ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
The Fight for Rights and Dignity Must Go Forward
Alicia Garza, Director of Strategy and Partnerships National Domestic Workers Alliance
At the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), we believe that black women deserve to be powerful in every aspect of their lives. That is why we created We Dream in Black in 2014 as a project of the NDWA, the nation’s premier organization fighting for rights, respect, and dignity for millions of domestic workers in the United States.
Domestic work is rooted in the legacy of slavery. Cleaning homes, taking care of other people’s children, and caring for those with disabilities was considered black women’s work under enslavement. Caring for and serving others was not just the role of women, but of black women in particular.
And yet, black women were not entitled to the same care that we were required to provide for others. A core tenet of enslavement was the dehumanization of black people and a forced inability to make decisions over our own lives. Another tenet of enslavement was the inability of black women to access the same protection that white women were offered in many aspects of their lives. Black women were not paid for our work of caring for white families. We endured horrible abuses. We were denied the right to care for our own families and for ourselves. And so the domestic work industry was shaped. As the demand for care increased, the conditions under which that care was provided deteriorated.
Today, the demographics of the industry have changed, but the conditions under which this work is done retains vestiges of slavery. In the United States, care work is still largely women’s work. Chattel slavery has formally been abolished; yet the dynamics that characterized it—abuse, dehumanization, exploitation, and invisibility—are alive and well. Immigrant women and women of color are still the backbone of the care industry, and black women, while occupying different roles within in it, are still a significant proportion of caregivers in the United States. Black women are still making less than our counterparts and still experiencing important disparities in every aspect of our lives, whether it be access to healthcare and childcare, or housing and education, or whether it be the ways in which black women are being criminalized for trying to access what we need to live well.
We Dream in Black pays homage to the black women upon whose shoulders we all stand. Before the NDWA, there was Domestic Workers United (DWU) in New York, which in 2010 organized for and won the first Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in the country. Comprised largely of black immigrant women from the Caribbean, the motto of Domestic Workers United was “Tell dem slavery is done.” Before DWU, there was the National Domestic Workers Union, led by Dorothy Bolden, in 1968. Before that, there was the washerwomen’s strike of 1881 in Atlanta, Georgia, where domestic workers organized a strike to raise the wages they received. Bolden pushed civil rights leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to include the issues facing black women in the agenda for human rights. She worked with domestic workers to tie economic power to political power by requiring that all members of the NDWU were registered to vote.
“We connect black women in different parts of the industry so that they can be powerful together by changing culture and laws. And, we work to restore dignity to the millions of domestic workers in this country by building black women’s capacity to shape our future.”
Though the demographics of domestic work has changed, black women are still key to transforming the industry and raising the profile and benefits of domestic workers. The industry today still functions off of exploitation and structural racism. Domestic workers are still exempted from most federal labor protections—a holdover from a racist compromise made between labor union leaders and Southern legislators during the New Deal. Technology has also reached the domestic work industry. In addition to their exclusion from most federal labor protections, cleaners, nannies, and caregivers on tech platforms are now fighting a push to classify them as independent contractors—a move that would further distance workers from any kind of protections or rights to address grievances they might have with employers. Today, black women in the care industry are still being exploited in homes across America, and thus have a unique role to play in establishing the respect and rights we all deserve, while ensuring dignity for all of us.
We Dream in Black is an investment in black women. Our motto is “Across the diaspora, our organizing is our power.” It expresses the need to bring together black women in the industry, whether they were born in the United States or migrated here, to fight for what we deserve and resist being divided by today’s political debates around immigration. Together, we must ensure that black women are invested in as leaders and as architects of our own futures. We have built strong and growing chapters of domestic workers in Georgia and North Carolina who are looking for a political home, who yearn to acquire the skills to change conditions where they live, work, and play. We connect black women in different parts of the industry so that they can be powerful together by changing culture and laws. And, we work to restore dignity to the millions of domestic workers in this country by building black women’s capacity to shape our future.
Alicia Garza is an internationally recognized organizer, writer, and public speaker. In 2018, she founded the Black Futures Lab to experiment with new ways to build independent, progressive black political power. As the Strategy & Partnerships Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Garza works to build a movement at the intersections of race, gender, and the economy. With Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, Garza created the Black Lives Matter Global Network, an organizing project to end state violence and oppression against black people.