Ai-jen Poo On The Fight For Domestic Worker Rights

Levi Strauss & Co.
April 4, 2017

America is having a moment, according to social justice leader Ai-jen Poo.

“I think we’ve entered a new era in American political life, and a social movement moment that will go down in history,” she said. “Our kids and our grandkids are going to ask us, what were we doing at this point in 2017? I think it’s really important that we all have a good answer.”

Ai-jen’s answer: As Executive Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Co-Director of the Caring Across Generations campaign, she is at the forefront of the struggle to advance the dignity and rights of the workers. Many of them are immigrant women who are caring for America’s aging population – an often underpaid, undervalued and increasingly vulnerable group of workers.

But it’s her roots rather than her resume that Ai-jen turns to when talking about the crusade she has chosen. Her father instilled in her a strong sense of civic responsibility and the courage to think critically. Her mother, who “cries at Kleenex commercials,” gave her a deep sense of empathy. Those inheritances are at the heart of her commitment to investing in care workers – and her belief in the power of telling stories to change minds.

She shared those stories with Levi Strauss & Co. employees following an invite from the Levi Strauss Foundation. As part of the foundation’s efforts to support social pioneers who are taking on the issues and events of the day, LSF has provided Ai-jen’s organization with a $175K in grant support to continue the work she is doing in the domestic worker space.

A critical need for protections

The domestic care workforce is made up of nannies, housekeepers and caregivers – many of them immigrant women – who have very little in the way of protections. Their situations range from working with fair-minded employers who pay a living wage to cases of human trafficking and modern-day slavery … and everything in between.

This is at a time when the baby boomer generation is aging, and the millennial generation is procreating, so the country is in need of care workers in greater numbers than ever before. Yet the median income for an elder care worker in this country is $13,000 a year.

“It’s really shaped the invisibility and vulnerability of this work,” Ai-jen said. “ We’ve got to transform these jobs and make them good jobs. There’s so much at stake here.”

Courting hearts to change minds

Too often, we try to use data to win arguments that have nothing to do with numbers, she said. “If this election taught us anything, it’s that there is a difference between what is factually true, and what is emotionally true for people.”

For example, there’s the oft-heard claim that immigrants are stealing jobs from Americans – which can be refuted with a slew of statistics. “Still, for large segments of the population in our country, [that idea] is very much an emotional truth,” Ai-jen said. “So what our movement has been challenging ourselves to do is tell stories that reach people at an emotional level.”

The truth is that the lives of immigrant and non-immigrant communities are already woven together, she said. “These are people that we trust in our homes, with our children and the most precious elements of our lives – far from the narratives that we hear in the media coming from this administration.”

In an increasingly diverse country founded by immigrants, with such a complicated history of people who came to this shore both by choice and against their will, it is a huge challenge “to tell a story about who we are, and who we’re becoming as a country that everyone can see themselves in,” Ai-jen said. “But that story is the story that makes us great.”

Staying optimistic in the face of adversity

“My grandmother used to say, if you learn from the past, focus on the future, but stay grounded in what is, then everything will be okay,” Ai-jen said.

She points to striking examples of how people have risen to the occasion as bright spots of hope. For example, the election victory of 25-year-old Darrin Camilleri, who won his campaign for a state house seat in Michigan on a platform championing rights and respect for caregivers.

“There are always these things that unite us, that are universal about the human experience, and cut through the noise and the volatility and the polarization,” Ai-jen said. “It is a challenge, but stories like that give me hope.”

She adds that at our core, we are a country that takes care of each other. “When we invest in care and caregiving, it lifts all boats. It’s a win/win in so many ways, the economic dimensions of that, the culture dimensions, the social and emotional dimensions,” she said. “It’s about equality of life in this country where everyone wins.”

This month, a group of young people from Florida’s Miami-Dade County are traveling across the country to Washington D.C., to demand that elected officials start standing up for their families, their friends and their future. Read more We Belong Together Kids Action, sponsored by a coalition of organizations that includes the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and their plan to form an “unbreakable circle of unity” on April 13.