by Michelle Joffroy, Jennifer Guglielmo, and Diana Sierra Becerra
For the last four years we have collaborated with the domestic workers movement (nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers) to give workers greater access to their own histories and cultures of resistance. Our work together began at the Gloria Steinem and Wilma Mankiller School for Organizers, held at Smith College in the Summer of 2015. The school brought organizers, activists, and academics together to consider how history and archives can become more powerful organizing tools for the contemporary feminist movement. We learned how economic justice, reproductive justice, and indigenous sovereignty movements are currently engaging with and documenting history, and how we might collaborate to generate even greater historical knowledge to strengthen contemporary campaigns.
In the process, we became committed to fortifying domestic workers’ access to their histories. We began to work closely with the Matahari Women Workers Center, “a Greater Boston organization where women of color, immigrant women, and families come together as sisters, workers, and survivors to make improvements in ourselves and society and work towards justice and human rights.” Matahari’s commitment is to end gender-based violence and exploitation, so they have focused on organizing domestic workers (primarily nannies). They were also an instrumental part of the coalition that successfully passed the Massachusetts Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in 2014. This legislation enacted what historian Eileen Boris describes as “the most comprehensive regime of rights and enforcement, enhancing its inclusion of private household workers under its wage and hour, worker compensation, and collective bargaining laws from the 1970’s—a product of the efforts of Melnea Cass and the other African American activists of The Women’s Service Club of Boston.”
Domestic workers and organizers witnessed the power of history in this difficult campaign when they discovered and circulated the forgotten history of Cass and The Women’s Service Club. This organizing work was hard for many reasons, not least of which was the commonly held belief that Massachusetts domestic workers had no historical state-level protections upon which to build their campaign. Lacking this history, they anticipated a long journey to articulate a basic set of rights and protections that both workers and politicians could mobilize around. Monique Nguyen, Executive Director of Matahari, often reflects on this period as a time of real struggle for domestic workers, activists, and movement organizers who needed a substantive referent in the legislative history as well as a mobilizing narrative that could unify a diverse, dispersed, multilingual, and largely immigrant community of domestic workers. Almost miraculously, as Nguyen describes it, she found precisely what they needed. Her story goes something like this.
While digging in the archives to find any information on existing laws for domestic workers for the movement, a legal intern with Greater Boston Legal Services came across an August 1970 letter written by Melnea Cass — then president of The Women’s Service Club of Boston — and addressed to the governor of Massachusetts, Francis W. Sargent. Cass was well-respected as a community leader in the Boston area, especially for her grassroots organizing and civil rights activism in the predominantly African American South End and Roxbury neighborhoods.
In her letter, she urged Sargent to sign House Bill #5797, which she described as “a product of The Women’s Service Club’s very diligent and consistent efforts,” on behalf of black men and women “who for many years were relegated to household work . . .exploited as you know.” Emphasizing the exploitation of black household workers, Cass made clear the injustice of their exclusion from basic labor protections, writing, “We are determined that this shall pass away and that those forgotten workers will share in the benefits of all workers in their categories.” Sargent signed the bill, establishing the wage and overtime laws that have, in fact, applied to domestic workers in Massachusetts since the 1970s.
To Nguyen’s astonishment and joy, the letter was exactly the touchstone they needed: a historical referent affirming legislative precedent and existing labor protections, as well as proof of a local history of domestic worker activism and organizing by women of color. Nguyen sums up the personal significance of Cass’s letter with a moving anecdote: Matahari member-leader Angella Foster began carrying a copy of Melnea Cass’s letter in her purse, for inspiration. She inspired Monique and others to do the same, including copies of multilingual translations to share, as material proof of a history that includes all domestic workers.
When we met Monique Nguyen at the Gloria & Wilma School, she was interested in connecting workers to their histories via an accessible, portable and multilingual organizing tool. In particular, she wanted to explore more robust uses of digital technology in their organizing to capitalize on the already active social media use of most of their members. She requested a timeline on the history of domestic worker organizing in the United States using Knight Lab’s user-friendly digital timeline platform, Timeline JS.
Jennifer Guglielmo and her students produced a first draft of this timeline in Fall 2015, working closely with Matahari to ensure the content was relevant and accessible. The following semester, Michelle Joffroy and her students collaborated with Matahari to curate and translate some of the timeline into Spanish, so Matahari could use it to mobilize the primarily Spanish-speaking domestic workers in the Greater Boston area.
Guided by Matahari’s feedback, Guglielmo spent the following two years developing the timeline content further. In this period, Linda Burnham, longtime social justice activist and Senior Advisor at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), joined our project as an advisor. She had been an advisor to the Gloria & Wilma School for Organizers and planted a seed with us then about NDWA’s need for an updated and expanded history curriculum. She invited us to share the timeline at an NDWA staff training in Fall 2017, and we began to work more closely with Lisa Moore, Field Director at NDWA, to consider how the timeline could be incorporated into the organization’s core political education curriculum. It was at this stage that our project made a scalar leap from a local to a national-level collaboration.
Founded in 2007, NDWA is currently the leading organization for domestic workers in the United States, powered by over 60 affiliate organizations, representing over 50,000 nannies, house cleaners, and caregivers for the elderly and disabled across the country. They are committed to deepening workers’ knowledge of and engagement with their histories given the unprecedented growth of the movement in the last decade. Today, domestic workers are at the forefront of the feminist movement, connecting labor, immigrant, and reproductive justice movements.
This rapidly expanding movement reflects a new vision of labor organizing which challenges the more hierarchical and often male-led business union model, and instead centers the knowledge and leadership of working-class women of color. Domestic workers are also leading the way in confronting the many problems of the gig economy, which has long plagued their workforce, including the inability to unionize or bargain collectively. They are addressing the increasingly significant role of domestic labor in the world today, as these are currently among the fastest growing jobs.
As the movement gathers momentum, domestic worker organizers and leaders recognize that greater historical and cultural knowledge is essential to their goal of building a mass-based multiracial alliance in the hundreds of thousands. A shared sense of history, identity, and purpose is critical to this.
In Spring 2018, our collaboration received a generous grant from a private donor to develop the timeline more fully. As a result, we were able to bring Diana Sierra Becerra, a historian and labor organizer with expertise in popular political education, onto the project via a two year postdoctoral fellowship, also supported by the Consortium for Library and Information Resources (CLIR). Together, we are expanding the timeline’s historical and cultural content, working with web designers for greater functionality, and building a paired curriculum, so the domestic worker movement can use this history to mobilize, recruit, educate, and inspire. At this scale, our project is designed to literally put domestic workers’ history and cultural work into their hands as instruments for political and social change.
Our project currently has three components:
1. A smartphone-accessible, interactive digital timeline on the history of domestic work and worker organizing in the United States (currently approximately 60,000 words with 150 images, but still a work in progress). Directed by Jennifer Guglielmo, supported by Michelle Joffroy and Diana Sierra Becerra.
2. A curriculum that is composed of 30 workshops (17 core workshops and 13 supplement workshops) that enable domestic workers to work with the timeline, learn this history together and apply it to their current campaigns. Directed by Diana Sierra Becerra, supported by Jennifer Guglielmo and Michelle Joffroy.
3. A digital cultural archive of materials from film, literature, visual art, and popular culture that document the representation of domestic work and domestic workers in the United States, highlighting materials created by domestic workers themselves. Directed by Michelle Joffroy, supported by Jennifer Guglielmo and Diana Sierra Becerra.
In June 2020 we will host a week-long school for domestic worker organizers at Smith College, in which we work with NDWA staff and affiliates to train a cadre of 40 worker-organizers from NDWA’s 60+ affiliates. This team of organizers will become the trainers of the material, to bring these tools more fully into the organizational culture of the alliance.
From the beginning, our project has been guided by the collaborative imperative of Community-Based Research (CBR), which moves beyond a community service model that hinges on ideologies of charity and philanthropy. Collaboration, far from simply “lending a hand” or transferring the wealth of well-resourced communities to marginalized, under-resourced ones, posits a working relationship between equal partners who have equally valid interests and authority. On a practical level, this has meant co-creating these materials with NDWA national staff and several affiliates as well as channelling financial resources into the movement to compensate our partners for their time. These are practices we committed to in the Matahari collaboration and we know they are key to the success of this new partnership. Successful CBR projects depend on a commitment to non-hierarchical, dialogic, and equality-based relationships in pursuit of shared goals. We have learned from experience that collaborative knowledge-making between scholars and activists can only occur with a commitment to reciprocity and cooperation, divested of individual, unidirectional authority.
Michelle Joffroy is Associate Professor of Spanish & Portuguese and a member of the Program in Latin American and Latina/o Studies at Smith College. She is co-director of the “Putting History in Domestic Workers’ Hands.” She specializes in cultural production in the US-Mexico borderlands, Zapatismo and indigenous cultural resistance, women’s narratives, and environmental justice in Latin America, and her research focuses on questions of gender, ethnicity and representation at the intersection of cultural production and transnational social movements.
Jennifer Guglielmo is Associate Professor of History and a member of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is co-director of “Putting History in Domestic Workers’ Hands.” She specializes in the history of working-class women, im/migration, labor, and race in the United States. She is the author of the award-winning Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). Her publications also include Are Italians White? How Race Is Made In America (co-edited with Salvatore Salerno, Routledge, 2003); published in Italy as Gli Italiani sono bianchi? Come l’America ha costruito la razza (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 2006).
Diana Sierra Becerra is the Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities and Popular Political Education for the project “Putting History in Domestic Workers’ Hands” at Smith College. She specializes in the histories of women and gender in Latin America, with a particular focus on social movements and revolutions. Her book manuscript, tentatively titled Insurgent Butterflies: Gender and Revolution in El Salvador, documents the feminist praxis that working-class and peasant women developed within labor and armed movements during the late 20th century. As a public scholar, Becerra has collaborated with Salvadoran and U.S. museums and art galleries, global networks of historic sites, and organized with labor groups.
(Please note: portions of this essay have already been published in Michelle Joffroy, “Multilingual Justice in the Streets and in the Classroom: Translating a Digital Time Line of US Domestic Worker Organizing.” In Project-Based Learning in Second Language Acquisition: Building Communities of Practice in Higher Education, ed. Adrian Gras-Velazquez (New York: Routledge, 2019): 175-91.)
 Eileen Boris, et al. “Enforcement Strategies for Empowerment: Models for the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights.” UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Research and Policy Brief, no. 30 (June 2015), 2.
 Letter from Melnea A. Cass, President of The Women’s Service Club of Boston, Inc. to Hon. Frances W. Sargent, Governor, Commonwealth of Massachusetts (August 11, 1970). Personal Collection of Monique Nguyen.