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Ai-jen Poo '92 named to list of 100 most influential people in the world

Time magazine honors PA alumna for her labor advocacy work

April 19, 2012 --For the last nine years, Andover alumna Ai-jen Poo '92 has worked tirelessly to win basic rights for domestic workers--nannies, maids, housekeepers, and elderly care givers--who have historically been excluded from most major labor laws. Dubbed the "nannies' Norma Rae" by the New York Times, her efforts have led to the founding of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the passage of the first-ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights by both New York and California. Influenced by her cause, President Obama has expanded labor laws to protect 2.5 million home-care workers.

While all those successes might certainly be reward enough for the soft-spoken Poo, she now has one more feather in her cap, as Time magazine has just named her to its annual list of The 100 Most Influential People in the World. The full list will appear in the April 30 issue of Time, but can can be viewed online now on the Time website.

In a write-up prepared for Time by iconic feminist Gloria Steinem, the magazine says of Poo, "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."

PA English instructor Seth Bardo, who taught Poo during her time at PA, called news of the honor "wonderful", and noted that even as a high school student, Poo had a "special way about her. During class discussions she would express her ideas in a quiet voice that resonated with an almost preternatural wisdom. Though Ai-jen never tried to impress anyone, she made a deep impression. There was a sense about her, shared by my colleagues, that her gifts of a large heart and an incisive intellect would combine in a way that would add grace and dignity to the world. This belief turned out to be well grounded."

To learn more about Poo and her experience as a student at Phillips Academy, read the profile story below, which first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Andover, the magazine of Phillips Academy.

Ai-jen Poo: Redefining Feminism One Domestic Worker at a Time


by Amy Morris

You’d think that after organizing one of the major U.S. labor movements of the 21st century, Ai-jen Poo would finally take a vacation; but she can’t stop now.

A lot is riding on the shoulders of this petite powerhouse: like the dignity, respect, and self-empowerment of some 2.5 million domestic workers in this country—mostly women, mostly immigrant, mostly of color—whose daily work serves as the backbone for the survival of the modern-day, dual-income family.

As cofounder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), soft-spoken Poo is the rock-ribbed lead organizer of a ballooning social justice movement of nannies, housekeepers, and elder caregivers that is demanding long overdue labor protections. “We are organizing for power—for people’s power, for workers’ power, for women-of-color power—in an industry that has been really disempowered,” says Poo, who, against all odds, has united a coalition in the tens of thousands from a workforce marked by dispersion and isolation.

While scholars still debate the reasons behind the systemic exclusion of domestic workers from most major labor laws (including the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act), Poo is busy trying to change them.

Last August, after a seven-year campaign led by Poo, New York became the first state in the nation to guarantee minimal labor protections to its estimated 200,000 domestic workers, a landmark hailed by then-governor David Paterson as a historic “injustice undone.”

“It took a long time,” laughs Poo, who estimates that from 2003 to 2010, she and her colleagues drove more than 1,000 women from the group’s New York City base to Albany. Once there, the women would share with any legislator who would listen their often horrific accounts of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of their employers.

Poo has drawn praise for building a true worker-led movement, sticking to the ethos that the women who will benefit from this legislation are NDWA’s best spokespeople. “Too often the people doing the advocacy are not the people most directly impacted by the policies themselves. It is the people directly impacted who must be at the table at all times. My job is to make their voices heard.” Queens College history professor Premilla Nadasen, recently quoted in The Nation, called Poo’s efforts “a really multiracial, multiethnic form of feminism we haven’t seen very often in U.S. history…expanding our notion of what feminism means.”

The New Haven, Conn., native didn’t set out to innovate a model for organizing labor movements in the 21st century, though looking back she credits her Taiwanese immigrant parents for instilling her with strong “social justice values.”

As she leads some 33 domestic worker organizations in 17 cities and 11 states in the fight for a “new New Deal—a real deal this time,” Poo still draws strength from her Andover experience. In 1989, the first-year lower took part in her first major demonstration on the Andover campus, skipping then-President George Bush’s (PA class of 1942) momentous Great Lawn address on campus.

“I took part in the pro-choice rally that day” she says sheepishly. “I’m not sure you want to print that.”

She also devoted much of her time at Andover to Women’s Forum meetings and community service projects, and considers faculty emeritus Rev. Philip Zaeder and English instructor Seth Bardo as early mentors who “made me really think about our role in the world.” That laid the groundwork for her undergraduate studies in women and gender issues at Columbia.

As of press time, Poo is focused on California, where a domestic worker bill of rights modeled on New York’s stands a good chance of passing. She hopes to target three more states next year before launching her most ambitious campaign yet: a national movement to bring “dignity and value” into the lives of aging baby boomers by improving the quality and access to care, and by protecting the workforce who will provide it.

You may not yet have heard of the federal CARE Act, but chances are you will.

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Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2011 issue of Andover, the magazine of Phillips Academy

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