Wednesday, Apr. 18, 2012

Ai-jen 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.

Ai-jen Poo, the 38-year-old daughter of pro-democracy immigrants from Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan, has been growing into that role ever since she was a student outraged by the stories of domestic workers, often immigrants or women of color, who labored long hours for low pay as maids, nannies and other household workers.

I met her when her work was recognized by the Ms. Foundation for Women. She was already trusted by thousands of women who had been treated as unskilled and expendable, yet who were responsible for raising children, caring for the ill and elderly and facilitating the daily lives of millions of families.

Ai-jen's gift for creating worker-led groups and empathetic tactics has made the National Domestic Workers Alliance into an umbrella organization with 35 satellites around the U.S. Thanks to its policy initiatives and lobbying, employment agencies now have to inform employers and workers of their rights, New York State has passed the first-ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (with California following), and President Obama has expanded labor laws to protect 2.5 million home-care workers.

Ai-jen Poo has done this by showing the humanity of a long devalued kind of work. This goes beyond organizing to transforming. As she says, her goal is "peace and justice in the home."

Steinem is an American activist and journalist