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.”
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.”
Doing work that makes all other work possible
After graduation, Poo took up organizing that highlighted the experience of women in the low-wage workforce. At the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, she participated in outreach efforts that targeted women workers who were among the most underpaid and vulnerable to exploitation in New York City.
Domestic employees emerged as a key group. Along with farmworkers, domestic employees were explicitly excluded from New Deal labor rights protections. They at once provide essential support for their employers’ families – “doing the work that makes all other work possible,” as Poo has put it – while also raising their own children and often sending money to family members abroad. “Our campaigns are about recognizing that everybody's lives are valuable, about saying that we should have a society and an economy where everyone's human dignity is recognized."
Traditionally, domestic workers have been considered impossible to organize.
“We call it ‘the Wild West,’” Poo says. Nannies and housekeepers have no centralized employer and no employee breakroom where they might commiserate with others. Workers must negotiate their employment relationships individually, with no clear standards or public oversight.
Absent any effective labor protections, domestic employees calling in sick or taking time to deal with a family emergency risk losing their jobs. Even though they are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, some caregivers are expected to be on-call around the clock. Those who are undocumented immigrants fear that speaking up could jeopardize their ability to stay in the country.
By the late 2000s, DWU was pushing for legislation in New York state that would recognize the rights of these caregivers for the first time. Poo traveled repeatedly to the state capitol alongside DWU members to lobby lawmakers. She says, “I remember asking Angelica Hernandez [a DWU leader] how many times she’s been to Albany. She said 27 times, to tell her story.”
Hernandez and others at times spoke of finding families who treated them with dignity, and of their affection for the children and elders they cared for. But they also described abuses, such as working 12 to 15 hours per day and being paid only $135 per week.
“In 2007, I began working for a family in Manhattan, cleaning their apartment; I would later also begin to take care of their child,” Hernandez said. “I had to clean, do laundry, iron, take clothes to the dry cleaner, go food shopping, and prepare food for the entire family. I used to work constantly, day and night, taking care of the child and then cleaning while he slept.”
Mona Ledesma, a Filipina immigrant who had worked for eight years as a nanny and housekeeper in the United States, testified about having to resign a full-time job to avoid the sexual advances of a male employer, and about being accused by another employer of stealing a $2 can of Niagara starch for ironing clothes. She told the State Assembly, “I am not a thief. I am not an object for sexual pleasure. I am a human being.”
No unlikely allies
Such testimonials, combined with six years of determined effort on the part of DWU and its allies, paid off in September 2010, when New York state passed the nation’s first Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. The legislation gave groundbreaking legal recognition to domestic workers, guaranteeing at least three paid days off per year, at least one day off per week, and overtime pay for workweeks of more than 40 hours.
“It’s been transformative for me to participate in a movement where you actually see a historic breakthrough,” Poo says. “When we first got to Albany we were told, ‘Good luck with that. This legislature will never pass it.’ And we just thought, ‘Why on Earth would people be against such a basic measure that’s about equality and opportunity?’”
Feris, who works with employers of domestic workers, points to Poo’s focus on coalition-building as an important factor in the bill’s success. “One way in which Ai-jen’s leadership has been so critical is that she doesn’t see any group of people as unlikely allies,” she says.
One might expect that those who hire domestic employees – the constituency targeted by Feris’ organization – would oppose the organizing efforts of these workers. But DWU and its allies saw that many families valued the fact that domestic employees are caring for the most precious people in their lives. In 2009 they held a Children and Families March, made up of employers and children cared for by domestic workers, walking alongside DWU members and their own kids – all in support of the bill of rights.
Strength in connection
Poo’s organizing continues to be about making connections. Whether as parents looking for quality daycare for our kids, people with disabilities, or immigrants seeking a path to citizenship, we all have a stake in the care crisis in the United States. Poo believes that we should all be part of a movement to address this crisis.
On July 12, more than 700 grass-roots leaders – along with officials such as Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis – gathered in Washington, D.C., to launch the Caring Across Generations campaign. Domestic workers’ groups, women’s organizations, disability rights campaigners, elder advocates, immigration reformers, unions, and faith-based groups announced a unified drive to confront issues raised by the “age wave” in America, where every eight seconds someone turns 65.
Its goal, Poo has written, is to “transform public policy so that we can be a nation that takes care of one another, across generations.”
NDWA Field Director Jill Shenker adds of Caring Across Generations, “There are some pretty radical ideas in the campaign, yet we’re doing it. Ai-jen has the audacity to put forward these bold ideas, and has a clear strategy for moving them forward to make the impossible possible.”
Beyond organizing Caring Across Generations, Poo has been busy carrying the momentum of the 2010 success in New York forward in other parts of the country. The NDWA is now active in 17 cities and 11 states. Several states, including California, are considering versions of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Recently, Poo and her organization have used the theatrical release of "The Help," a movie about domestic workers in the 1960s, to draw attention to ongoing abuses faced by domestic workers – pointing out that most have no greater legal protections than their counterparts of a half-century ago.
When asked what she thought of the movie, Poo laughs and confesses that she has not yet had a chance to see it and is only partway through the book. Finding time to live a balanced life is something Poo seeks to emphasize in her organization. She tries to go hiking when she’s able, and she maintains a dedicated yoga practice.
“It’s a really big part of my life,” she says of her yoga. “It allows me to stay centered and connect to my purpose in times of conflict or obstacles.”
In the coming year, Poo’s work will involve reaching out more broadly than ever. Following up on the Washington, D.C., event in July, other “Care Congresses” will take place in more than a dozen cities across the country. And they will involve an ever-greater number of allies.
“To us, it’s really important that people see this as a movement to transform care for everybody,” Poo says. “I think our campaigns are about saying that everybody’s lives are valuable, about saying that we should have a society and an economy where everyone’s human dignity is recognized. The only way to get there is through love and through harnessing the power of how we are connected and interdependent.”
• Mark Engler wrote this article for The YES! Breakthrough 15, the Winter 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of "How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy" (Nation Books).
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