MacArthur genius Ai-jen Poo makes the economic case for listening

MacArthur genius Ai-jen Poo makes the economic case for listening
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Days before the 2018 Golden Globes, Ai-jen Poo received a voicemail from a familiar voice. It was Meryl Streep, asking if Poo would be her date to the red carpet. Poo was stunned.

And so, donning a black gown and speaking out against sexual harassment, Poo, a labor organizer and executive director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was thrust into the national spotlight. The Time’s Up movement, rooted in an alliance between blue-collar workers and Hollywood stars, gave Poo notoriety, but her activism has already been improving the lives of Americans for a quarter of a century.

Born in Pittsburgh to Taiwanese immigrants, Poo first became aware of the challenges of caregiving when her grandfather, who suffered from repeated strokes, had to be moved into a nursing home, and shared a room with six suffering elderly people. “The place smelled like mold and death,” Poo wrote in her book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. Her grandfather died three months later, and in 1996, just after graduating from Columbia University, she began organizing domestic workers.

“There are more than 2.5 million women in the United States who make it possible for us to us do what we do every day, knowing that our loved ones and homes are in good hands,” Poo explains in Cosmopolitan. “They are the nannies that take care of our children, the housekeepers that bring sanity and order to our homes, and the home-care workers that care for our parents and support the independence of our disabled family members.” Many of these workers are immigrants and women of color, and, as Poo describes, “while they care for what is most precious to us, they are deeply undervalued and vulnerable to abuse, in large part because domestic workers…aren’t adequately protected under decades-old (and historically racist) labor laws.”

In 2014, Poo was awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, a five-year grant given to the nation’s most exceptionally creative individuals, to fund her vibrant, worker-led movement to transform the working conditions and labor standards for private-household workers. She has spearheaded successful legislative campaigns in the US and internationally, including the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010, and is co-director of Caring Across Generations, a campaign that unites aging Americans, people with disabilities, workers, and their families to protect all Americans’ right to choose the domestic care they need to live with dignity.

In an interview with Quartz, Poo explains why listening is at the heart of her success, how her care mission extends to daily professional relationships, and why visibility politics are hindered by women shrinking from public recognition.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

I’m obsessed with the realization that care is critical to our success as a nation—socially and economically. Rosalynn Carter once said that there are only four kinds of people in the world: people who are caregivers, will be caregivers, people who need care, or will need care. It’s true across race, class, culture, and geography: We all are either in need of care or are going to be in need of care. And we have completely failed to support caregivers to the point where it’s fast becoming unsustainable.

In such a polarized time, we need issues and experiences that unite us. And we need solutions that make life in this country better for tens of millions of us. That is why we’re championing “Universal Family Care”: the idea that we should have one fund that helps all working people afford child care, elder care, and paid family leave—essentially everything we need to take care of our families while we work throughout our lifespans.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

Listening. The best ideas that have come from our organization have come from listening to our members. And believe me—when you listen to women, especially to those who have been the least visible in society, you will hear some of the most extraordinary stories that represent the best of who we are as a nation. Listening is a practice; you don’t have to be a natural listener to be a good listener, and it’s something we can, and should, all learn to do.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

I would create a universal family-care benefit to allow women (and men) to take as much time off as they need to care for newborns or family members in need; to help them pay for childcare when they need to work; and to pay for home care when their elders or disabled loved ones need support. I don’t see how we ever achieve equality or unleash the full potential of women in the economy without a new support infrastructure for family care. The vast majority of caregiving responsibilities still fall on women, despite the fact that most women are now working outside of the home. If we invested in caregiving and caregivers in this way, it would allow us to professionalize and stabilize the care workforce, help women stay in the workforce knowing their loved ones are in good hands, and support women who make the choice to stay home to care for their loved ones.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

At the start of my career, I wish I had known the positive power of electoral politics. I saw the political system failing so many women of color, so I figured we would work around it and make changes some other way. I didn’t know that it wasn’t an either/or choice—that we could and must build strong, independent organizations for women, and we must vote, run, and elect officials who determine the policies that shape our lives. We can and must do both!

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

I felt extremely discouraged after the 2016 elections. The threats of this administration to the moral and democratic fabric of the nation are broad and deep. From mass deportations in the communities where I work to denigrating the media and freedom of the press and emboldening white supremacists, I was and am profoundly concerned about the impact of this period on our long-term health as a nation.

What ultimately saved my spirit was participating in the first Women’s March, and focusing on how women continue to sustain the activism and political engagement needed to meet the moment. The energy, diversity, and scale of the second Women’s March a year later proved that this movement is not only here to stay, but it is building as both a cultural and political force for change.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

Caring for each other in our professional relationships. We work remotely, so twice per year, we get everyone together for a retreat where plan together, laugh together, and share stories. An important part of the time together is connecting on a personal level, not because we need everyone to be friends, but to know one another’s context: Why are you here? What’s your story? Our personal journeys are an endless well of inspiration and resilience. The more we know them, the more we can collectively draw from them in our social-change work. It builds our appreciation for one another as human beings with whole lives and stories to be uncovered.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I first learned that I was going to be a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, part of me felt fearful and worried about the recognition. Representing a workforce of unrecognized and undervalued women, I’m very conscious about the politics of visibility. I work with so many women who deserve recognition and never receive it. My long-time mentor Linda Burnham said to me, “Don’t you dare shrink from your moment in the sun.”

She helped me understand that shrinking was not helping all the women who are unrecognized; in fact it’s reinforcing their invisibility. I needed to own my contributions and the fact that my work involves thousands of women who can and will feel connected to the award. Ever since, I’ve been really attuned to helping women own their moments in the sun, in addition to creating more of those moments for more women—especially women like domestic workers and caregivers who are so invisible.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

Make a list of your women colleagues. Next to each of their names, think of one thing you can do to increase the recognition and respect for her contributions, and write it down. Then go through the list, and—one by one—do those things. One of the underlying issues is invisibility of the contributions and leadership of women in all workplaces, and that is something you can affect immediately in a real and meaningful way.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is the one Dr. King described.

I wish people would stop telling me… that my organization is taking on too much. Never underestimate what a group of women with clear goals and a plan can achieve.

Everyone should own… their seat at the table. Never give up your legitimate place at any table. That includes your claim to everything from feminism to patriotism and leadership.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.