Ai-jen Poo wants to make you see the invisible. All around you are invisible people—people who are caring for others, parents, siblings, grandparents. Sometimes that’s a full time job, most often unpaid; sometimes it’s a part time or second job—an enormous responsibility the moment they walk in the door at night. Sometimes, caregivers are hired; other times families bear the burden. You may glimpse the faces of caregivers in the street or at your office or whilst running chores, but Poo’s goal is for you to see them for the unsung heroes they are.
“We often times don’t even think of care work as real it’s referred as ‘help’ or ‘companionship’,” Poo tells TIME. “Once you’ve become aware of it, all of a sudden it’s every where. What we have to do is figure out how to encourage people to make visible the relationship in our lives.”
Poo has spent her life helping get caregivers more recognition. Between organizing Asian, Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers in New York when she founded the Domestic Workers United in 2000 to her 2015 bestselling book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, Poo has been a longtime advocate for legions of invisible people.
The 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient first became aware of the challenges in caregiving within her own family when her grandfather suffered repeated strokes. Her scientist father struggled to care for his increasingly dependent father until, finally, they moved him into a nursing home against his wishes. Though Poo and her family visited him often, the facility was a grim place. He shared a room with six others, many who were suffering and often cried out in pain. “The place smelled like mold and death,” she wrote in her book, and within three months death had claimed her grandfather.
His passing spurred Poo on. Right out of Columbia University, she began to organize domestic workers with CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. By 2000, she’d founded the DWU, which helps domestic workers improve their working conditions. That group grew into the National Domestic Workers Alliance by 2007.
NDWA lobbies states and the federal government to improve working conditions for caregivers. In 2010, they helped pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York State, the first law in the United States to guarantee domestic workers basic labor protections such as overtime pay, three days’ paid leave, and legal protections from harassment and discrimination. Similar laws have now been passed in Hawaii and California.
In recent months, the NDWA has successfully lobbied the Supreme Court to not hear the appeal of Home Care Associations of America v. Weil, a case that questioned whether home health care workers deserved minimum wage and overtime protections. They also helped push Congress to reauthorize the Older Americans Act and they’re working with New York and Hawaii on state models for long-term care benefits.
But Poo is worried. Part of her platform has been pushing for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in America, many of who work as caregivers. Even with these workers, America is facing a short fall of caregivers; Poo estimates that by 2018 the U.S. will need 1.8 million more caregivers to accommodate the aging Baby Boomer generation. With Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, she sees the country moving away from the immigration reform needed to deal with these issues. “Donald Trump talking about mass deportations and building a wall is actually igniting the kind of anti-immigrant sentiment in this country,” Poo says. “I’ve heard a number of workers talking about how they’re been attacked by civilians asking them to produce their passports. So, it’s really a dangerous tide of hatred.”
Poo won’t endorse in the election, but she does like many of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s ideas. “Her caregiving principals are strong she talks about providing tax credits for family caregivers. She talks about a caregiver respite program. She talks about a caregiver initiative. How we improve the quality of care jobs,” Poo says. “Long term, we need a whole new investment in long term care infrastructure as we define caring in the 21st century American family.”