Ai-jen admits that she has never experienced working as a hired hand unlike the many women she has helped. However, growing up under the acre of her immigrant grandmother and mother, Ai-jen has seen the two women do everything around the house and struggle to be equal with native citizens. Her father is also one of the people who profoundly influenced her and opened her young mind to activism. Although immigrants from Taiwan, she feels fortunate to belong to a family who never allow anyone to demean them just because of their race and color.
This kind of respect for race eventually directed Ai-jen’s career path. Ai-jen never saw herself doing the things that she has achieved now when she was younger. This unassuming woman only dreamt of being a potter, not a grand dream considering that her parents were both successful individuals in the field of science—her mother is an oncologist, while her father is a molecular neurobiologist. Her life took a surprising turn when she got to college and saw a broader world, a world where people are judged by their color and what they do for a living.
Organizing With Love
Slavery dates back to Biblical times and even earlier than that. It’s an integral part of society and one that had to change as human beings became more civilized. As much as men no longer reside in caves, slavery also became a thing of the past. Slavery is considered barbaric in today’s time where even animal rights are recognized.
But some people still get a taste of enslavement. What’s more disgusting is that they are the ones left to take care of the loved ones of people who abuse them. Abuse can take many forms. For most domestic workers, it’s getting paid below their minimum wage while being on-call for 24 hours. Relatively, these workers are considered more fortunate than those who get physically or sexually abused. Some have to deal with all that along with emotional attacks perpetrated by their employers.
In this context, it is easy to see that something is missing in the relationship of the employer and helper. Ai-jen has thought about it for some time and called the missing link “love.” If love is present, then injustice won’t take place. If love exists in the equation, then no abuse would be committed. As an organizer, Ai-jen was compelled to do something for people whose voice aren’t heard because they are not worth hearing considering the “minor” part they play in the big picture. This is where Ai-jen disagrees. For her, domestic workers “do the work that makes all work possible.”
A couple who are out of their home conquering this and that usually have a hired hand to look after the kids they don’t have time to care for. Their kids are loved and taken care of; yet those who fulfill their responsibilities at home don’t even get the credit. Worse, they are sometimes shortchanged.
So Ai-jen has all the reasons to stand up and encourage these women to speak for themselves and demand what is rightfully theirs considering what they are expected to give in exchange of the measly compensation they get. In the report Ai-jen wrote titled “Organizing with Love: Lessons from the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Campaign,” she gave a comprehensive review of the evolution of domestic workers’ rights and the need for more reform. She also touched on what the Domestic Workers United have achieved over the years of lobbying for the enactment of Bills that would further protect and uphold the rights of the marginalized blue-collared workers.
Where does Ai-jen get the motivation? What keeps her positive despite the oppositions they are facing? For Ai-jen, fighting for the rights of domestic workers is more than just a sympathy move. Looking further into the future, Ai-jen sees the imminent need for more workers as the baby boomer generation advance in age. She is hoping that by the time this vision becomes a reality, the government has in place by-laws that would encourage people to take on a career in caring and increase the quality of service that will in turn put the elderly and their families at ease when availing of such services.
Ai-jen Poo’s Early Life
Ai-jen takes pride in her lineage. She’s born into a family of immigrants from Taiwan. Her mother learned to speak English on her own and supported her education. She eventually became a successful oncologist. Ai-jen’s father is a neurobiologist and is a successful man in his own right. He’s a one-time activist and inspired his daughter to become one too—only that Ai-jen decided to make it a way of life.
Ai-jen was born in Pittsburgh. She’s been to her parents’ birthplace and also spent some of her childhood in Southern California and Connecticut. Her grandmother lived with them and she helped her mother raise Ai-jen to become the strong woman that she is now. It’s her mother and grandmother who shaped her ideologies and inculcated the value of hard work in her. Even though both of her parents were in the field of science, Ai-jen never had the inclination to follow in their footsteps, not that she was forced to do so. They just let Ai-jen be despite dreaming of pursuing a career in pottery. When she began attending high school at the Philips Academy Andover, she has not changed her mind about being a potter.
Ai-jen Poo Falls in Love with Domestic Workers
She enrolled in Columbia University and signed up for the Women’s Study program. Since she was a young girl, she’s been taken by women like her mother and grandmother who play a big role in society yet are not duly acknowledged. Also, being an immigrant herself co-existing with fellow settlers from overseas, gave Ai-jen a first-hand experience on what it’s like to be treated as someone who does not truly belong.
Staying in New York as she began attending university made Ai-jen more sensitive to racial stereotypes. It also ushered her into a life of activism. When she was still an undergraduate, she was arrested along with her fellow activists for participating in the Manhattan Bridge planking in protest against police brutality. Colored people then were not treated as humanely as Caucasians are.
A short stint behind bars only made Ai-jen more furious at the ongoing injustices in her community and even in her own school. The following year after her arrest in 1995, Ai-jen again joined a protest, this time to call for the university to hire faculty members to teach ethnic studies and promote awareness of the diverse population of the institution. Ai-jen was one of the 100 students who occupied the rotunda of the university’s Low Library and refused to vacate the place which then led to her second arrest. But the students could no longer be intimidated. They held a five-day siege of the administrative building and stood their ground until a compromise was reached.
Working for CAAAV
When she was about to graduate, Ai-jen joined an organization called Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV). The stories she heard from women immigrants were utterly unbelievable. Some complained about being maltreated, some admit that they have been subjected to verbal and emotional abuse, others say their male employers tried to take advantage of them, and there were others who were not accordingly paid.
What touched Ai-jen was the story of a colored woman from Jamaica. She went to the United States in the hope of working and sending herself to school. After several months of looking for a job, she ended up offering her domestic services to a couple who said they will send her salary to her family in Jamaica. For the next sixteen years, she has not heard from them and was totally cut off from home. No mail arrived for her and her family was under the impression that she abandoned her responsibilities because no money was ever sent to them. The poor woman finally escaped with the help of the couple’s children.
This is a sad fact and Ai-jen couldn’t just close her eyes. She had to do something.
Founding the Domestic Workers Union
In 2000, Ai-jen established the Domestic Workers Union (DWU) in order to create a network of helpers that will then work together towards improving their working environment. Asked what her work really is, Ai-jen explained:
"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." (Source: Spirituality & Health)
Forming the National Domestic Workers Alliance
The Domestic Workers Union soon spread by word of mouth. In 2007, a convention held by 40 organizations geared towards pushing the government to enact laws that will protect domestic workers led to the creation of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).
Three years later, Ai-jen became the organization’s director. Through the efforts of the organization and its partners, the first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was enacted in New York. The bill entitles workers to paid sick leave and minimum wage among many other benefits.
Ai-jen is currently pre-occupied with Caring Across Generations, which she co-directs. Caring Across Generations, like NDWA, is a coalition of advocacy groups. Around 200 organizations collaborate under Caring Across Generations in order to make home-care favorable to both patients and caregivers.
Aside from New York, Ai-jen’s organization has just recently seen the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Hawaii. She is hoping that more states will follow. Campaigns are ongoing in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts.
Ai-jen doesn’t mind dreaming big dreams. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights used to be a dream not only of hers but of the 200,000 women workers who thought they could not do something to change the system. Without being in their shoes, Ai-jen understands these women’s plight because she takes the time to listen and she doesn’t hesitate to love.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- National Domestic Workers Alliance
- Domestic Workers United
- Caring Across Generations
- Domestic Workers Bill of Rights
- Momsrising (Board of Directors)
- National Jobs with Justice (Board of Directors)
- Working America (Board of Directors)
- The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (Board of Directors)
- The National Council on Aging (Board of Directors)
- International Labor Organization Decent Worker for Domestic Workers Convention
- California Bill of Rights
- Illinois Bill of Rights
- Massachusetts Bill of Rights
- We Belong Together
- Beyond Survival
- ILO Campaign
- Restaurant Opportunities Centers United
- Jobs With Justice
- CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities
- Board of Social Justice Leadership
- The Seasons Fund for Social Transformation
- The Labor Advisory Board at Cornell ILR School
- The New Labor Forum Editorial Board
- Hand-in-Hand Domestic Employers Association
Awards and Achievements
- 1996: Served as the Women Workers Project organizer at CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities in New York City
- 2000: Co-founded Domestic Workers United
- 2000: Recipient of an Open Society Institute New York City Community Fellowship
- 2009: Named one of Crain's "40 Under 40"
- 2009: Included in New York Moves Magazine's "Power Women"
- 2009: Awarded the $25,000 Alston-Bannerman Fellowship for Organizers of Color by the Center for Social Inclusion
- 2010: Became the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) Director
- 2010: Domestic Workers United was instrumental in New York State passing the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights into law
- 2010: Recognized by the by the Feminist Press in their "40 under 40" awards
- 2011: Named one of Yes!'s Breakthrough 15
- 2011: Received the Independent Sector's American Express NGen Leadership Award
- 2012: Named one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People in the World
- 2012: Named one of Newsweek's "150 Fearless Women"
- Lobbied for the creation of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race
- Received the Open Society Institute Community Fellowship, the Union Square Award, the Leadership for a Changing World Award, the Ernest de Maio Award from the Labor Research Association, the Woman of Vision Award from Ms. Foundation for Women, the Alston Bannerman Fellowship for Organizers of Color, the Twink Frey Visiting Scholar Fellowship at University of Michigan Center for the Education of Women, and the Prime Movers Fellowship
- Recognized by Women Deliver as one of 100 women internationally who are "delivering" for other women
Time (The World's 100 Most Influential People: 2012)
Wikipedia (Ai-jen Poo)
Domestic Workers Alliance (Ai-jen Poo)
Facebook (National Domestic Workers Alliance)
National Domestic Workers Alliance (Campaigns)
The Huffington Post (Building a Caring Economy)
The Nation (Can 'Caring Across Generations' Change the World?)
The New York Times Blog (The Nannies’ Norma Rae)
Bill Moyers (Ai-jen Poo)
Andover.edu (Ai-jen Poo '92 named to list of 100 most influential people in the world)
Yes Magazine (Ai-jen Poo: Organizing Labor—With Love)
BCRW (Participants: Ai-jen Poo)
Independent Sector (Meet the 2011 American Express NGen Finalists)
Columbia College Today (The Home Front)
The Raw Story (National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Ai-Jen Poo: ‘There’s a lot of cultural resistance to the notion that we’re aging’)
Crain's (Ai-jen Poo)
Spirituality & Health (Home Sweet Home? Not for Domestic Workers. Ai0jen Poo Demands Justice)
The Nation (Labor Leader Ai-jen Poo: We Are All Domestic Workers Now)
We Belong Together (Ai-jen Poo)
The American Prospect (The Invisible Workers)
Guernica Magazine (The Caregivers Coalition)
Bill Moyers (Inside the Invisible World of Domestic Work: An Interview with Ai-jen Poo)
NY1.com (One On 1 Profile: Labor Leader Ai-jen Poo Fights To Give A Voice To The Voiceless)
Center for the Education of Women (Organizing With Love)