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One On 1 Profile: Labor Leader Ai-jen Poo Fights To Give A Voice To The Voiceless

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To many, the roughly two million domestic workers in this country -- nannies, housekeepers and caregivers -- are almost invisible. But they have a champion in Ai-jen Poo, a New Yorker who has become increasingly influential in fighting for their rights. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile in October 2012.

Amidst the cacophony of what passes for public and political discourse these days comes the quiet voice of Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, fighting for the rights of domestic workers.

"This is really about the spirit of our nation and our sense of human dignity. They need to be able to look in the mirror and hold their heads up," she says.

Poo understands that legislators, no matter what their political stripe, are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

"There’s no better way to show the scope and scale of the problem than actually having people think about their personal relationship to the issue and there isn’t a single legislator who isn’t grappling with an aging relative who needs care and who they’re concerned about, or a child, or both," says Poo.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is designed to improve the lives and working conditions of people who take care of our kids and our parents and grandparents. The process of uniting domestic workers, primarily women of color from other countries, starts with storytelling.

"We create opportunities for people to be able to come together and share their stories you suddenly realize you’re not the only one who faces whatever it is you’re afraid of," Poo says.

She believes that legislation mandating an eight-hour work day, protections against workplace discrimination and paid sick days also benefits the employer who is seeking to do the right thing.

"Employers are stuck trying to figure that out on their own, in private and oftentimes there's no guidelines, no support for them to be able to afford that care," says Poo. "So there’s a way in which everybody is grappling with the same fundamental issue, which is the devaluing of this work which is that is actually so fundamental. "

The National Domestic Workers Alliance now has 35 satellite local organizations. But Poo is increasingly being singled out for praise, named by Time Magazine as one of the "100 most influential people in the world" in 2012.

When she sits down with a legislator, she combines the empathetic language of fairness with the more concrete language of policy.

"A more caring economy actually benefits everyone, where you actually invest in the work that goes into caring for families," says Poo. "You offer tax credits to families who are paying for care and you expand Medicare so that it pays for long-term care more comprehensively."

Poo spearheaded a campaign to get the New York City Council to pass a domestic workers' bill of rights in 2003. In 2010, New York State passed similar legislation. The process was long and the initial reception was not promising.

"People looked at us like we were crazy. Like we were, you know, speaking a different language altogether," she says. "I mean, our first trips to the Legislature, they were, 'What are you talking about, is this domestic violence? Are you talking about domestic violence?'”

Many of the women Ai-jen Poo represents are immigrants. Her parents immigrated here from Taiwan and she lives with her husband in Woodside, Queens. It is no coincidence that her home is a neighborhood thriving with Asian, Latino and Irish immigrants.

"On St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish pub served green beer and it’s a neighborhood-wide celebration. You’ll see Nepalese and you'll see Filipinos and you'll see Latinos, everybody celebrating and drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day," Poo says. "And that’s just part of the regular scene here in Woodside and I really appreciate that."

Poo was born in Pittsburgh, raised in Taiwan, southern California and Connecticut. Her mother is a doctor and her father is a molecular neurobiologist. So naturally, in high school at Philips Academy Andover, she wanted to be a potter.

"I love this notion of you can have a lump of clay and any shape through this amazing process you could actually center it and create a vessel," she says.

While attending Columbia University, she had a seminal experience volunteering at an Asian women's shelter. Poo heard stories of pain and sorrow, stories that altered the course of her life.

"Many of the women who were at the shelter were mothers and it was very difficult for them to break out of cycles of violence if they didn’t have jobs with economic opportunity and the ability to support their children," says Poo.

The experience heightened Poo's sense of activism, first instilled in her by her parents. She was part of the fight to create an ethnic studies department at Columbia, a fight that included hunger strikes, building takeovers, marches, protests and even refusing to shake the college president's hand at commencement.

"We were successful in making institutional change through the establishment of the, now it’s called The Center for Study of Ethnicity and Race, which never existed before," says Poo. "I think it really expanded my understanding of what’s possible through people coming together and taking action together."

From early grassroots work, to networking with celebrities like Amy Poehler, to lobbying in the halls of power and gaining the support of the AFL-CIO, Poo has been there for every step of the domestic worker movement's history.

"It was pulling teeth to pull together a meeting with five women in a church basement, you know, 15 years ago, to today, where we have 35 affiliate organizations and 18 cities and 11 states around the country," she says.

There is one personal question Poo always faces in interviews. If she and her husband decide to have a family, will they hire a nanny?

"I just don't think there are very good options for families in terms of actually taking care of this work that makes all of their work possible. And so I really want to be in a place where by the time I have a child that I just have many more options and more support," she says.

Poo knows that she stands on the shoulders of previous movements for social justice.

"If we are America, we can change it, and we will. We've done it so many times in generation after generation," she says.

Her work is grounded in organizing principles that have created change.

"One important one from the Civil Rights movement, from Dr. [Martin Luther] King, is really about the power of love and having love at the core of your organizing and faith, faith in people, faith in the common good, and the notion that people, when given the right context will choose good," Poo says.

In October 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed that state's Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, citing unanswered questions in the bill. This has been a major campaign for Poo and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Poo calls Brown's veto an unfortunate choice, but adds, "We will win. It’s just a matter of time."

NY1 Update, 6/17/13: Since her interview last year, Poo and her partners have helped Hawaii become the second state to pass a domestic workers bill of rights, following New York. Poo says similar bills are being considered in Oregon, Massachusetts and California.

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