“I believe that love is the most powerful force for change in the world. I often compare great campaigns to great love affairs because they’re an incredible container for transformation.”—Ai-jen Poo quoted in Yes! magazine, November 2011
An Interview with Labor Organizer and Feminist, Ai-jen Poo
Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), speaks lyrically about social movements, about how they transform people and the world. But what her words render most is her deep sense of the meaning of justice, as well as how to achieve justice through strategic movement-building. Her resolve leaves a seeker of truth like me in amazement and relief: the future can’t be bad if Ai-jen is fighting for it.
Evidence of her resolve is not just in her words. A lifelong activist, Ai-jen and her colleagues have achieved critical results over the last decade, successfully passing a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York, Hawaii, and California to provide basic labor protections for the mostly immigrant women who labor as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for families in the United States; there has also been significant progress reforming federal wage and hour regulations to include domestic workers. These laws help ensure that domestic workers have the right to overtime pay, a day of rest every seven days, disability benefits, and other protections most “traditional” positions afford. I first connected with Ai-jen when I was writing about the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, legislation that is similar to the New York law and also the fruit of NDWA’s labor. Several more states are poised to launch campaigns for domestic workers’ rights. Aside from legislation, the movement has built partnerships with employers, prominent politicians and even Hollywood elite like Amy Poehler to build awareness about the lives of those who toil inside American homes.
As the movement for domestic workers continues to gain momentum throughout the country, it is notable the ways in which it intersects with sister movements. Specifically, given that the vast majority of domestic workers are women, the interconnectedness of the labor rights and feminist movements is clear. Feminists have been fighting for economic rights since Mary Wollstonecraft’s days, but the focus on domestic workers brings to light the particular vulnerability women in the domestic labor force experience.
And nobody conveys this interconnectedness better than Ai-jen: she manages to bring nearly every question about feminism, including political representation and socio-cultural influence, back squarely to the topic of domestic workers’ rights. When I met with her in NDWA’s modest Manhattan office, the topic of iconic feminist leadership came up, and Ai-jen pushes hard against the idea that an icon is ever central to achieving social change. The more important truth, she insists, is that she and her colleagues are part of a movement of many people who are making domestic workers lives visible to the society and economy, and ensuring their dignity in the eyes of Americans. Activists know this is true: a movement is never built by one person alone. But Ai-jen’s profile is rising, and I can’t ebb my feeling that for the larger culture, she could be the next Gloria Steinem—especially when the iconic Gloria herself refers to Ai-jen as a “genius.”
I. THE MAKING OF AN ACTIVIST
THE BELIEVER: At what stage in your life did you feel your first activist inclination? And what was the inspiration for that?
AI-JEN POO: I was five. There was a lot of coverage of the Ethiopian famine on TV. I don’t remember this well, but my mom says that I organized a bake sale in front of a neighborhood grocery store to raise money for famine relief. First I baked my own cookies, and then the sale was so successful I went to the grocery store and bought more to sell.
BLVR: Sounds like you have unrequited talents as a baker, too.
AP: That might be something I have to come back to.
BLVR: After age 5, how did activism evolve for you?
AP: My parents played a major role. They always encouraged me to pay attention to what was unfair in society, and to do something about it. My dad, a scientist, was involved in supporting girls’ education in rural China. This was in the 1980s when few in the US knew anything about China. And my Mom, a doctor, always went the extra mile for her patients and their families. Her philosophy is that we should care not only for the immediate people in our lives, but the whole of society.
BLVR: Did your parents influence how you viewed the world throughout your youth?
AP: Yes. I was always looking to connect to something larger, throughout my younger years. We moved around a lot—Pittsburgh is where I was born, then Taiwan, where I lived with my grandmother when I was very young, then Southern California—but I was always active wherever we were. In middle school I was involved in Amnesty International. In high school I helped lead my school’s Women’s Forum, and we were very active in protecting women’s right to choose. I was also really drawn to environmental activism. There was something about protecting the earth that resonated with me.
BLVR: College is where many people’s activism really takes off. Was that true for you?
AP: I was definitely active at Columbia, where I was part of a multiracial effort to establish an ethnic studies department, so that students of color could learn about their background and the role it played in shaping the country. We were successful establishing a Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and I think that was really transformative, it demonstrated clearly the power of collective action and the essential nature of multiracial alliances and collaboration. I also volunteered with domestic violence (DV) survivors at the New York Asian women’s shelter. That’s when I began to see the connections between living a violence free life and economic opportunity. That made me understand the importance of organizing workers.
BLVR: You dabbled in a wide range of issues: environmental protection, reproductive rights and justice, international human rights. From all of that, advocacy for domestic workers is a very specific focus. Why did you decide that should be the focus of your energy?
AP: I’ve always believed it’s important to make the invisible visible. And valuing that which has been taken for granted is something that I’ve always instinctually known is the key to the kind of society I want to live in and raise my children in. At the New York Asian Women’s Shelter, I was organizing in low-income Asian communities; we organized health fairs and other events. It was often domestic workers who came to our events. It seemed that the isolation they experience in their jobs, working children and the elderly behind closed doors every day, inspired them to get involved in organizing.
So we first started working with a group of Filipina domestic workers, that was the start. It was called the Women Workers Project.
II. CENTER STAGE
BLVR: When you began the Women Workers Project, who were the other groups advocating for domestic workers rights at the time?
AP: The Women Workers project was really inspired by Sakhi, a group that advocates for South Asian women—they had already started a domestic workers committee. We took a lot of strategies from Sakhi and collaborated with them too. At a certain point the women we were organizing as part of the Women Workers Project felt it was essential to build a movement with women from different communities.
BLVR: What was the specific agenda in those days?
AP: It became clear that what we really need to do is establish basic standards. In the domestic labor force, there are no guidelines, no rules, and employers can do as they choose. It’s luck of the draw for workers and it’s sometimes very, very exploitative. In 2000 we started a group called Domestic Workers United, under which South Asian women, Latinas, and Filipinas, all slowly started coming together.
BLVR: At what level of government did you begin pushing baseline standards for domestic workers?
AP: In 2001 we passed New York City legislation that set basic standards for the rights for domestic workers. And shortly thereafter we launched our statewide campaign. In 2007 we formed our National Domestic Workers Alliance. The victories came after some years: in 2010 we passed the New York law, and in 2011 we won at the International Labor Organization (ILO) as well.
BLVR: It seems that many of the issues the domestic workers rights movement raises are relevant for other sectors, too. In light of the economy’s challenges, there are more and more freelancers these days who don’t have the protections of someone with a full-time job.
AP: Yes. The conditions that define domestic workers’ lives also define other parts of the workforce. More and more people don’t have time off or paid holidays. In order for there to be real economic recovery in this country, we have to improve labor standards at scale. Our nation’s labor laws are from a time when the economy was not globalized. Today we do have more freelancers, more contract workers. The protections and standards to put in place have to ensure an economy that works for everyone. Domestic workers’ rights are a big piece of that.
BLVR: Tell me about the ILO victory. What is going on internationally?
AP: As a result of our presence at the ILO, there is now an international convention on domestic work; we’re part of an international domestic workers network that pushed to make it a strong convention. It was passed in 2011 and it will be ratified in 2013. Now it’s just a process of lots of countries ratifying it. <Currently 13 nations have ratified the Convention.>
BLVR: Do you think the United States will ratify it?
AP: The United States has a notoriously bad track record of ratifying international conventions. So, I don’t know. We worked really closely with the Department of Labor representatives at the ILO in the drafting of the international convention. Some of the strongest advocates for a convention are from our own US Department of Labor. The challenge is the United States Congress.
III. POLITICS? IT’S ABOUT THE GRASSROOTS
BLVR: Speaking of electoral politics, Congress, and the President: how do electoral politics play a role in the movement for domestic workers’ rights?
AP: In 2011 we launched a campaign called Caring Across Generations, including the National Council on Aging. A big piece of that campaign is reaching out to seniors. We’re about to have the largest aging population we’ve ever had, and we are increasingly racially and generationally polarized. We’ve discovered that Phoenix, Arizona has the most racially and generationally polarized population. Phoenix and the demographic dynamics there are really foreshadowing what’s the come for the entire country. So politically, it is ripe for our opposition to drive a wedge between communities and interests.
The political campaigns this year focus on senior voters, about what they care about and certainly Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security were top issues given nationwide austerity and budget debates. We were able to reach thousands of seniors in Florida, Virginia, New Mexico, Idaho and North Carolina. It’s really about trying to knit together the interest of different constituencies—seniors and those who will end up caring for them.
BLVR: I notice that your response to a question about electoral politics was really based on grassroots organizing. Have you ever worked for a politician’s campaign?
BLVR: Would you ever consider running for office?
AP: No. But I would run a campaign for a domestic worker to elected office.
BLVR: Have any of the domestic workers you know in the movement expressed interest in running for office?
AP: Not yet. But eventually we’ll get there. There’s an organizer on our staff, Barbara Young, and we call her the “mayor.” She’s a great public speaker and organizer. She’s originally from Barbados and worked as a nanny here in New York for 18 years. Now she’s on the NDWA staff supporting worker leaders throughout the country. She’s somebody who I think would be incredible to have serving in public office. That’s the kind of leadership for a new America that I think is needed. I’m more of a behind the scenes person, thinking about strategy, how we move people and move our vision forward.
BLVR: Do you think Barbara Young wants to run?
AP: She always laughs when we suggest it. I don’t know what is behind that laughter. But I think we have a movement of really strong and strategic and compelling leaders who are domestic workers, many of whom would make wonderful elected officials and I think we’ll get there whether it’s Barbara or somebody else.
BLVR: Whenever the topic of electoral politics comes up, it’s typical for women to suggest another woman they admire to run. That’s exactly what you just did. What do you think is behind that?
AP: Well for me, it’s about our values and leadership of domestic workers. Honestly, I think the experience of domestic workers is one that lends itself to a really necessary form of leadership for this country. Domestic workers have their own experience as mostly working class, sometimes poor. And they live inside the realities of their employers. Their employers are sometimes extraordinarily wealthy. Domestic workers see their employers come home with pairs of shoes that cost more than their entire week’s salary.
BLVR: But why is that experience important to have inside of our elected bodies?
AP: Domestic workers have this incredible awareness of life across the economic spectrum and the inequality that exists in our society, not to mention a boundless sense of compassion. It’s very difficult to dehumanize the people that they work for, it’s almost impossible for domestic workers to do their job as nannies and as caregivers for the elderly if they dehumanize their employers. Despite the inequality of their job, they bring a lot of love and care and pride to the work that they do. That combination of both a clear and sober picture of what inequality looks like along with that deep sense of humanity is precisely what’s needed for leadership in this country.
BLVR: I’m still focused on that tendency women have to nominate their friends to run for public office. It is a consistent pattern, and I think it says something about women and their relationship to power.
AP: I’m not passing the buck because I don’t want to step into leadership, it’s more thinking about what kind of vision of leadership is needed in this moment and what domestic workers can bring to the table. It’s about making the invisible visible and valuing that which we take for granted.
IV. FEMINISM, ECONOMICS, AND THE FUTURE
BLVR: The majority of people who are currently in office are lawyers or maybe business owners. The legislatures are dominated by a really narrow sector of society. And that is very concerning, the narrow expertise. But I do notice a trend that even very committed women, like yourself, have about saying it should be someone else running for elected office instead of themselves. Even as advanced as women’s rights are in this country relative to many other countries, there are still things women choose not to do, and fields that women consistently gravitate toward. What do you make of this, is it a failure of feminism?
AP: Every movement has its challenges and its blind spots, and part of the problem is we’ve built in these silos where what’s viewed as a women’s issue is siloed and narrowed. There is a lot of talk about the Anne-Marie Slaughter article and challenges of work family balance and all of that, but I think the invisible story inside of that is the women behind the women, the domestic workers, the women—many of whom who are immigrant women of color—who stepped in to take care of the work that supports families. That is still invisible.
BLVR: It’s kind of like we’ve been talking about the same things for decades—especially work family balance—and ignoring many more issues relevant to the feminist movement.
AP: I think it’s like this: Gloria Steinem actually wrote “Revaluing Economics”twenty years ago and in it, she says the two invisible resources upon which everything in society and the economy is built are the planet’s natural resources, and the work that goes into caring for families, raising children, taking care of the aging, and taking care of homes. Those two resources have intentionally been made invisible and exploited, and we will never have a sustainable economy or social system until we figure out how to revalue those two resources and protect them at the center of our economic vision. To me, a failure of not only the women’s movement, but of everybody, is to recognize that work, the women who do it, and the value of that work. Instead of opening opportunities for women to work in the public workforce, it’s about actually bringing value and dignity to work that has historically been devalued through its association with women. I think that is a big piece of it.
BLVR: Where do you think feminism has made the most progress?
AP: We’ve made progress in areas of representation, but ultimately when you look at the data, we’re still in positions that are economically disadvantaged overall. We are still really vulnerable in the workplace, in the home and in society as a whole. I think there have been advances but the economic reality for women still has not shifted. The value of work that has historically been associated with women, that hasn’t shifted.
BLVR: What do you mean we’ve made progress in representation issues?
AP: There are more women in the media, on television, in college, in the workplace in general, though not at the highest levels. There are more women in leadership roles than there used to be. Even looking at the labor movement, two of our top three elected positions are women in the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is a queer woman. We’ve made progress in that sense. In terms of the economic reality and the data, we’re still earning 77 cents on the dollar, for women of color it’s more like 60 cents. There’s something wrong with that.
BLVR: Do you feel like the increasing representation is not very substantive? Is it just for appearances?
AP: No, I think representation is really meaningful because it shows women what’s possible, it creates a model, it creates opportunity. But it doesn’t necessarily change the economic reality for most women and the set of choices most women have. And I think that’s what the next generation needs to really focus on, how do we create more economic opportunities. All the ways in which our economy is structured assume there will be a woman who, for either very low pay, or no pay at all will take care of this huge area of work, which is caring for families. I think it’s untenable. It’s already starting, there’s great work being done around paid sick days and paid family leave. That’s the kind of policy we need to be pushing.
BLVR: And we’re also starting to see that among the poorest women in the country are elderly. It seems that even among people who are highly educated, there is a gender divide in earnings that sustains and creates economic disparities over the long term.
AP: That will be the case until we actually define an agenda that actually includes and gets at some of these economic issues and really pushes for it. Our theory is that movements of people create change—not just any one person or organization, but when lots of people are in motion around a shared vision. I think in the past we made progress around domestic violence and reproductive rights and justice, but I think now we need to push on economic issues. A women’s agenda has to be redefined in relationship to women’s economic opportunity, reevaluating the responsibilities of caregiving so they are valued as are other forms of labor.
BLVR: Speaking of reproductive rights—how has it emerged as an issue for domestic workers?
AP: All of these issues are connected. I think we’d define it more in relation to women’s health and opportunity. We haven’t actually been working on issues of reproductive rights and justice but we’re supportive of campaigns like the Strong Families campaign. But it’s not a driver of our work.
BLVR: In your experience, among domestic workers, how is the issue of abortion perceived?
AP: I haven’t really observed discomfort or opposition to abortion. But what does come up for the domestic workers who we are connected with is the fear of separation from their families, and the right to stay with their families. We have a campaign called “We Belong Together” which supports the ability for families to stay together in the wake of deportation policies. Deportation policies allow local police to act as immigration agents. Women who are bottom-lining the well being of their children and families—whether it be taking kids to school or the hospital—end up on the front lines of police checkpoints. Particularly women who are vulnerable to violence. We’ve heard numerous cases of women survivors of domestic violence who have called the police then been deported. So women are afraid to access resources or even go to a shelter. All of the work to support domestic violence survivors is completely undermined by these policies that make people afraid of getting help and speaking out. That’s been at the forefront of our members’ minds.
BLVR: It is mostly women who are domestic workers, and it seems to be mostly women advocating on behalf of domestic workers. What I’ve connected with your work and success in New York and nationally is that we’re letting go of the older-focused paradigm of women’s rights, and we’ve evolved into a more justice-oriented framework that focuses on holistic issues, including economic rights.
AP: I haven’t seen it that way. I feel like there has always been an undercurrent of justice in all of this activism. I feel like we stand on the shoulders of so many feminists of generations past who were drive by the desire for justice. Throughout, there was a way in which their activism was about justice. I am really proud we are developing a generation of women leaders within our movement who know not only how to look at the world through an intersectional lens but who know how to organize and build strategy from that place of not seeing their status as women as separate from anything else and being able to offer a vision that everyone can feel connected to in some way.
BLVR: Is that the feminist vision for the 21st century?
AP: I think so. We’re the majority of the population, majority of the electorate, majority of the workforce… and yet we’re still doing majority of family unpaid or low paid labor. And we live longer. Our stuff is not “special interest” stuff. Our stuff is the stuff of the future, of the whole. It’s our responsibility as women leaders to offer a vision that reflects the hopes and dreams of everyone. It’s about really stepping into a different kind of leadership, not just leadership of other women but leadership of the whole country moving forward. Women’s issues are everyone’s issues. What’s needed is leadership from women for the whole.
BLVR: How do you see men fitting into all of this?
AP: Men have a really key role to play in all of this. Some of the best feminists I know are men. Being able to practice feminism as a man is really important in this moment. I think we’re going to need more active male feminists. I go to lots of meetings about the state of the economy and jobs and the future of work. Right now, at these meetings, they are still having whole policy conversations about the future of the country and the economy without talking about women. I want to make sure that by the time I’m an elder that it’s no longer possible to have a conversation like that without talking about women. I think men have a really important role to play in making sure that is the case.
BLVR: How is it possible to have those conversations without women?
AP: There’s a lack of gender analysis, not considering or factoring in the specific experiences, roles, conditions of women is more the norm than it is the exception. Whether you’re talking about housing, or job growth, the dominant conversation still doesn’t include women.
BLVR: It seems that sectors dominated by women—like teaching or nursing—are not considered drivers of the economy. Teaching especially tends to be attacked instead of valued.
BLVR: What has it been like getting to know Gloria Steinem? She’s such an iconic feminist figure.
AP: She is one of my heroines. I’ve learned a lot from her over the years. We met a long time ago, in 2004 or 2005. She has been really proactive about sharing what she knows about the long history about women’s activism on economic issues. She sent me old Ms. Magazine articles—they had a household workers bill of rights that they developed in the 1970s, something very similar to what we are doing with domestic workers’ bills of rights nationally and internationally. There’s a tradition and trajectory she’s able to help connect us to. In 2008 and 2009 when we were sure our bill could pass in the New York State Senate, she came and supported us. We did a three-day vigil in front of the Governor’s office; she came and stood with us in the rain and talked with domestic workers. She has supported us year after year through her activism and through her writing. Most recently my conversations about her have been about these larger economic issues. Some environmentalists will also be studying “Revaluing Economics” together and talk about how we will work together across environmentalism and feminism. She has an incredibly expansive legacy that is still so alive in many of us.
BLVR: Has anyone “replaced” her as an icon yet? When I think of American feminism, I primarily think of Gloria Steinem. I also think of Ellie Schmeal and a handful of other people. Who do you think is in the next crop of feminist leaders?
AP: Gloria would say it’s never been just her. She would list forty people who were her sisters in moving the feminist movement forward. I would say there are incredible women leaders now who I see as the future. Sarita Gupta of Jobs with Justice, Rinku Sen of the Applied Research Center, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of MomsRising, Judith Brown Dianis of the Advancement Project. There is a phenomenal caliber of leaders who are demonstrating the ways in which gender intersects with other changes in our country. And they’re providing really important leadership.
BLVR: But pop culture, though it has evolved in portrayals of women in some ways, still does not seem to embrace feminism specifically. Veep is on HBO, but there’s something about how women are portrayed in the larger culture that’s missing. What do you think is behind that?
AP: I think we really need a movement to drive how popular culture understands the issues that feminists care about. When I think about the LGBT movement for example, they have had a really intentional strategy to try to change images and representation of LGBT people in the media and the culture. It really moved the dial politically. There are still people who are homophobic, but it’s a completely different terrain than it was ten years ago. That’s what is needed in the women’s movement, now. A strategy that can drive awareness and culture change. That’s missing right now.
BLVR: Putting your strategy hat on, what would be the first approach you would take in terms of changing the perception of both feminism and women in pop culture?
AP: We need to develop a common story and put forward some voices of our movement. There’s incredible work happening, I think about MomsRising’s Work Consortium pushing paid sick days. And Ultraviolet, new online women’s organizing effort for sexual rights, together with the NDWA, the Strong Families Campaign. And we need to sit down with some people in Hollywood and other places and talk about what it could look like to have different kinds of story lines, different character roles, all kinds of themes and values that reflect our vision and a different kind of portrayal of women in society, what are the challenges, and strategize it. An organization called Gems works with young women coming out of the commercial sex industry. They’ve been very successful in raising the issue in pop culture, tapping into MTV and celebrities, getting Law & Order to change their screenplays.
It can be done, it just requires focused strategy and leadership. We just need to build it.
Sheila Bapat is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her book about the U.S. domestic workers’ movement will soon be released by Ig Publishing.