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Ai-jen Poo organizes labor with love

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“So many of us wouldn’t be the leaders we are without her,” says Danielle Feris, director of Hand in Hand, an organization for employers of domestic workers.

Prior to creating Hand in Hand, Feris recounts, “I had dinner with Ai-jen and told her my idea. And she said, ‘Do it. This is needed in the world.’

“If that dinner hadn’t happened, I don’t know whether I would have had the courage to found an organization. She has that effect on people, to make us believe in ourselves and believe that we can do what’s needed.”

Through the eyes of women

Willowy and soft-spoken, Poo has emerged over the past decade as one of the country’s most visionary organizers. She says that she never could have predicted her current career path, but she had strong role models early on. Her parents were immigrants from China, her father a scientist who had been a pro-democracy activist in Taiwan. She was even more influenced by her mother, a doctor, and her grandmother.

“They were both really strong women with a lot of wisdom,” she says. “I always knew that if we could just see the world through the eyes of women we’d have a much clearer picture of both what the problems are and what the solutions are.”

Poo first experienced the power of organizing as a student activist. In the spring of 1996, while majoring in women’s studies at Columbia University, she was one of more than 100 students who occupied the rotunda of the university’s Low Library. They demanded that the university hire more faculty members in the field of ethnic studies and broaden its curriculum to acknowledge the diversity of the student body.

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