“Genius Grant” Awardee Visits LER to Discuss Her Work
On February 11, LER welcomed Ai-Jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Alliance (NDWA) and Co-director of the Caring Across Generations campaign, to campus for a presentation titled “The Future of Care: What We Need for a Changing America”. The talk was part of a tour to promote her book, “Aging with Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.”
Poo’s inspirational talk was hosted by the LER’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights, and co-sponsored by the Department of Women’s Studies, the Department of Asian Studies., the Center for Global Studies, and the Central Pennsylvania Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.
An organizer of immigrant women workers since 1996, Poo co-founded Domestic Workers United (DWU) in 2002. The New York organization spearheaded the passage of the state’s historic Domestic Workers Bill of Rights 2010. Poo is also the co-director of Caring Across Generations, through which she leads a movement of careworkers, parents, grandparents, children, and lawmakers to ensure that all people can mature in this country with dignity, security, and independence.
Poo is a 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow and was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2012. Other accolades include the Ms. Foundation Woman of Vision Award, the Independent Sector American Express NGen Leadership Award, and Newsweek’s 150 Fearless Women list.
Poo’s lecture opened with a warm introduction from current LER graduate student and domestic workers’ rights activist, Shirley Lee Pryce. Poo then shared stories from her own life, discussing her personal experiences with her grandparents’ aging, then invited the audience to reflect upon the impact their families and caregivers have on their lives. She shared that her grandfather spent the end of his life in a nursing home against his wishes. Living in poor conditions and unhappy, he passed away within three months of entering the home. Poo contrasted this experience with that of her grandmother who has been able to stay in her home with a caregiver and has had a far better quality of life.
Poo discussed how home care has many advantages for the elderly and said that this should be a part of our country’s plan to handle the coming “elder boom.” Sadly, it is not. “By 2050, 27 million people will need care and assistance to reach daily needs,” she explained. “Care costs about $87,000 a year and domestic workers are making an average wage of $9 an hour. The majority are women, people of color, with 30% relying on public assistance while working full time jobs.”
Poo discussed both the emotional and financial costs associated with not taking a stand on this topic. Homecare workers are the fastest growing industry in the nation, yet at the poverty wages paid, most are unable to take care of their own families despite working full time. According to Poo, as a country, the way we approach health and dying is marked by scarcity and fear, even though getting older is actually a blessing.
Poo explained that as a result of her own family’s life experience, she believes the true change will come with millennials stepping up, motivated by the relationships they have with their grandparents today. She stated, “If millennials want change, it will happen and now’s the time.”
She furthermore discussed how to get involved in the movement to take better care of the elderly and the people who care for them. She invited members of the sudience to sign up on her website, CaringAcrossAmerica.com, to help make the change happen. “It is important that we, as a society, continue to talk about this issue. The conversation needs to start at home with our families,” she explained. “We need to ask our families how can we prepare for our future care needs?”
Poo suggested that after we have this conversation with our families, it is crucial that we continue to talk and take this discussion to our elected officials and make it a public conversation. “Ultimately, we need to age well together,” said Poo. “It is very costly, both emotionally and financially, not to and this fast growing industry of domestic care is worth investing in.”
While on campus Poo also made a second presentation as part of the School’s Brown Bag Lunch Speaker Series.. In this session, faculty and students had an opportunity to learn more about Poo pioneering work organizing domestic workers. In closing, Poo stated that she was very impressed with the fact that Penn State has established the Center for Global Workers’ Rights. “This puts you light years above other schools.”