Ai-jen Poo | Re-imagining the narrative about domestic workers | 2019 Skoll World Forum
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Ai-jen Poo | Re-imagining the narrative about domestic workers | 2019 Skoll World Forum


– Ai-jen, I’m already such
a big fan of your work. And I’m excited to have you– – I’m a huge fan of yours
too, I’m so excited. – Captive here, I can find out even more. Welcome to Oxford, welcome
to the Skoll World Forum. I think it’s your first forum? – It’s my first forum
and I love it already. Everyone I’ve met here has
been so brilliant and so warm and they’re incredible. – Look at them. There an
absolutely lovely crowd. – Yes, hi everyone! – They’re beaming at us. So I wanted to start by asking what led you into the work? It’s a classic question. But actually in your case when I was reading your biography I was really struck by the fact, you went straight into this work pretty much from university. I feel like even at university, you were beginning to
kind of conceptualize that this is where you wanted
to put your contribution. But, what led the young
20, 21-year-old Ai-jen to have her imagination
captured by domestic workers? Because it wasn’t
something that was popular or much talked about at the
time. What led you to it? – Well, I was raised by a long line of really strong, amazing women starting from my
grandmothers and my mother. And growing up, as a child, I just thought that they could do anything. And, then growing up, watching
just everywhere I went, women underrepresented in positions of power and decision-making, and overrepresented in positions of vulnerability and abuse. And so I just became
interested in women’s activism and understanding why things
are the way that they are. And so I joined women’s organizations, I became a women’s studies major, and started volunteering
at different organizations to learn about how we change
this unbelievable inequality that didn’t make sense to me. – But there’s so many different directions that people can go into when they’re thinking about women’s
activism and gender inequality. But your domestic worker focus
is very, kind of razor clear. And as the conversation
goes on, I think people are gonna understand how
foresighted actually you were 20 years ago, to kind of
locate yourself there. But it’s a very specific
demographic that you saw and thought, wait, hang on, what are the issues going on here? Can you kind of speak to
what you saw back then? – Well, in New York City,
there’s a very large immigrant community in New York, and that’s where I was
and I was volunteering at a domestic violence shelter
for Asian immigrant women. And because my grandparents raised me, I’m bilingual and I speak Mandarin. And so I worked the
hotline for the shelter. And many of the women who
called were calling in crisis around abuse, but they
were also calling in just the daily struggles of
trying to make ends meet. Working incredibly hard
in low wage service jobs and still unable to find housing, put food on the table for their children. And I just wondered, how,
when these women have overcome the odds and are working
incredibly hard, is it, that they still can’t make ends meet? And that is just the case. There’s so many occupations
where women are working full-time and more, and
still can’t pay the bills. And then what I saw was, women whose work was in the care industry, that this entire part of the economy is basically in the shadows and underground. And so, in addition to low
wages, there were no standards, no guidelines, it was like the Wild West, because we as a society and as a culture and ultimately as an economy, haven’t accounted for the
incredible amount of work that goes into caring for families. And the collateral damage
is millions of women working without protections. – So the first organization
that you founded was very much New
York-based, and you started working at a city level, ultimately became a kind of state level, but really focused on New York. Can you talk about what
the work actually was, in terms of the organizing
that you were doing? And also, how it led to
the policy changes that you managed to achieve. – I mean, I really did not know. I was never professionally trained as an organizer or activist. I just kind of figured it out with other women along the way. Literally, you would’ve
found me in the late ’90s going from playground to
playground in Central Park or in Riverside Park,
talking to the nannies who were there with the
children in the playgrounds, and just listening to their stories and hearing about what
they’re worried about, what their hopes and dreams are, and organizing meetings and trainings. And kind of meeting-by-meeting,
gathering-by-gathering, we started to build, so
that every single meeting there were more women and
more diverse groups of women. And pretty soon, asking the question “Why is it that, when we
know the work that we do “is so important, it’s so undervalued?” Why is it that we can’t, if we’re expected to take care of the
families that we support, why can’t we take care of our own families doing this work? And so, that just started the question of we should have rights, we
should have recognition as real workers. – And that led you to
realizing that you needed more than just, to kind of,
raise the kind of consciousness or the awareness of rights of the women that you were working with, but actually, you needed
to have policy change. – Yes, so in New York we organized the first domestic
worker convention in 2003 and had nannies and house
cleaners and caregivers from all over the state
gather, and identify, if they could rewrite the labor laws in the United States,
what would that look like? So we had 250 women in small groups with simultaneous interpretation in seven languages actually hashing out and re-imagining labor
law in New York State. And, it was a seven-year campaign, but ultimately New York became the first state in the country to
have a domestic worker bill of rights in 2010. – And New Mexico just last week, New Mexico became the ninth state to pass legislation. – And I feel like at
that point you realized that you needed to be
working on a national scale. In a way you used New
York, perhaps as a kind of proof of concept to yourself
about the work you were doing. And at that point, you
launched the organization that you’re running now with
this big national focus. The theme of this conference
is “accelerating possibility,” and we’ve just heard from
someone who has been talking about the future. I feel like now that you
have this national scope you’re also thinking
about literally the future of the American labor force. And I’m wondering if you
could kind of speak to how you see the changing role of domestic workers in that view. And we talked about it before,
and I think it’s just…. You blew me away with the perspective that was right in front of me but somehow I hadn’t grasped it, and I wondered if you
could share that with us? – Well one of the things
that’s been so profound working with this workforce is that I often actually refer to domestic workers as the ultimate futurists, because even though domestic
workers have been working in the margins and in the
shadows of our economy, they’ve really been in on the front lines of so many of the major
trends that are shaping our future in the United
States and perhaps globally. Everything from trends in migration to really looking at the future of work. When I first started organizing
domestic workers in 1998, the conditions that defined
domestic work were somewhat at the edges of the
economy, almost exotic. Lack of control over hours,
lack of a clear job description, no access to a safety net
or any kind of benefits, no training, no job security. And now, when I look around
at the American workforce, more and more workers are
having that experience being defined by that level of precarity. Domestic workers were the
first to actually alert us to the incredible age
wave, the change in the generational demographic
in the United States with the Boomers aging into retirement at a rate of 10,000 people per day turning 70 in America. And living longer than ever because of advances in healthcare. It was domestic workers
who came to us and said we need training in elder
care so that we can support the growing older
population and the families who are needing us in this way. And so, if we look to the margins, we can find clues,
indicators, of what’s to come. And we can also find incredible solutions. In some ways, our national
movement was formed out of the failure of many
civil society organizations, even the labor movement,
and our democracy, to really represent the
interests of this workforce. And so, in that exclusion has been an incredible amount of innovation. I mean, we just launched our very first portable benefits platform
for independent workers out of our innovation lab, where we’re able to now provide benefits like disability insurance
and paid time off to independent workers
like domestic workers for the very first time. – And when we fast
forward these trends that as you’re saying, that the
signals for these trends can be picked up at the margins, and are and were picked
up by these workers, and by those who organize with them. But fast forwarding to
2030, we need to be ready for a different configuration
of workforce, right? – Absolutely. So, many many of us have been hearing about how technology will shape the future of work in America. And we’ve been thinking
a lot about automation and artificial intelligence. And there’s a lot that’s unknown about what the future will hold. But one thing we do know for sure is that there’s gonna be a huge
need for elder care, a huge need for childcare. These are jobs that are
not outsourceable, right? And they won’t be automated anytime soon. My colleague Pollack
Shaw talks about the fact that there’s a lab in Los
Angeles that’s been trying to develop a robot to
fold a towel for 11 years and still been unsuccessful. So I do believe, that we
are gonna have humans, real people like you and me, caring for the growing older population. These will be a huge share
of the jobs of the future. And in fact, many
economists are predicting in the United States,
that by the year 2030, if you take childcare and
elder care jobs combined, it’ll be the largest occupation in the entire U.S. workforce. So we have got to make
these jobs, good jobs. And what an incredible opportunity to create a pathway to
real economic security, where one generation can
do better than the next. Just like we did with manufacturing jobs in the ’20s and ’30s. Used to be dangerous poverty-wage jobs that a lot of immigrant women did, and we made them pathways to real security and prosperity for millions of families. We can do that again with these jobs. – Bravo. And so we need to reimagine these jobs and coming back to this
theme of imagination and storytelling, I want to
bring into the conversation the film Roma. – [Ai-Jen] Yes.
– Yeah, Who has seen Roma? Right, okay, everyone else
who didn’t put their hand up you have to immediately
rush back after this and catch up with the rest of us. Can you please describe to me your feelings when you saw the film, and then I want to talk
about the partnership that you’ve gone into with
Participant with the film. – Yeah. Well a little
bit of context is that as a movement, our job
is to put more power in the hands of more everyday
people to shape the future. And there are many
different kinds of power and because how disaggregated and isolated our workforce has been,
we’ve had to be very creative about how we think about
power and how we build it. So there’s political
power, which is the more obvious form which we’ve been building and it’s enabled us to pass
legislation in nine states. And there’s economic power,
which we’re developing through work in our innovation lab. And then there’s what
we call narrative power, which we define as the
ability to tell the story of why things are the way
that they are in the world on your terms. Essentially, the power to define reality. And as a workforce, that’s
almost defined by invisibility, to actually be able to seize
upon and tell our own story, tell a story that humanizes,
and that gives texture, and real human dignity to this workforce has been an essential
part of our strategy. So when our partners at
Participant Media called us and said, “Hey there’s
this film Roma we think you “might be interested in.” We literally did a happy
dance all across the country. And, Participant Media and
the director Alfonso Cuaron actually invited myself and
a domestic worker from Texas, one of our leaders, named Rosa San Luis, to the world premiere at
the Venice Film Festival. And so we got on a plane
and we were excited and quite nervous actually,
’cause, we didn’t know what it would be like. What if we didn’t like it? But instead, it was the
most extraordinary telling of an extraordinarily human story with a domestic worker, an
indigenous domestic worker, as a protagonist. And it was literally a gift
from the heavens for us. – And we’ve got a short trailer which just talks a little about the way you’re gonna be
working with the film. I think it’s got a few couple of moments from the film as well. So we’ll play that now. – Everything that we do is going to convey a message. The idea manifested to tell the story of the real-life person who the character of Cleo is based upon. Her name is Livo. – When I saw the movie Roma, I saw myself. And that’s for coloring. This is what I do, this is my life. – To see your own story reflected back on the big screen is a
transformative experience. – When she saved those
kids, as part of her job. it was risky but she did it. I’m not ashamed to say
that I am a caregiver because this is the job
that makes all jobs possible and this is noble profession. – [Ai-Jen] Representation really matters. We have to change policy and politics, but we also have to change culture. – You need to change hearts and minds before you can turn to policy. – Especially hearts. – Let’s remember when we talk about voiceless people, we’re
not talking about people who lack strength. We’re not, so let’s not
be confused about this. We are talking strong women. – [Reporter] This film’s
sparking a new wave of activism for a bill of rights on behalf of two million domestic workers. – Roma offers us this
opportunity to really shine a light on that. – You’re going to Los Angeles to attend an Oscar watch party. – We’re having our first
major Oscar watch party. – [Reporter] This was
a party with a purpose. The very special guests
here were domestic workers from around the country. – Honoring and supporting. – One of the 70 million domestic workers in the world. – Roma! – As artists, our job is
to look where others don’t. This responsibility
becomes much more important in times when we are being
encouraged to look away. – It’s such a beautiful
film, and really where art meets social justice. Can you talk a little more
about how you used the kind of moment that the wave
that the film has created, and how by being involved
early enough you were able to craft a strategy which
kind of rode the Roma wave, if you like. And also, if you’d could
speak about what colleagues have done in Mexico,
that would be great too. – Absolutely. Well, we have this incredible partnership with Participant Media
and with the director, the filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron,
who really wanted the film to be a platform for the
movement to build its power, its voice and its impact. And that just became such
an incredibly fertile ground for real impact in ways we
couldn’t really have imagined. The first thing we did
was actually put the film in front of thousands of domestic workers. So we actually screened the film early on for domestic workers in
communities around the country. And also for employers, so
that they could actually use the film to populate
the narrative environment in their local communities
and with the local media to tell the story. Use Roma as an opportunity
to tell the story of what it is like today,
in the United States, for domestic workers
and these relationships. What would support these relationships to be healthier, to be stronger, to spark a conversation in communities? And then we had this opportunity to work with Senator Harris
and Congresswoman Jayapal to introduce the first
National Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers. And we timed it so that the conversation and the announcement
about national legislation would come out at around
the same time that the film was being released, so that the two could be talked about together. And also at the same time, our portable benefits product Alia, which is a technology platform that enables thousands of domestic workers hopefully millions soon,
to get access to benefits for the first time. We’ve launched that nationally after being in beta for a year. And actually three years of development. We launched it nationally,
at also around the same time that Roma was released. And the awards season buzz was starting. And so all of this allowed us to not only change the narrative and spark an important conversation in communities, but also to start to pivot audiences towards real world,
social impact in policy and in products, and an
actual marketed option of this important solution for benefits. – So the platform, is still relatively new in its national launch. I know you were piloting
and kind of getting it ready to scale it for I think,
two or three years? – [Ai-Jen] Yeah. – But it’s quite relatively
new in its national reach. – Yep. – What do you need to keep
pushing forward with that? What kind of partners or other
help do you need with that? – Well we need people to sign up. We need employers, if you employ a house cleaner in your home. The beautiful innovation here is that it allows for house cleaners
with multiple clients to all contribute in a
prorated manner to benefits, in a benefits account that
the worker then gets to decide which type of benefits she
wants to apply the money in her account towards. It’s portable, it goes along with her. And, it’s something
that if we can actually scale it for domestic workers,
it’s unlimited in terms of the fields where lots of
different types of workers are piecing together independent
work, subcontracted work to be able to give them
access to benefits. So we need people to adopt it, to sign up. It’s called Alia and you
can sign up at myalia.org. – Great, thank you. And, with the little bit
of time that we have left, I wanted us to pull back
out to the bigger picture. When we talked before about
this panel and the meaning of “accelerating possibility,”
I really like what you had to say about the
challenge that we now have about who leads and where power sits and the role of women in this work. The reflection, really, that you can bring from having been in this work for 20 years to this moment and to this
question of the future. I wonder if you could
just share a little about what we spoke about, with all of them. – Well, in the United States, we are in the most severe
political crisis of generations and when I think about
“accelerating possibility,” the immediate image in my
mind, that comes to my mind, is an image of all of
the women who marched at the women’s marches, all of the women who have been organizing
in their community, calling Congress to protect healthcare, running for office, voting
in unprecedented numbers. Women who are essentially
“accelerating possibility” in the midst of the
greatest existential crisis, in our democracy of generations. If you’re from the United
States, you might be familiar in the Southeast and in the Midwest, there’s a weather phenomenon
called a sun storm. And it’s when you have torrential
rain and maybe even hail, but the sun is still shining
through really brightly. And I often talk about
what we’re experiencing in the United States as
a political sun storm. And women are the sun, in
that we’ve been holding space, we’ve been showing up we’ve
been “accelerating possibility” in the midst of an incredible storm. And if you think about the
way that we’re showing up, if you were at one of the
first women’s marches, it was multigenerational,
it was multiracial, and women were holding signs about every issue under the sun. And there was room enough for all of it. We didn’t have to choose,
there wasn’t a hierarchy. It was about human dignity and the future, in the most holistic sense. And I trust women to keep
“accelerating possibility” along with all of you in the room. I think we are all the sun in this incredibly
tumultuous time in our world. – Ai-jen Poo. We’re out of time. Thank you, Bravo! It was amazing. – Beautiful. Thank you.
– Sure.

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