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Meet Barbara Young: Purpose Prize Winner National Domestic Workers Alliance

Barbara, second acts
for the greater good

When Barbara Young courageously transformed herself from immigrant nanny into passionate advocate, she launched an encore career with the power to change the lives of domestic workers across the United States.

In 2001, when Barbara Young signed up for a nanny training class in New York City, she didn’t realize how it would set her on the path for her encore career. She simply thought taking a certificate program could help her acquire extra skills, like CPR. She took pride in her work looking after a six-week-old baby round the clock, and was thirsty for knowledge. “I figured it would be really good for me,” Young says.

After emigrating from Barbados, Young had found a job common to many immigrant women: taking care of someone else’s child. She’d already raised five kids of her own. By the time she signed up for the class, offered by Domestic Workers United (DWU), she had been working as a nanny for eight years. Her job involved caring for a child she adored. But it also demanded long hours for low pay and no benefits.

The class turned out to be about more than CPR. After practical instruction in child psychology, discipline and first aid, the instructors enlightened the women about the history of domestic work. Young learned it had long been debased as “women’s work and unpaid labor” and had roots in slavery. There were few labor laws on the books to protect domestic workers.

In that moment, Young decided she wanted to change the way domestic workers viewed themselves—and elevate their role in the workforce. “If the work you are doing is lifting up and enhancing the life of another person, then that work has value,” Young says. “This is the work that domestic workers do, day in and day out.”

She signed up as a volunteer with DWU. For the next 10 years, while still working as a nanny, she organized and mobilized her fellow nannies to join the movement. In 2010, she finally left 17 years of childcare behind for her encore career: as a national organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), of which DWU is a member.

Since then, Young, 66, has become a leader in the movement. She’s encouraged thousands to stand up for their right to earn a livable wage, and counsels and trains others to become leaders themselves. She was essential in the push to get New York’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights passed in 2010. The law is the first of its kind in the country, but Young is committed to making sure it isn’t the last.

She’s also been a key player in the NDWA’s expansion from 11 to 44 affiliated organizations with 15,000 members, up from 5,000 in 2007. Young’s goal is to increase membership by more than tenfold.

If she succeeds, NDWA will still represent only a small fraction of the domestic workers thought to be in the United States. Firm numbers are hard to come by, but the NDWA estimates there are about 2 million.

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