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Ai-jen Poo, Domestic Worker and Womens' Advocate: Hope and Care are Vital to the Health of Democracies
The new wave of refugees created by the war on Ukraine can bring us to reflect on the conditions of all exiles and refugees, and on the situations of the most vulnerable in our own society. Domestic workers are among that category of people.
In that spirit, I am pleased to bring you this interview with Ai-jen Poo, who is an award-winning organizer, author, and a leading voice in the women’s movement. She is the Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Director of Caring Across Generations, Co-Founder of SuperMajority, Co-Host of Sunstorm podcast and a Trustee of the Ford Foundation. Ai-jen is a nationally recognized expert on elder and family care, the future of work, and what’s at stake for women of color. She is the author of the celebrated book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. Follow her at @aijenpoo. Our conversation took place on Feb. 10, 2022, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): Even before the pandemic, we had a kind of epidemic of uncaring, fruit of neoliberal and illiberal ideologies that seek to eradicate sentiments of community and compassion. And we also had pretty unsustainable healthcare and labor systems. It seems like the pandemic has further revealed all of these weaknesses.
Ai-jen Poo (AJP): Our society is and has for a long time been organized around hierarchies of power, including race and gender, and class. And the work that has historically been associated with women, of caring for families, has been largely invisible and not valued, respected, protected or invested in, even though it is essential to the functioning of our economy and our society.
Really, nothing is possible without care. That is one of the many realities that the pandemic exposed. And I hope that it begins to inform how we legislate and where we put our collective resources as a society and as a democracy, and starts to shift the way that we value people and the contributions that they make to society.
RBG: Do you feel that the Biden administration is addressing this sufficiently?
AJP: I do think so. Biden was the first candidate for president that made investing in the care economy a core pillar of his economic agenda: not the women's agenda, not the working family's agenda, but the economic agenda as a whole. Care was included in the American Jobs Plan, it is fundamental to the American Families Plan, and in what eventually what became Build Back Better.
The Biden administration also treats care in a holistic way: not just childcare, but also home and community-based services for older adults and people with disabilities, and paid family and medical leave.
The third breakthrough was the prioritization of the care workforce and care jobs and raising wages for workers who are mostly women of color who work inside of our care economy. I think represents a really seismic shift.
RBG: I feel as though Biden's personal decision to speak about care and use a certain register of compassion in all of his communications is important at the very moment when our democracy is under siege. I feel as though people don't realize, and not only compared with former president Trump's brutality, what an incredible thing this is.
AJP: You know, sometimes when the ground shifts underneath us, we can't see it, precisely because it's underneath us.
AJP: And I think that we often want to do politics in the world that we wish existed as opposed to the world that actually exists. I'm a believer in really marking progress because I work with a workforce that has not seen much progress for a very long time and has been organizing literally for generations. So, any progress is actually really important to mark because it's a source of hope. I think that the most underrated and most valuable ingredient to a functioning democracy is hope.
RBG: I'm interested in your work about intergenerational care and bonds. When we think about reinforcing the bonds of civil society, we often talk about bonds among community organizations or civic rituals. Yet in our country, in particular, there's not a very caring attitude toward older people. Can you talk about the benefits of intergenerational bonds?
AJP: There's so much richness that comes through intergenerational exchange and relationships. My grandparents played a huge role in raising me and I think in instilling the values that really shape my decisions and my worldview. I can't imagine who I would be, were it not for their role in my life.
And I feel so enriched by having had access to the kind of wisdom and patience of an older generation as a young child. The severing of relationships across generations prevents renewal. It prevents us from being able to carry forward lessons from history. Caring across generations can really unite us, not just within our families, but as a society and as a culture and as a democracy.
RBG: Can you talk about the SuperMajority group you co-founded to train and mobilize female activists? It seems very important right now to have this new cohort of activists. I've interviewed Amanda Litman, head of Run for Something, and others who are looking to the future to train political candidates.
AJP: SuperMajority was launched as a home for women across race, across class, across generations, to come together and have a voice around the values and the issues and concerns that unite women. Women are a hugely significant force in every aspect of our society and in our democracy and our economy. And yet they still are underrepresented in positions of leadership and power and overrepresented in positions of vulnerability and abuse. If we come together, we can really change not just the relations of power, but the systems and the dynamics themselves.
It's not just having a seat at the table, but changing the way the table is set. In 2022 SuperMajority will be doing huge volunteer driven programs. The focus is on mobilizing infrequent women voters, like women or color and domestic workers. People who feel like their voices aren't heard or valued and that their vote might not matter.
They matter to us and we want to make sure they know they are essential to a functioning democracy and democracy's survival. It's all about engaging undervalued segments of the electorate to create a platform for them to be powerful.
RBG: What else should we be doing now to prepare for the midterms and onward?
AJP: I think really telling the story of what has been achieved. So many people did turn out to vote. So many children have been lifted out of poverty because of the measures in the American Rescue Plan. The pace of our overall economic recovery is really unprecedented. Yes, we still have a ways to go and much to do, and there are inequities in the recovery in terms of women.
But so much has been achieved. It has been transformative. And it's really important to connect that to the fact that we all voted, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of unprecedented levels of voter suppression and misinformation and disinformation. We got to the polls and we made sure that our voices were heard.