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Advocate for Domestic Workers’ Rights Wins MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award

Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance receives $625,000 to expand movement of nannies, cleaners and aides.

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Poo began organizing low-wage domestic workers in the mid-1990s. , National Domestic Workers Alliance

In 2011, a year after the nation’s first domestic workers’ bill of rights became law in New York and a year before she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, Ai-jen Poo was profiled in The New York Times under the headline “The nannies’ Norma Rae.” It was catchy and recognizable, but it missed the radical nature of her project: Everyone has heard of a unionized factory, but was it possible to organize a dispersed, isolated workforce of nannies, house cleaners and home care attendants?

Poo, a winner of a 2014 “genius” award, has spent over 15 years figuring out how. She now joins the esteemed MacArthur Fellows Program, which recognizes “exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for even more significant contributions in the future.” Recipients since the prize’s inception in 1981 include the novelist Edward P. Jones, scientist Stephen Jay Gould and maestro Marin Alsop. Cartoonist Alison Bechdel and composer-saxophonist Steve Coleman are in Poo’s 21-person cohort this year.

As director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a co-director of Caring Across Generations, Poo is a powerful, unconventional labor leader. The daughter of Taiwanese-American academics, she had a comfortable, peripatetic childhood and earned a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and literature at Columbia University. During and after college, she worked at the grassroots nonprofit CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities to mobilize immigrant women and in 2000 co-founded Domestic Workers United (DWU), a multicultural association of home-based laborers.

There was no easy way to build the membership of DWU. Poo’s recruitment routine went something like this: Go to parks. Go to playgrounds. Look for strollers and introduce yourself. Listen to nannies, one by one.

The stories Poo heard — from women of color and immigrants often separated from their own children — unveiled a hidden world of exploitation. While some received decent salaries, many were paid below the minimum wage, had no benefits or compensated time off and suffered verbal and physical abuse by their employers. Conditions tended to be worse for live-in workers, who were on duty 24 hours a day, and undocumented immigrants vulnerable to trafficking and threats. And this was not a small sector: There are an estimated 200,000 domestic workers in New York state and 2.5 million nationwide.

Over months, then years of outreach, nannies excited by DWU contacted other nannies, and the organization slowly, painstakingly grew. With her team of volunteers and organizers, Poo met workers late at night and on weekends and holidays, breaking only for the early-morning yoga that helped her “stay grounded in my own values … and quiet my mind from all the different, short-term things that pull at you,” she said.

Under Poo’s leadership, DWU developed a unique style and approach to labor activism. Yes, members filed lawsuits and staged loud protests outside the homes and offices of abusive bosses. But they also collaborated with progressive employers and organized children’s marches featuring kids with handwritten “I love my nanny” signs.

In the mid-2000s, it became clear to Poo that nannies needed legal recognition to improve their lot. Federal and state labor laws had long excluded domestic and agricultural workers — a legislative residue of slavery — depriving them of the right to overtime and health-and-safety protections. To win a domestic workers’ bill of rights was nearly impossible, Poo reasoned, but campaigning for one would yield smaller triumphs along the way. “It can be a very long and arduous journey,” she said, “[but] any meeting where 20 women come together and share their stories and feel less alone or ask for the raise they’ve deserved for five years — these are victories.”

The group morphed step by step, through dreary lobbying trips to Albany and rallies in front of New York’s City Hall, into a nascent movement. Partner domestic worker entities like Adhikaar and Damayan, unions, foundations, religious supporters and activists came on board — then, finally, legislators whose mothers had been domestic workers. And Poo was always there, her long hair in a ponytail, beige clogs on her tired feet. In 2010 they won: New York passed a domestic workers’ bill of rights, giving limited overtime pay and paid time off to a previously excluded labor force.

Over months, then years of outreach, nannies excited by DWU contacted other nannies, and the organization slowly, painstakingly grew. With her team of volunteers and organizers, Poo met with workers late at night and on weekends and holidays, breaking only for the early-morning yoga that helped her “stay grounded in my own values … and quiet my mind from all the different, short-term things that pull at you,” she said.

Under Poo’s leadership, DWU developed a unique style and approach to labor activism. Yes, members filed lawsuits and staged loud protests outside the homes and offices of abusive bosses. But they also collaborated with progressive employers and organized “children’s marches” featuring adorable kids holding “I love my nanny” signs.

In the mid-2000s, it became clear to Poo that nannies and other home-based workers needed legal recognition to improve their lot. Federal and state labor laws had long excluded domestic and agricultural workers — a legislative residue of slavery — depriving them of the right to overtime and health-and-safety protections. To win a domestic workers’ bill of rights was nearly impossible, Poo reasoned, but campaigning for one would yield smaller triumphs along the way: “It can be a very long and arduous journey, [but] any meeting where 20 women come together and share their stories and feel less alone, or ask for the raise they’ve deserved for five years — these are victories.”

The group morphed step by step, through dreary lobbying trips to Albany and rallies in front of New York’s City Hall, into a nascent movement. Partner domestic worker entities like Adhikaar and Damayan, unions, foundations, religious supporters and activists came on board — then, finally, legislators whose mothers had been domestic workers. And Poo was always there, her long hair in a ponytail, beige clogs on her tired feet. In 2010, they won: New York became the first state to sign a domestic workers’ bill of rights into law, giving limited overtime pay and paid time off to a previously excluded labor force.

By then, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which Poo founded in 2007, was supporting local affiliates across the U.S. — now in 26 cities and 18 states. In 2011, NDWA helped establish Caring Across Generations, a campaign focused on elder-caregivers; signed a partnership agreement with the AFL-CIO national labor federation; and saw the International Labour Organization pass a convention on “decent work for domestic workers.” “The Help,” starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone, drew attention to domestic workers in theaters, and actress Amy Poehler gave a widely publicized tribute to her nannies at the Time 100 gala. (Disclaimer: As an attorney in the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, I served DWU, NDWA and other domestic worker groups from 2007 to 2012.)

“Thanks to [Ai-jen’s] work, there’s a growing awareness of the rights of nannies, housekeepers and others whose work is so important,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. “Without those nannies and housekeepers, we couldn’t do the work we do every day.”

Care labor has remained visible due to basic demographics as much as Poo’s organizing and pop-cultural cachet: By 2030, the population of those 65 and older will reach 72.1 million, more than twice their number in 2000. Poo’s grandmother, 88, lives in her own California apartment with the assistance of a caregiver. “Because of advances in health care and technology, and changes in lifestyle, the baby boom generation is reaching retirement,” Poo said, “and we’re going to have to figure out family- and community-based solutions to provide baseline support.”

As a recipient of the MacArthur grant, Poo will receive $625,000 over five years. She will use this money, she said, to fund a fellowship for domestic workers, drawn from NDWA member organizations, “who want to really learn the ins and outs of public policy advocacy.”

Poo, 40, who lives in Chicago with her partner, sees strategy as divination. “I’m reading analyses of the future: everything from climate change to changing demographics to changes in the economy,” she said. “We need a whole new framework for social safety nets and labor practices and labor laws. We’re in a profoundly unequal economy, but I believe in the power of women organizing together.”

Over months, then years of outreach, nannies excited by DWU contacted other nannies, and the organization slowly, painstakingly grew. With her team of volunteers and organizers, Poo met with workers late at night and on weekends and holidays, breaking only for the early-morning yoga that helped her “stay grounded in my own values … and quiet my mind from all the different, short-term things that pull at you,” she said.

Under Poo’s leadership, DWU developed a unique style and approach to labor activism. Yes, members filed lawsuits and staged loud protests outside the homes and offices of abusive bosses. But they also collaborated with progressive employers and organized “children’s marches” featuring adorable kids holding “I love my nanny” signs.

In the mid-2000s, it became clear to Poo that nannies and other home-based workers needed legal recognition to improve their lot. Federal and state labor laws had long excluded domestic and agricultural workers — a legislative residue of slavery — depriving them of the right to overtime and health-and-safety protections. To win a domestic workers’ bill of rights was nearly impossible, Poo reasoned, but campaigning for one would yield smaller triumphs along the way: “It can be a very long and arduous journey, [but] any meeting where 20 women come together and share their stories and feel less alone, or ask for the raise they’ve deserved for five years — these are victories.”

The group morphed step by step, through dreary lobbying trips to Albany and rallies in front of New York’s City Hall, into a nascent movement. Partner domestic worker entities like Adhikaar and Damayan, unions, foundations, religious supporters and activists came on board — then, finally, legislators whose mothers had been domestic workers. And Poo was always there, her long hair in a ponytail, beige clogs on her tired feet. In 2010, they won: New York became the first state to sign a domestic workers’ bill of rights into law, giving limited overtime pay and paid time off to a previously excluded labor force.

By then, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which Poo founded in 2007, was supporting local affiliates across the U.S. — now in 26 cities and 18 states. In 2011, NDWA helped establish Caring Across Generations, a campaign focused on elder-caregivers; signed a partnership agreement with the AFL-CIO national labor federation; and saw the International Labour Organization pass a convention on “decent work for domestic workers.” “The Help,” starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone, drew attention to domestic workers in theaters, and actress Amy Poehler gave a widely publicized tribute to her nannies at the Time 100 gala. (Disclaimer: As an attorney in the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, I served DWU, NDWA and other domestic worker groups from 2007 to 2012.)

“Thanks to [Ai-jen’s] work, there’s a growing awareness of the rights of nannies, housekeepers and others whose work is so important,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. “Without those nannies and housekeepers, we couldn’t do the work we do every day.”

Care labor has remained visible due to basic demographics as much as Poo’s organizing and pop-cultural cachet: By 2030, the population of those 65 and older will reach 72.1 million, more than twice their number in 2000. Poo’s grandmother, 88, lives in her own California apartment with the assistance of a caregiver. “Because of advances in health care and technology, and changes in lifestyle, the baby boom generation is reaching retirement,” Poo said, “and we’re going to have to figure out family- and community-based solutions to provide baseline support.”

As a recipient of the MacArthur grant, Poo will receive $625,000 over five years. She will use this money, she said, to fund a fellowship for domestic workers, drawn from NDWA member organizations, “who want to really learn the ins and outs of public policy advocacy.”

Poo, 40, who lives in Chicago with her partner, sees strategy as divination. “I’m reading analyses of the future: everything from climate change to changing demographics to changes in the economy,” she said. “We need a whole new framework for social safety nets and labor practices and labor laws. We’re in a profoundly unequal economy, but I believe in the power of women organizing together.”

Over months, then years of outreach, nannies excited by DWU contacted other nannies, and the organization slowly, painstakingly grew. With her team of volunteers and organizers, Poo met with workers late at night and on weekends and holidays, breaking only for the early-morning yoga that helped her “stay grounded in my own values … and quiet my mind from all the different, short-term things that pull at you,” she said.

Under Poo’s leadership, DWU developed a unique style and approach to labor activism. Yes, members filed lawsuits and staged loud protests outside the homes and offices of abusive bosses. But they also collaborated with progressive employers and organized “children’s marches” featuring adorable kids holding “I love my nanny” signs.

In the mid-2000s, it became clear to Poo that nannies and other home-based workers needed legal recognition to improve their lot. Federal and state labor laws had long excluded domestic and agricultural workers — a legislative residue of slavery — depriving them of the right to overtime and health-and-safety protections. To win a domestic workers’ bill of rights was nearly impossible, Poo reasoned, but campaigning for one would yield smaller triumphs along the way: “It can be a very long and arduous journey, [but] any meeting where 20 women come together and share their stories and feel less alone, or ask for the raise they’ve deserved for five years — these are victories.”

The group morphed step by step, through dreary lobbying trips to Albany and rallies in front of New York’s City Hall, into a nascent movement. Partner domestic worker entities like Adhikaar and Damayan, unions, foundations, religious supporters and activists came on board — then, finally, legislators whose mothers had been domestic workers. And Poo was always there, her long hair in a ponytail, beige clogs on her tired feet. In 2010, they won: New York became the first state to sign a domestic workers’ bill of rights into law, giving limited overtime pay and paid time off to a previously excluded labor force.

By then, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which Poo founded in 2007, was supporting local affiliates across the U.S. — now in 26 cities and 18 states. In 2011, NDWA helped establish Caring Across Generations, a campaign focused on elder-caregivers; signed a partnership agreement with the AFL-CIO national labor federation; and saw the International Labour Organization pass a convention on “decent work for domestic workers.” “The Help,” starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone, drew attention to domestic workers in theaters, and actress Amy Poehler gave a widely publicized tribute to her nannies at the Time 100 gala. (Disclaimer: As an attorney in the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, I served DWU, NDWA and other domestic worker groups from 2007 to 2012.)

“Thanks to [Ai-jen’s] work, there’s a growing awareness of the rights of nannies, housekeepers and others whose work is so important,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. “Without those nannies and housekeepers, we couldn’t do the work we do every day.”

Care labor has remained visible due to basic demographics as much as Poo’s organizing and pop-cultural cachet: By 2030, the population of those 65 and older will reach 72.1 million, more than twice their number in 2000. Poo’s grandmother, 88, lives in her own California apartment with the assistance of a caregiver. “Because of advances in health care and technology, and changes in lifestyle, the baby boom generation is reaching retirement,” Poo said, “and we’re going to have to figure out family- and community-based solutions to provide baseline support.”

As a recipient of the MacArthur grant, Poo will receive $625,000 over five years. She will use this money, she said, to fund a fellowship for domestic workers, drawn from NDWA member organizations, “who want to really learn the ins and outs of public policy advocacy.”

Poo, 40, who lives in Chicago with her partner, sees strategy as divination. “I’m reading analyses of the future: everything from climate change to changing demographics to changes in the economy,” she said. “We need a whole new framework for social safety nets and labor practices and labor laws. We’re in a profoundly unequal economy, but I believe in the power of women organizing together.”

Any meeting where 20 women come together and share their stories and feel less alone or ask for the raise they’ve deserved for five years – these are victories.

Ai-jen Poo

Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance

By then, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which Poo founded in 2007, was supporting local affiliates across the U.S. — now in 26 cities and 18 states. In 2011, the NDWA helped establish Caring Across Generations, a campaign focused on elder-care aides; signed a partnership agreement with the AFL-CIO national labor federation; and saw the International Labor Organization pass a convention on “decent work for domestic workers.” “The Help,” starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone, put domestic workers onscreen, and actress Amy Poehler gave a widely publicized tribute to her nannies at the Time 100 gala. Hawaii and California passed their own domestic workers’ bills of rights.

Care labor has remained visible because of basic demographics as much as pop-cultural representations and Poo’s organizing. By 2030, the population of those 65 or older will reach 72.1 million, more than twice their number in 2000. Among them is Poo’s 88-year-old grandmother, who lives alone in a California apartment with the assistance of a caregiver. “Because of advances in health care and technology and changes in lifestyle, the baby boom generation is reaching retirement,” Poo said, “and we’re going to have to figure out family- and community-based solutions to provide baseline support.”

As a recipient of the MacArthur grant, Poo, 40, will receive $625,000 over five years. The money, she said, will fund a fellowship for domestic workers, drawn from NDWA member organizations, “who want to learn the ins and outs of public policy advocacy.”

Now based in Chicago, she sees strategy as divination. “I’m reading analyses of the future — everything from climate change to changing demographics to changes in the economy,” Poo said. “We need a whole new framework for social safety nets and labor practices and labor laws. We’re in a profoundly unequal economy, but I believe in the power of women organizing together.”

Editor’s note: As an attorney in the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, the author served DWU, the NDWA and other domestic worker groups from 2007 to 2012.