Alumni Profile: Ai-Jen Poo ’92 Awarded MacArthur Grant For Her Work in Field of Labor Organization

On September 17, Ai-Jen Poo ’92 became one of 21 MacArthur Foundation Fellows of 2014 for her dedication to the field of labor organization. The MacArthur Foundation annually awards unrestricted fellowships to individuals who show originality and dedication toward their passions and goals, according to the organization’s website. Poo’s work in labor organization focuses on the transformation of working conditions and labor rights for domestic workers — housekeepers, nannies and caregivers for the disabled or the elderly — who are often excluded from many labor laws. In 2010, Poo emerged triumphant from a hard-fought, seven-year long legislative campaign for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York, a document that entitles workers to overtime pay, a day of rest every week, protection from discrimination and three days of paid leave every year. “I believe I was chosen because of the dynamism and courage of the domestic workers I work with and what we have collectively achieved as a movement, which speaks to so many who want change and a better life but might not have imagined this type of progress was possible,” wrote Poo in an email to The Phillipian. As part of the MacArthur Fellow Program, Poo was awarded a $625,000 grant to invest toward her goals in labor rights. “I plan to create a fellowship program at my organization, to allow for caregivers and domestic workers to work with me and spend focused time shaping the future of care-related public policy,” said Poo. Poo primarily works with women in the workforce, especially women of color and immigrant women, to improve their job opportunities and wages. “Women are at least half of today’s paid workforce and more than half of all college graduates and of the electorate. Women’s experiences are increasingly defining of the whole of our society today. Improving life and opportunity for women is fundamental to improving life for all of us,” said Poo. Poo’s passion for labor rights for women began when she volunteered at a domestic violence shelter and saw the importance of economic security and opportunity to living safe lives. “I thought if we could improve work and wages for women working in the most invisible parts of our economy, it could address so many other problems,” she continued. After working as lead organizer of Domestic Workers United, in 2007, Poo co-founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), an organization that unites domestic workers nationwide to improve work conditions. Poo’s short-term goals for the NDWA include passing bills to protect the rights of domestic workers and establishing workforce training programs to prepare laborers to support the growing population of elderly people in America. Poo said, “We are also working to change culture, specifically to change the way the nation feels about aging and [how it] values caregiving, through our [partnership] with organizations in Caring Across Generations, [a campaign that Poo co-directs].” In the long term, Poo hopes to ensure that all domestic workers have dignity for their work. In 2012, Poo was named one of “Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World” and one of “Newsweek’s 150 Women Who Shake the World.”