Everyone needs care at some time in their lives, and most of us will be caregivers too, whether for children, elderly parents, or sick relatives. But caregiving often takes place in the domestic sphere and relies on the unpaid and underpaid labor of women, many of them women of color. As a result, this essential work has largely been devalued and dismissed in our culture. Domestic workers were among those excluded from the 1935 Social Security Act, and it wasn’t until 2015 that home care workers were covered by federal minimum wage and overtime protection. 

COVID-19 has both highlighted the importance of care work and made clear our culture’s utter disregard for this labor. Nurses and nursing home attendants have risked their lives to work in dangerous conditions without adequate personal protective equipment. Many employers have expected parents to continue working despite the closure of schools and childcare facilities. And states have moved to reopen the economy even as many school districts plan to reopen only part-time, with little consideration given to how parents working outside the home will care for their children or how teachers will protect themselves from disease. 

Caring Across Generations and the National Domestic Workers Alliance were created to transform the cultural norms that invisibilize and denigrate care work, win better working conditions for domestic workers and others who provide care, and bring affordable care within reach for those who need it. Ishita Srivastava and Kristina Mevs-Apgar, respectively, lead the culture change initiatives of the two organizations. They sat down to talk with us about the importance of rethinking how we understand caregiving and the cultural organizing that can support policy changes. This interview, which has been edited and condensed, was recorded before the recent uprisings against police violence. 


Jonathan Heller: How has neoliberalism or financialized capitalism affected our caregiving culture and the caregiving policies and structures we have in this country?

Ishita Srivastava: Caregiving is not considered work because it happens inside the home, whether done by women in the family or by a cleaner or nanny. It's intentionally excluded from the way we measure our economy. That is one of the root causes of the exploitation of caregivers and the absence of systems that support care. It’s taken for granted and not valued. So just saying “care work” is itself a narrative intervention. 

There is a hierarchy of what work is compensated and how. In our capitalistic economy, the hierarchy is determined by what generates the most money in the moment, versus long-term investments in lives and families. As a result of racism and sexism, domestic workers are excluded from standard labor laws such as minimum wage, overtime protections, and benefits. You can earn more in the food industry, even though people are entrusting their most precious loved ones to caregivers. Ai-jen Poo, our executive director, always says, “care work is the work that makes all the other work possible.” That’s an intentional frame. You can quantify the economic value of the work women do in homes — not that we should have to — but we can and do when it’s strategic. 

We live in an individualistic culture. The onus is on the individual to make money and do well, as well as to care for their family and themselves. That is the American story, the American capitalist story. We challenge this narrative when we tell a story in which we are responsible for each other, and we are responsible for our collective health, education, care, and well being. 

JH: One of the possible transformative narratives we’ve been discussing in our interviews is about abundance. We have an abundance as a society, more than enough for everyone to thrive, and that abundance comes from the labor we all contribute whether at jobs or at home. How does that narrative play out for domestic workers?

Kristina Mevs-Apgar: The scarcity narrative impacts our immigrant community. It is used around immigration: “others are taking what's ours.” It reinforces the idea that we don’t have enough, and that this is just how it has to be. It hides the fact that we could distribute things differently. 

IS: Yes, the scarcity narrative also tells us that poverty is an individual issue. It’s your problem; you didn’t work hard enough; you’re lazy. Those narratives tie in with race and class, and they’ve been used to justify inequality of every kind. 

The flip side is that there is enough for us to live, work, and age with dignity. We should all be able to access and afford the care we need. Care workers and domestic workers should be paid well and have benefits so they can take care of their families. This is actually possible in the America we live in, but it’s not that way because of systemic inequalities, capitalism, and racism.

This narrative impacts the policy work NDWA and CAG do. What should our social insurance program look like? How much money do we need to be able to support a care infrastructure? We are also always mindful of not pitting employers against workers. Most families that need care are struggling to afford it. Scarcity does come into play. That's why we don't say that employer practices are the sole answer within the current care economy. It’s why we are demanding government investment. Abundance comes from redistribution, not from one person. This is a systemic issue, not an individual or interpersonal issue.

JH: Why are you focused on narrative and culture change? 

IS: Our goal is to create systemic change so the people who need long-term care — which includes people with disabilities, seniors, and those with chronic illnesses — can access and afford the care they choose and need, and so that those providing care — which includes family caregivers, home care workers, and domestic workers  — are valued and supported socially, culturally, and financially. When Ai-jen and Sarita Gupta started Caring Across Generations, they were clear that, to create sustainable, systemic change, we need to shift cultural norms and behaviors as well as narratives around how care and caregiving are valued. 

JH: What are the narrative shifts you’re trying to make?

IS: The main two shifts we need to make are: 1) moving from caregivers and caregiving being invisible and undervalued to being visible and valued; and 2) moving from care being thought of as an individual burden to being thought of as a collective social responsibility with collective solutions. Under those, are two other important shifts: 1) moving from fear and denial of aging to a more open and curious conversation about it; and 2) making visible and valuing intergenerational connection and relationships. Ageism and ableism are huge obstacles. We currently deem people unnecessary and not valuable once they are past a certain age or have disabilities, when they are not productively contributing to our economy.

Seeing care as both a value and a behavior is core to the work and to the solution. 

KMA: Even in Families Belong Together, our immigration campaign, the narrative is about care. When family separation started, we wanted to move from the narrative of “Where are the children?” to “Families Belong Together.” We wanted to move from an  “us versus them” narrative to “we're all caregivers” and “the power of a mother's love.” We want to lean into that universal urge to take care of your own and a mother's love for her child, the father's love for his child, and the things you would do to care for your child.

IS: The pandemic has validated our approach. We’re thinking about who is caring for us, that we are interconnected, and that we need collective solutions. This moment has pushed our narrative forward in an accelerated way and can catapult our culture into a different space, but we need to think about how to sustain that.

JH: How are organizing, narrative change, and culture change connected?

KMA: Organizing has been very focused on political change and policy advocacy, which, of course, are important. You can win a policy battle, but if you lose hearts and minds, you aren't really winning. We want to build political power for our issues and our people, so we need to build people power and narrative power.

IS: Narrative power is about which narratives are dominant in our culture, in our pop culture, and in the media widely. It’s about whose stories make up those narratives, who gets to tell them, and in what context. In our work, we want to change the meta-stories and the protagonists and the individual stories. The protagonists we celebrate are domestic workers, family caregivers, elderly and aging people, and people with disabilities — the people and stories and relationships in the care ecosystems that don’t currently get centered.

KMA: We use Liz Mann’s definition of cultural organizing: it’s the practice that infuses art, culture, and political organizing by building intentional cohesive programs and partnerships among artists, fans, and like-minded advocacy organizations and campaigns. We use art and storytelling as well as influencers and artists in traditional organizing tactics, like screening the movie Roma for caregivers. 

Another example: in 2018, Families Belong Together, along with United We Dream and Make the Road NY, had members and their families on stage during Logic’s performance at the Video Music Awards. Logic used his performance to shine a spotlight on forced family separation. During Families Belong Together’s huge distributed grassroots organizing activations on June 30th two years ago, we used a lot of art and artistry and storytelling. At the protest, people were asked to wear all white. We had merchandise designed and created with imagery and symbolism that we infused throughout the organizing because it centered the importance of creating our cultural moment. We do a lot of direct actions that center art. With Paola Mendoza, we used her “I am a Child” art piece with direct action: we went to Congress with a sea of children and the “I am a Child” art to make a statement about family separation. 

JH: You used the film Roma as a tool for both cultural change and community organizing. Tell me about that.

KMA: NDWA’s campaign around Roma is an example of how we connect our base — domestic workers, whom we organize through chapters and affiliates — to our culture change work. When the film came to us, it was already done. We had an opportunity to run a social impact campaign that centered domestic workers. 

Roma is the semi-autobiographical story of an indigenous woman, Cleo, a live-in domestic worker for a well-off family in Mexico City. The film shows her complex relationship with the family, which is going through its own troubles, and with another domestic worker, Adela. 

We actually ran two social impact campaigns in one. The first was focused on workers. We hosted 19 screenings across the country for affiliates. We wanted to make sure domestic workers saw the film and that their experiences were the centerpiece of our campaign. Our affiliates used it as an organizing tool, building their membership and plugging existing members into campaign work at the local and state level. The screenings provided our members and affiliates with an opportunity to be in community, see themselves on the screen, and be able to process what they saw. It was powerful for workers who had never seen themselves as lead  protagonists to be made visible.

The second aspect was a much wider persuasion campaign, using the film to target audiences that were not domestic workers. We wanted to on-board them into our movement by connecting the story of Cleo to the real life Cleos around the country. We brought their stories to the fore. We also brought NDWA’s policy work on the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights to a huge range of people who were suddenly thinking about it for the first time because of the buzz around Roma.

IS: This was all possible and successful because we had a long, deep, trusting relationship with Participant as well as the deep dedication of the film’s director, Alfonso Cuaron, to using the film to catalyze progressive change. Cuaron felt strongly about using the film to center domestic workers and their rights in the U.S. and Mexico. He was down to do anything and everything. Because NDWA was also set up for this, we were all aligned in terms of tactics in a way that doesn't often come together. The sky was the limit.

A big piece of the campaign developed when Roma was nominated for a couple of Oscars. We developed a huge digital strategy around that. But we also had an amazing Oscar party in Los Angeles. Domestic workers from NDWA’s network were celebrated and even given mini Oscar awards while the Academy Awards were on in the background. When Roma won, Alfonso shouted out domestic workers and domestic worker rights. When the domestic workers saw that, they felt they had won. It was the craziest thing to watch. Extremely powerful.

JH: How do you engage your local affiliates and chapters in cultural organizing?

KMA: Much of the cultural change work we are doing is at the national level. Our affiliates and chapters engage in their own artistic development work. Some of our chapters hold art classes and storytelling workshops focused on developing workers’ voice and power. But many of them have had limited capacity and feel they need to focus on direct action and policy advocacy. They don’t always understand cultural work as important. The success and impact of Roma opened the door to thinking about how cultural strategy could make a difference at the local level.

Organizing strategy should include art, culture, and pop culture references, and thinking about the mediums we use to communicate. Organizers can change what product they organize around and that will change their tactics. We were organizing around a film, instead of a bill. Instead of getting arrested, we organize around a mural or a creative action. In terms of distribution, instead of relying only on an email list or a press release, we could experiment with YouTube and TikTok and have an influencer strategy. We can experiment, think big, and not dismiss the important power of art, storytelling, and mainstream culture. It would be great for us to have a cultural organizer or a cultural strategist on board at every affiliate and chapter to develop the right strategy for our work in that particular place. It might be local radio in one place; maybe we need to be on billboards somewhere else; and somewhere else it’s TikTok.

JH: Are there barriers to organizers using culture change strategies?

IS: This is new work and much of it has not been tested and proven. Philanthropy is not great at funding experimentation. We’re the little startup within NDWA and CAG, where we test all kinds of insane sounding things. Some of them work and some don’t. That’s quite a luxury. It’s tough to expect organizers to pivot to something that has never been tried quite in that way before and find funding to do that.

Some of our affiliates and partners are keen to do more, but we (and they) don’t have the capacity. Other groups don’t have this kind of work built in to what they do. Some groups hear “culture change” and just think “celebrities.” If that’s what you think, it can sound pretty alienating: most organizers don't have access to celebrities in Hollywood. But that is not the only thing culture change can mean.

KMA: A lot of culture change work can be persuasion work. Some organizers think it's an either/or question: either they build power in the community, or they work to persuade some larger community. 

JH: Can organizing use culture change to reach scale?

KMA: NDWA and CAG believe there are five sectors of power: political power, economic power, narrative power, disruptive power, and modeling power. We engage in all of them. Ultimately, we are a grassroots organization, and our home will always be our field work. That is where we have depth. To achieve scale, though, we need a suite of strategies. 

Caregiving is an issue that reaches a lot of people irrespective of political affiliation, class, or race. It’s important for us to find ways to reach a wider group. By engaging in persuasion work, we are bringing people along a ladder of engagement. That takes longer, and a lot of these people will never be activists. But we don't need them all to be activists in order to win. Sometimes we just need to neutralize people who might otherwise be opponents. We're comfortable with that spectrum.

IS: We produce our own content, collaborate with other artists and storytellers on content, and influence existing content. Once that content is out in the world, we work with it to create change. When you work at a wide scale, you don't usually have the opportunity to go deep. Sometimes we'll run a smaller digital campaign that won’t reach many people but that allows us to have a deeper conversation. I ran a social media campaign around masculinity and caregiving to try to unpack the gendered nature of care and hold deeper conversations with men who are caregivers but don’t necessarily identify that way.

Our goal is to saturate the narrative environment with the stories we want. 

JH: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your cultural change work?

IS: We are taking advantage of the moment the pandemic has created. Both NDWA and Caring Across Generations are founding members of a collective called Storyline Partners, which is two-and-a-half years old. It is a collective of ten organizations that work with the entertainment industry to seed and influence stories about our issues and communities. We came together to build power in Hollywood. There's going to be a lot of COVID-19 related content on TV shows and films in the next couple of years. We’ve been thinking about how we can get in now, when so many writers are furloughed or out of work. What can we do to make sure those films and shows talk about what our communities are going through and what it would look like if things were different? How do we bring that to writers — writers we hope will be rehired once production resumes. We’re taking this opportunity to give them work, pay them, bring together some writers’ rooms, and offer them stories from the ground of what our folks are going through and how this could look different if we had an infrastructure in place that supported people. This is a strategic investment, and we hope it makes its way into content.

The very dramatic context of the pandemic lends itself to storytelling. Everybody is suddenly thinking about caregiving in some way: having to work a full-time job and care for a baby or trying to decide whether their nanny should come in and how to protect her if she does. So many people are living this right now, even people with privilege. We've been thinking about creating content to reach parents, who are not our normal target audience. They don't think of themselves as caregivers normally, and we see this as an opportunity to make them think about that for the first time, and bring them into our orbit. So we’ve been creating light, humorous content about parenting in the time of COVID. NDWA has been creating content for parents who employ nannies about what they can do. It’s a small, quick effort trying to leverage this moment. We've seen so many memes and gifs about parenting and caregiving, even though people don't necessarily call it that. We've never seen that before, and so we’re trying to capitalize on it and get people to think about what things could look like if it were different.



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