On Being with Krista Tippett

Ai-jen Poo

This Is Our (Caring) Revolution

Ai-jen Poo is a next-generation labor organizer who co-founded a beautiful and muscular movement with caregivers and those who employ them: the National Domestic Workers Alliance. For over two decades, she has been reinventing policy and engaging a deep conversation that has now met its civilizational moment. This conversation was recorded 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 for our life together, in and beyond it.


Image of Ai-jen Poo

Ai-jen Poo co-founded and leads The National Domestic Workers Alliance, is the director of Caring Across Generations, and co-founder of Supermajority. Among her countless awards, she was a 2014 MacArthur Fellow. She’s the author of The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.


Krista Tippett, host: As a college student, Ai-jen Poo began to see an invisible workforce of millions, laboring with dignity and love everywhere behind the doors of private homes — nannies and domestic workers and companions to the elderly. Digging deeper, she learned that professional caregivers had been excluded from every milestone of the 20th century U.S. that guaranteed simple, life-sustaining rights like time off and overtime pay.

In 2007, Ai-jen Poo co-founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The story of how she and her team took up what they saw — with equal parts tenderness and muscle — is part of the generative narrative of our time. I should note 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.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Ai-jen Poo: I think that this is a once-in-several-generations opportunity to transform and update how we care for one another in this country.

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Ai-jen Poo’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. She was born in Pittsburgh and grew up between Southern California and Connecticut. I spoke with her in front of a live audience at Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, in partnership with WBEZ Chicago Public Radio.


Tippett: I’ve been following Ai-jen Poo’s work for years, and her presence in the world, and I’m really grateful to this community for bringing me together with her for the first time in the flesh. We have so many people in common, and I think we’ve actually been in the same room, and we’ve been at the same conferences, and never met before.

Poo: Do I get to fangirl for a second?


[laughs] I’m just gonna take some liberties here and say what an incredible honor it is to be able to have this conversation with you, and how much I’ve learned from you over the years, particularly about listening. And listening, for an organizer like me, is the most important superpower to cultivate, because it is actually impossible to understand how to create change with people if you can’t listen well. And I’ve learned so much about listening well and actively, with humanity, from you. So thank you.

Tippett: Well, thank you so much.


That means an incredible amount to me. So this first question may not surprise you. [laughs] How would you think about the religious or spiritual background of your childhood, however you would define that now?

Poo: I would say that I didn’t have much contact with religion. But I did find a spiritual practice through my activism, actually. As a young organizer in New York City, there was a sense of dissonance that I felt in the work that we were doing, where we were fighting for inclusion, and sometimes we felt a little exclusive, in a way. Or we were fighting for dignity and justice, and sometimes we didn’t treat one another with that same level of humanity and dignity.

Tippett: I also feel like your work now, in Caring Across Generations — it feels to me like an experience of that, an awareness of that, a passion about it, was also in the fabric of your childhood with your grandparents. And that feels spiritual, to me, expansively defined.

Poo: Absolutely. I was really fortunate to be raised in a multigenerational household, where my grandparents played a profound role in teaching me very practical things — like potty-training me, which was very useful. [laughs]

Tippett: Excellent. And you lived with them for some formative years …

Poo: Yes, absolutely.

Tippett: … and saw them every summer.

Poo: Every summer.

Tippett: And then they came to the States.

Poo: And then, as soon as they were able to retire, they came and lived with us. And so I grew up watching my grandfather do tai chi in the driveway. And certainly, my values really came from them, very strongly. And my grandmother, her notion of family was always so expansive and boundless to me. Everyone was an auntie and an uncle, and I don’t think I actually understood till much later that they weren’t my blood relatives. But everybody in the community felt like family. And she was very much the epicenter of caring for so many people, and I think I watched that and absorbed that as an ethic.

Tippett: You have become esteemed at a young age for founding and leading the National Domestic Alliance, which you cofounded in 2007. When you became a MacArthur Fellow, which we refer to as the “Genius” award, they cited you for “catalyzing a vibrant, worker-led movement for improved working conditions and labor standards for domestic or private household workers.” And then I really do love this way you’ve stated it. In another interview you said, “We have been building a big, beautiful movement of nannies and housecleaners and caregivers.” [laughs]

And what’s fascinating to me — that the seeds of this were when you started volunteering at a domestic violence shelter in college, and you were working on the hotline, answering the phone all night — being a listener.

Poo: That’s right, being a listener, answering the phone calls at night, I was so struck by how many of the calls were not actually about the abuse, but about surviving in everyday life, working incredibly hard and still not being able to pay the bills — that there was this relationship between the inability of working women to earn enough to make ends meet, and their ability to live free from violence. It was so profound. I remember thinking, how could it be that people who have work and are working so incredibly hard still can’t take care of themselves and their families? And how do we change that? Started to ask that question.

I feel like, at this moment in our life together as human beings, there’s so much unfolding that is about really essential work that was long in coming; and that, somehow, as we came from the last century to this one, we, some of us, had a feeling that we were much further along with much of that work than we actually were; that so much is still unfolding, and we’re seeing that fact, that there’s so much to do.

Poo: There is.

Tippett: And it feels to me like this place that you have engaged, it’s right there at that axis. And also, this matter of domestic workers, caregiving as a profession, it intersects with gender and race, and those are two of these places where we’ve just become so aware of all the unfinished business; but that’s also what’s made this, I think, a bit invisible.

Poo: If you think about it, 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. We call it the work that makes everything else possible, because it makes it possible for all of us to go out and do what we do every day, knowing that some of the most precious aspects of our lives are in good hands. 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.”

Tippett: We don’t think of it as work; we think of needing work or being employers, but needing help, getting help.

Poo: And it’s absolutely connected to gender, because this work has always been associated with work that women do.

Tippett: Often, unpaid.

Poo: Often, unpaid; there’s been an expectation that women will do this work — taken for granted, culturally. And as a profession, it’s often been associated with women of color. Our first domestic workers in this country, many of them were enslaved African women. And that history has really shaped how we’ve treated this workforce in the laws. In the 1930s, when we put our labor laws in place, two groups of workers were excluded: farm workers and domestic workers — who were African American, at the time — and those exclusions are still in place, many of them.

Tippett: Which, I feel — I have only learned that through your work, and it is a shocking thing to learn — and that even with Title VII in the Civil Rights Act, which did away with a lot of discrimination, or aspired to, there was also this exclusion for those categories of workers.

Poo: Those exclusions remain. In the experience of this workforce, you can really see the ways that our society and our culture are still very much structured by a hierarchy of human value, whether it’s race or gender; that we do value the lives and contributions of some people over others. And that is how we sit at the intersection of so much, because it’s not just one hierarchy that we’re concerned with. It’s that there shouldn’t be any; that, at our essence, we should all be whole and human and have dignified work and be able to care for our families. And if we can achieve that for this workforce, the ripple effects for everyone will be profound.

Tippett: It feels like it’s defining of us and that that move would be formative. It would be transformational, but it would also be a way of defining what it means to be human beings and human societies.

Poo: During the Obama administration, they hosted a conference on aging, and the caregiving panel opened with — the moderator of the panel said, “We often forget that aging is actually living ….


“… that to age is to live, and to care is to be human.” And I think that our movement is meant to remind us of both of those two things, too.

Tippett: And help us live more deeply into them.

Poo: That’s right.

Tippett: So all through the 20th century, even at other milestones where other workers and other kinds of labor was recognized, this category of workers was repeatedly excluded. And then, finally, in 2010, after 7 years of you and your organization pushing this, New York enacted the first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the history of this country.

Poo: Winning rights and protections for 200,000 domestic workers in the state of New York.


Tippett: And I think, since then, other states have joined.

Poo: Since then, eight additional states and the city of Seattle and the city of Philadelphia, which in December signed into law the very first bill to create paid time off for domestic workers. Sixteen thousand domestic workers in Philadelphia just won paid time off.


Tippett: And I think it’s something like two million workers, humans, who are now affected by all of those laws that have changed.

Poo: At least. I think, if you count home care workers, it’s many more. The thing about this workforce that people don’t realize — and we often think about it as kind of at the margins, or in the shadows of our economy — but because of the huge and growing aging population in this country, with baby boomers turning 70 at a rate of 10,000 people per day and living longer than ever before because of advances in healthcare, we need more care as a country than ever before. And this professional workforce is gonna be a huge part of the solution. And some economists predict that, between care jobs as childcare jobs, and elder care jobs combined, that this workforce will be the largest single occupation in our whole workforce, soon. So it’s important that we get paid time off. [laughs]

Tippett: What also strikes me, when I read about what’s been accomplished — which is extraordinary — but it’s also so rudimentary. This was about the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, but I assume this is true of the others: “entitles workers to overtime pay, one day of rest per week, protection from discrimination, three days paid leave per year.” And it strikes me that one of the big new catchphrases in our society is “self-care” — and yet, not for our professional carers.

Poo: It is among, I think, the greatest ironies in our culture that the people that we’re counting on to take care of us can’t take care of themselves and their own families doing this work. And I would say the opportunity here is to transform that. Really, for the 21st century, imagine — manufacturing jobs used to be poverty-wage, dangerous jobs that a lot of immigrant women did, and we transformed that work into dignified work that you could take pride in, and one generation could do better than the next. And that is the opportunity here, with this job and with so many other low-wage service jobs that really define our economy today. We can make them good jobs that support all of us.

[music: “Send Off” by Explosions In the Sky & David Wingo]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Tippett: And I think something that you’ve observed that was really useful, for me, in thinking about, is that this, though, is a labor force and a field of labor that is hidden behind the closed door of private homes. So you had this analogy: You can go into any neighborhood and not know which homes are workplaces. But even deeper than that, as you said, we talk about this not as labor but as help, and so the many Americans who are actually acting as employers in their homes don’t even think of it that way.

Poo: It’s a really unique workplace, in that way. And it’s such an intimate relationship; it’s very emotional. And that is a piece that we think about a lot, because in some ways, you are part of the family, and you are also a professional. This is your job. It’s your job to be there. And it’s both, and that is so, in some ways, unique in this workforce, and complicated.

Tippett: And it does drive to something else you’ve said, that “we live in an era of moral choices.” And to me, to think about, as you said, the things that these employees, workers, are entrusted with are the things we care about most: our homes, our loved ones, our children. And yet, somehow, as a society, we haven’t been at all reflective about aligning that with what we pay for those services. It feels kind of insane, when you actually — what do we pay anyone for that’s more important than caring for our children or caring for our parents?

Poo: That’s right. The average annual income for a home care worker is $15,000 per year. And I can’t think of any community that I’ve ever lived in where you can survive on $15,000 a year. It’s really quite extraordinary. And they’re there and see employers come home with a pair of shoes that are maybe more than they make in a week, and yet, their job is to care and support and love, and they do so. You can’t actually do your job as a caregiver if you dehumanize the person that is in your charge. And I think that that is so much of what’s needed in this moment. All of us need to understand that we have a profound set of challenges and inequities that we have to deal with and transform, but we have to do it with a boundless sense of compassion and humanity.

Tippett: And are they mostly women, most of the domestic workers?

Poo: Oh, yeah. And if you think about it, many of these women are caring all day long, for work, and then they go home and take care of their own families, too. I’ve also seen incredible acts of solidarity and courage on the part of families that support this workforce. There’s a whole organization that’s formed called Hand in Hand, which is of people who hire and rely upon caregivers and domestic workers who’ve decided that they want to advocate for domestic workers’ rights and for good jobs and living wages. And that kind of energy, I feel like, is just multiplying in this period. I think all of us are waking up to the fact that we are interdependent and that we have to start to make some pretty significant changes in the way that we value our relationships, especially our caregiving relationships, if we’re to make it through. [laughs] So there’s a lot that’s shifting in this moment.

Tippett: I love that story. That would be, to me, one of these stories of our time that is untold, or not widely told. Where is that happening?

Poo: It’s happening all over the country, but they were instrumental in passing the Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in all the states, but especially in New York. There were children who were raised by domestic workers who testified at hearings, working moms who said that they wouldn’t have the work that they had if it weren’t for the nannies who came and took care of their kids, single moms who said that they rely on the domestic worker as if they are a life partner. The way that we were able to tell the story about the value of this work — it wouldn’t have been complete without those voices.

Tippett: Caring Across Generations is the newest initiative that — one of the things that was so interesting to me is that this campaign actually started because house cleaners and nannies in your network were starting to be asked to care for elders. And they stepped up and said, “We want to do this and be trained to do this.” So this expansion came from them. It emerged internally.

Poo: Absolutely. They were the first responders — and, really, responding to this huge need for elder care that’s unfolding from families that they served, that they work for, who have a loved one who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the whole family is really grappling with what to do and how to reorganize. They’re a part of that solution.

Tippett: But caring for someone with dementia, or certain kinds of disabilities that come with age — they didn’t want to be unqualified to do that.

Poo: Exactly, so they asked for training. And it was such a pattern that we decided to take a step back and understand what was going on, and that’s when we realized, the age wave was catalyzing a huge shift in American families and really exploding the need for care, and that that could be an opportunity for all of us to come together to make good care much more affordable and accessible, and to really transform this work into good work, good jobs that you can really sustain on. And that idea of moving from a zero-sum to an abundant solution that really serves and reimagines how these systems work, for families and workers alike, was the spirit behind Caring Across Generations.

Tippett: I feel like you’re really trying to completely reframe it, and then pragmatically reframe it, as not a problem to be solved, but “What does this allow us to grow into?”

Poo: I do believe that. I think that this is a once-in-several-generations opportunity to transform and update how we care for one another in this country.

[music: “Narghile” by Randall]

Tippett: After a short break, more with Ai-jen Poo. You can always listen again and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed — wherever podcasts are found.

[music: “Narghile” by Randall]

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Ai-jen Poo, the next-generation labor organizer who co-founded a beautiful and muscular movement with nannies and domestic workers and caregivers, The National Domestic Workers Alliance. We went into production on this before coronavirus. But in my mind 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. Her book is The Age of Dignity.

Tippett: So in the book, one thing I really love is that you have pictures that open many of the chapters. And the first — I believe this is the first one in the book, the first chapter — is with your — this is your grandmother, right?

Poo: That’s my grandmother.

Tippett: And you say, “Mrs. Sun,” how you refer to her, “is an immigrant from China, living in Los Angeles County with her two adult sons and husband. She works as a caregiver for my grandmother and is an invaluable presence in my family. We are a team, and my grandmother is at the heart of it all, living life fully on her terms, at 87.”

Poo: I believe, in the future, it’s gonna be care squads … [laughs]

Tippett: Care squads? [laughs]

Poo: … where it’s gonna be you and me and sisters, siblings, family members, neighbors, friends, professionals, all of us together, making sure that the people that we love can live with dignity, regardless of their ability or their age.

Tippett: Labor organizing feels to me, in many ways, like a term from the early 20th century and that — as you said, the context was often manufacturing. And it does actually seem to me that you approach labor organizing, also, as a form, primarily, of care. You’ve compared great organizing campaigns to great love affairs. And, like a love affair, it doesn’t — at some point, it captivates you, right? It’s not drudgery, to turn your attention to this.

Poo: Not at all. The reason why I compare it is, it’s this container, our movement, and these campaigns are like these containers for transformation, the way that great love affairs are. You’re so busy, and you have no more space in your life, and then, all of a sudden, you fall in love, and you have time to go to the movies and make dinner. Everything looks a little different, and you have a different point of view, a different perspective, and what you imagine to be possible for yourself and your life opens up, in a way. That’s what happens in the course of great organizing and great campaigns. And at the heart of what we do is about those relationships, really opening up what those relationships can do to transform us.

Tippett: Do you feel like the nature of movement building is changing? Do you feel like that’s also something you’re part of, writ large?

Poo: I do think it is changing. And, I think, by necessity, honestly. The way I think about it is that there’s almost two truths: There’s what’s factually true, and then there’s what’s emotionally true. And they’re not the same. But both really shape our choices and our reality. And I think that most of us who’ve done organizing or activism, we exist in the realm of what’s factually true. And we commission research. We look at data. We make really strong arguments. And so, while we have always talked about changing hearts and minds, mostly what we know how to do is change minds. And I think that now, in a really deeply profound way, we’re all understanding that perhaps the most important project is changing hearts, and that, in order to do so, you have to be unafraid of the irrational. [laughs]

Tippett: Because we are all strange and irrational.

Poo: Completely — [laughs] and that there is so much richness in our emotional lives, and we are so profoundly driven by what happens there, we gotta get in there. And that’s why I’m fascinated by religion and, also, by storytelling; I think that the power of great storytelling is really about getting in there, into our desire for heroes and a moral to the story. So I think that 21st century organizing — the future — is about really tapping into the power of how we emotionally make meaning to create a more loving and caring future.

Tippett: I want to say — and I know you would make this distinction, too — the beloved community was mentioned at the beginning of this evening. So the Civil Rights Movement actually did have that aspect. But I feel like that wasn’t necessarily carried forward. And that, I feel, is what you are coming back to, in a whole different generation, that insistence on beloved community.

Poo: Absolutely. And the profound ways in which we are so interdependent and interconnected, even when we’re not proximate.

Tippett: It feels, also, like so much of the sphere you’re in has gender dynamics, and, as we said, what has always, always, always been considered women’s work and not paid work. But there are some interesting things shifting in that, too — that men are becoming caregivers, and millennial men are different from their fathers and grandfathers.

Poo: Forty percent of all family caregivers for the elderly are men. And this is actually such a profound example, to me, of how sexism harms men, because our assumption that women are caregivers just means that all of those millions, tens of millions of men who are family caregivers and who are doing this work become invisible.

Tippett: This beautiful quote from Rosalynn Carter.

Poo: I love this quote. She’s my favorite.

Tippett: “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.”


Poo: True? [laughs] It’s true.

Tippett: It’s true. It’s true. It’s a basic reality that we’re just learning, and you are one of the people helping teach us to take in.

Poo: I really do believe that care connects us all. It’s a beautiful thing. And it’s such a joy for me, because it’s so rare that I’m able to work on an issue that affects every single person. We always start our meetings with 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. And it just immediately connects us all in the room. And it’s so powerful.

Tippett: Somewhere, you wrote, “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.


Poo: Fair. Fair enough. Fair enough.

Tippett: Although sitting here with you, it feels closer. But when you talk about part of what you’re doing is “unleashing the caring majority”, that feels real to me.

Poo: Oh, good. [laughs] Yes, that is what we’re doing. Even just looking at the numbers, a hundred million of us today are directly affected by the need for care on a very practical level. That is an unstoppable force for change, a hundred million people here. Unstoppable.

One of the most powerful things I think we can do, in this moment, is, be intentional about where we put our attention. And I think it’s so true that we are dealing with so much bad news, horrible news. And there is also so much beauty happening in the world right now, and so many people who have shown up. I work on immigration issues, family separation in particular, and the number of goodhearted people who have stepped forward to collect donations, to sponsor families, to show up in ways that are quite uncomfortable for them, is so profound. 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. And I think we need to put, maybe, 45 degrees more attention there.

Tippett: That’s the caring majority.

Poo: Exactly.

Tippett: So I want to do questions in just a minute. There’s another favorite quote of yours, which just feels like it’s so — I see that you embody this — from Alice Walker. It’s some lines of Alice Walker. “This could be our revolution: to love what is plentiful as much as what is scarce.” What are you thinking of, when you talk about that which is plentiful?

Poo: I think about the love, the capacity for human connection, for generosity of spirit, no matter how much or what you have or don’t have — that we have, right now, within each of us, every single thing we need to be a part of creating a beautiful future. And 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 what is our future is one of abundance.


Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Tyler Greene from WBEZ read questions from our audience.

Tippett: Let’s open this up.

Tyler Greene: Hi, everybody. It’s Tyler. First question: We pay our domestic workers in cash, under the table, ostensibly to help them avoid taxes and keep more of the money — pros and cons.

Poo: Wow, so practical. [laughs]

Greene: By the way, question surrogate asker; someone asked that out here.

Poo: Let’s see. Part of the reason why so much of the interaction in this industry happens in the shadows and under the table, so to speak, is because of the devaluing that has happened and because of the way that we have treated this as less than real work. And we are in a transition phase now, where we are moving from this whole economy existing in the shadows to trying to figure out how it becomes more formalized in the marketplace. And in that transition there’s a lot of confusion and complexity, especially when so much of this workforce is immigrant and undocumented. This is the part of the economy with the largest concentration of undocumented immigrants of any workforce in our economy. So I would say that we are in a liminal phase and that you should work it out with your housekeeper.


Tippett: I think we’re all in that liminal phase, together.

Poo: Exactly.

Greene: Next question: Have you thought about the role shame plays in the relationship between employer and employee? Women are given messages that they need to do it all. How can we turn this into something more expansive?

Poo: Yes. Shame. It’s really deep. And it’s a very deep part of what structures the dynamic in this industry. And I will say that this is where there’s a huge opportunity for transformation, because in the past, I think that that expectation — the impossible expectation that women will be able to do everything, all the time — has meant that this workforce of mostly women of color, women of even more marginalized status, have borne the brunt of that.

And the opportunity now, I think, is for us to have open conversations about how completely untenable the expectations have been — untenable, unsustainable, impractical — and it’s simply not gonna serve us in the 21st century, and for women who are employers and women who are doing this work as professionals to be the leading edge of how we transform the expectations of family members to be much more equitable and humane. And it only happens if we join together. Otherwise, we might reinforce some of the hierarchies that exist.

But I see that happening now. And I will say that many of our protests and marches and meetings and events, workers bring their employers. And employers bring their employees. And we’re doing more and more stuff together, because we’re realizing that the only way we break out of this dynamic of shaming and blaming and having these completely inhumane expectations of one another is together.

Tippett: Even when you said, “You should work that out with your housekeeper,” just, I think, having that conversation would be a new step forward, for a lot of people, that we don’t all just awkwardly navigate around.

Poo: Right, or, even, care in general is seen as the purview of the woman to just kind of manage on her own. And I think the more we open up the conversation as a collective conversation, the better.

Greene: Last question: Your childhood as you described it was full of a large community of non-blood relations. That kind of community is alien to many people today. Do you think that your work, which makes people more aware of the value and importance of domestic work, will encourage people to move back in the direction of deeper community caring?

Poo: I hope so; I’m seeing a lot of it. For my book, I was tracking — in the construction industry, the biggest trend in home redesign was the construction of what they were calling the “mother-in-law” suite, but, basically, adding multigenerational units onto your homes. And it’s part of the care squad of the future concept, where I do think that we’re gonna need to be much more expansive about how we think about and build community. And there’s a whole bunch of brilliant designers who I’m hoping will take that on so that we can really design for the future we deserve.

If you think about it, what we’ve done with the age wave is, because of advances in healthcare, we’ve added another 20 years onto our life expectancy from the time that our safety net was originally put into place. So you’re adding in a whole other generation onto life. But none of our systems or our infrastructure is really designed for that. And so I think we have to just really reimagine everything about community, about cities, about so much, to really help us have a new way of life that is supportive.

Tippett: But something else I wanted to ask you about — so I feel many people aren’t growing up the way you did, anymore, with grandparents right there and integrally involved in your childhood. But I experience, among young people, many of whom would be hard-pressed to tell you how they are spiritual, but expressing this hunger and desire for spiritual elders. It’s like this thing that we lost, we actually needed. We needed. And that knowledge of the need is surfacing.

Poo: Technology has enabled young people to be more connected to their elders, even thousands of miles away, and there’s something really interesting and wonderful about that, too. And this generation, for example, of millennials, is more connected to their grandparents and their elders than any other generation previous, as a result.

Tippett: You’ve experienced that, too. Is that documented? Or is it just something — it is?

Poo: Absolutely.

Tippett: Isn’t that amazing?

Poo: There’s a reason why millennials always say that their grandparents ruined Facebook. [laughs]


Tippett: [laughs] So you have a new podcast.

Poo: I do.

Tippett: Did you just launch?

Poo: Yes, a week ago or something.

Tippett: And you’re doing it with the wonderful Mash-Up American ladies. In the description of the podcast, it says, “A podcast about how women stay powerful and joyful amidst the chaos of life in America today.” So tell us how you stay powerful and joyful amidst the chaos of life today — and I so love that conjunction of powerful and joyful.

Poo: I will say, I’m obsessed with power, [laughs] as most organizers are, ecause I believe in the Dr. King sense of it — the combination of love and power to transform our world. The podcast is called Sunstorm, and it’s based off of the weather pattern called a sunstorm, where you can have really torrential storm — rain, sometimes even hail — but somehow, miraculously, the sun is still shining. Do you know what I’m talking about, that dynamic? And my colleague and I, who host the show, Alicia Garza, who’s a cofounder of Black Lives Matter, and I, we — after the 2016 election, it felt, to us, like a political sunstorm — that we were both dealing with unprecedented dangers and threats and unprecedented signs of hope, and that women, in particular, were the leading edge — that they were really the sun, shining through, first responders in our crisis.

Tippett: [laughs] Something else that I find defining of your generation is friendship, and the power of friendship, and the power of friendship between women, but not just women. When you and Alicia introduce each other in the first episode, when you introduce her, you say — you know yes, she’s one of the cofounders of Black Lives Matter — but the first thing you say about her is, “She’s one of the best friends you could hope for.”

I just did this interview with a scholar at Yale, at the Human Nature Lab, called Nicholas Christakis, and one of the things he looks at is friendship as a force in human history and society. And you could say it’s a form of care, but it goes un-visible. We don’t ever pause to look at how it is actually changing the world and moving things forward. And it’s there in movements and in organizing.

Poo: It really is. I think having this podcast has made me a lot more aware of it, because when you talk to women, they talk about — and what enables them to shine through the storms — is so much about friendship. It’s this unaccounted-for force for change that is so powerful.

Tippett: If I ask you, just, this week, right now, in your life and your work, as you look around the world, what makes you despair, and where are you finding hope?

Poo: What makes me despair is when I think about how many cards are stacked against us, because for so long — that it is a huge amount of written and unwritten rules have disempowered domestic workers and so many other people. It’s quite profound. It’s cultural, it’s legal — it’s all these things — it’s programmatic.

And 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, over and over again. And I know — I believe that we will win.


Tippett: Ai-jen, thank you so much, for the work you do and for being with me tonight. And thank you all for coming.

Poo: Thank you for having me.


[music: “Knights of Columbus” by Halloween, Alaska]

Tippett: Ai-jen Poo is executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the co-director of Caring Across Generations. Her book is The Age of Dignity. Her podcast, co-hosted with Alicia Garza, is Sunstorm.

Special thanks this week to WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and Tyler Greene, our partners for this event. Also, thanks to Steve Bynum and Rev. Alan Taylor and the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois.

Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Marie Sambilay, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Nicole Finn, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, and Gretchen Honnold.

Tippett: The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.

Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation. Dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. Supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org.

Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.

The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project.

The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

Books & Music

Music Played