Labor organizer wins MacArthur “genius grant”

Labor organizer Ai-jen Poo joins 20 other artists, scholars, lawyers and human rights advocates in winning this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.” The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced on Wednesday the 2014 recipients, who will each receive $625,000 to spend any way they like.

The MacArthur Foundation writes:

Ai-jen Poo is a labor organizer whose compelling vision of the value of home-based care work is transforming the landscape of working conditions and labor standards for domestic or private-household workers. The estimated 1-2 million domestic workers-housekeepers, nannies, caregivers for the elderly or disabled-in the United States today are excluded from most federal and state labor laws, including collective bargaining; occupational safety and health protections; sick and vacation pay; and protection from discrimination and sexual harassment.

Combining a deep understanding of the complex tangle of human relations around domestic work with keen strategic skills, Poo has created a vibrant, worker-led labor movement and spearheaded successful legislative campaigns at the national and international levels. As lead organizer of the New York City-based Domestic Workers United (2000-2009), she spent countless hours in parks, buses, and other gathering places for domestic workers, creating opportunities for these largely isolated women to share their experiences, guiding mistreated workers to appropriate legal channels, articulating the vital economic role of domestic workers, and developing with workers a framework of legal standards for the industry. In 2010, New York enacted the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights-which entitles workers to overtime pay, one day of rest per week, protection from discrimination, and three days paid leave per year-after a hard-fought seven-year legislative campaign led by Poo and a dedicated group of workers and advocates. The bill also drew support from an unlikely coalition of domestic workers, their employers, and other unions forged by Poo’s ability to leverage common interests across diverse groups.

Several other states have passed or are currently considering similar legislation supported by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and through mobilization of thousands of workers to tell their stories during the open comment period, Poo was instrumental in the Department of Labor’s recent decision to include caregivers for the elderly and disabled in federal minimum wage and overtime protections. Currently, she is developing the Caring Across Generations campaign, which unites (many immigrant) home care workers and elders needing long-term care around their confluence of interests, building support for immigration, health care, and labor policies that will both create good jobs and provide quality care for the aged. As the American workforce is increasingly defined by intermittent, service-based, and part-time work and the need for care workers explodes as baby boomers age, Poo is catalyzing a movement of respect and improved working conditions for millions of workers.

Other recipients include a professor whose research is helping a California police department improve its strained relationship with the black community and a lawyer who advocates for victims of domestic abuse are among the 21 winners of this year’s

Scientists, mathematicians, historians, a cartoonist and a composer, are among several recipients whose work involves topics that have dominated the news in the past year.

“I think getting this (grant) speaks to people’s sense that this is the kind of work that needs to be done,” said recipient Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford University social psychologist who has researched racial stereotypes and crime.

Shrouded in secrecy, the selection process involves nominations from anonymous groups and recommendations from the foundation’s board of directors. Recipients have no idea they’ve won until they get a call from the foundation, and even then recipients have been known to wonder initially if someone is trying to trick them.

John Henneberger, a housing advocate in Texas, said he was so stunned when he got his call that he had to sit down.

“I got really quiet and they (people he was with) were asking me, ‘Did somebody die?” he said.

Eberhart’s work prompted the Oakland, California, police department to ask for her help studying racial biases among its officers and how those biases play out on the street – topics that have been debated nationally in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old in Missouri. Eberhardt, who is also studying the use of body cameras by police – another topic of particular interest since Brown’s shooting – said, “I hope this will show the work matters, holds value and promotes social change.”

The justice system is also at the heart of Sarah Deer’s work as a legal scholar and advocate for Native American women living on reservations, who suffer higher-than-average rates of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Deer, a Native American who teaches law in Minnesota, met with women who simply stopped reporting such attacks because their tribal governments had been stripped of the authority to investigate and because federal authorities were often unwilling to do so, she said. The foundation pointed to her instrumental role in reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act by Congress in 2013 that restored some of those abilities to tribes.

“For the first time since 1978 … tribes (can) prosecute non-Indians who have committed acts of sexual assault and domestic violence on reservations,” she said.

Like Deer, fellow recipient Jonathan Rapping has worked to improve the lives of others.

A former public defender, Rapping founded Gideon’s Promise after seeing a legal system that he said valued speed over quality representation of the indigent. The organization trains, mentors and assists public defenders to help them withstand the intense pressure that can come with massive caseloads.

Today, the program that began in 2007 for 16 attorneys in two offices in Georgia and Louisiana has more than 300 participants in 15 states.

The foundation recognized Khaled Mattawa, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, for his poetry and translations of Arab contemporary poets.

Mattawa, who said he started translating the poetry as way to teach himself to write poetry, said the work can connect people from different cultures. “The poets are bearing witness not only to the humanity of their own people but of a shared humanity,” he said.

Civil rights lawyer Mary L. Bonauto, whose powerful arguments and long-term legal strategies have led to historic strides in the effort to achieve marriage equality for same-sex couples across the United States, was also among the recipients. Bonauto is credited with breaking down legal barriers based on sexual orientation and influencing debates about the relationship between the law and momentous social change more broadly.

The awards, given annually since 1981, are doled out over a five-year period. This year’s class brings the number of recipients to more than 900.

Most winners are not widely known outside their fields, but the list has over the years included writer Susan Sontag and filmmaker John Sayles.

To read more about the grant recipients go to:

Photo: Ai-jen Poo (Creative Commons/Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Sources include the Associated Press and MacArthur Foundation.