Ai-jen Poo: The Rock Star of Community Organizing

The New York Times called her “The Nannies’ Norma Rae,” but for Ai-jen Poo it goes way beyond that.

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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.

For more, watch the introductory video for Caring Across Generationsjoin the movement, or follow Poo on Twitter.


Interview with Ai-Jen Poo

How did your work with domestic workers begin?

I come from a long line of strong women who take pride in taking care of people. They taught me to assert the dignity of work, even when I saw that work devalued by the men in my family. When I was in college [at Columbia University] I got involved in a domestic violence shelter for Asian immigrant women in New York City and I saw how, if women could not earn enough to support their families, they would end up trapped in cycles of violence.

But your ambitions go way beyond domestic workers.

If we can figure out how to organize domestic workers then we’ll know how to organize the American workforce for the 21st century. When I first started, domestic workers were seen as marginal, but the economy has changed over the last 15 years. It’s clear that their conditions increasingly define the reality of every American worker – job insecurity, contingent work, lack of training and benefits, lack of bargaining power.

At the conference, why did you make a point of applauding the women community organizers in the room?

I don’t think that there’s a single profession that doesn’t require the leadership and creativity of women. Particularly in social change work and politics, the work of women is so central. It’s a driving force behind every progressive issue that we care about, every issue related to economic equity and democracy. I think that the leadership and work of women is undervalued in that arena.

Even when women are well represented?

Yes. We always say in our work that when you see the world through the eyes of women, you see it more accurately. In a healthy 21st century economy and democracy, workforces that are dominated by women are the fastest growing in the country and women live longer than men. That perspective and leadership is going to be vital in figuring out a future for the country.

Your job seems very consuming, which is ironic because you advocate reasonable working hours!

That’s true. We’re working very hard so that people can work in a more sustainable way. But there’s a rhythm to it that’s not always in your control and sometimes you have to just ride the wave. Frankly as organizers, we often pray for the day that the wave comes because that’s when you know you’re onto something.

Does it get tiring?

Definitely, especially with the travel it takes to build a national campaign. But it’s also really energizing to be part of something so hopeful, so aspirational. It isn’t about defending what we currently have but about creating something we need. If I were flying around the country just to protect what we have, I think that would be profoundly tiring. This feels different.

Did you ever feel that you might not succeed?

When we first started doing national work and were trying to build support for Caring Across Generations, some people were cynical about what could be achieved. In their assessment, our dream just seemed unrealistic. It was discouraging.

How did you get through it?

We just kept pushing and looking for allies until we found a critical mass of people who wanted to take the leap with us. Part of the survival strategy is the ability to hear what people are saying to you, but not hold onto it. A lot of times, I don’t internalize what doesn’t feel useful.

Do you ever feel that in your field, you’re at a disadvantage because you’re a woman?

As a younger woman of color, I think it’s harder for people to get behind big ideas that come from me. They also don’t expect big ideas to come from a sector of low-wage women of color workers. It’s just part of how it works, but as more and more women of color are in positions of leadership that’s starting to change.

What do you think makes a really strong leader in a movement like yours?

People want to win. And people want to see so-called “unlikely leaders” succeed. So I think that is really important that a leader to give people hope. We cultivate leaders who have their eyes on their prize, who are really committed to a vision that’s beyond any organization or any one group of people.

So leadership isn’t about building your personal brand?

Right. It’s about interdependence.

Any advice for other women leaders?

Trust your intuition, your gut, and dream big. And create the support that you need in order to be bold, because boldness is not something that is individual, it’s something that’s supported.

In the 21st century, workforces that are dominated by women are the fastest growing. That perspective is going to be vital in figuring out our future.Ai-jen Poo

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