Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

How should civil society respond when the values that define who we are collectively in America—equality and inclusion, freedom of speech, sanctuary to those in need, due process, and protecting the most vulnerable among us—appear to erode?

Through a decade of organizing at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), I have found the answer lies in our shared dignity as human beings. The women I work with—domestic workers, who do the work that makes all other work possible—have taught me that humanity is at the core of civil society. While there are systems and rules, our values and connection to one another are at the heart of how, and whether, civil society works.

NDWA fights for the respect, dignity, and opportunity of domestic workers: the nannies who take care of our children, the house cleaners who manage our homes, and the care workers who support elderly and loved ones living with disabilities. Behind the closed doors of private residences, in the shadows of the economy, domestic workers ensure that the most important aspects of our lives are safe and in good care. Yet despite their critical contributions to our society and economy, domestic workers have never enjoyed the rights and protections that most workers in the United States have come to expect, including the right to a minimum wage and overtime, protection against discrimination, the right to collective bargaining, and protection against sexual harassment. As a mostly women-of-color and immigrant workforce, they’ve outright been excluded from fundamental labor laws.

Decades of grassroots organizing by domestic workers and their supporters, including congregations, labor unions, employers, and others, have brought about legal and policy change. Most recently, NDWA helped win federal regulatory changes that extended minimum-wage protections to more than two million home care workers. We also fought for and won state labor laws—Domestic Workers Bills of Rights—in eight states. Yet even with these achievements, no law alone can ensure that society recognizes the humanity of this workforce. The cultural norms that shape behaviors and the treatment of domestic workers are far more powerful. Whether we value this work equally to that in other industries, or whether we see this workforce as true professionals or as informal “help”—these are beliefs that are deeply embodied in people, and only people can shift them.

For care workers, this humanity begins at home. The average care worker for the elderly earns a median annual income of $13,000 per year. This income defines the neighborhood she lives in, the food she has access to, the education her children will receive, and the transportation she can rely on. It is a working poor life, where working hard does not pay the bills; there are limited options and no luxuries. Oftentimes, the same care worker will go to work in a neighborhood on the other end of the wealth spectrum, where the family she supports may pay more for a pair of shoes than she pays in rent. And yet, she cannot and does not dehumanize that family. Her job requires that she genuinely cares for and connects to the humanity of the people in her charge. Home care for the elderly in particular, at its heart and its best, is supporting the dignity and well-being of another human being who is no less human, but simply needs more assistance with their daily tasks of living.

In our years of organizing, we have seen domestic workers bring this same sense of humanity and care to their advocacy. That is why fighting for the respect and dignity of this workforce, in effect, is fighting for the respect and dignity of how we treat all members of society. As more families find the need to outsource the work of their home, we have a growing reliance on domestic workers to provide the services that enable other family members to work outside the home—from cleaning to caregiving. With a growing aging population that increasingly prefers to “age in place,” meaning to receive personal assistance and medical in their homes as long as possible rather than moving to a nursing home, care workers support a new quality of life for older adults. This has led NDWA to launch campaigns that engage with employers, find solutions that increase affordability for families, and simplify a complex relationship. They begin and end with the understanding that we are all interconnected, and human, with similar basic human needs.

It is not an accident that throughout US history, in times of extreme inhumanity or incivility, social movements comprised of masses of everyday people, moved by their basic humanity, turned the tide. The labor movement of the 1930s addressed the incivility of extreme inequality and poverty, the Civil Rights movement addressed the incivility of Jim Crow. These social movements fought for the humanity and values of the nation. At NDWA, we believe that the American people themselves must be activated and empowered to maintain a healthy civil society. And when civil society is uncivil, only the people, armed with their humanity, can catalyze the renewal of the values that secure it.

No moment is more important than this one for the heart of our society. We live in an age of incivility. We are seeing a rise in discrimination, a reduction in empathy, and the explicit targeting of growing groups of people—Muslims, immigrants, and mothers, to name a few. The effect spreads to us all, and today, in 2018, we are experiencing this at an all-time high. As a workforce disproportionately powered by immigrant women, domestic workers, their families, and the families they support all feel the direct impact of incivility toward immigrants.

Undocumented nannies like Luz, who care for the young children of their employers, are under increasing threat for their safety. The changing political climate could not only impact Luz’s ability to stay where she has made her home, but also separate from her family members, who are DREAMers and US citizens. For her employer Amy, this fight is also personal. Were Luz deported, she would be unable to work outside the home until she found someone else she trusted and who had the right experience, and her children would lose the care of someone they have come to love. To simply assume that market forces would supply an adequate replacement disregards both the unique human quality of care work and the fact that the care sector is growing at a rate five times faster than other industries. Without more government investment, it will be impossible to retain and grow this important workforce to meet the growing demand for this work.

As the current federal administration continues to enact uncivil and inhumane policies, including “zero tolerance,” which prosecutes all migrants arriving at our borders and forcibly separates children from their parents, the need to fight for our shared humanity has become the most important one. Hundreds of thousands of everyday people have already responded to the images and sounds of children being held in cages and transported away from their parents like prisoners. On June 30, people took to the streets in more than 780 small towns and big cities around the country, participating in marches and actions led by Families Belong Together, a campaign anchored by NDWA, MoveOn.org, and other groups. This unified call for the immediate reunification of these children with their families—and an end to the “zero humanity” policies of prosecuting, separating, and detaining families for seeking safety and a better life—offers hope for a restoration of humanity, hope in our rising tide of the 21st century.

In this age of incivility, we must learn from domestic workers and the thousands who are mobilized in this moment. We must collectively fight for a society that is truly civil so that civil society can thrive; the very foundation of civil society is at stake.  The people of this country are realizing that it is up to us—everyday people and our organizations—to rise to the occasion and act—not only to stop incivility, but also to remind us of the humanity that is both the foundation and at the heart of civil society. A renewal of civil society is overdue. And it must be driven by our shared humanity, from the bottom up and from the inside out.