Ai-jen Poo is an award-winning activist, and was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in 2012. She has spent decades fighting for social change, organizing and participating in courageous displays of advocacy and championing for those whose voices were previous unheard.
As director, Poo has seen the National Domestic Workers Alliance transform into an organization with 35 offices spread across the U.S. Through her efforts and the NDWA’s tireless lobbying, the state of New York passed the first-ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, helping to protect home-care workers.
Her latest, and perhaps most important, undertaking is Caring Across Generations, a campaign intent on changing the way Americans think about nannies, housekeepers and home health care workers. If she has her way, there will be millions of jobs created in the process.
What is Caring Across Generations?
The Caring Across Generations movement brings together Americans of all walks of life to strengthen our multi-generational and caregiving relationships. With 10,000 Americas reaching retirement age per day, and people living longer than ever, we are about to have the largest older adult population we’ve ever had. With this change comes both the responsibility and the opportunity to make sure that we all have the support we need to live longer, connected, active lives. Our movement works across generations, to leverage storytelling, social media and social action, to create a more caring society that works for everyone.
What about the issue of care and care work drew you to it?
Care is the invisible infrastructure that makes our whole world work. What could be more fundamental than caring for our families, and those relationships that enable each of us to reach for our full potential? And yet so often it is invisible or taken for granted. Inspired by my mother and my grandmother who are both incredibly strong women who struggled with juggling their caregiving responsibilities and work, I am a strong believer that caregiving should be valued as among the most important elements to a healthy society. If we are able to support and value care – both paid care work and unpaid family care – we will see a profound shift in many of the problems facing our society, particularly the stresses on women, children and working families.
How can our society improve how we care for each other?
Our society should offer a baseline of support to every individual and family to receive quality, affordable care and support for their children, elders and loved ones with disabilities, in their homes and communities. There should be real choices for families available that do not force people to impoverish themselves, but rather enable people to build wealth and opportunity, one generation after the next. As we create new programs with more choices for families, it is also critical that funding of existing government programs are expanded and reimagined such that people are not constantly living in fear of not receiving enough hours of support to stay independent and in their homes, and the workers are not trapped in poverty.
As families, we should have an explicit conversation across generations about the type of care we want for ourselves and one another, so that our families can plan together, support one another and also hire support if and when needed. While these issues can be tough to navigate, it’s often helpful to have open conversations about them, so that the responsibility and challenges – as well as the joys – can be shared among family and friends. In addition, as individuals, we should take responsibility for taking care of ourselves, our own health and well-being. We should be saving for unforeseen moments when we or our family members and friends may need extra support or care.
Why do you feel this issue directly affects women?
I believe that every issue affects women – women’s issues are everyone’s issues and the other way around. This is particularly true when it comes to care! More than 80% of paid care providers are women. More than 70% of unpaid family care providers are women. Women have a longer average life expectancy than men. So, whether you’re looking at the issue from the perspective of the family, the worker or the consumer, women are disproportionately impacted. It’s always been about women – not exclusively, but in a fundamental way. Historically, this work has been associated with “women’s work” and “women’s place” in the home. Many believe that this association is what’s led to the severe undervaluing of care in our society. Whether or not you believe that is the source of the problem, women are in a fantastic position to change it.
Women are more than half of the electorate, more than half of the paid workforce, and more than half of all college graduates. Our experiences are defining the present and the future. If we want more choices or support when it comes to care, or if we want to make caregiving a top national priority, we can make it happen, we just need to organize and mobilize.
What does feminism mean to you?
To me, feminism is the assertion of every person’s dignity and value. It’s about deepening our ability to embrace the whole of humanity. Feminism helps me see the world from the perspective of the least visible people in our society, and helps me imagine what it would be like if they were our most public, visible leaders. Feminism believes in the power of women, and the power of creating tables where there’s a seat for everyone. Feminism inspires me to take action for working women, understanding that in doing so, families, communities and all of us are stronger.
What do you think women can do to be more supportive of one another?
Working with an under-appreciated workforce of women, I think appreciation and recognition are deeply powerful. One thing we you can do right now: make a list of 5 women in your world whose work you really appreciate, and think of one thing you can do to elevate each of them. It could be anything from highlighting their work on social media, sending a note to their boss, to nominating them for some public recognition. Then do those things. And send them a note sharing why you appreciate them.
On the policy front: we need to come together as women, to push for bold policy change that brings us into the 21st century, and allows each of us to live to our full potential, to find our purpose, to work, lead and to be the daughters, partners, mothers, and friends we want to be. Paid sick days, family leave, child care, and home care should become natural pillars of workplace policy, enabling working parents who are living full lives to remain whole.
What women inspire you?
Caregivers across the country inspire me. They do the work that makes all other work possible, and do it with pride despite our society’s lack of recognition of its value. Women like Barbara Young who worked for many years as a nanny and caregiver in New York City. I met her when she signed up for the Nanny Training Program I helped to organize in 2001. From that time on, she has been a leader and organizer of other domestic workers in New York and across the country, helping women understand their rights and find their voice. She was instrumental in the passage of the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010, and last year received the Purpose Prize.
What books or media have had an impact on your life?
I recently saw a documentary film called Who is Dayani Cristal?, about a father who risks his life crossing the border, and ultimately loses his life, in order to support his family in Honduras. It features Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican actor, who traces the migrant’s journey across the border. It’s a beautifully told story, honest and raw, and gave me a sense of what thousands of people have experienced in order to be in the United States. So many parents sacrifice for their children; in this case, it was the greatest sacrifice imaginable. Looking in the eyes of his daughter, I could understand why; it wasn’t really a choice. I realized after watching it, that many of the immigrant caregivers I know have also crossed the border and have never talked about it. I have heard from human rights advocates at the border, that for women, the experience can be particularly treacherous. Many cases of rape and sexual assault occur during the crossing.
What’s your favorite thing about yourself?
What a funny question! Having grown up in a Chinese immigrant family and moved around to many different parts of the country as a young person, I learned how to connect with lots of different kinds of people. Meeting people of all walks of life, and being able to connect deeply with them helps expand my view of the world and brings a lot of joy to my life. So that’s something I like.