“At its heart and at its best, [domestic work] is about upholding the dignity and quality of life of others,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance in a lecture on Wednesday. “It’s the work that allows all other work to be done.”
An award-winning activist, Poo was named a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2014, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2013 and one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012. She is visiting the Wilson School as this year’s Conor D. Reilly Distinguished Visitor.
In her talk, Poo explained that because domestic workers are disproportionately women of color and immigrants, they encounter a wide range of inequalities, both on and off the job.
Poo said that “the hierarchy of human value that ranks and dehumanizes us” devalues domestic workers as a result of classism, racism, and a long-standing underappreciation of what is perceived as being “women’s work.”
Poo explained that domestic workers are particularly aware of inequalities because they often work in wealthy homes and neighborhoods, helping to provide a standard of living they will likely never achieve for themselves. She recalled hearing stories from the people she works with about employers coming home with shoes that cost more than their monthly rent.
Poo said that despite these vast inequalities, it is possible — and even necessary — to avoid dehumanizing employers while remaining “crystal clear” about the cruelty and exploitation that plague domestic and care work.
Poo added that domestic and care work relies on human and emotional relationships, which make it even more saddening that it is such “vulnerable and undervalued” work.
“The work itself is emotional,” said Poo, noting that this makes it difficult to assign it a monetary value. She added that there isn’t a “zero-sum tradeoff” between advocating for better wages and working conditions for domestic workers and acknowledging that their work is about “humanity and relationships,” which makes it hard to quantify.
Poo sees domestic and care work as one of the few fields where workers cannot be replaced by AI or robots, making it an especially important job sector for an increasingly automatized future.
She also stressed the importance of passing a “clean Dream Act” that doesn’t protect the rights of Dreamers only to criminalize and punish their families, and urged the audience to contact their representatives about supporting DACA.
“You’re always somewhat vulnerable to deportation,” she said.
Poo added that American citizens can and should advocate for immigrant and undocumented communities and their rights, especially in the current divisive political climate. “We have to really show up and not allow ourselves to become numb,” she said.
After Poo’s lecture, the audience asked questions on everything from Marxist feminism to the environment.
Leyla Mocan GS, a first-year graduate student studying public policy, said that the talk was a “refreshing” look at the future of work, adding that Poo’s “clearly really smart.”
Joe Guarnacci, a frequent community auditor, praised Poo’s delivery as calm and charismatic, and said that he was struck by the extent of the average American’s complicity in the devaluation and exploitation of domestic workers.
“It’s like if you know there’s a problem, by not acting, you’re just as guilty,” he said.
The lecture, titled “Building Movements in the Age of Polarization,” took place on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 4:30 p.m. in Robertson Hall.