For more than 25 years, Ai-jen Poo has worked to transform the field of domestic work. As president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and executive director of Caring Across Generations, Poo’s mission is to ensure basic labor protections for domestic workers, such as overtime pay, paid leave, and legal protections from harassment and discrimination. In recognition of her expertise in organizing and advocating for labor protections and domestic workers, the Center for Public Leadership named Ai-jen Poo the recipient of the 2023 Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award. This award, given biennially, honors leadership in social activism that has improved the quality of life in the United States. 

While on campus to celebrate the award this week, Poo joined in conversation with Harvard University students, faculty, and community members. The discussion, introduced by CPL Gleitsman and Equity Fellow Phoebe Canagarajah MPP 2024 and moderated by Afreen Ahmed MPP 2025, focused on the heart of Poo’s work and offered insights into the broader social change landscape. 

Throughout the conversation, Poo stressed that understanding power, both where it is and how it operates, is crucial to social change. 

“Real, lasting change happens when shifts in power are made, and more power lies in the hands of more everyday people,” said Poo. 

Domestic workers take care of our loved ones and homes by providing crucial support, including childcare, eldercare, and household services. Throughout history, care workers have found it challenging to create collective influence due to the isolated, fragmented nature of their work. Additionally, domestic workers are often overlooked in policy, and even when they are acknowledged, domestic work is seen as an individual burden rather than as a collective responsibility. 

“How do you collectively bargain when there’s no one to bargain with? With a totally different framework, we needed a different approach,” said Poo. 

As a result, Poo has leaned into the power of narrative to enact social change. Poo takes the time to listen to people involved in the communities she is working for and prioritizes creating momentum around collective experiences. 

“Everybody is touched by the need for care,” said Poo. 

Establishing common ground is one of the most effective ways to bring awareness to a topic like domestic care. Through collective narratives, the burden of care is no longer on one individual but rather shared among society.  

“We’re at the cusp of this amazing generational opening. Suddenly, we’re able to talk about domestic workers as essential workers,” recognized Poo. 

To build on this momentum, Poo encouraged students to help ensure care is prioritized in the next election. 

“When candidates come to campus, ask them what their childcare plan is, ask them what their long-term care plan is, ask them what their paid leave plan is. They need to hear from voters, especially young voters, that these issues matter to them,” said Poo. 

Poo also recognized the need to keep our minds open to the opportunities we have to positively impact society at large. 

“We are, as human beings, especially in this country, so resource, creativity, and idea abundant. We are told that we live in a scarce world, and that creates the context that we are easily pitted against each other.” 

Rather than clinging to the scarcity mindset, Poo challenged HKS students to approach social change from an abundance mindset. In a field that requires constant energy to keep momentum going, Poo urges us to open our minds to the potential we have available. 

“Stay grounded in the abundance, in what is possible,” encouraged Poo. 

As she accepted the award later on Tuesday evening from CPL co-director Hannah Riley Bowles, Poo made an even more direct link between care and the responsibility of democracy.  

“Our job is to inspire and remind others of why we must show up to vote, to organize, to protect our democracy,” she said. 

“We must do for democracy what domestic workers do for families – show up and care. No matter what.”

By Annie Christman