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Photo by Bekah Mandell
Ariane Conrad

Home Sweet Home? Not for Domestic Workers. Ai-jen Poo Demands Justice

On the front lines fighting for the dignity of an invisible workforce, Ai-jen Poo aims to rehumanize society.

Ai-jen Poo is an organizer. Not the kind that disposes of your clutter or rearranges closets: a community organizer, bringing people with common interests together so they can work as a group to improve their lives. She organizes domestic workers, the mostly female workforce that cares for our families and our homes.

“There are few greater gifts than being cared for by another person,” she writes in Organizing with Love , about her successful campaign to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the state of New York. “Care roots us in the interconnectedness of humanity. When we face the uncertainty of life, we have each other to rely on. But our society does not respect, protect, or value the work of caring.”

There are approximately 3 million people employed as caregivers in the US. The rapidly expanding organization Ai-jen co-founded in 2007, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, so far represents more than 12,000. Recently Ai-jen also launched a nationwide campaign called Caring Across Generations, with the aim of bringing dignity to both aging and caregiving.

Ai-jen’s work has been honored by the Ford Foundation and Ms. Foundation, among other groups. In 2012, she was named one of Newsweek’s 150 Fearless Women and made Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. She hasn’t yet turned 40.

When I contacted her about an interview, Ai-jen invited me to her home in Queens, New York, a cozy third-floor apartment painted the color of vanilla custard with eclectic icons peppering its walls—a tin nicho of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a placid face of the Buddha, a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. Coco, an elderly gray longhair cat, swished around our feet as we spoke about Ai-Jen’s work and the idea of home, healing, invisibility, and intimacy.

Can you explain the work you do?
My work is to raise the level of respect for the work that goes into caring for families. Some people call it domestic work. Some people call it women’s work. Some people call it caregiving work. It’s all the energy that goes into taking care of homes and of families across generations. I call it the work that makes all other work possible. Particularly in this day and age, that work is increasingly done by non-family-members in a paid context.

Ever since this workforce came into being, it’s been devalued both because of who does it—women, originally African Americans and today mostly immigrants—and because of a legacy of slavery in this country. When labor laws were passed in the 1930s, Southern members of Congress refused to sign on if farmworkers and domestic workers—who at the time were largely African Americans in the South—were included. In the deal that Congress struck, those two workforces were excluded, and they remain excluded to this day.

So a lot of our work is to reverse that legacy of exclusion so that workers have basic protections on the job. We want to raise public consciousness and awareness about the work of caring and its value in the broader economy and society.

What trends in our broader society most impact your work?

For one thing, immigrant communities and communities of color in general are growing. At the same time, advances in medicine are enabling people to live longer, and the baby boomer generation is reaching 65.

We’re beginning to see workers who were originally hired as nannies or housekeepers being called upon to care for the aging relatives of their employers. They’re getting pulled into the care gap—the lack of caregivers in the face of the growing need. We suddenly realized there’s a tremendous opportunity to lean into that change. We can improve the experience of immigrant women who are going into those jobs and improve their readiness and training as well as improve the quality of those jobs, including career advancement. This could also prove the solution to some major problems we’re facing, like unemployment and the lack of economic opportunity.

What could be seen as a scary change in the future of the country demographically could actually turn out to be a huge transformative opportunity for connection and support and care.

You’ve spoken before about the two paths facing our society: toward austerity or toward humanity. Can you talk about that?
Sure. There’s an idea that’s taken hold about how people who are successful got there based on their own