On any given day there are at least eight hundred thousand women employed in U.S. homes as domestic workers. They cook and clean for families and provide assistance and care to the elderly. Many tend to children and share with parents their first steps, first words, first lost tooth.
It is an intimate relationship but not an equal one. Domestic work has historically been treated as “women’s work” — undervalued, unpaid, and unmeasured by economists. There is no widget produced: just another happy child or shining kitchen floor. Traditional workplaces have managers and multiple employees and federally mandated standards. A home is not like that. The homeowners rule with impunity. This can often translate into workdays that never end and little time off. Neither the civil-rights nor the labor movement of the twentieth century improved the conditions of domestic workers, and to this day they remain excluded from many government protections.
“Sometimes we refer to the industry as the ‘Wild West,’ ” says Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). “It is a lawless place where anything goes.”
The NDWA is a coalition of nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers who are speaking out about their working conditions and organizing to improve them. Launched in 2007, the alliance has grown into a nationwide movement to protect the rights of this often invisible workforce. As the organization’s director, Poo is helping initiate a long-overdue conversation about how we as a society should care for the people who care for us. “This is not just an issue for domestic workers but for all humans,” she says. “We are trying to develop a much bolder vision for how this country thinks about caregiving and the people who do it.”
Writing about Poo, feminist icon Gloria Steinem says, “Once in a while, there comes along a gifted organizer — think of the radical empathy of Jane Addams or the populist tactics of Cesar Chavez — who knows how to create social change from the bottom up.” In 2012 Poo was named one of Newsweek’s 150 Fearless Women, and she appeared on Time’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world.
Poo’s greatest inspiration is her maternal grandmother, who raised three children and worked as a nurse for thirty-five years in Taiwan before moving in 2000 to the United States, where her children and grandchildren live. “Like so many women, she has spent her whole life caring for others,” Poo says. Although Poo has not been a domestic worker herself, she maintains that every one of us inherently understands the value of care.
Though both her parents were originally from Taiwan, Poo was raised in California and Connecticut. Her father, who had been a prodemocracy activist in Taiwan, is a scientist. After the family immigrated to the U.S., her mother worked and went to graduate school to earn a degree in chemistry.
As a teenager Poo thought that she would grow up to be an artist. After a brief stint at art school, however, she took up women’s studies at New York City’s Columbia University, where in 1996 she and other students occupied a campus building to demand that the university establish an ethnic-studies department. Their campaign eventually led to the creation of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
While still a student, Poo began working for the Committee against Anti-Asian Violence. Filipina domestic workers often came to the organization’s offices seeking services and bringing stories of abuse and exploitation. “I heard about women who went months without being paid, who were forced to sleep on floors or subjected to verbal and physical abuse,” Poo says. As these women heard each other’s stories, they found a sense of connection that led them to organize. The efforts started small, focusing on churches and the playgrounds where nannies brought their employers’ children. Poo and the workers began to mount campaigns in support of those who were exploited or owed wages, holding demonstrations in front of abusive employers’ homes or filing lawsuits. The movement quickly grew to include women from many ethnic backgrounds, including Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. They began winning legal cases and recovering back wages for workers.
But they soon realized that the laws themselves gave them insufficient protections. “We needed to dream bigger,” Poo says. In 2000 she cofounded Domestic Workers United, an organization of New York City domestic workers that successfully fought for passage of state legislation to ensure their right to overtime pay, paid days off, and protection against discrimination and harassment.
It was during this campaign that Poo helped establish the NDWA, a coalition of thirty-nine organizations across the country advocating for the rights of domestic workers. Their biggest campaign is in California, where they hope to pass a workers’ bill of rights.
Recently Poo has extended her efforts to address what she calls a “looming crisis in care.” As the baby boomers age and their families face the economic realities of providing assistance for them, there is increasing demand for in-home care and not enough trained workers to meet it. Poo believes that women who have worked as nannies and housekeepers are ideally suited to move into these new roles. She has brought together more than two hundred organizations around the country — including unions, elder-advocacy groups, and think tanks — to launch a campaign called Caring across Generations. Poo is also writing a book on the crisis, tentatively titled The Age of Dignity and due out in 2014.
I met Poo at the NDWA offices in New York City. She was soft-spoken but became animated when talking about the courage and resilience of the women with whom she works. Poo has an infectious laugh and is unabashed about speaking of “organizing with love.” As we sat in a small office overlooking the busy street below, we drank tea and talked about the changing face of the labor movement and the prospects for a more just economy.
Blackshaw: What is a domestic worker, and what sort of services do such workers provide?
Poo: A domestic worker is anyone who works in someone’s home. At the NDWA we focus on women who are employed directly by the homeowner and typically work for just one family. Domestic workers are not only nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly; they are tutors, they are chauffeurs, they are advisors and confidantes. Theirs is the work that makes all other work possible, because without it many professionals could not go to their jobs.
The relationship between domestic worker and employer varies greatly from home to home. Sometimes there is a bond of trust that develops, and sometimes there is a relationship that is based more on fear, creating an unhealthy environment. I have heard about employers who have kept workers’ passports or not paid them for months or fired them for calling in sick or becoming pregnant. In between are the employers who do not respect boundaries, who come home at eight when they said they would be home at six; meanwhile the worker’s own family is waiting for a meal.
Respect is what people want most on the job, and too often domestic workers don’t get it. They put so much of themselves into what they do, but mainstream culture does not recognize the value of their labor. Our campaigns are fundamentally about bringing them respect and recognition.
Blackshaw: There is a profound intimacy to the relationship between domestic workers and the families they care for. They share a home day after day.
Poo: Domestic workers are in a fascinating position. They are poor or working-class women who live in both their own world and the upper-class world of their employers. They witness the difference between these realities daily. They might accompany their employers on vacation, but they never get a vacation themselves. They see employers taking taxis, but they return home on the bus. They know when one of their employers would rather spend four hundred dollars on a pair of shoes than pay them a living wage, because they watch it happen. It’s a brutal reminder of inequality. But domestic workers also have a deep sense of their employers’ humanity, because it is too hard to do this work if you do not love the people you take care of. Workers can’t view their employers as the enemy; so there is tremendous incentive to find common ground.
Blackshaw: Some employers refer to their domestic employees as “part of the family.”
Poo: Being a helpful and effective member of the household is important to domestic workers. The inequity comes in when they are forced to choose the families they work for over their own children and relatives.
Treating a nanny or a housekeeper or an attendant as “part of the family” can also become a way for employers to get around their own responsibilities: they don’t honor the employer-employee relationship because in their mind the worker isn’t really an employee.
Most employers want to do the right thing, but we need to make it clear for them what that is. Having guidelines and minimum standards is beneficial for both sides. It provides a baseline from which they can negotiate.
Blackshaw: Could you describe a responsible employer?
Poo: A responsible employer has a conversation with a worker about wages and expectations and hours. Responsible employers pay workers on time and pay them a living wage — generally between fourteen and eighteen dollars an hour — and offer benefits such as paid days off, holidays, and sick days. They treat the worker with respect. If the employer is going to be a few minutes late getting home, fine, but he or she calls.
Right now, every time a domestic worker walks into a job interview, she has no idea what she is going to find. This potential employer could be pleasant at first but later become abusive. The worker is in a vulnerable position made worse by the fact that, in most domestic situations, there are two employers and only one worker, whereas in most workplaces employees outnumber the employer, and so there’s the potential for collective negotiation. In a home the power relationship is completely one-sided.
Blackshaw: And further complicated by race and class.
Poo: Yes, employers and employees are usually women of different classes and races. Some workers are undocumented immigrants. Even if the employer is an immigrant, there is usually a difference in legal status. So the worker’s vulnerability is heightened.
If you think about the decades of organizing it took for the women’s movement to bring awareness to the reality of domestic violence, you get a sense of what is happening for domestic workers.
Blackshaw: What does an average day look like for, say, a nanny in New York City?
Poo: It starts early, long before her employers leave for work. Her apartment is probably far from the high-rent neighborhood where her employers live, so it could take her an hour and a half just to get to her job. This means she has to put breakfast on the table and get her own children ready for school even earlier. When she arrives at work, her first task is probably to fix breakfast and take the employers’ children to school. Then she will clean house or run errands until it’s time to pick the kids up and deliver them to after-school activities, such as karate or ballet, or take them to the library or the park. In the evening the nanny prepares dinner and gives the children their baths so that, when the parents come home, all they need to do is read a story before bed. Only then does the nanny go home to her own children.
This relationship tends to create deep bonds between the nannies and the boys and girls they care for, regardless of what the relationship is between worker and employers.
Blackshaw: The NDWA recently released the first-ever national survey of domestic workers. What were some of your findings?
Poo: We talked to more than two thousand women in fourteen cities in the U.S., and we found that nearly one-quarter of domestic workers are paid beneath the minimum wage, that they rarely receive employment benefits, and that many experience disrespect and abuse on the job. We found that more than 90 percent of those who encounter problems with their working conditions do not raise the issue with their employer, because they are afraid of being fired. We heard about many cases of wage theft, where workers were paid less than had been agreed upon, or not paid at all. One worker in Miami was initially hired as a live-in house cleaner, but she soon discovered that her job responsibilities included gardening, child care, and looking after her employers’ many dogs. For all this she was paid as little as thirty dollars some weeks, and most of the time she was paid nothing at all — just room and board. Eventually she broke her arm on the job, and her employers fired her, leaving her unable to work and with nowhere to live.
We found that around half of all domestic workers have to use toxic cleansers and are rarely provided with protective gear or safer options. One housekeeper in Los Angeles said that her employer prohibited her from opening windows while she cleaned, and she suffered from skin and respiratory ailments. And we found that nearly a fourth of domestic workers had been fired from a job after they’d complained about unsafe working conditions.
I was not surprised by these findings, because they are in line with what I hear every day. Having statistics, however, gives a real sense of the scope of the abuse.
Domestic workers . . . know when one of their employers would rather spend four hundred dollars on a pair of shoes than pay them a living wage, because they watch it happen. It’s a brutal reminder of inequality.
Blackshaw: Considering the changes brought about by the women’s, civil-rights, and labor movements, why do you think this workforce has been denied basic protections for so long?
Poo: The roots of this disrespect are culturally very deep. These jobs have historically been occupied by women. The legacy of racism and slavery also can’t be ignored. Domestic workers in this country for the most part have been women of color and immigrants. When the programs that made up the New Deal were passed by Congress in the 1930s, Southern lawmakers refused to support the labor reforms unless domestic workers and farmworkers — who were largely African American — were explicitly excluded. These white Southerners just couldn’t tolerate the notion that African American workers might build political power by organizing.
To this day, domestic workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which gives workers the right to bargain collectively and to form a union. They are also excluded from the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which is a huge problem, because many domestic workers are exposed to toxic chemicals and must lift children and people with disabilities. They were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act until the 1970s, when they won the right to earn the minimum wage. Domestic workers are also excluded from the parts of the Civil Rights Act that protect employees from discrimination and harassment, because there are too few employees in most homes for those houses to be defined as workplaces.
Blackshaw: You have said that if people themselves are not transformed by social movements, then institutional reforms will not hold.
Poo: Yes. The experience of speaking out and asserting pride in their work, in the face of dehumanizing treatment, has powerfully affected many of our members. At our annual workers’ congress we took delegates to meet with representatives of the U.S. Department of Labor. The women talked about their experiences and what legal protections they needed. Afterward one of them told me that it was the first time she ever felt she had a voice in this country. That kind of experience becomes common once these women emerge from the shadows. That transformation, that arc — I see it constantly, and it inspires me every day.
When we experience injustice as individuals, we often contract and become cynical. Rather than think about solutions, we focus on whom or what we can still protect. But when we come together and share our stories, it expands our notion of what’s possible. It changes the person telling the story, it changes whoever is listening to the story, and it changes how we understand our own story. Women tell me it’s almost like testifying in church. After meeting with others like themselves, they find the courage to ask their employers for a raise or a sick day. Workers who were once afraid to speak in a general meeting get up in front of thousands to demand a safe and just workplace.
I often ask these women to imagine a world without them in it. What would happen to this society? At first they laugh, but they know that, as a group, they are essential to the functioning of the economy. Even anti-immigrant legislators in Texas created an exception in the law to prevent their nannies and housekeepers from being deported.
Blackshaw: Pablo Alvarado of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network has said, “Between anger and fear there is courage.”
Poo: That courage often comes from not wanting to see the same thing happen to other workers. It also comes from the knowledge that you are not alone. It’s amazing to watch someone peel back those layers of fear. Women who may have been afraid to come to their first meeting soon are demonstrating in front of abusive employers’ homes. And they are willing to lose a day’s pay to do it.
To demonstrate the potential power of the domestic workforce, I often ask these women to imagine a world without them in it. What would happen to this society? At first they laugh, but they know that, as a group, they are essential to the functioning of the economy. Even anti-immigrant legislators in Texas created an exception in the law to prevent their nannies and housekeepers from being deported.
Blackshaw: Many employers or people who were raised by nannies have spoken out in support of your campaign. How important is it for you to work with employers and their families?
Poo: It’s critical. We talk a lot about “organizing with love.” As I said, domestic workers develop strong attachments to the people they care for, and this allows them to maintain compassion for their employers even in the face of injustice. Martin Luther King Jr. said that love is the most powerful force for change in the world, and I have really found this to be true.
The actor and comedian Amy Poehler did a wonderful public-service announcement for us in support of our California campaign. In it she talks about how she depends on her nannies to take care of her kids so that she can do the work she loves. Every time she receives an award, she recognizes her nannies by name. Many employers tell us that their caregivers give them the freedom to pursue their goals.
Blackshaw: What do you do when you come across employers who have mistreated their employees?
Poo: When I first began this work, I had to train myself not to respond angrily when, for example, someone would question the employee’s right to have a paid sick day or to be paid for overtime. It was hard not to get defensive, especially after seeing how much of themselves domestic workers give to their work. But ultimately I learned to try to understand employers’ points of view. Then I help them see why it’s in their own interest to give employees time off: it helps workers stay rested and healthy, which means they are able to be present and attentive in the home. And if they are caring for your child or parent, you want them to be at their best. We are all truly interdependent. There’s plenty of common ground to build upon.
Blackshaw: You’ve never been a domestic worker and didn’t have a nanny or a housekeeper growing up. How did you come to do this work?
Poo: I never intended to be an organizer. I wanted to be an artist or a writer. But while I was at Columbia University, I joined a group called the Committee against Anti-Asian Violence. We started a project that helped provide better access to health services for women who had low-wage jobs in massage parlors and nail salons and people’s homes. We began hearing from domestic workers and realized that there were no real resources for them in the community. I remember one woman who worked for a family with a child who had a disability. In addition to caring for the boy, she was responsible for doing the cooking and cleaning and ironing for the entire family. She worked eighteen hours a day — 6 AM until midnight — six days a week, and earned less than three dollars per hour. She slept in the basement of her employers’ home, where a broken sewage system was constantly flooding the area by her bed. After three years of this, she was fired without any notice and given no severance pay.
I heard this kind of story often. So my colleagues and I began to reach out to these women more.
Blackshaw: Given their isolation, how did you find the workers and bring them together?
Poo: When we first began, it was hard just to get seven women together in a room. Everything was arranged meeting by meeting, worker by worker, case by case. The domestic workforce is so decentralized that we depended on informal social and support networks. We found clergy who could help connect us with women in their congregation and lawyers who could take pro bono cases. We began by organizing individual campaigns for women who had been mistreated by their employers or who were owed wages. Using legal pressure and direct action, we were able to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages owed to these workers. After those early victories, however, we realized that we needed more than grassroots, case-by-case organizing. We needed to take on state legislatures and change the labor laws themselves, and ultimately we wanted to unite everyone.
Blackshaw: Domestic workers won a huge victory several years ago when they got legislation passed in New York.
Poo: The New York bill was a breakthrough. No other state has explicitly recognized the need to protect this workforce. We won overtime pay, protection from discrimination and harassment, a minimum of one day off per week — which is particularly important for live-in domestic workers — and three days’ paid leave per year.
Some who were against the bill argued that legislating paid vacations and sick days and holidays for domestic workers amounted to special treatment, because other workers had won those benefits through collective bargaining. But we convinced enough of them that traditional labor organizing is not conceivable for domestic workers, because there are hundreds of thousands of workplaces and typically only one worker in each. How would they bargain?
Blackshaw: You are now trying to win these same protections for domestic workers in California.
Poo: Yes. The largest concentration of domestic workers in the nation is in Los Angeles. If California will take steps to protect this workforce, it could spark a national conversation about how we treat those who care for our families and homes.
Blackshaw: The legislation passed the California State Assembly and State Senate last year, but it was vetoed by the governor. Who opposed it, and why?
Poo: In California our main opposition was private home-care agencies, which called the bill a “job killer” and said if they were forced to pay overtime, they wouldn’t be able to hire anyone. This argument has been used for a century to undermine efforts to improve wages and benefits for workers. We are not deterred by the veto. It has only made our movement stronger.
Blackshaw: Domestic-worker cooperatives are cropping up across the country. How did these come about?
Poo: Wherever groups of people are faced with an injustice, they will organize. Domestic workers have created worker-owned co-ops or hiring halls where they can come together and set standards for wages and working conditions. In Boston there is a Brazilian American women’s green-cleaning cooperative called Vida Verde. They make their own cleaning products out of natural ingredients. They have also agreed among themselves not to charge below a certain amount to clean houses, so that they can all earn a living. Other co-ops train their members in how to bargain and negotiate with employers, so that they can ask with confidence for better wages and working conditions.
Blackshaw: You are head of the NDWA, but the organization is led by workers. How do you perform your duties in a way that still allows the members to be in charge?
Poo: We believe that worker leadership is essential. If our movement is to grow, it will have to be driven by the workers themselves, because it’s their lack of a voice that has led to such extreme inequality. We need to ensure that our alliance serves their needs. At every national gathering and training event we make sure that our members are shaping the discussion. We also have domestic workers on our board of directors and in staff positions.
Blackshaw: About two-thirds of domestic workers are immigrants. Many have left behind their own families to work in the U.S., caring for someone else’s family.
Poo: A great number of women in the domestic industry are supporting families both here and abroad. There is tremendous pressure on them. This is part of a larger pattern of the international migration of labor. Farming no longer provides a sustainable livelihood in parts of the globe where it was once the primary means of survival. So people there are forced to leave and find work where they can, often in the industrialized nations.
As the world has become more globalized, cities like New York and Los Angeles have become what sociologist Saskia Sassen calls “global command centers.” They are home to the professionals who are busy overseeing multinational corporations. These professionals have needs that must be met by low-wage service workers: taxi drivers, delivery people, security guards, doormen, housekeepers, and nannies. Recent immigrants end up in these urban centers because there is such a large demand for their labor there.
And then there are the low-wage earners who service the service workers: the small businesses in working-class neighborhoods.
Blackshaw: These growing service sectors are redefining our economy.
Poo: Yes, yet they remain mostly invisible. Over the last fifteen years, though, many of them — cabbies, day laborers, guest workers, restaurant waitstaff — have begun to organize both locally and nationally.
The labor movement of the twenty-first century has to pay attention to these people if it wants to be representative of the workforce today, which is very different from what it was in the 1940s. Many of the workers in these shadow sectors are, either by law or by practice, currently denied the right to organize. Taxi drivers, for example, are considered “independent contractors” and are thus excluded from minimum-wage, overtime, and discrimination laws. Restaurant waitstaff have a lower minimum wage that assumes they will earn enough in tips to make up the difference. These are workers who understand the need for a stronger labor movement in this country and are willing to make sacrifices to help build it. We need them. That’s why domestic workers have partnered with some of these other sectors to form the United Workers Congress.
Blackshaw: There’s been a lot of discussion about how the economic crisis has hurt the middle class, but the working poor have been left out of the conversation.
Poo: The working class and the working poor have not had a strong voice in recent national policy debates. Today’s political and economic reality, which is defined by severe inequality and persistent unemployment, means that we have a tremendous opportunity to build new bridges between people who have historically been kept apart. The newly unemployed, the underemployed, workers with disabilities, exploited immigrant workers, and formerly incarcerated workers are all struggling in this economy.
We have been connecting women’s rights with immigrants’ rights by highlighting the impact anti-immigrant laws in places like Alabama and Arizona have on women and children. Women who have survived domestic violence are afraid to seek help for fear of being deported. Highway checkpoints set up to profile drivers in these states are keeping undocumented parents from taking their children to school or to the hospital. That makes these anti-immigrant laws a women’s issue as well.
We need a strong movement for justice that is conscious of the root causes of problems and understands the day-to-day realities for people of color, low-wage earners, and the unemployed. This economy is not working for the vast majority. Issues that have been narrowly defined in the past should be expanded. We have to think broadly about who we mean when we say, “We.”
It is simply impractical in this political environment to keep our causes separate. Civil-rights activist Van Jones says something that has always resonated with me: that in the past our demands have been “too small to win,” so our dreams must get bigger.
The powers we are up against are huge. When we shrink our demands to what we think is politically achievable, it actually undermines our ability to succeed.
Blackshaw: You have also been trying to raise awareness of the “care gap” in the U.S. What do you mean by this?
Poo: Home-healthcare workers burn out fast, due to low wages and poor working conditions. As a result, seniors and people with disabilities have a difficult time finding personal attendants and have to be put in expensive nursing homes, or family members have to drastically adjust their work life to be at home with them. Either way the result is significant financial strain. We want to build a movement that brings together people who need care and support with workers who can provide it, and to do so in a way that preserves everybody’s choices, independence, and dignity. We want to create quality jobs so that caregivers can support their own families and the elderly won’t bankrupt their children. Those two goals go hand in hand.
Blackshaw: How did the home-healthcare crisis come to your attention?
Poo: Domestic workers across the country were asking the NDWA for training in elder care. Although they had been hired as nannies and housekeepers, they were being called upon to take care of their employers’ aging parents too.
We are on the cusp of a tremendous demographic shift in this country. The population is aging at a rapid pace. Every eight seconds an American turns sixty-five: that’s more than ten thousand per day, almost 4 million per year. And advances in medicine are allowing people to live longer. Meanwhile most households are dual income, which means there is no one at home full time. The need for in-home caregivers is skyrocketing. With that workforce already overworked and underpaid, domestic workers are being pulled in to fill the gap.
Blackshaw: My mother has Alzheimer’s and relies on many different caregivers, and I am grateful every day for the support they give her. When I look at my mother, it’s hard not to feel sad, because I see a shadow of the dynamic and vibrant woman she once was. But when I watch her with her caregivers, I see that they love her for who she is now. They see her as beautiful.
Poo: Because she is beautiful, I’m sure.
More and more U.S. households have both children and grandparents in them. The generation in the middle is struggling to afford the care these family members need. Our country has not adequately accounted for how all that work will be done. It is often assumed that women will absorb these tasks in addition to having jobs outside of the home, but that is not going to happen in twenty-first-century America. This situation is going to require a new workforce, and we must make sure there are good positions out there for its members.
At the NDWA we believe that the aging U.S. population and the growing immigrant population in this country need each other. We should see our shared destiny and common interests. If we begin the conversation over wages, hours, and benefits from an assumption of interdependence, we avoid polarizing arguments about one group’s interests over another.
Blackshaw: I have heard you talk about your grandmother, who helped raise you and who is now supported by a full-time caregiver.
Poo: When I was very young, and my mother was attending graduate school and working at the same time, she sent me to Taiwan to live with our grandmother for a year. Later, after I came back to the States, my sister and I would spend every summer in Taiwan. My grandmother was a nurse and taught me many of the values that I still hold dear.
Today she lives in Southern California. Having a caregiver allows her to go to church twice a week, to see her friends, to play mah-jongg, to take daily walks, and to live in her own apartment. She has a good life, and I feel blessed that I can say that. I think about her all the time when I reflect on our campaign. I often start presentations with a photo of her, because it means so much to me that she is well taken care of after she tended to so many people during her life.
Blackshaw: How did the domestic workers you know react to the 2011 movie The Help?
Poo: I think our members were glad to see the story being told, since it so rarely has been in this country. The film resonated with their lives. The fact that the two African American housekeepers in the film narrated the tale in their own voices helped open many people’s hearts and minds. But employers who watch the film don’t often see themselves in it. The story takes place in the past, and they think things have changed. They are surprised when we tell them that domestic workers still lack basic rights and protections.
The powers we are up against are huge. When we shrink our demands to what we think is politically achievable, it actually undermines our ability to succeed.
Blackshaw: There is a lot of talk in this country about hard work as the real source of one’s success, but I take it you feel there’s more to it, that none of us have gotten where we are entirely through self-reliance.
Poo: There’s a dangerous idea that’s taken hold: the myth of individual accomplishment. It says that if you can’t succeed, it’s because there’s something wrong with you. The people who believe this argue that a shared system of support shouldn’t be necessary. They preach austerity. But, in reality, from the moment we’re born, we rely on a complex web of interdependence — emotional, physical, and financial. We need to acknowledge that.
Blackshaw: Labor organizing is difficult. There must be a lot of highs and lows. What keeps you going?
Poo: I have strong female role models in my life: my mother and my grandmother, both of whom are incredibly resilient and courageous. And I learn so much every day from the workers, who act with love and integrity under adverse conditions. I am inspired by their courage. It is a boundless source of strength.
We live in a time of great inequality, and organizers see injustice every day in the domestic workforce. It wears at us. We sometimes lose sight of the goals that we are ultimately striving toward. It rejuvenates me to be able to take a step back from all the plans and objectives and just imagine. What I envision has nothing to do with what is politically viable, but just what is right.