PALAK SHAH MPP 2009 has worked on implementing the Affordable Care Act in hospital systems in states that voted against it and on improving transit in Los Angeles, a city famous for its car culture and traffic jams. Drawn to complex, entrenched problems that require innovative solutions, she has now turned her focus to organizing and helping improve the lives of the 2.5 million nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly in the United States. As the founder of NDWA Labs, the innovation arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and as the Beck Visiting Social Innovator at the Kennedy School’s Social Innovation + Change Initiative (SICI), Shah is using tech for social justice.
Q: What’s unique about the challenges domestic workers face?
Domestic workers are the invisible scaffolding holding up our economy. When one workforce leaves their homes to go to work, another workforce enters those homes to do all the work left behind: caring for their children, their homes, their elderly and disabled loved ones. Organizing domestic workers has always been considered an impossible task, because it’s a labor market that is disaggregated, informal, and atomized. Strategies that work for other workers simply don’t work in this part of the economy, so our movement has always needed to be innovative and experimental.
Domestic workers were explicitly excluded from the New Deal laws passed in the 1930s. They are vulnerable not only because they lack worker rights and protections but also as women working in private spaces and subject to harassment without witness. They are often immigrants who are threatened regarding their documentation status, and they are low-wage workers with little recourse against wage theft. It’s hard to think of a more unique or strategic population to organize.
Q: How are you using social innovation and technology to improve their lives?
Too often technology has been used to solve only for efficiency, convenience, and profit. Through NDWA Labs, we are pioneering the use of technology for equity, making the world we live in better as well as easier. In December, we launched Alia, an easy way to provide benefits—such as paid time off and life, disability, critical illness, and accident insurance—to gig workers like the person who cleans your home.
The existing benefits system that relies on full-time employment with one employer is of no use to housecleaners—they typically work for many clients or employers, providing different amounts of service to each. Through Alia, we have created an online portable benefits platform that is already making a real difference in the lives of housecleaners, many of whom have never been able to take a paid day off from work. The potential for Alia to expand to other sectors will provide a real opportunity to make work better for millions of workers.
Q: Why have you come back to HKS as the Beck Visiting Social Innovator at SICI?
Social enterprise has for too long been focused on optimizing outcomes within suboptimal conditions, rather than transforming those underlying conditions. The assumption that a market-based intervention or social enterprise solution can solve problems that at their core are entrenched in power imbalances has simply proved not to be a sufficient approach.
SICI fundamentally understands power and innovation beyond enterprise. It’s exciting to have a center at Harvard that recognizes the nuance between market-based solutions and social innovation more broadly, while combining a deep and fundamental desire to disrupt how power operates in all sectors. As a social movement leader, this is exactly my approach. It’s been absolutely refreshing and inspiring to come home to HKS and collaborate with SICI to develop the theory and practice of this new way of thinking and tackling the largest social dilemmas of our day.
Photo by Martha Stewart