Talking Domestic Workers Rights at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

“The domestic work industry is structured in ways that amplify the potential for the abuse of worker’s rights and dignity” [1]. In 2012 The National Domestic Workers Alliance, in partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago completed the first national survey that examines the plight of domestic workers in the United States [2].  The study examines four aspects of domestic work:

          1)   Low pay, lack of benefits, and the family hardship this causes for domestic workers,

          2)   Working without enforceable contracts and job responsibilities not clearly defined,

          3)   The risks and hazards of domestic work,

          4)   Abuse on the job – verbal, psychological, or physical in nature. [3]

These findings are coupled with the statistics gathered via their own survey and the U.S. Census Bureau that show the majority of domestic workers are women who are of racial or ethnic minority backgrounds. This work force is increasingly being staffed by immigrant workers. [4]

In their recently opened exhibition “Unfinished Business: 21st Century Home Economics,” the Hull-House Museum in Chicago examines the “the first generation of home economists who were equal rights advocates, chemists and public health advocates, labor reformers and innovators who sought to redefine domesticity” [5].  Part of what these early home economists struggled to do was develop fair treatment for domestic workers, similar to how contemporary advocacy groups, such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, are working for better working conditions and equal rights for domestic workers.

This exhibit goes beyond the historical origins of home economics, and the advocacy that expounded from it. As the title suggests, it discussed contemporary situations that surround home economics today.  A large part of how the museum serves its community is by connecting the history of Hull-House and the work it’s residents accomplished to social issues that contemporary audiences face today.  The exhibit strives to show how the home or the domestic sphere can be a place for social change.  One story that is featured within the exhibit is of Julia O’Grady who works in food service at a charter school on the Chicago’s southwest side – the Academy for Global Citizenship.  When you listen to her tell her story, you can hear the passion and the pride she exudes in her job helping to educate the youth about healthy eating habits [6].

Along with the exhibit, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum has developed a year-long series of programs that includes performances, conversations, and public workshops to continue the dialogue that begins in the exhibitions.   One past conversation that was co-hosted by the Hull-House Museum and the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers/Latino Union, featured Ai-Jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.  The conversation focused around the work she has participated in over the years to help organize the domestic workers rights movement.  The discussion is structured to be both about the local community in Chicago by talking about the Illinois Domestic Worker Bill of Rights legislation that is currently working its way through the Illinois legislature, and the larger national movement  that are taking place in other cities [7]. The dialogue includes the voices and stories from the workers themselves talking about their own experiences their struggle for equal rights.

*Image courtesy of Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.

[1] Linda Burnham and Nik Theodore, “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work,” National Domestic Workers Alliance, (New York: 2012), 8.

[2] Ibid., x.

[3] Ibid., 18-33.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] “Unfinished Business: 21st Century Homes Economics,” Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/_museum/_exhibits/_UnfinishedBusiness/_21stcenthomec/21stcenturyhomeecon.html (accessed April 24, 2013).

[6] Audio Clip, “Unfinished Business: 21st Century Homes Economics,” Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/_museum/_exhibits/_UnfinishedBusiness/_21stcenthomec/21stcenturyhomeecon.html (accessed April 24, 2013).

[7] Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, “Ai-jen Poo” WBEZ91.5 http://www.wbez.org/series/chicago-amplified/ai-jen-poo-106444 (accessed April 24, 2013).

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