The Feministing Five: Ai-jen Poo

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The Feministing Five: Ai-jen Poo

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For the past 12 years, Ai-jen Poo has been fighting for the workers “that make all other work possible.” Co-director of Caring Across Generations and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), she was recently named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2012. And we’ve been fans of hers here at Feministing for awhile now.

Working in the private sphere behind closed doors, domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to basic labor violations. Our nation’s caregivers face long hours (sometimes as long as 16 hours per day) and no overtime pay or health insurance. There are no safety nets for domestic workers. If a domestic worker falls ill, is fired without notice or severance, or suffers an injury, the vast majority of the time, they will not qualify for existing social safety nets such as unemployment or disability benefits. Making matters even worse, domestic workers lack collective bargaining legal protections afforded other workers in the 1930s National Labor Relations Act.

Ai-jen Poo is looking to change all of that. In 2010, thanks to a 6-year campaign by NDWA, the governor of New York passed the country’s first statewide Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The bill establishes eight hours as a legal day’s work, one day of rest in each calendar week, 3 paid days off after one year of employment, and protections against workplace discrimination and sexual harassment by their employer. And NDWA is looking to pass the second Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights in California. (Sign the petition here!) They’re also spearheading the Caring Across Generations campaign which is a comprehensive campaign changing how society treats care. Creating more jobs, making sure those jobs are quality and dignified, demanding affordable healthcare and creating paths to citizenship are all parts of the agenda. Finally, they are hosting a national seniors conference in Florida this September to mobilize the people directly affected by these issues.

All of this work is made possible through the collective work of NDWA and by Poo’s commitment to raising the voices and stories of those that perform the most sacred of jobs–carework.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Ai-jen Poo.

AS: What has it been like so far being named by TIME as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2012?

AP: It’s been really exciting to have a different platform for the stories and campaigns of domestic workers. A lot more people are getting connected to us and learning about us. We’re really excited to start building relationships with the other people in the TIME 100. We’re also really looking forward to being able to shine a different light on the stories of domestic workers where more and more people are starting to realize this workforce is incredibly important. It can help lead the way to a more caring and sustainable future for all of us.

Anna Sterling: How did you get involved with domestic care?

Ai-jen Poo: Mostly through getting involved in women’s organizations. Both my mother and grandmother are strong influences on me. Both of them took care of their families, went to school, did forms of care work in their jobs. My grandma was a nurse and my mother’s a doctor. They place a really high premium on care, know the value of it and how important it is for healthy families and communities. I was raised to both really value it, but also to notice how undervalued it is as a broader society.

I think the reality is this country has never really accounted for the work it takes to raise families and has always devalued that work which we call “the work that makes all other work possible.” When I started getting involved in women’s organizations, partly it was about seeking equity in how work is valued, but also looking at the violence against women that happens in our communities. I volunteered at a domestic violence organization that advocated for Asian American immigrant women survivors of domestic violence and it was so clear to me that organizing is absolutely vital. The problems are endless. We really need to build solutions that get us at root causes of why violence happens. Advocacy and organizing are really important. That’s how I got interested in working alongside women to try to lift up the stories of women who are directly affected and to try and build organizations and leadership among those women.

Finally, I’d say that when you look at violence in our communities, it’s really the ability to have economic opportunity that allows women to break cycles of violence and I think for Asian immigrant women, the choices are limited. It’s really important we both create choices and also improve the quality of all jobs so every job out there is one you can take pride in and support your family on and you can do it with dignity. As I started doing the work, these things became clear to me that we need to really support the leadership of women and the voices of women, that we need to be doing organizing and advocacy and that we need to be building an agenda that really expands opportunity and brings value and dignity to all kinds of work.

AS: What are your next goals?

AP: There’s over 2 million domestic workers in this country and we want to organize all of them. We’re building organizations in 20 cities around the country so we’re going to continue that organizing. In 2013, after we win in California this year, which we will, we want to introduce legislation in six additional states. Those are Maryland, Washington, Massachusetts, Colorado, Illinois and Hawaii. We’ll be really aggressively pushing for labor standards for domestic workers and recognition. At the national level, we’re working together with 200 organizations representing people from all walks of life, including seniors and people with disabilities, people who need care together with homecare workers and domestic workers to build a movement together that’s about transforming long-term care for everyone. We want to create 2 million new jobs in homecare. We want to transform caregiver jobs so that they’re quality, dignified jobs that everyone can take pride in and we want to make care more affordable so every single person who needs care in this country can get it and have the choice to stay at home and in their communities as they age, as well as create a path to citizenship for immigrant care workers. This campaign called Caring Across Generations is trying to bring together people of all walks of life to create a more caring economy that really recognizes everyone’s dignity. It’s a big, exciting campaign that’s going to be doing a lot of work this year, including a national senior convention in Florida in September to really lift up the voices of our elders.

AS: What are some of the challenges you face?

AP: We’re in the fight of our lives for the soul of this country. There’s one path that we could continue to go down which is increasing inequality and taking away the safety net and leaving people increasingly in isolation with less and less economic opportunity or we could go down this other path which is to work together to create a vision for an economy and a democracy that works for everyone. I think we’re constantly torn between those two directions and I think that a big challenge is getting the voices and stories of people in the media. That’s why your work is so important in terms of giving voice to women and the visions, hopes and dreams of women. I think that really getting those voices out there is going to be key to moving us towards the direction of dignity and respect for everybody. You’ve got a big sound barrier to break through in the media and we’ve got a lot of work to go to build the movement we need for the future.

AS: What can we do to get involved?

AP: There’s so much you can do. Every single campaign that we’ve had has involved people of all walks of life, not only domestic workers. You can right now sign a Change.org petition and help us pass legislation in California, which will begin a national momentum towards establishing labor standards. You can get involved in Caring Across Generations. We’re building local care coalitions and having townhall meetings in 15 cities across the country. If you go to CaringAcrossGenerations.org, you can sign up to join our list and get updates. You can also see where we’re organizing care congresses, big town hall events that are launching our local campaigns, and stay connected to us that way.

AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

AP: In real life, Ella Baker is my hero. She was an incredible build-bridger, and leader in the Civil Rights-era. She was the organizer who knit everything together. She’s somebody who I learned a lot from. And I have 10,000 heroes who are our members of the NDWA. The courage I witness everyday from our members and leaders who bring so much love and care and generosity to the work that they do–even when society devalues that work, they assert the dignity of that work. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and strength to do that and so they’re my heroes.

AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

AP: Coconut water. Broccoli rabe comes to my mind, I don’t know why! I would take Alice Walker who is an amazing storyteller so she can tell me stories.

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