Ai-jen Poo is the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and Co-director of Caring Across Generations. She was the keynote speaker at the opening reception of the Academy’s 29th annual policy conference, Social Insurance: Opportunities and Challenges Facing the New Leadership and the American People.
Poo was born in Pittsburgh to Taiwanese immigrants. Her mother was an oncologist and her father was a molecular biologist. She spent her early years in Southern California, Connecticut, and Taiwan. She was originally attracted to the idea of working with pottery because she enjoyed being able to create a vessel from a lump of clay.
After graduating from Phillips Academy Andover, she attended Columbia University as a women’s studies major. While at Columbia, Poo volunteered with an Asian woman’s shelter in Lower East Side, Manhattan, serving a population of domestic workers who were underpaid, subject to violence, and struggling with work-life balance. She participated in marches, protests, and hunger strikes alongside other Columbia students to push for the creation of an ethnic studies department, which eventually led to the development of The Center for the Study and Race. This was a formative experience in understanding what can be accomplished when people come together for important causes.
After college, Poo began a grassroots campaign through the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV): Organizing Asian Communities. The campaign was formed to organize domestic workers, who were predominantly immigrants and therefore generally not informed about American labor laws. These domestic workers were often required to work long hours without substantial pay, health benefits, or vacation and sick time. Poo found these workers – overwhelmingly women – at neighborhood playgrounds, parks, and church basements.
In 2000, Poo co-founded the organization Domestic Workers United. The organization wanted to influence legislation and policy decisions to support better working conditions and treatment for domestic workers. As a leader of Domestic Workers United, Poo eventually became a founding member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). NDWA lobbies federal and state governments to create and maintain laws which improve the working condition of domestic workers. In particular, NDWA supports the right for domestic workers to have an eight-hour workday, paid sick days, and ensure that they are protected from workplace discrimination, since most are women of color from outside the United States.
Advocacy efforts for domestic workers led by Ai-jen Poo have produced significant changes. In 2010, New York state officials passed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights providing workers with basic labor protections including paid overtime, three days paid leave, and legal protection from harassment and discrimination. A similar law was passed in Hawaii and Massachusetts. NDWA had also pushed for Congress to re-authorize the Older Americans Act and is helping states like New York and Hawaii to institute long-term care benefits for senior citizens. The NDWA also lobbied the Supreme Court to reject the appeal of Home Care Associates v. Weil (2016), which ruled that home health care workers needed wage-based protections.
Poo has dedicated much of her career to supporting caregivers. She is Co-director of Caring Across Generations, which advocates that community care be affordable and accessible for families to prevent and reduce an overwhelming reliance on nursing homes. Part of her inspiration for leading Caring Across Generations was her late grandfather’s experience. He was placed into a nursing home by her family against his wishes because her parents were unable to provide him with in-home care; after three months, he passed away. As over 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 each day, Poo believes in the need for wide-scale assistance to be available for seniors and their families. She projects that over two million new jobs in home care will be needed as the Boomers age, and these jobs will need to provide workers with a living wage and economic security. She also hopes that the government will offer reasonable paths to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom are currently working as caregivers for seniors and families.
Poo has received widespread acknowledgment for the years of advocacy work she has committed to caregivers and domestic workers. She was named by Time Magazine as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People in 2010. Through networking with celebrities like Amy Poehler, Poo has been able to build support for the NDWA and Caring Across Generations. In 2014, she was awarded with a MacArthur Fellowship, which is a five-year grant available to recipients in any field to produce creative work. Poo is also the author of the best-selling book The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.
Poo is a new member of the Academy. “Ai-jen Poo is one of America’s most visionary leaders in the caregiving space,” said Ben Veghte, Vice President for Policy at the National Academy of Social Insurance. “She has identified the shared challenges faced by workers, employers, families and caregivers, and has helped build a movement across communities and stakeholder groups around a consensus that we can develop a care infrastructure that better serves the needs of all involved. Her work in bringing generations together, in particular, is a tremendous contribution to our civic and social fabric, and something from which we can all draw inspiration.”