Ai-Jen Poo ’92 Discusses Advocacy Work

Two and a half million domestic workers currently live in the United States. Despite the fact they work cleaning homes and caring for children and the elderly, domestic workers are excluded from nearly every labor law in the country and are unprotected by legislation that guarantees other workers minimum wage, health care, sick leave and paid vacation.

Ai-Jen Poo ’92, founder of Domestic Workers United (DWU) and Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), shared her experiences as an advocate for domestic workers’ rights and discussed this issue and Andover’s impact on her career on February 23.

Poo began her work advocating for the rights of domestic workers in 2000 when she founded DWU, which began as an outreach program assisting domestic workers from Latin America and the Caribbean. The program evolved into an organization that lobbies for legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers suffering abuse from their employers.

Poo now works with the NDWA, a larger domestic worker advocacy group and an umbrella organization that counts DWU among its satellites. Founded in 2007, the NDWA currently has 20,000 members and is based in 19 major cities and 11 states, according to the organization’s website.

While working with the NDWA, Poo has seen many domestic workers cooperate to form unions.

“Women started coming together,” said Poo. “Women who work in other people’s homes as nannies, babysitters—they started coming together in church basements and community centers to share their stories… They supported each other to earn better wages, to learn how to communicate with their employers, to learn how to assert their basic dignity on the job.”

In 2010, the NDWA won a major victory in the state of New York when it successfully lobbied for the passage of the first Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.

Poo said, “I think one of our members said it best: ‘I’ve been to Albany 27 times to tell my story. Today I can walk into work and hold my head up high knowing that my work is recognized by the state of New York.’”

As Director of the NDWA, Poo is spearheading a new campaign called “Caring Across Generations.”

Aimed specifically at caregivers of the elderly, the campaign will work to pass legislation in order to provide Medicaid funding for caregivers, increase wages for home care workers and create a path to citizenship for undocumented domestic workers in the country.

According to Poo, there are currently 3 million domestic workers who care for the elderly. However, with the aging Baby Boomer generation, Poo estimates that by 2050 there will be 27 million elderly Americans requiring care to meet their basic day-to-day needs.

“Three years ago, [NDWA] members started asking for training in elder care. Many of them were hired as nannies or housekeepers originally, and they’re suddenly being called upon to take care of the aging relatives of their employers. They didn’t feel prepared to do this work,” said Poo.

“We took a step back, and we realized that domestic workers are standing at the intersection of an incredible demographic shift in this country. On the one hand, immigrant communities and communities of color are growing really really rapidly. On the other hand, we as a country are aging. More and more people are living longer because of advances in medicine,” she continued.

At the close of her presentation, Poo urged students to take up the cause of social justice.

“We need you in this work. This country is facing all kinds of challenges—economic challenges, [challenges] in sustainability…. challenges for a healthy, multiracial democracy in the 21st century…. We need the best and the brightest in the country to help us think [them] through, help us develop solutions and make those solutions real.

“I didn’t think that [advocating for domestic workers] was where I would end up being,” she continued “Each and every one of you has the capacity to make a tremendous difference.”

Poo said that she although she did not discover her passion for advocacy until college, her experiences at Andover were formative. Poo went on to attend Columbia University, where she graduated in 1998 after extensive involvement in student lobbying for the school’s Department of Ethnic Studies.

“I think back on some of the most important experiences that shaped my world today and many of them were here, in some of the classrooms that you all are in every day. And many of them in Mr. [Seth] Bardo’s [Instructor in English] classroom. So I thank him, and I thank Andover for teaching me some of the most important lessons that have shaped my life,” said Poo.

Bardo, who introduced Poo before her presentation, recalled her being a prominent student in his classroom.

In his introduction, Bardo said, “Although Ai-Jen never tried to impress someone, she made a deep impression. There was a sense about her shared by my colleagues that her gifts of a large heart and an incisive intellect would combine in a way that would add grace and dignity to the world. This belief turned out to be well-grounded.”

He continued, “Ai-Jen’s life is a testament to all of us that every individual has the capacity to be an agent for social change [and] that each of us, no matter our background or education, can make a difference in the lives of others.”

Poo’s presentation resonated with some students who had witnessed domestic labor in other parts of the world.

Sierra Jamir ’14 said, “I think her story’s pretty amazing. Personally, for me as a Filipino, I know a lot of domestic workers in Hong Kong who have dealt with these problems. And I think she addressed the issue, especially in America.”

Stephanie Hendarta ’14 said, “People tend to overlook modern enslavement, but domestic workers in a lot of parts of the world go through it. I come from Indonesia, where domestic workers are a big part of everybody’s life, so her coming here is [enlightening] for everyone, [and reveals] how everyone relies a lot on domestic work.”