Ai-jen Poo: Her Calling Is to Help the Help

America's domestic workers are uniting behind a tireless advocate.

Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

Sitting with Ai-jen Poo, it's easy to see why she has become an influential voice in the fight for domestic workers' rights. She is sincere, determined and has spent the past 15 years fighting to ensure that caretakers, nannies and housekeepers are recognized, treated fairly and paid appropriately.

Ai-jen is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She became passionate about this cause after meeting women who did not have sick days, weren't receiving health care and were devalued because of the nature of their work. "Domestic workers are excluded from almost every single labor law," Ai-jen said.

Sometimes people take for granted all the energy, work and care that goes into taking care of a family.

Ai-jen started advocating for domestic workers in the late 1990s. One story in particular lit the fire that is still burning today. A 31-year-old woman named Lilly was brought to the U.S. from Jamaica when she was 16 to work as a nanny. At the time, she was told by her employer that she would be able to attend school. The employer also claimed that Lilly's wages were being sent back to Lilly's family in Jamaica. Neither happened. "For 16 years, she was essentially working as a slave," Ai-jen said.

One of the kids that Lilly cared for eventually helped her escape with money from his piggy bank. "All of those years, and all of that love and care, and she was never able to get the education she was promised. What kind of world is that okay in?" Ai-jen asked.

In 2000, Ai-jen helped start Domestic Workers United. Ten years later, the organization made history with a landmark bill many had told her would be "impossible" to pass. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights reforms New York State law to guarantee basic work standards and protections for domestic workers such as overtime pay and protection from harassment.

Members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance standing up for their rights. (Photo: Stephen Hurst)

New York was the beginning. California is the next stop, and hopefully the rest of the country after that. The movement is not just about the laws, Ai-jen said, it addresses cultural issues as well. "I think sometimes people take for granted all the energy, work and care that goes into taking care of a family," she said.

This isn't the case for every family. Many cherish those who work in their homes and care for their children. However, the bills supported by Domestic Workers United, in addition to protecting workers, "will put guidelines in place for people who want to do the right thing but aren't clear on what that is," Ai-jen said.

Earlier this year, the film The Help, which is now out on DVD, brought the issue of discrimination against domestic workers to the forefront of America's consciousness. Inspired by the themes in the film and in association with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, TakePart interviewed domestic workers from around the country about the issues they face and what “help” means to them.

In the video series, titled Help Is..., nannies, caretakers and housekeepers share how "help" means love, magic and collaboration.  Ai-jen hopes the videos help to "show Americans how important and meaningful this work truly is."

Here is one of the moving videos in the series. Find more videos here.


'The Help' from DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment was produced in association with Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi. The Help DVD was released on December 6, 2011. Participant Media is TakePart's parent company.

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