Home Sweet Home? Not for Domestic Workers. Ai-jen Poo Demands Justice
On the front lines fighting for the dignity of an invisible workforce, Ai-jen Poo aims to rehumanize society.
Photo by Bekah Mandell
Ai-jen Poo is an organizer. Not the kind that disposes of your clutter or rearranges closets: a community organizer, bringing people with common interests together so they can work as a group to improve their lives. She organizes domestic workers, the mostly female workforce that cares for our families and our homes.
“There are few greater gifts than being cared for by another person,” she writes in Organizing with Love, about her successful campaign to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the state of New York. “Care roots us in the interconnectedness of humanity. When we face the uncertainty of life, we have each other to rely on. But our society does not respect, protect, or value the work of caring.”
There are approximately 3 million people employed as caregivers in the US. The rapidly expanding organization Ai-jen co-founded in 2007, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, so far represents more than 12,000. Recently Ai-jen also launched a nationwide campaign called Caring Across Generations, with the aim of bringing dignity to both aging and caregiving.
Ai-jen’s work has been honored by the Ford Foundation and Ms. Foundation, among other groups. In 2012, she was named one of Newsweek’s 150 Fearless Women and made Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. She hasn’t yet turned 40.
When I contacted her about an interview, Ai-jen invited me to her home in Queens, New York, a cozy third-floor apartment painted the color of vanilla custard with eclectic icons peppering its walls—a tin nicho of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a placid face of the Buddha, a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. Coco, an elderly gray longhair cat, swished around our feet as we spoke about Ai-Jen’s work and the idea of home, healing, invisibility, and intimacy.
Can you explain the work you do?
My work is to raise the level of respect for the work that goes into caring for families. Some people call it domestic work. Some people call it women’s work. Some people call it caregiving work. It’s all the energy that goes into taking care of homes and of families across generations. I call it the work that makes all other work possible. Particularly in this day and age, that work is increasingly done by non-family-members in a paid context.
Ever since this workforce came into being, it’s been devalued both because of who does it—women, originally African Americans and today mostly immigrants—and because of a legacy of slavery in this country. When labor laws were passed in the 1930s, Southern members of Congress refused to sign on if farmworkers and domestic workers—who at the time were largely African Americans in the South—were included. In the deal that Congress struck, those two workforces were excluded, and they remain excluded to this day.
So a lot of our work is to reverse that legacy of exclusion so that workers have basic protections on the job. We want to raise public consciousness and awareness about the work of caring and its value in the broader economy and society.
What trends in our broader society most impact your work?
For one thing, immigrant communities and communities of color in general are growing. At the same time, advances in medicine are enabling people to live longer, and the baby boomer generation is reaching 65.
We’re beginning to see workers who were originally hired as nannies or housekeepers being called upon to care for the aging relatives of their employers. They’re getting pulled into the care gap—the lack of caregivers in the face of the growing need. We suddenly realized there’s a tremendous opportunity to lean into that change. We can improve the experience of immigrant women who are going into those jobs and improve their readiness and training as well as improve the quality of those jobs, including career advancement. This could also prove the solution to some major problems we’re facing, like unemployment and the lack of economic opportunity.
What could be seen as a scary change in the future of the country demographically could actually turn out to be a huge transformative opportunity for connection and support and care.
You’ve spoken before about the two paths facing our society: toward austerity or toward humanity. Can you talk about that?
Sure. There’s an idea that’s taken hold about how people who are successful got there based on their own individual talents and willpower; and further, if you can’t succeed, there’s something wrong with you. That’s austerity. But the reality is, in my view, that from the moment we’re born, we’re dependent on others. And that’s never a one-way stream: it’s interdependence. We count on our parents or whoever cares for us when we’re young. Even as adults, we’re reliant upon a network of people for emotional, physical, economic, and other kinds of support. I just don’t think it’s sustainable to build a society where this interdependence is not recognized.
The other direction is about, How do we work together toward more for everyone: more prosperity, more dignity, more humanity, more respect? More and more of us are in the same boat. I’m a believer in projects that support collaboration and connection between people.
What can caregivers and domestic workers contribute to the building of a cooperative, collaborative economy?
Domestic work is taken for granted—it’s almost an invisible workforce because it happens behind closed doors in the home. The foundation upon which things are built—family and home—is like the ground that you’re walking on: you don’t really pay attention to it because it’s beneath you. And so domestic workers have a keen awareness that often what’s most important is what’s least visible.
An example of this invisibility occurred in the coverage of Hurricane Sandy. Following the disaster, many people talked about the first responders, veterans, and many volunteers who were on the scene rescuing people in flooded areas. But domestic workers were on the front lines well before that. Caregivers stayed with families for days, particularly those caregivers supporting the elderly or people with disabilities. They stayed in the evacuation shelters with them and made sure that they were safe, even when they could have gone home to their own families. In fact, several of the deaths during the storm occurred when people with disabilities or seniors were alone and could not escape the surges in time. They should have had caregivers with them to support them.
In our meetings we often ask our members to imagine what the country would look like if all of the domestic workers decided to go on strike one day. The first reactions are smiles, I think because most have a hard time imagining that happening. But then a light goes on—a recognition of power. Caregivers and domestic workers know instinctively that their work is valuable, but thinking of it in the aggregate, where we act collectively despite the dispersed nature of the work, is very powerful.
Domestic workers also have a really unique perspective on the world: they have their own experiences as mostly low-income women of color, and they also live inside the experiences of their (often) well-off employers. They have a really sharp understanding of inequality. They see employers come home with a pair of shoes that cost more than the amount they pay the domestic worker for a week’s worth of work. Domestic workers are expected to come along when employers spend the summers in their beach homes in the Hamptons, yet the employers don’t pay enough for the workers to send their own children to summer day camp. They watch their employers come home after 11 p.m. in a taxi and then send the worker home on the subway. In large and small ways, domestic workers are exposed to the different choices available to those with wealth, as opposed to those without it.
They also have a deep sense of humanity and compassion. They truly love the people for whom they provide care. When you see an injustice or a problem you want to address, it’s easy to have the dynamic become oppositional. For example, a lot of traditional workplace organizing has been about seeing the boss as the enemy. Sometimes that stance is useful, but I think you miss opportunities for transformation by not understanding the boss’s perspective and situation. Because of the intimacy of the relationship between domestic employers and workers—sometimes these workers know their employers better than they know themselves—they have to humanize their bosses. When you’re able to empathize, you are better able find common ground and solutions that work for everyone. I think that’s critical for meaningful economic and societal transformation: being able to see and take into account the other’s experience.
And the fact that there are often stark differences in terms of race, class, citizenship status between these employers and employees who become so intimate—does that naturally lead to healing?
Sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t lead to healing. I think it’s important to understand that there are three arenas in social change. One is policy and system change—policies of inclusion or exclusion or protection affect people’s lives and send a message about what standards should be in society. Then there’s the arena of hearts and minds, the work of shifting the culture. That’s a different arena, but related. This takes a lot of time, changing the way people feel about racial, class, or gender differences, for example. This then plays out in the third arena, which is how people behave. We also have to figure out how to support people in changing their behavior.
At NDWA we always try to create the conditions for people to bring their best selves to the table. We assume the best while we prepare for the worst. We enter into negotiation with an employer or an agency assuming that they want to do the right thing and support the worker’s dignity. For our first employer outreach project in 2001, we partnered with another group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and held living-room gatherings at the homes of employers, so individuals could talk about the challenges of employing domestic workers and get information about how they could do better by their individual employees.
But this work was parallel to our first effort to change policy, to compel employment agencies that were licensed by the New York City government to educate both employers and workers about existing laws. In the living room settings we also took the opportunity to encourage employers to support the legislation. In the end, the legislation passed one year after it was introduced, with a chorus of employer voices in support.
Is this work your calling? Do you feel a sense of purpose about what you do?
I definitely feel a sense of purpose. I feel lucky that I ended up working in a community of women, and really courageous, resilient women. But I think my true purpose isn’t connected to one particular constituency, but more like: How do we rehumanize society? I think my purpose is about making our society work in such a way that honors everybody’s humanity.
How do you keep your life balanced?
I see my friends. I try to get seven or eight hours of sleep every night. Sleep is really important to me. Somebody once told me that while you’re sleeping, your experiences compress into memory. I’ve always felt like my memory is terrible, so I try to get a lot of sleep so I can remember better. I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes because I can’t remember the experience. I don’t mind making mistakes at all: I just don’t want to make the same ones over. So sleep is very important to me, and eating well, and being in the outdoors. And I have my yoga practice.
I came to my practice of yoga meditation to be able to calm myself amid the chaos of life. I felt it was so useful in sustaining myself and being present. But it also made sense to incorporate a holistic approach into the work of NDWA. Healing from trauma has to be part of our work because, while everybody has experienced some trauma, domestic workers have often experienced multiple instances of violence and highly stressful circumstances, like crossing borders and being a single mother. So we proactively address that trauma and make it part of our work.
Do you find time to read? What kinds of books?
I do. Mostly Buddhist books.
Are you a Buddhist?
I am an aspiring Buddhist. I love that it’s a practice rather than a belief system. I got introduced to Buddhism through the books of Thich Nhat Hanh. They make me consider what really matters and raise my consciousness about attachment and ego. His books showed me how to develop a personal practice that would support me to be the person I want to be, so I could bring my best self to my relationships and my work.
Another gift of his teachings is learning to be comfortable in not knowing. In the work of social change, no one person has all the answers. If anybody did, we wouldn’t be in the place we’re in, with so much inequity and injustice in the world. I’m clear that I don’t have the answers, and nobody really does. People have just seeds of answers. There’s a lot of unknown territory and discomfort with that. A lot of the Buddhist teachings helped me be comfortable in that discomfort.
Buddhism is also helpful to me in thinking about death and the stages of life. Obviously part of working with elders is thinking about aging and dying. Our culture is obsessed with youthfulness and reluctant to grapple with the ways in which is life is unpredictable, fragile, and impermanent. In Buddhism there’s an underlying understanding of interdependence: you actually can’t have youthful energy without frailty.
HOW TO DO RIGHT BY CAREGIVERS, BY AI-JEN POO
Employers who want to do the right thing need support. In such a dispersed industry, everyone is isolated, without clear guidelines for what’s right.
For ideas and information, go to the website of the Hand-in-Hand Domestic Employers Association, domesticemployers.org, which offers resources including answers to frequently asked questions like “What if I don’t pay on the books?” and “What if my employee is not a US citizen?”
The principle we promote is that employers seek to provide the basic rights and considerations that they themselves receive, like sick days, paid vacation, and paid holidays, which can be done regardless of immigration status or taxes. We ask that they consider paying a living wage, which differs depending on where you live, but is generally between $13 and $16 per hour. And finally we ask that they join our efforts to create a system that supports both care workers’ and employers’ access to care and dignity. — As told to Ariane Conrad