At a conference about social movements in Los Angeles last month, all it took was the mention of her name and the crowd erupted in applause. In the world of community organizing, Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, is a rock star.
As the crowd sat, though, Poo asked the women to stand up again and give themselves a round of applause. “Women are the heart of social organizing,” she said. “And you should be recognized.”
Rock star she may be, but Poo always puts the movement first. When she was voted onto Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World this year - hailed by no less than Gloria Steinem - she attributed it to her cause. “It's a testament to the power of women's organizing," she said over tea. "And particularly to the movement that I'm a part of."
The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants and now a New Yorker, Poo, 38 has been an advocate for fair labor practices since 1996. And she thinks big. She not only wants a fair shake for nannies, housekeepers and, increasingly, elder care givers, she wants to redefine work in America.
It’s a subject that’s close to home. “My grandmother was a nurse and my mom is a doctor, and they both raised lots of children and grandchildren. And they were both exhausted. I think there needs to be, in our economy, a different calculation of the bottom line."
She spent seven years on a campaign to pass a first-of-its-kind "Domestic Workers Bill of Rights" which became state law in New York in 2010. A similar bill was passed by California's state assembly last year but has not yet been voted on by the senate. Her next project is more ambitious. Caring Across Generations combines reforms to health care, labor law and even immigration to address domestic workers' rights on a national level.
DAME sat down with Poo to talk about community organizing, leadership and why women are so important for social change.