May 30, 2012 | Economic Opportunity

Woman of the Week: Ai-Jen Poo

Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of Caring Across Generations, speaks about the uniqueness of care work, why yoga makes her an effective organizer, and how to win a campaign with love.

By Anna Louie Sussman

NEW YORK CITY – Ai-Jen Poo caught the activism bug as a student at Columbia University, when she and her peers occupied the university’s Low Library, demanding a more diverse curriculum and the hiring of more faculty members to ethnic studies departments. She continued her organizing work after graduating, honing in on women in low-wage occupations.

“The courage and the dignity that domestic workers bring to their work despite being constantly told that their work is less valuable, and constantly being made vulnerable because of that work, is the antidote to the kind of economic direction that we’re headed in,” she said.

In 2003, she and the domestic workers with whom she advocates succeeded in passing legislation through the New York City Council requiring employment agencies to notify domestic workers and their employers of the domestic workers’ rights. It was the first of its kind in the country. Seven years later, their efforts once again broke new ground. In September of 2010, New York state passed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which among other things mandates overtime pay, a mandatory day of rest, and three paid vacation days per year.

Poo, 38, is now director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and a co-director of Caring Across Generations, a new campaign to create two million high-quality care jobs caring for America’s rapidly aging population and to open up space for discussion of the nature and necessity of care work. She spoke to the Women in the World Foundation about the uniqueness of care work, why yoga makes her an effective organizer, and how to win a campaign with love.

You’ve been described as a “visionary organizer.” What is the secret to your success? What works and what doesn’t when strategizing a campaign?

I can share what I think works about what we do.  I think people have an inherent desire for connection. They want to feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves, and that there is a network of support; enough other people who really understand what they’re going through. People also really want to feel hope, and to feel that change and a better future are possible. In our campaigns we foster both a sense of connection and interdependence, as well as a clear pathway of “Here’s how, step by step, we can actually change the future for all of us.”

How do your campaigns do that exactly? Can you give an example?

There are millions of women who do care work, and they do it under very difficult circumstances -- without protection and without recognition. Our campaign brings all of those experiences together to really look at and draw strength from the fact that we share this really important bond and relationship around care. 

So we start every meeting in the campaign with the sharing of care stories, where we take a moment and we bring into the room somebody who has taken care of us or somebody that we take care of who is important to us, or why that relationship is really valuable in our lives. And we share a bit about that person or story, such as a time when that person really came through for us.  It’s about really humanizing what we are doing together. We’re trying to build a more interconnected and caring world, and through those stories we really see that actually there’s so much that we share.

When you’re advocating in front of legislators, do you speak in this language of love and humanity? What kinds of responses do you get?

We have to be experts and be able to speak in very clear policy terms, but the language of love and care and support and interdependence is core to who we are and how we approach the world. I will say that one of the most transformative moments in my early organizing life was being able to bear witness in 2003, when we passed the first city legislation in the country to recognize domestic workers in New York. We had spent a year working to pass an ordinance which compelled employment agencies that placed domestic workers in jobs to notify employers of their legal obligations and notify workers of their rights as workers.  It was our first foray into changing policy, and I’ll never forget the day of the vote in city council. Each member of the city council gives their vote, and usually it’s just yay or nay. But when our bill was up on the floor, city council members, one after the next, actually took the microphone and talked about their mother who worked as a domestic worker, or their grandmother who worked as a domestic worker -- who never had opportunity of her own, but who made it possible for them to get education and to be elected officials -- who was smiling down on them from heaven for making this step forward.  At least a dozen of them stood up and paid tribute to someone in their life.

Care work has an emotional or intimate note, but at the same time it’s an economic relationship and those are often thought of as zero-sum. Can you speak to this apparent conflict?

It’s part of what makes this work force really unique -- the fact that their workplace is somebody else’s home, and they’re caring for the most precious elements of their employers’ lives: their children, their parents, their grandparents, their homes. So there is an incredible intimacy inside of that relationship, and it is also an employment relationship.  What we found, working very closely with several organizations that represent employers of domestic workers, is that the majority of people actually want to do the right thing. They understand that this person plays a very important role in their families’ lives and it’s important that that relationship be healthy, but a lot of people just don’t know what that looks like. 

Many people who are employers of domestic workers do not even see themselves as employers at all; in fact, they see themselves as employees of somebody else because they go to work every day and work for somebody else.  There’s a lack of consciousness and awareness. So a lot of what we do with our employer partners is open up a space for employers to talk about the complexities of the relationship, so they can help to clarify what the relationship should look like, to help to stabilize the work force.  Better jobs also means better care, right?  When there are standards and guidelines, it’s actually simpler for everyone. We definitely believe in the natural human tendency towards good and towards being in right relationships; and from that place, we try to offer as many tools and opportunities for people to do the right thing.

I read that you’re a serious yoga practitioner.  What do you get from it and how does it inform your organizing?

Yoga is a really important part of my life. It’s the time in my day when I can really center into what my purpose is in life and what I want to accomplish in the world, and how that’s connected to everyone else in the world. It’s a space where I can quiet my mind from all of the different things that are happening in the world, and just be quiet, remember, and ground myself in why I make the choices that I make. I don’t think that I could have sustained in this work for as long as I have if I didn’t practice yoga regularly.  It really is a gift.

You were passionate about a lot of different social justice issues when you were younger.  What drew you to this particular issue or this particular constituency and made it stick?

I really believe that women and the leadership of women, particularly women who are on the front lines of inequality, are key to the kind of future which we need to build in this country. The more I got to know domestic workers and whenever I saw the incredible power of women’s leadership, the more I realized that this is the place to really build. And if we build this successfully, we can really change the country in really important ways and I think we’re starting to see that, fifteen years later.

Women are at least half the population, they live longer than men, they’re the vast majority of family caregivers, and they’re the vast majority of workers.  They’re playing such pivotal roles in every aspect of the economy, and so we have to have the leadership and the experiences of women at the center of any economic agenda that’s going to work for the country.  That’s why we always say that when you look at the world through the eyes of women, you see the world more completely. It’s that kind of complete vision and understanding of both the problems that we’re up against, and the opportunities for change, that is the antidote for the problems that we currently face as a society.

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.