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From Oprah's instantly iconic #TimesUp speech to Natalie Portman's deadpan critique of the "all-male" best director nominees, last night's Golden Globes felt like an unapologetic celebration of the women battling discrimination and sexual abuse across every industry. Eight Hollywood actresses pushed their protest even further by walking the press-line with the activists who have dedicated their lives to supporting the most vulnerable women among us well before the New York Times broke its Harvey Weinstein exposé last October.
Refinery29 caught up with MacArthur “Genius” Award winner, Ai-jen Poo — Meryl Streep's red carpet plus one and the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance — to learn more about her courageous advocacy for the caregivers still fighting for the basic protections most of us take for granted. Catch our Q&A with Poo below, and watch the video above above to learn more about her remarkable work.
What is the National Domestic Workers Alliance?
The National Domestic Workers Alliance is an organization that advocates for the women who labor in our homes every day as nannies, personal attendants, caregivers to the elderly, and housecleaners. Above all, they are the people who make all other labor possible by supporting millions of working families and allowing them to go out in the world and do what they do. But domestic workers also represent some of the most undervalued and invisible labor in our economy; when we talk about work, we rarely think of them. And there is very little in the way of guidelines or standards about how to fairly compensate or treat these people, especially since they're vulnerable to modern day slavery situations, rape, or sexual assault.
Our work at the National Domestic Workers Alliance is to elevate the level of respect we assign to this work, to raise awareness for the ways we have to invest in these jobs, and to act as a resource and support system for theses laborers. Ultimately, we want to change the politics and policy around how we value caregiving.
There's a personal story behind how you began advocating for the importance of intergenerational care. Can you tell me about that?
I grew up in an immigrant household, and my grandparents moved in with my family when I was pretty young. They played a really strong role in raising me and my sister, which taught us so much about valuing family and respecting our elders. Embedded in both of those values is the importance of care and care giving — knowing how to recognize the people who support you. When I was a young adult, my grandfather started to lose his sight and became much frailer as he grew older, but my father was unable to care for him at home, so we ended up having to place him in a nursing home against his wishes. Visiting him there always broke my heart, and I lived with that sense of regret that someone who provided such good care for so many others wasn't able to receive the same thing in his final days.
The ability to have a strong and prepared care workforce that is ready to support us has become an obsession of mine, because we see it from both ends — the women who do the difficult, rewarding work and who get very little in return, and the elders who cared for us and deserve dignity and dedication as they age.
"It's really the women in our homes — the ones caring for our children or grandparents and cleaning our houses — who are the ones being demonized in this political climate."
Immigration has become one of the most visible socio-economic issues since the 2016 election. How do immigration and domestic labor issues intersect?
When people think about where undocumented people are working in our economy, they usually think about agriculture. But, actually, the largest concentration of undocumented laborers are found in the domestic work industry. So it's really the women in our homes — the ones caring for our children or grandparents and cleaning our houses — who are the ones being demonized in this political climate.
There's very little way to imagine how to care for everyone who needs it without an immigrant workforce. That's why there are so many undocumented women in the sector of that economy. And as the American population continues to age, we're ultimately we're going to need an all-hands-on-deck care situation.
In 2010, you successfully advocated for the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. How has your ability to work with the government to create real change shifted since the Trump administration came to power?
We worked very closely with the Obama administration to make these jobs better and to improve the lives of the women who do the work — we were successful in winning wage protection for these laborers, and it was a big victory of the Obama administration.
The Trump administration is the opposite. It's focused on ejecting a large portion of the workforce that so many of us are connected to or dependent upon. They've polarizing the country by trying to turn people against each other. We believe in a nation that is based on an acknowledgement of how we're interconnected — one that understands that the only way we solve problems is by working together. Trump's administration is doing a lot to tear communities apart. That has been a real challenge, and a threat.
But I also think that women have been a real source of hope and power for us. It's not surprising that women were the first to call for a march and have been organizing ever since. We've been a really big part of that, adding oxygen to women's activism around the country; I believe it will be a large part of what ultimately saves us all. Women are really disproportionately impacted by any policies that get created around care and care giving — women are providing 72% of family care giving and 90% of the professional care workforce is female. Domestic care is a sector where women are leading, developing solutions, and pushing the conversation forward. It's also profoundly intersectional, touching every generation, every race. Above all, women are leading the energy that will save our democracy. That's what's keeping us hopeful.
You can read more about the need for domestic labor in the U.S. in Poo's 2015 book, The Age Of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.