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An Interview with Sheila Bapat

Author and advocate Sheila Bapat talks with community engagement intern Maxim George about her recently published book Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers' Rights, her work for justice on behalf of vulnerable workers, and her upcoming event with Gallery 400. Please join us Thursday, November 6 at 6pm for Solidarity & Struggle for the Rights of Domestic Workers, a public conversation in partnership with Sheila Bapat, Arise Chicago, and the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.

Maxim George: How did you become invested in domestic workers rights? Was there one event or story that made you begin to advocate for the cause?

Sheila Bapat: There wasn't a specific event that led me to this topic; rather it was a more the result of a meditation throughout my adult life on the different roles women and men play within family relationships. I observed throughout my life how hard the women in my family work— cooking, caring for everyone in the household, cleaning up after everyone— and yet all of these women remained economically vulnerable while their husbands controlled the family's wealth. As I grew older, I learned there is a whole field of study, feminist theory, that is focused on understanding why the very hard work of the domestic sphere is deemed unworthy of economic value or protection. I've been obsessed with this issue since.

MG: What led you to work with ARISE Chicago and why was Illinois the next place for you to campaign?

SB: In writing the book I connected with Ania Jakubek and spoke with her a few times about progress on the Illinois legislation. I think there is a lot of potential to discuss this issue in large cities where we see nannies so often on subways and in parks yet they remain so invisible, and I am very glad ARISE is bringing the issue of domestic workers' rights to the fore in Chicago.

MG: Do you feel the fight for domestic workers rights is finally making progress, and if so why?

SB: The domestic workers' movement is, quite impressively, fighting the centuries-old legacy of excluding domestic work from basic labor protections. It seems impossible to uproot such deeply systemic trends, and yet that is exactly what domestic worker advocates are accomplishing through state legislative campaigns, direct representation of domestic workers, and other strategies that shines a light on how critical caregiving labor is. It is a well-funded movement because the advocates at the top, like Ai-jen Poo and many others, are so effectively conveying the message of why domestic labor is so crucial. I hope it continues to be well suported. It is brilliant, triumphant activism that we should all be paying close attention to.

MG: Have you gained much support from people who employ domestic workers?

SB: The domestic workers' movement has gained support from employers, which is a very happy development and not common globally. Hand in Hand, the domestic employers' association, is a great resource to look at— this group is organizing, educating and mobilizing employers of nannies and caregivers to advocate for domestic workers' rights.

MG: What do employers gain from not paying their workers a living wage and not providing them with suitable living conditions?

SB: That is a great question. Who knows what anyone gains by denying wages or failing to pay what they promised. I think at its core this is a failure to see domestic workers' rights as a systemic issue affecting millions of women. I met a woman recently who is an attorney and her husband works in technology. She was filled with indignation that she and her husband have to pay their daughter's nanny overtime. I was saddened by her indignation. It was a real reflection that many don't see this as a systemic issue that needs to be addressed for many women.

MG: Why did you want to partner with Gallery 400? How do artists come into play with the campaign?

SB: I am deeply honored to partner with Gallery 400. Art, poetry, other creative expressions add so much depth to any social justice topic. I've actually been hoping for an opportunity to incorporate art into my book tour. I think art enables us to explore the core values at the heart of any work, and I am looking forward to doing exactly that at our event on November 6, 6pm! More»

Image: Sheila Bapat, Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers' Rights, 2014. Brooklyn, New York: Ig Publishing, Inc.