The humanization of activist leaders is so important in drawing in new future leaders, yet there is very little discussion of it within the campus organizing community. 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 to mold myself into the image of a fierce, hard activist — only to burn out, as my activist work drifted further and further away from my human identity.
It was at that point that I met Ai-jen Poo at the 2013 NAPAWF Summit. Finally, what it meant to be truly “empowered” via other women of color leaders hit me. Ai-jen Poo is the Director of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, Time‘s 100 Most Influential People, and Newsweek’s 150 Women Who Shake the World. Personally for me, she is also my first Asian American woman role model. Her leadership and work is part of what keeps me going in this line of work.
The uniform image of the fierce, vocal, physically and emotionally masculine leader stifles participation — on both ends. For more masculinized female leaders, who sport short cuts and carries the speakerphone during rallies, activism seems to embrace their image. Yet because of their role, many deem them too “scary,” aggressive, and unapproachable — even though many of them are the softest, warmest-hearted people I know.
I’m towards the other end of the spectrum. 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-and-occasionally-interjecting wallflower that uses the personalization of issues rather than microphones to move masses towards activism. At rallies, I’m the one in the back that keeps an eye on the stragglers of the group. 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. 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 seek to change the world through a continuously shifting and changing struggle of love.