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Q&A With Ai-Jen Poo ’92, Activist and Fuess Award Recipient

Ai-jen Poo ’92 is the recipient of this year’s Fuess Award and will be presenting during All-School Meeting on Wednesday, April 27.

The Fuess Award was established in 1964 in honor of Andover’s tenth Headmaster Claude Moore Fuess, and it is given to alumni who have embodied the spirit of Non Sibi by committing themselves to public service.

What is the talk going to be about?

I’m still working it out, but I think it’ll be about the challenges and opportunities ahead for this generation of Andover students to really shape the future of our safety net and our policy to transform inequality and create a better life in America.

How did your time at Andover shape the path your career has followed?

I had some really great teachers who really encouraged me to think creatively and to think critically about the status quo, and to try to imagine a future where inequality and inequities don’t exist in the same way. I had creative writing teachers who really encouraged a level of imagination of a different kind of future based on love and equality and equity and dignity, a lot of the values that I think the Non Sibi principle is really about. I did a lot of community service where I was exposed to what it means to serve communities that are very different from the ones that you know, and I was also exposed to literature and history classes and teachers who really encouraged me to learn from the tragedies and the mistakes of the past in order to create a future where we increasingly become more whole and more unified as a country.

Speaking specifically about community service, was there any particular assignment that really spoke to you or inspired you?

I was in the student environmental group, and we were active on all kinds of projects – I think it was called Earth Friends. I was also in the Women’s Forum where we organized events that were highlighting the need for gender equality. I also did service in Lowell at a childcare center in a refugee community. All of those experiences, they really meant a lot to me to think critically about different forms of inequality and different ways that we can be living our lives in such a way to promote more sustainable ways of living, more sustainable communities, more sustainable economic relationships. I think it really did strike me, as I was working at the childcare center in Lowell, how growing up in a poor community really affects everything about life. The food you eat, the opportunities you have, the neighborhood you live in – all of it is incredibly connected to the messages and the support you receive to be able to realize your full potential as a child. I think it really gave me a different perspective on what it means to create economic opportunity.

You were named by “Women Deliver” as one of 100 women from across the globe who is advocating for other women, and you have been featured in the “40 Under 40” list in “Feminist Press.” Why are women’s rights important to you and how do they influence your work?

Women play a really unique role in our society now. Women are more than half of all college graduates, more than half of the work force, 70 percent of the consumer market, more than half of the electorate. We are incredibly powerful in terms of what we’re driving in the economy and in political and civic life in this country. And yet, oftentimes we’re underrepresented in positions of power and influence, and overrepresented in positions of vulnerability and instability. I think that that gender inequality is at the heart of so much of what needs to transform in our society in order for us to realize our full potential. The president even said this. He said that when women succeed, America succeeds, and I think I would go even further to say when the least visible women in our economy are able to succeed, then we will know that we’ve fully achieved real economic opportunity in this country. I do believe that when you look at the world through the eyes of women, you see both the challenges and the problems more completely, and you also see the solutions more clearly. That’s why I’ve continued to do work with women, and have really tried to develop the leadership of women, particularly women of color to lead in this country.

What motivated you to center your work around the rights of domestic workers?

It’s similar, I think, looking at the realities for women. It’s because domestic work is historically associated with women’s work – and particularly women of color – as a form of paid work. I think that it’s been so devalued and undervalued. It’s the kind of work that’s not even considered real work. It’s called “help” and “companionship” and so whether you’re doing it as a family member, unpaid, or you’re doing it as a professional, it’s just been made so invisible in our economy, and yet it’s such an important part of how our economy functions. I often ask people what it would be like if all the nannies and housekeepers and healthcare workers decided not to go to work one day, and therein is the reality that we’re all so dependent on this work. It’s the work that makes all of the work possible, and yet has been so devalued, and I think that that’s a huge and invisible part of transforming inequality in this country, and to make sure that it’s valued. It’s one of these examples that if you look at the world through the eyes of women, you see these different leverage points for creating equity and opportunity that you might not see otherwise.

What duties does your work as a labor organizer and a director entail?

It means that I run an organization that advocates for the domestic workforce and caregivers. I help develop strategies that change policy, change culture, change the protections as a quality of these jobs, and a lot of that, on a day to day level, means recruiting people, raising awareness, and raising funds to support the work.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

Creating a national organizational voice for [domestic workers] that has been underrepresented and invisible for so long.

What advice do you have for current Andover students who may be considering careers in political advocacy and social justice?

I would say, get involved in a movement or an organization. Whether it’s on campus or in the community, and to work first at the grassroots level. A lot of people say all politics is local, and I would say to start where you consider yourself to be at home, and then to build from there and to just dive in. There’s no substitute for the practice and the learning that comes from doing.

What’s in the future for you and your organization?

We really want to shape the safety net in such a way that young people today have both stability and flexibility, they have both opportunity and the ability to raise their families with lots of support, and really change the way this company thinks and feels about care in particular so that everyone has the ability to care for their loved ones and work and realize their dreams in all these different ways.

Apr 15, 2016