Activist Ai-jen Poo Is Fighting for Domestic Workers: They're 'Invisible and Undervalued'

PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify perspectives on the push for equality and justice

Ai-jen Poo
Ai-jen Poo. Photo: Othello Banaci

Ai-jen Poo has dedicated her adult life to helping improve the lives of domestic workers in the United States through her work at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, of which she is the co-founder and executive director.

Poo, 47, is passionate about the plight of the workers, many of whom are immigrants and women of color. Raised in an intergenerational Taiwanese-American family, her nurse grandmother helped raise her as her parents pursued careers in the medical field. During her studies at Columbia University, Poo was part of a student campaign that fought for — and won — the addition of a Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and has continued her activism in the years since, co-founding Caring Across Generations, Supermajority, a home for women's activism, and accompanying Meryl Streep to the 2018 Golden Globes as part of the launch of #TimesUp.

Below, the Chicago-based Poo — who received a MacArthur "Genius" grant in 2014 — talks about her "deep bi-cultural roots," her feelings about the uptick in hate crimes against Asian-Americans and where her passion in helping domestic workers live better lives comes from. This is her story, as told to PEOPLE.

My parents worked incredibly hard, like many immigrant parents, and I remember thinking that we were always a little bit out of place— we felt, like many immigrants, the struggle to find a place of belonging.

I remember as a child, especially when I was starting grade school, the fear of being different, of having a Chinese name. Children are cruel, and having the last name "Poo" is no walk in the park. I would always practice reading aloud, because in the first grade, we would have to take turns reading out loud in the classroom, and I was afraid that if I stumbled on my words, people would think that I couldn't speak English. I remember there was a period of time when I wanted my parents to change my name to Lisa and they refused. And good for them, because my name means a lot to me right now, and I've come to so love and embrace my name: Ai is the character for an herb found in Chinese mythology, and then Jen is the character for truth.

Ai-jen Poo at the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights
Ai-jen Poo. Othello Banaci

I let go of wanting to be Lisa pretty quickly, but the appreciation of the beauty of being in an immigrant family and having this gift of bi-cultural and intergenerational upbringing came in high school and college. Growing up, I saw my mom and my grandmother, who both had full-time jobs and did so much caregiving for our family, for the community, for neighbors and friends. I noticed how much of that work was invisible, undervalued and taken for granted.

Then, upon moving to New York City, you very quickly learn that it's powered by this very invisible army of women of color who are carrying and cleaning for the families across the city and making it possible for everybody else to do what they do in the world. I don't think I ever really thought of it as a career or that I would be doing it 20 years later, but here I am. I think I just was so taken by the incredible contributions, strength and resilience of the women that I would meet who provide care and never looked back.

Ai-jen Poo speaking at a press conference introducing the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Congress
Ai-jen Poo. Othello Banaci

People who do this work will tell you it's a calling. And I absolutely think it is. It's also a profession, it's a job, it's a livelihood, and people need to pay the bills. And unfortunately, they can't pay the bills on the wages that they earn doing this work, and that has to change.

For a long time, because I'm a woman of color, because I present as younger and because what I'm talking about is care, there have been so many times where the ideas have been dismissed, and I've been told that what we're working toward is impossible and Pollyanna-ish. The issue is always seen as a soft issue, or we're seen as marginal. But I believe that some of the most important solutions and ideas about the future are being born right now in the margins and shadows of our country, and if we just listened to people for whom the status quo hasn't worked for a long time, we'd get so much insight about how to make our economy, our democracy and our society work better for everyone.

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Though not without devastation and heartbreak, [the reaction to the uptick in violence against Asian-Americans] has also been really inspiring. I've seen the way the heartbreak has galvanized Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to come together in new ways, and to actually talk about the systemic nature of racism that our community faces — especially low-income AAPI communities, undocumented AAPI women and families. Our community is not a monolith, and this is an opportunity for us to really learn about each other and lift each other up.

Ai-jen Poo in an episode of “Man Enough” from actor Justin Baldoni and Caring Across Generations
Ai-jen Poo. Man Enough

I will say that we have such a long way to go. But I believe that times of disruption are the greatest opportunities for transformation and change. So whatever building block wins we've made along the way, the opportunity is exponentially greater now, and I'm excited.

I wake up every day thinking, "Are we doing enough, and are we seizing this moment?" I consider it a real privilege to be able to be in this community, and I feel like I was raised by this movement of caregivers and domestic workers, so it feels like that kind of accountability, like family, like we're in this together. We're in it to win it.

— As told to RACHEL DeSANTIS

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