Friday, September 21, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Ai-jen Poo at the United States Social Forum

No offense to Barack Obama, but it's Ai-jen Poo who has been called the "rock star of community organizing." The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Poo turned her childhood respect for the tireless labor of her mother and grandmothers into a national movement to bring power to nannies, elder care workers, housekeepers and other domestic workers.

Poo does something that we think is one of the main goals of public speaking, especially for women: Giving a voice to those who don't have one. She is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of Caring Across Generations, a double dose of organizing with those who have traditionally lived on the economic and social fringes of America.

The famous speech that Poo delivered at the United States Social Forum in 2007 begins with the harrowing story of one of those unheard individuals--Marina, a housekeeper from Columbia working in New York City. Poo tells Marina's story in a few simple words, but it sets the tone for the rest of the speech to come. She starts with the hopelessness of the worker, then turns the hopelessness of the cause on its head: "Even though it's often said that it's impossible to organize domestic workers, we're doing it." This is a short speech with one explicit purpose, to announce the creation of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. But it holds many great strategies that you can use in your own speaking.
  • Let your audience see themselves. Poo has the difficult task of speaking on behalf of a group without really being part of that group. She's not a domestic worker, so how does she speak about their needs without sounding inauthentic? Some speakers, like Poo's labor forerunner Mother Jones, establish their bona fides with their audience by stressing shared experiences. Poo makes good use of another option by pausing to give her audience time to reply, cheer and stand up to be acknowledged. The rally atmosphere makes the speech more inclusive--less of a speech about the workers than a speech on their behalf.
  • Use the "power" of repetition. There's one word that Poo keeps returning to in this relatively short speech. It's "power"--spoken 13 times. It's the main point of the new organization, and the main demand of the workers. By repeating it so many times, Poo is leaving no doubt with her listeners about what the group's main goal will be. It's also a strong word that has the potential to fire up an audience. It's difficult to stay neutral when you hear it.
  • Expand your pool of listeners. Throughout the speech, Poo does a careful job of expanding her potential audience through connections in time and space. She tells her listeners the Atlanta venue is a reminder of the plight of African-American workers in the South from slavery to the present. She connects the cause of domestic workers in New York City with domestic workers around the world, the labor movement beyond domestic workers and the human impact of globalization. By the time she's finished, she's made the cause of the new alliance less of a niche concern and more of a struggle relevant to a broad cross-section of humanity.
You can listen to the audio of the speech here, and here's Poo speaking about the National Domestic Workers Alliance as part of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People of 2012."

Photo from the Institute for Policy Studies photostream on Flickr. This Famous Speech Friday post was written by regular contributor and freelance writer Becky Ham.

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