Congratulations Ai-Jen Poo!

Great news this week. Ai-Jen Poo, the fantastic and inspiring director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. I have never been so excited and more inspired. It means that this movement, that I know consider myself a part of, is gaining visibility and momentum. These women work so hard. State by state. City by city. To mobilize and educate women workers. I am so proud that Ai-Jen is one of the honorees this year. She intends to use the money to create a domestic worker fellowship so that more women can work for the movement full time.

And she is in such great company. Fair housing advocates, LGBT activists, a woman who serves as a legal advocate for domestic violence victims in the native community, feminist activist Alison Bechdel, so many women and people of color.

While we don’t like to talk about money often as activists, it matters. Movements cost money. And the MacArthur grants go to such great causes. And now ours is one.

See Ai-Jen’s moving video about winning the award here.

And while we are on the subject I have been thinking a lot over the past couple of weeks about what it means to be a scholar that is part of a grassroots movement. On a conference call recently that included a number of emerging scholars writing about domestic work along with a member of NDWA, a woman asked, “How can we create scholarship that is useful to the movement?” A simple question. And a challenge I have given myself. We’ll see what I come up with. But for now, just the cutting room floor.

Now Reading: White Feminist Apologists

Today on the road to dissertation-ville I returned to Silvia Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero in search of some theoretical musings on sex work. The collection includes a 1999 essay that Federici wrote entitled Reproduction and Feminist Struggle in the New Division of Labor. In it she argues that it is useless for feminists (Marxist feminists I assume since she is one) to criticize women for hiring domestic workers. Because housework is slavery. And there is no alternative. I was told by renowned scholar of domestic labor, Mary Romero, that this kind of thing happens all the time but its the first time I have seen it in print.

Here’s the thing: where are the rights for domestic workers in your collection of thirty years of scholarship on women and housework? Her commentary renders them invisible. It renders the history of my own family invisible. Domestic workers are without rights. Which means you employ them under the worst conditions, feminist or not. If you can’t treat the women you hire as wage workers, and treat them as such, then how can you advocate for working women? This kind of entitlement continues to frustrate me.

Meet Our Panelists: Barbara Young

Barbara Young, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has been a domestic worker for the past seventeen years. Young has done a lot of work around organizing a global labor movement, and was very active in labor organizing in her native Barbados.

Just last month, Young was a featured panelist on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC as a part of a segment on the film The Help. Click here to see the full segment. NDWA created a #bethehelp campaign urging the film’s fans to help domestic workers in their own communities.

I found the segment to be a really interesting demonstration of class difference as a factor as it relates to responses to the film. While Young expressed a fondness for certain aspects of The Help, the other panelists, which included a comedian/political commentator and a historian, were passionately against everything that the film represents. It made the dichotomy between scholars and activists really apparent to me. I have reflected on what was a really uncomfortable dynamic to watch and wondered what lesson, as an academic, I could learn from it.

As the conference approaches I hope that we can strike a balance between sharing our knowledge and experience and listening to what others certainly have to offer.

 

Maid in the USA: A Conference on Domestic Labor and Organizing

It seems like everyone is talking about domestic workers lately, thanks, in part, to the 2011 film The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestselling novel. Everyone’s weighing in: scholars, critics, bloggers, actors, and every tv talking head from Oprah to Katie Couric.

If the current discourse is any indication, domestic work is a part of our mythological American past. And yet, at this very moment, there are at least 1.8 million domestic workers employed in American homes. Ninety-three percent of whom are women of color.

That’s over a million women with no right to organize (that’s right, its illegal), and no federally mandated minimum wage, overtime pay, or maximum hours. Employers of household workers are not required to provide a safe and healthy working environment.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Civil Rights Act, right? Arguably the most important piece of legislation of the second half of the twentieth century. It prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, or national origin. Well, it only applies to employers with 15 or more employees. In other words, it doesn’t apply to domestic workers.

So, how did we get here and where do we go?

Twenty years ago this year Mary Romero’s tackled this very question in her groundbreaking study of Chicana domestic workers in the Southwest, Maid in the USA. To commemorate Romero’s work and work of advocates and organizers around the country the Center for Migration and the Global City at Rutgers University Newark is gearing up for what proves to be a really exciting conference on the opportunities and challenges facing household workers in the United States today.

As a part of this dialogue between scholars, advocates, and organizers, we wanted to start the conversation here. Check back for regular updates about conference planning, where to register, profiles of some of our collaborators and people working on the ground to advocate for domestic workers’ rights, and more facts and figures that highlight the urgency of this significant issue.