), she is spearheading an even more ambitious effort, a Caring Across Generations campaign designed to address the crisis in how we care for our children, our elders, and the disabled in this country.
“I believe that love is the most powerful force for change in the world,” Poo says. “I often compare great campaigns to great love affairs because they’re an incredible container for transformation. You can change policy, but you also change relationships and people in the process.”
How does this view square with the fact that campaigns often involve a lot of conflict and acrimony?
“I think that you can love someone and be in conflict with them,” she says. “And I think that it’s the same thing when we’re trying to transform a fundamentally unequal society. There’s a level of discomfort and conflict that has to happen in order for us to achieve a more loving fate.”
This focus on love has had a profound effect on many of Poo’s colleagues.
“So many of us wouldn’t be the leaders we are without her,” says Danielle Feris, director of Hand in Hand, an organization for employers of domestic workers.
Prior to creating Hand in Hand, Feris recounts, “I had dinner with Ai-jen and told her my idea. And she said, ‘Do it. This is needed in the world.’
“If that dinner hadn’t happened, I don’t know whether I would have had the courage to found an organization. She has that effect on people, to make us believe in ourselves and believe that we can do what’s needed.”
Through the eyes of women
Willowy and soft-spoken, Poo has emerged over the past decade as one of the country’s most visionary organizers. She says that she never could have predicted her current career path, but she had strong role models early on. Her parents were immigrants from China, her father a scientist who had been a pro-democracy activist in Taiwan. She was even more influenced by her mother, a doctor, and her grandmother.
“They were both really strong women with a lot of wisdom,” she says. “I always knew that if we could just see the world through the eyes of women we’d have a much clearer picture of both what the problems are and what the solutions are.”
Poo first experienced the power of organizing as a student activist. In the spring of 1996, while majoring in women’s studies at Columbia University, she was one of more than 100 students who occupied the rotunda of the university’s Low Library. They demanded that the university hire more faculty members in the field of ethnic studies and broaden its curriculum to acknowledge the diversity of the student body.
The students stayed overnight in the library despite threats from the administration, and the next morning 22 of them were arrested. Subsequently, the activists staged a five-day takeover of one of the college’s main administrative buildings, highlighting their demands by teaching their own courses in the occupied space.
The pressure led to gains including the creation of the university’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Poo says, “Working with a really diverse group of students around our shared goals gave me a sense of how powerful campaigns can be if they’re strategic – how it is possible to really make change.”