Imagine what New York City would look like if all of its nannies, housekeepers, and homecare workers decided to collectively abstain from going to work on the same day. They would provoke a certain level of mayhem. For over ten years, labor organizer Ai-jen Poo has grasped the societal and financial importance of domestic workers, who have been denied basic labor protections for nearly eighty years. This discrimination has its roots in New Deal Era measures designed to exclude blacks and other minorities from economic protections as a concession to white congressmen in the South. Domestic workers and agricultural workers—at the time predominantly black—were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, and domestic workers were left out of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. These exclusions persist, as do their discriminatory legacy: according to the ACLU, 93 percent of domestic workers in New York are women, 95 percent are people of color, and 99 percent are immigrants.

From her days as a student at Columbia in the ’90s partaking in building takeovers and hunger strikes to her designation as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012, Poo has become one of today’s most respected and celebrated social change leaders. In 2000, she co-founded Domestic Workers United (DWU), a membership-based advocacy organization dedicated to diminishing exploitation and establishing fair labor standards for domestic workers in New York. By 2010, DWU won the nation’s first-ever state law granting basic pay and workplace standards to domestic workers—the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights—which included overtime pay, a day of rest for every seven days of work, and coverage under state civil rights and sexual harassment laws. With workers in other states still denied such basic protections, Poo went on to found the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), a coalition of forty affiliate organizations in twenty-nine states, and has been working to implement similar laws in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts. Poo’s vision and perseverance have earned her recognition as a one of Newsweek’s 150 Fearless Women, Crain’s New York’s 40 Under 40, and awards from the Ms. Foundation, Women Deliver, Independent Sector, and many other organizations.

Poo believes that the face of the nation is changing: the Baby Boomer generation is aging at a rate of seven thousand people per day, and minority populations are growing such that the U.S. will become a majority-minority country by 2050. Through co-founding Caring Across Generations, Poo heralds a new strategy for the future: advocating for quality care for an growing elderly population while creating living-wage jobs for an invaluable sector of the workforce. She doesn’t view employers as the opposition, but rather wants to revolutionize how we think about care, envisioning a “win-win-win” where new jobs are created, assistance to families who need it is expanded, and the quality of homecare jobs is improved. I spoke to Poo on the phone over the winter holidays, which she spent in the California desert working on her first book, about the future of care in America. Discussing her personal journey as a social justice leader, she explored the importance of inclusive, multiracial communities to organizing work, our illogical immigration practices, and the stories of the women who inspired her.

Christine Kim for Guernica

Guernica: Can you pinpoint a moment or experience that propelled you toward devoting your career to social justice work?

Ai-jen Poo: There have been so many moments where my consciousness has been exploded open about why things are the way they are, and what the possibilities are for changing them, but I think there are two I can highlight.

When I was a student at Columbia University, I was involved in a campaign in my senior year to establish an ethnic studies program. The Latino studies organization, the black student organization, and the Asian American studies organization joined together on this project, and we did all kinds of direct action like building takeovers and hunger strikes. I remember feeling how powerful it was that a multiracial coalition of students came together with a plan and a willingness to highlight and dramatize what was wrong, then propose a way forward. There is now an ethnic studies program at Columbia. It’s called the Center for Ethnic Studies and Race.

The second moment came when I was a student volunteering at the New York Asian Women’s Center, which is a domestic violence shelter for Asian American women. I remember realizing that the provision of services to people who had been in situations of domestic violence was absolutely essential to the survival of many women, and that there had to be a way to get to the root causes of this violence so epidemic in our communities after so many years. That got me interested in social change that would address the root issues of problems like violence, injustice, and inequity.

I also observed that it was the women who could land living-wage jobs with benefits—who could reach some economic security—who were the most able and likely to break out of the cycles of violence in their lives. There was a connection between poverty and other forms of violence and injustice; economic opportunity is key for women who are still primarily responsible for the wellbeing of their families.

It was eagerness to learn more about organizing, and considering root causes and the role of economic opportunity in addressing other injustices, that shaped how I saw social change work.

Guernica: How did the environment at Columbia cultivate collaboration between multiracial and multicultural student groups, which can often be so isolated from one another?

Ai-jen Poo: It had to do with being a college in the middle of New York City, which is incredibly diverse, and also with the fact that many students were involved in work with communities of color in the city. There was a connection between community organizations and student organizations, and we had great mentors–lifelong community activists like Richie Perez, who was doing work in the Puerto Rican community. It wasn’t ground zero, but rather an assumption that “of course we would work together.” We were fortunate to have a generation of strong student leaders and mentors who understood the value of multiracial coalition building and could guide us in thinking about strategy.

Guernica: Do you feel that coming up through an environment where multiracial coalition building was assumed helped you transition from working primarily in Asian communities to creating Domestic Workers United (DWU), which focuses more on African, Caribbean, and Latin American women?

Ai-jen Poo: The organization I ended up working with was the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, or CAAAV. It has a long history of multiracial coalition building, so it was not only the on-campus experience but also this group which had that notion in its DNA that we have to build across communities, because in communities of color no one of us can do it alone. It was during the Giuliani administration, when there was a lot of police brutality and violence affecting communities of color in different ways, but all interconnected. The police brutality common in black and Latino urban communities sometimes looked different than it looked in the Asian community—where it was often targeted at low-wage workers and street vendors—but had the same racially-based root causes. We were able to make connections and work together.

Guernica: What was the process of co-founding DWU?

Ai-jen Poo: The project grew out of work within CAAAV, where many of the Filipina domestic workers who were organizing had worked in Hong Kong as domestic workers before coming to NYC. In Hong Kong, there are domestic workers from all over Asia, there are Indonesian workers, Filipina workers… It’s a multinational situation, and everyone works under a standard contract. There are set hours, guidelines, wages, and standards that are enforced. When the Filipina domestic workers came to the U.S., many were surprised to find so little protection and that in fact, domestic workers are excluded from a lot of labor law protections.

It was obvious to them that they couldn’t win better conditions alone, that they would have to develop a project with all domestic workers in the field. I had experience with multiracial coalition building and our organization already had that ethic, but the workers themselves also felt it was a natural next step to figure out a way to organize together as an entire workforce, which became Domestic Workers United.

There’s this invisible web of women leaders across the country training one another how to ask for a sick day, how to ask for a day off, or even how to do the job better. It’s transformative.

Guernica: As natural as it was to have an inclusive model, was it difficult to mobilize these communities? Domestic workers are difficult to organize because there’s no central location or directory, no portal they have to go through. How did you get out the word?

Ai-jen Poo: In the early days, it was traditional: person by person, conversation by conversation, talking to workers out in the parks and playgrounds. It’s difficult to organize because everyone is so dispersed, but there are places where workers come together: parks in the summertime, libraries during story hour, private play spaces in the wealthier neighborhoods. Activities in the city usually involve nannies taking children to these places or caregivers taking people to senior centers. You see someone pushing a stroller on the street and it’s clear it’s not her baby—you can just go up and have a conversation.

We would call a meeting, do the outreach, talk to people, make the reminder calls, and a really good group of women would come together every month. For ten years, it was the same day, same time every month, and we had a space where women could share their stories, learn about what was going on, and get involved in the campaign. Now, more and more women are organizing other women. It’s very member driven. We have one member, Pat, who carries a stack of flyers with her. She’ll talk to women at the bus stop, the Laundromat, the grocery store. It went viral, in a way–that’s how it spreads. There was such a need, such a hunger to come together.

As the demographics of this country change, more and more people need care. They age. As women enter the workforce, they need childcare. The domestic workforce is just as important as manufacturing workers were important in the twenties and thirties. They’re a crucial part of the economy, and women like Pat and Barbara are changing these jobs into quality jobs.

Guernica: We talk about why women stay stuck in cycles of violence, and this campaign seems to train women in skills around connecting, around organizing, serving to prevent violence against women because they understand there’s a standard for treatment. There is an outside community for them to feel strong within and gain empowerment.

Ai-jen Poo: Absolutely. There’s this invisible web of women leaders across the country training one another how to ask for a sick day, how to ask for a day off, or even how to do the job better. It’s transformative. One of our staff members, Barbara Young, was a bus conductor and union leader in Barbados for years and when the government laid off all bus conductors, she came to the U.S. in search of work to support her family. She worked as a nanny for eighteen years in NYC before signing up for one of our nanny-training courses in the early 2000s. The organization allowed her to reclaim her role in the community—she has all of these workers’ rights skills and public speaking capacities that she’s now using to encourage other women. She’s on staff as a national organizer and named in a book about one hundred social change leaders in the country.

As the demographics of this country change, more and more people need care. They age. As women enter the workforce, they need childcare. The domestic workforce is just as important as manufacturing workers were important in the twenties and thirties. They’re a crucial part of the economy, and women like Pat and Barbara are changing these jobs into quality jobs.

Guernica: Working in New York, when did it become clear to you that you needed to pass legislation? How did you get to the point where you were doing collective actions in Albany?

Ai-jen Poo: When we started out, we were promoting a standard contract drawing on elements that the workers brought from Hong Kong. Our initial standard contract would allow for things like paid sick days, paid holidays—things that seem obvious for most workers, that are taken for granted. We thought one way to establish standards would be to pass a law.

We learned a lot in the process. Labor laws are made at the state and federal level, so we couldn’t change the laws themselves at the city level, but we could change the city’s licensing laws to compel employment agencies that place domestic workers in jobs to do their part to enforce the rights that did exist. This meant making sure agencies notified employers of their legal obligations, and notified workers of their rights on the job. It was a way for us to learn about the legislative process to see if it was beneficial to our organizing. We introduced the legislation with the championing of councilmember Gale Brewer, and passed the city bill in about a year. The workers really advocated, telling their stories at City Council and City Hall. They won co-sponsors, and moved it forward.

Guernica: A year is very fast.

Ai-jen Poo: We built a coalition that included employers because we realized early on how important it was to work with them, and that having guidelines and standards is beneficial for everyone, not just workers. A lot of employers want to do the right thing, but have no support to figure out what that means.

It was our first campaign. Having a bill that notifies people of laws and legal obligations is most helpful when the laws themselves are strong, but because domestic workers are excluded from basic labor laws, it was limited in its impact.

That’s when we held the “Having Your Say” convention. Two hundred domestic workers came together and talked about their experiences, about what kinds of rights were needed. Out of those discussions, we put together a proposal of priorities to change state law to respect the rights of domestic workers. We worked with students from NYU School of Law to draft legislation, and launched our New York state campaign in 2004. It took six years.

Guernica: Who were your greatest opposing forces at the state level?

We faced opposition in California, but didn’t face organized and funded opposition in New York. It was more about building the political will to change something historically embedded in the logic of labor laws over more than seventy years. It was a question of raising enough pressure to compel legislators to do something, which was no small feat after such exclusion. There wasn’t an organized group fighting us, but lack of will.

Many of the legislators in Albany were employers themselves, and we didn’t know who was an employer and who wasn’t. It was an interesting dynamic having opposition potentially everywhere, but also nowhere. It meant we had to be extra organized and build a broad network of support across a diverse coalition so it couldn’t be continually pushed to the corner or relegated to the shadows.

In California, private agencies have an industry association that lobbied against our bill because it would have required them to pay overtime to caregivers, and they didn’t want to do that because of the impact on their profit margins. They fought us, putting a lot of resources into a media campaign to try to get others to oppose us.

At the end of the day, we were able to fight all of that opposition and move the legislation through both houses of the legislature. It was on the governor’s desk, and at the very last minute, he vetoed it because of pressure from the business lobby. The industry lobby was able to push the Chamber of Commerce to prioritize opposition to the bill.

We’ll try to meet Governor Brown early this legislative season to really explain what this bill is about, and the lives of the workers and employers it affects. The Governor has a history of backing workers’ rights issues with regard to human rights, and I’m confident we’ll be able to get his support.

Guernica: What other states are you focusing on?

Ai-jen Poo: We are working in Massachusetts and Illinois, introducing domestic workers bills in both states. I’m hoping for the agencies’ support in these states because I think they understand that when working conditions are poor and strenuous, there is high turnover, which is bad for consumers, employers, and the workforce. Everyone should want stability in this industry.

Guernica: Have you been forced to compromise, altering points in your original agenda as a result of pushback in a way that was disappointing? Have you reached a point where you understood something about the other side’s point of view, which led to new perspective?

Ai-jen Poo: There are employers who are families that require care like all families do—including domestic workers’ families—and our society has not adequately accounted for the work that goes into caring for children and elders. That’s historically women’s work that has been undervalued or devalued, and that needs to change. The fact that employers don’t get tax breaks, economic support, or elder care is the same root issue when it comes to the reason why our domestic workers are not respected. It’s the same work that has been taken for granted in our society where both parents are now working, and women are more than half of the paid workforce. We’ve reached a different moment and a different time, and we as a society have to take this one on. We need value and accountability for this body of work to support families and workers and make the system more sustainable for everyone.

It’s a different question when it comes to agency corporations more interested in their bottom line and making a profit than the care and needs of families. Many agencies are invested in more than just their profit margin, but unfortunately too many are operating under that kind of thinking. We’re looking at a situation where home care agencies are getting reimbursements from the government—our tax dollars—and the worker only receives a fraction of those dollars. When workers have to live in poverty because someone else is making an enormous profit, something is fundamentally wrong.

Our work at Caring Across Generations, the new national campaign we’ve created with Jobs with Justice and more than two hundred groups around the country, is about bringing the interests of everyday families and people who need care like seniors and people with disabilities together with the interests of workers to push for a new system. We need a structure that both supports families and provides economic opportunities and quality jobs to workers because this work is too important for the wellbeing of the country to relegate it to the shadows in this unsustainable way.

Guernica: Caring Across Generation’s mission articulates an aim to focus on sustainability in the system, which is a great way of reframing the situation and the movement’s goal. What else went into the founding of Caring Across Generations?

Ai-jen Poo: We’re in the midst of a tremendous jobs crisis where there are millions of people who are unemployed. At the same time, we’re going through a demographic shift where on one hand, communities of color—particularly immigrant communities—are growing. On the other hand, we’re aging as a country and the Baby Boomer generation is turning sixty-five at a rate of one person every eight seconds. By the year 2050, not only will we be a majority-minority country, but we’ll also be a country where twenty-seven million Americans need caregivers just to meet their basic needs.

A lot of people see a problem or crisis waiting to happen. We see an opportunity to create a win-win-win situation where we can create millions of new jobs in homecare to help prepare for the growing population of people who will need assistance, and improve the quality of the jobs to ensure they are dignified positions that workers can take pride in. And we can expand access to them to make sure that families in need can get the support they need.

The twenty-first century way to create social change is to determine where we can create win-win-win situations around our values. These values are simple: ensuring we can take care of ourselves, our families, our communities, and future generations to come.

The person providing care to your loved one right now—whether your mother, grandfather, or uncle—might not be here tomorrow, and no one will know where that person went. Your loved one may not have a way to notify anyone of the fact that they’re not receiving care. It’s ridiculous that mass deportation affects people in such life-threatening ways.

Guernica: You mentioned certain agencies that take a large profit, leaving workers with poverty wages. Are there similar examples in our system that are so unjust to both the people receiving care and the people providing care?

Ai-jen Poo: The big issue is immigration. We have at least 11 million people trapped in an undocumented status, working in the shadows and living in fear of deportation and separation from their families. Five million have U.S. citizen children in this country, so deportation would mean family separation. Many of the women relegated to the shadows are doing domestic work, so we’re counting on this workforce to care for our families and allow us to go to work every day to meet our potential in our careers and in society. They’re living in fear of permanent separation from their family, or separation from their family in their home country because they can’t visit due to strict immigration laws.

We will have the opportunity in the coming years to push for citizenship for those 11 million people, both to support the workers coming out of the shadows toward opportunity, and to have our electorate reflect who we are as a nation. It’s exciting to rethink citizenship in a way that allows us to better reach our potential.

The person providing care to your loved one right now—whether your mother, grandfather, or uncle—might not be here tomorrow, and no one will know where that person went. Your loved one may not have a way to notify anyone of the fact that they’re not receiving care. It’s ridiculous that mass deportation affects people in such life-threatening ways. I think about my grandmother, who doesn’t like changing from one person to another because it can be intense. The people who provide care to the people you love—there shouldn’t be this fear they might not be there.

…[T]he workforce we expect and count on to take care of our families can’t take care of their own families under these conditions.

Guernica: You collaborated on a study with the University of Chicago and DataCenter, which was the first survey of domestic care workers released. What was the impact of this study?

Ai-jen Poo: A little over two years ago, whenever we talked to legislators and the media about the conditions for domestic workers, they were constantly asking for data and research. There had never been data on this workforce that was accurate and reflected reality, so we embarked on developing the first national study. We teamed up with researchers and spent a year carefully designing the survey instrument, as well as training domestic workers around the country to field the questions so that each survey collected was done by domestic workers or advocates involved with an affiliate, partner, or deeply rooted organization in a locale. We were able to access hard-to-reach places, and workers who are very much hidden. We surveyed more than two thousand workers in thirteen cities, and it took about two years.

Having the data now is game changing. When we released the report, we drew media attention to the moral crisis. The Wall Street Journal wrote about it, the Times published an editorial about the substandard conditions that caught the attention of some senators now interested in federal legislation.

We’ve awakened a different part of the advocacy and media community to the scope and scale of the problems facing domestic workers. The report is shocking because it indicates that the workforce we expect and count on to take care of our families can’t take care of their own families under these conditions.

Guernica: When I think about the past few years, from the attack on organized labor in Ohio and Wisconsin to the rise of Occupy, I can’t help but feel like a movement is building. What is your take on the current moment?

We’re looking to rebuild the culture of care in this country.

Ai-jen Poo: We’re at a crossroads and there’s exciting work that’s helping to pull the country down a path of healing, democracy, dignity, and equity. But there are also strong, well-resourced forces pulling in the other direction. Are we going to be a country that’s about us versus them? Are we going to serve the interests of a tiny minority at the expense of the vast majority? Are we going to be a “you’re on your own” country, or one where we take care of each other? In moments where major moral questions are being asked, I think leadership that can name those questions and show the path to healing and articulate how we get to justice and dignity will inspire bold actions. I feel encouraged that we do see that leadership emerging.

In some of the organizations we partner with, like Jobs with Justice, people like Sarita Gupta—another female leader of color—represent the future of where the labor movement needs to go. I see faces like Guillermina Castellanos, who is our leader in San Francisco and has been at the forefront of the domestic workers movement and civil rights movement for over a decade. She’s a mother, grandmother, domestic worker, and leader.

We have to remember that millions of dollars were spent on the elections to pay for negative ads that speak to people’s worst fears and worst selves. We’re up against a lot in terms of the resources and capacity that would drive the country down the wrong path. It’s about always building on what we have and remembering that we must be constantly expanding the movement and our vision for the future in a way that everyone can see their hopes and dreams reflected in it. That’s a challenge in a moment of scarcity where there are no jobs and everyone is under pressure. As Van Jones sometimes says, “We risk turning on one another when we should be turning to one another.”

Guernica: What is on the horizon for you?

Ai-jen Poo: Workers rights, immigration, and care are going to be big focuses of ours. We’re hoping to win domestic workers’ rights in new states, and hoping to play a role in making sure that people can get access to health insurance under the healthcare reform. We’re going to be focused on bringing 11 million new citizens into being, and ensuring that every worker and person in this country can have opportunity and come out of the shadows. We’re going to be celebrating major holidays this year with the Caring Across Generations movement. We’re doing big Mother’s Day and Grandparents Day celebrations to honor the mothers, caregivers, and grandparents who we count on and who count on us, commemorating that vitality of those relationships. We’re looking to rebuild the culture of care in this country.

Guernica: What has been one of the most surprising joys you’ve encountered in your work?

Ai-jen Poo: I experience a world where a lot of men are in positions of power. I work in a movement led by women and women of color, and the amount of talent, humor, creativity, and compassion I witness in the midst of our work is just energizing. A lot of people say domestic workers are not just caregivers, they’re psychiatrists, nurses, assistants. They’re also poets, singers, dancers, and artists. In the context of a movement where people feel whole and human, they’re able to express themselves and their potential. That’s what I hope for the country.

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