how i get it done

How Labor Activist Ai-jen Poo Gets It Done

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Courtesy of the Subject

It would be an understatement to say Ai-jen Poo’s 24-year career as a labor organizer has been illustrious. In 2012, she was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people; her accompanying profile was written by Gloria Steinem. In 2014, Poo received a MacArthur “genius” grant for her advocacy on behalf of domestic workers. In 2015, Fortune placed her at No. 14 in their World’s 50 Greatest Leaders ranking. That same year she released her first, acclaimed book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. She even went to the 2018 Golden Globes with Meryl Streep because of her crucial involvement in the MeToo movement.

Today, Poo is executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a non-profit organization she also co-founded that advocates for the rights of caregivers, house cleaners, and other domestic workers. Most recently, she’s been focusing on an initiative called Care Can’t Wait, a labor-focused coalition of multiple groups (including NDWA) that was formed in response to the pandemic. “We’re trying to pass big investments in child care, paid leave, and home care for older adults and people with disabilities,” Poo tells the Cut. “Basically, we’re trying to get our federal government to invest in caregiving and support caregivers in a whole new way coming out of COVID.” Poo currently lives in Chicago with her husband, stepdaughter, and dog, Benny, who she adopted during the pandemic. Here’s how she gets it done.

On her morning routine:
I have to set three different alarms, which start going off at 5:45 a.m. Sometimes I get up right away, sometimes it takes me until 6:15 a.m. Then, I drink a glass of water and go downstairs to get a cup of coffee, which I usually bring back to bed with me. I actually have a name for my bed. My family calls it “the nest.” I write down things that I’m grateful for in my journal. It helps orient me at the beginning of the day. Next, I’ll do a 20-minute online meditation class. That starts at 6:30, so hopefully I’m caffeinated by then. Afterward, I’ll get up and take my dog Benny for a walk around the neighborhood. I have a stepdaughter who’s in fifth grade and lives with us half the time. So if she’s with us, my husband or I’ll get her up and off to school. If I have time in the morning, I’ll do an online yoga class or get on my mat for 20 minutes and just do my own practice. Or I’ll do a 20-minute ride on the Peloton bike. I got one for my birthday. Big addition to our family.

On a typical workday:
I used to travel about half the month. I’ve spent so much time at O’Hare that multiple vendors know me. Now everything is on Zoom. Usually, my calls start at 9 or 9:30 a.m. I have the most amazing team of people supporting me. One of my staff members organizes my calendar, scheduling, and a bunch of the administrative things that I’m responsible for. Another makes sure I’m prepared for any meetings and events and that I have what I need to try to oversee the organizations I’m a part of. Our goal is to get to a place where I’m spending at least 80 percent of my time doing things that only I can do — things that rely on the relationships with members of Congress, funders, and donors I’ve built doing this work for 20-some years. Talent recruitment is also a big part of my work. I really love finding people who are smarter than me and figuring out how they can join our team. I’m surrounded by an incredible group of women, mostly women of color, who are so talented, who I get to learn from constantly.

On how her career began:
I moved to New York City for school when I was 18 years old, and I’d walk down the street in Manhattan and see so many women of color pushing white babies in strollers. I’d go to Riverside Park and the park benches would be covered with nannies and these children that they’re nurturing. New York City — and the economy as a whole — is powered by this invisible army of women of color who are taking care of things behind the closed doors of our homes so that Wall Street can function and the media industry can function. And the question I started to ask is, “Who’s taking care of them?”

Working at restaurants, nail salons, as domestic workers — these all require skill and endurance and dedication, but they’re all poverty-wage jobs that you can barely survive on. You could be working 12 hours a day and barely make ends meet. And I thought, How can we have so many women working so hard and they still can’t take care of themselves, their own health, and their families? There’s just something so broken there.

On the importance of community:
One of the first things I did when I started in this line of work was try to invite these women to come together collectively. It’s not like there’s a water cooler or co-workers around for a lot of these jobs. This helped them break out of that isolation and realize that there’s so many others who experience the same vulnerability, the same types of struggles and challenges they’re facing. It gave them a chance to not only support each other in the short term but to work together to change the root issues. We held health fairs so people, specifically undocumented workers, had access to health care and preventative care. We had “Do you know your rights?” clinics for people who had legal questions. We would have meetings where people would come together, have food, and share their stories. We had open mics where people would talk about their weeks, which was really powerful. There is a confidence that comes through working collectively.

On misconceptions surrounding domestic work:
One of the biggest issues is that this work is still referred to as “help” and “unskilled labor” as opposed to a real, legitimate profession. Our failure to recognize these individuals not only as skilled professionals but as essential workers only exacerbates that problem. We are a country that needs more care than ever before. Baby boomers are aging into retirement at a rate of 10,000 people turning 65 per day. Millennials are having 9,000 babies per day. We rely on a workforce of professionals to provide care as early childhood educators, child-care workers, home-care workers, personal-care aids. These are jobs that can’t be outsourced. They’re not gonna be automated. And, right now, they’re poverty-wage jobs with high rates of turnover because no one can survive on $18,000 a year. These are going to be a huge share of the jobs in the future, and we have got to make them good jobs. Not only will that benefit the people who do this work and their families, but these are job-enabling jobs. They make it possible for all of us to go to work, knowing that we have good care options available to us, that our kids are gonna be nurtured, that our aging parents and grandparents are gonna be able to live with dignity. It’s really just such a win-win-win.

On the biggest challenge in labor advocacy:
Our tendency towards cynicism and hopelessness is the most consistent challenge. Aside from courage, there is no greater input than hope that is required for real, meaningful change. If you do not believe that something else is possible, there’s no way that you can achieve it. Cynicism is the enemy of creativity. Spending time with domestic workers and care workers [helps]. It just kind of puts everything in perspective. I remember when Trump was elected in 2016, I was really afraid and devastated and kind of in shock. The next day, I was on a call with a few hundred domestic workers who were basically like, “Okay, what’s the plan? Let’s go.” And I didn’t have a plan because I was shocked and devastated. It was such an important reminder, like, right, we have to continue. Our ancestors in movements past had so much less to work with than we do now, but they believed and found a way. It’s a helpful reminder to take the long view.

On making history:
A big moment for me was when Biden, before he was president, announced his economic agenda, and one of the four pillars was focused on caregiving. That in and of itself was historic because it wasn’t the “women’s agenda.” It wasn’t the “family agenda.” It was the economic agenda, and care was central to his vision. That was a moment I was like, “Wow, we are, we are finally getting somewhere.” Right now, Congress has a pretty historic window of opportunity to make big investments in child care, home and community-based care for the aging people with disabilities, and paying family and medical leave. The House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would be transformative for millions of families. As we’re waiting for the Senate to put it on the agenda, it’s important that we let our senators know that we need Congress to act.

On balance:
I don’t want work to bleed everywhere into my life. So I try not to schedule things on the weekend, if possible. I try to get off of email by 8 p.m. on weeknights at the latest. I might still be on social, but I try to put some boundaries around continuously checking email. I don’t schedule any Zooms past 6:30 p.m. Every person is different when it comes to what they need in order to be sustainable and maintain their mental and emotional health. For me, actually having an impact in the world in a positive way is a really important way that I stay sane. I have this phrase: Winning is self-care. I definitely do the meditation and the yoga, but at the end of the day, for me, what I need is for real change to happen.

How Labor Activist Ai-jen Poo Gets It Done