Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of Caring Across Generations, is the author of The Age of Dignity and co-host (with Alicia Garza) of the podcast “Sunstorm.” She is also a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient and last, but certainly not least, an Oak Park resident.
On Jan. 31, she was interviewed by Krista Tippett at Unity Temple in Oak Park for the popular NPR radio show, “On Being.” The interview was broadcast on April 5 and can be listened to at onbeing.org. If you do, you’ll hear Poo’s fellow Oak Parkers applauding in the background.
“I should note,” Tippett said at the outset, “that we went into production on this before ‘coronavirus’ was a word we all knew. But the many dimensions of the crisis now upon us have revealed Ai-jen Poo and her world of wisdom and action as teachers and leaders for our life together in the present and beyond it.”
What made the interview feel so timely is that the pandemic has made all of us (well, most of us) hyperfocused on the notion of caregiving.
“If you think about it,” Poo said, “this work of caring for our children as nannies, or our aging parents as homecare workers, is some of the most profound and important work in our lives. And yet, it’s some of the most invisible and undervalued work; millions of women do this as a profession, but it’s not even considered a profession. It’s referred to as ‘help.'”
She considers it “among the greatest ironies in our culture that the people we’re counting on to take care of us can’t take care of themselves and their own families doing this work. … The average annual income for a home care worker is $15,000 per year,” she said. “I can’t think of any community that I’ve ever lived in where you can survive on $15,000 a year.”
In 2010, the National Domestic Workers Alliance she founded, along with Hand in Hand, an affiliated group of people who employ domestic workers, successfully advocated for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York state, first in the nation history. Eight additional states, along with the cities of Seattle and Philadelphia followed suit.
“With baby boomers turning 70 at a rate of 10,000 people per day and living longer than ever before because of advances in health care, we need more care as a country than ever before,” Poo says. “Some economists predict that, between childcare jobs and eldercare jobs combined, this will be the largest single occupation in our whole workforce soon.”
Labor organizing, she says, has, till now, primarily been focused on changing minds — with data and strong arguments. And she is very effective at it, judging by her interview that night at Unity Temple. But she wants to go further. She wants to change hearts. And that requires vision, a different kind of power, the one Dr. King prescribed, the power of love.
Poo believes it could transform this country, and the pandemic has created a climate where we may be ripe for this caring revolution.
Former first lady Rosalynn Carter once said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who need caregiving.”
“I love that quote,” Poo said. “We always start our meetings asking people to turn to the person sitting next to them and share a story about someone who’s cared for them and the value of that relationship in their life. And every time, without fail, the room starts buzzing, and people don’t want to stop talking. It immediately connects us all in the room. It’s so powerful.”
But powerful enough to transform an entire country?
“Somewhere you wrote,” Tippett said, ‘A caring America is entirely in reach.’ And I have to say that I read that on a bad news day — and most days are bad news days right now — and that feels like a stretch. Although sitting here with you, it feels closer. When you talk about ‘unleashing the caring majority,’ that feels real to me.”
“A hundred million of us today are directly affected by the need for care on a very practical level,” Poo replied. “That is an unstoppable force for change, a hundred million people here. Unstoppable. … I’ve been an activist for more than 25 years, and I’ve never seen the level of civic participation and energy and just a hunger to connect and to be a part of the solution than I see now.”
Unleashing the caring majority. An unstoppable force for change. I love the sound of that. Think about it.
“I think about the love,” Poo said, “the capacity for human connection, for generosity of spirit, no matter what you have or don’t have. We have, right now, within each of us, every single thing we need to be part of creating a beautiful future. We have been living in a time of such scarcity and austerity and zero sum. Everything about our politics is zero sum. That is not what we were meant for as human beings. Our inclination is to be connected and to care. The era of zero sum is coming to an end. And our future is one of abundance.”
Zero sum means I win-you lose. Either/or. Can the caregiver revolution change that to Both/and?
So many of us feel exhausted or burnt out in our lives, Poo said. Then we fall in love with someone and suddenly we have time and energy to spare. Ample power lies within. Maybe coronavirus and COVID-19 will kill off the era of zero sum.
But is the era of caregiving at hand?
“As you look around the world,” Tippett asked, “what makes you despair, and where are you finding hope?”
“What makes me despair,” Poo said, “is when I think about how many cards are stacked against us — a huge amount of written and unwritten rules have disempowered domestic workers and so many other people. It’s cultural, it’s legal, it’s programmatic.
“What gives me hope is that I’ve actually seen, time and time again, through organizing and coming together and telling our stories and doing the work, we have made the impossible possible. And I know, I believe, that we will win.”
What do you think? On the far side of this pandemic, can we turn this zero-sum country into a caregiving superpower?
Maybe we’ll find out on Nov. 3.