In recent years, the topic of care has been thrust into the spotlight: for families, especially with young children, navigating the pandemic and subsequent hybrid school/work schedules, or for the generation of Baby Boomers increasingly needing aging and disability care. But the call for improvement in access to care and care worker careers—most often held by women of color—is far from new. Ai-jen Poo, the Co-founder and President of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, is a testament to this as she’s been at the forefront of advocacy for care and care workers for over 25 years.
Poo’s appreciation of caregiving began during her childhood in a multigenerational household, and broadened as her career began. Her earliest work was alongside nannies, cleaners, and all manner of care workers in New York City, where she gained a better understanding of the conditions of their jobs and the larger systemic changes needed to fairly and adequately support them. In 2010, a few years after launching the National Domestic Workers Alliance, her work helped pass the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York (which has since been passed in nine additional states and four cities), and in 2014 she earned the MacArthur “genius” grant in recognition of her advocacy. Now, just this past year, Poo, surrounded by hundreds of the care workers who continue to inspire her work, joined President Biden as he signed a historic executive action that will not only help care jobs become good, sustainable jobs but also improve accessibility for the many families who rely on this workforce.
Today, Poo is also the Co-founder and Executive Director of Caring Across Generations, Co-founder of Supermajority, and Trustee of the Ford Foundation. Her work is an ongoing legacy of championing those who are most vulnerable in society—older adults, children, people with disabilities—and those who care for them.
"Caregiving highlights the best in us and how incredibly powerful our love is for the people in our lives."
ON HER EARLIEST UNDERSTANDING OF CAREGIVING
It began with being raised in an intergenerational family—my grandparents played a huge role in raising me and my sister—and the love that I felt for my grandparents and how grateful I was that they were my caregivers. It's like having your best friends, your heroes and your biggest advocates be close in your life. As I grew older, I realized that most people don't have the benefit of living intergenerationally and that caregivers don’t have the support they need. People everywhere really struggle to take care of their loved ones. And yet they do it. They show up, raise their kids, figure it out, and make it all work. Caregiving highlights the best in us and how incredibly powerful our love is for the people in our lives. It’s also a reminder of how much more we have to do as a society to really value and support what matters most.
ON LAUNCHING THE NATIONAL DOMESTIC WORKERS ALLIANCE
We have 69 affiliates and seven chapters around the country who work day in and day out providing training, offering support, and bringing domestic workers together around the country. In Hollywood, we work with storytellers to tell more holistic and authentic stories about domestic work. In Washington, we try to change the laws to better protect domestic workers and to better support our caregiving families, including people who need childcare, paid leave, and long-term care. We also talk to voters, especially women of color in the South and the Southwest, to make sure they know that their voices and their votes really matter.
ON NAVIGATING THROUGH THE NOS
We've had nos all over the place. We've had bills vetoed and lost campaigns. After the pandemic, Caring Across Generations helped to launch a coalition called Care Can't Wait to push for caregiving policies–affordable child care, paid family and medical leave, and aging and disability care–to be included in the federal budget bill that passed last year. We passed historic legislation through the House but didn't make it through the Senate. We worked so hard and that setback was actually really important. It was a transformational moment because it was a moment to ask ourselves what we learned and what must come next. And we've turned all of that reflection, the trust and the relationships that were built through that effort into growing our coalition exponentially, doubling down, and reimagining a path forward where, at this point, I am certain that we are going to win. It’s now just a matter of when.
ON WHAT IT MEANS TO “WIN”
I want caregivers to know that they are respected, valued, and not alone. And that they're an incredibly powerful force for change. I want everyone who needs childcare to be able to have access to really great childcare, and for new moms and new parents to be able to take time off from work to spend with their newborns. If you have a loved one that is ill or needs you to be able to take time off from work to care for them, you can show up for them through paid family and medical leave. I want all of us as we age or if we develop a disability to know that we're still going to be able to live full lives with dignity and support, and we're not going to be cast away.
[Winning] looks like having a real infrastructure for care in America, such that every job in the care economy—whether it's an early childhood educator or a home healthcare worker—is a really good job. Having these jobs be good jobs is a win-win for all of us.
ON THE POWER OF PERSONAL STYLE
When I first started doing national advocacy work, there were not very many organizations in Washington that were led by women of color, and certainly not younger than me. I was in my late 30s and I would walk into a lot of rooms and feel like I had to really prove that I belonged there. And for me, part of getting ready for showing up in those spaces and representing domestic workers or caregivers was dressing the part: figuring out what it would look like to project the power and the dignity of the people that I was representing. When I think about fashion, it’s a way of sending a message. It's not just about your expression of yourself, but it's about what values and who you represent.
ON 2023’S EXECUTIVE ACTION ON DOMESTIC CARE
A big marker was when President Biden included care in his economic agenda. For as long as I’ve been doing this work care has been seen as a women's issue or a family issue—something that's not a core question for society. The fact that the President and Vice President have consistently included it as one of the key pillars of their economic agenda is huge. The big milestone was the foregrounding of care jobs and prioritizing making the jobs that caregivers do really good jobs for the future. Right now, care work is not a good job. Eighty-seven percent of care workers are women, and the majority are women of color, and for the most part, they’re still poverty-wage jobs without benefits or adequate time off. And so the fact that we have a President and Vice President of the United States who see this workforce for its true value and role in our economy is a big win to me.
ON HOPE AND ACTION
There's a sense of hope I've learned from domestic workers. The day after the election in 2016, members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, many of whom were immigrants and knew the threats ahead were like, “Alright, what's the plan? What are we going to do?” It's a pragmatic hope. It's a hope that's grounded in “‘Let's go forward.” We don't have a lot of time or room to complain or to feel sorry for ourselves. Hope and action, or finding hope in action, are what I've learned.
ON LESS OF A CAREER, MORE OF A CHOICE
I never really thought about my work as a career. As a young person, I was really outraged at the injustices that I saw in my community in New York City where there were so many Asian immigrant women who were working incredibly hard and doing everything right. They were going to work every single day, doing everything they could to take care of their families, and still struggled. How could it be that you could work a 12-hour day and still not be able to put enough food on the table or pay the rent? It's so stressful. That was the case for so many women in my community, whether they worked in nail salons, restaurants, garment factories, or care.
The outrage got me involved. And then the inspiration kept me involved. I was inspired by how strong, practical, and hopeful the women I met in the early organizing days were. It was less a career move, but more of a choice that I wanted to organize with women and build power with women. I believed, and still believe, that if we worked together, we could change all of this. We could make the impossible possible. A lot of people said we would never pass a bill of rights for domestic workers in New York, or domestic workers could never be organized, or you'll never change the way people view care and care work, and we're proving them wrong. Expanding what’s possible, that’s what women do when we come together.
"I want caregivers to know that they are respected, valued, and not alone. And that they're an incredibly powerful force for change."