Asian American Activist: Ai-Jen Poo

The AAPI Bay Area summit this past weekend solidified the sisterhood that needed to exist as a backdrop for this heart-wrenching social justice work that we do. It made warm humans out of lofty seemingly-flawless leaders and served to remind me that no one reaches a perfect form of their activism — it’s a continuously shifting and changing struggle of love.

The humanization and de-masculinization of activist leaders is so important in drawing in new future leaders, yet there is very little discussion of it around me. I remember how hesitant I felt to declare myself an activist at first, then how I had foolishly tried to chisel away at my soft parts and mold myself into the image of a fierce woman activist — only to quickly burn out, as my activist work drifted further and further away from my human identity.

It was at that point that I saw Ai-jen Poo at the 2013 NAPAWF Summit, and the realization of what it meant to be truly “empowered” via other women of color leaders really hit me. Ai-jen Poo is the Director of the National Domestic Worker’s AllianceTime‘s 100 Most Influential People, and Newsweek’s 150 Women Who Shake the World. Personally, she is also one of my first Asian American woman role models. Her leadership and work is part of what keeps me going in this line of work.

During the last couple days of the semester, Brian and I sat in our room drinking whiskey from a flask and talking about leaders in activism. In certain ways, the image of the fierce, vocal, physically and emotionally masculine leader stifles participation — on both ends. For those like Mariela, a fellow Brown student active in labor organizing who sports a short cut and carries the speakerphone during rallies, activism seems to embrace her image. Yet because of her role, many deem her “scary,” aggressive, and unapproachable — even though she is one of the softest, warmest-hearted people I know.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s me. Although there is also an element of racialized, gender-based silencing that has occurred throughout my life, I am not naturally a loud person. I’m most comfortable as an observing, occasionally interjecting wallflower that uses the personalization of issues rather than microphones to move masses towards activism. At rallies, I’m the straggler in the back that keeps an eye on the group, who awkwardly asks strangers to translate for me what I’m chanting in Spanish. The masculine model of activism tells me that I don’t belong — that what I’m doing isn’t “activist” enough.

Ai-jen Poo isn’t a quiet woman. She leads thousands in rallies and marches, but her voice has a touch of softness that allows me to relate to her a bit better than leaders like Helen Zia or Mee Moua. Ai-jen Poo is a strong woman with a powerful voice — but she also seeks to move people through love rather than force. I particularly remember her testimony for the judiciary hearing on women and children in immigration reform, where she acted as an articulate medium to echo the powerful stories of domestic workers nation-wide. Towards the end, Ai-jen Poo asked the Senators a moving yet pointed question that I am sure drilled into their hearts as much as it did mine:

Senators, many of you have relied on babysitters and nannies to take care of your kids. And many of you have housekeepers. And one day, many of you may need elder care assistance. Who is going to take of America as we age?  … Because we as a nation count on them, we are counting on you [Senators].

So, here’s to Ai-jen Poo and all the other quiet but not silent women activists out there — who believe in the goodness of humanity and seek to change the world with their love.

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