On April 18, Ai-Jen Poo ’92 joined a group that includes Barack Obama, Jeremy Lin and Rihanna when TIME Magazine named Poo one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World for Poo’s dedication to labor rights movement and her advocacy for the 2.5 million domestic workers in United States today.
Poo is the founder of Domestic Workers United (DWU) and currently serves as the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).
The NDWA, founded in 2007, is a domestic worker advocacy group based in 19 major cities and 11 states and an umbrella organization that counts DWU among its satellites, according to the organization’s website.
Poo founded DWU in 2000. The program, which began as an outreach program assisting domestic workers from Latin American and the Caribbean, has evolved into an organization that lobbies for legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers suffering abuse from their employers.
Poo’s efforts in labor advocacy have led to the passage of the first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York and California.
With the NDWA, Poo is currently spearheading a new campaign called “Caring Across Generations,” which aims to increase support for caregivers of the elderly.
Published yearly, the TIME 100 list recognizes a variety of advocates, athletes, leaders, icons, inventors, entertainers and others who work to challenge and change the world.
Poo wrote in an e-mail to The Phillipian that she feels the award should not be a recognition of her work specifically but an acknowledgement to the entire force of domestic workers, advocates and organizers who have worked to defend their rights and dignity in the workplace.
“The [honor in the] TIME 100 is recognition of the historic significance of domestic workers organizing. It’s a workforce that has been undervalued for too long, and the victories that have been won are inspiring to many,” Poo wrote.
“My advice to Andover students interested in social change is to never let anyone tell you that something is impossible. Most everything that’s worth fighting for will seem impossible to achieve initially. Change is a constant reality–it’s happening all around us all the time. It’s our job to get in there and shape it in the interest of humanity, dignity and democracy. In order to do that, we have to be bold and humble too,” she continued.
Poo visited Andover during Winter Term to present her work and said in her presentation that she had never expected to pursue advocacy or as a career.
At Andover, Poo was a member of Women’s Forum, among other clubs, and was a gifted artist and skilled potter.
“When I was [at Andover], I was really interested in poetry, writing and art. I thought I would end up being a poet or a potter,” said Poo at the presentation.
Poo pursued a degree in Art for a year at Washington University before transferring to Columbia University and majoring in Women’s Studies, where her advocacy work began.
Seth Bardo, Instructor in English, taught Poo during her Senior year at Andover.
“She was not only in my classes, but there were several clubs that we shared membership in [that discussed] environmental concerns, issues surrounding nuclear disbarments. She was a very socially conscious student, so I got to know her in that way too,” said Bardo.
“She was also a very gifted potter. A lot of her energy went towards her art… She has and had that wonderful artistic sensibility, that way of looking at the world and reshaping it literally with her hands. And now [she is] reshaping it with her energy, with her organizational skills,” he continued.
At Columbia, Poo was involved in many community service projects. She was a member of the Women’s Organization and a volunteer at the New York Asian Women’s Center, a shelter for Asian women fleeing domestic violence. However, she was soon discouraged by the seeming endlessness of her work at the shelter, sensing little hope for change in the lives of the women.
“I just thought, ‘Gosh, this is endless.’ Everyday we would get new stories, and we wouldn’t be able to provide systems and services after, and it just didn’t feel like we were getting into the root causes of what was happening. That got me interested in organizing and advocacy, where you’re actually trying to work with people who are directly affected by the problems you’re trying to address, to develop your leadership and your capacity to change policies and change society in such a way that you start taking the dialogue and the conversation to a new level,” said Poo during her presentation this winter.
Discovering a passion for community organizing, Poo became involved in student demonstrations for the Department of Ethnic Studies at Columbia.
“The campaign that I was involved in when I was at Columbia was a fight for an ethnic studies department on campus at Columbia. In 1996, we had a whole campaign to try to win a department. I almost didn’t graduate because of it. We took over buildings and we did all kinds of actions and advocacy, and now there’s a department of ethnic studies at Columbia,” said Poo in her presentation.
“Frankly, for most of us teaching for a long time, it’s hard to keep in mind all the students because there’s tremendous rotation,” said Bardo. “But I will never forget Ai-Jen [Poo]. She was truly an extraordinary presence, even as a high school student. She just had a particular kind of sensibility and passion that made her unforgettable.”
“She really saw a large segment of the American culture dispossessed and almost single-handedly, in some ways, decided she could change the lives of hundred, thousands, perhaps millions of people,” added Bardo.
“The fact that she’s a young person on that list is just great for a younger audience to see. ‘I don’t have to wait until I’m old to follow my passion and do something that I feel is good for the world,’” said Aya Murata, Advisor to Asian and Asian-American students and faculty advisor of Asian Society, the club that brought Poo to campus this winter.