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Why Domestic Workers Are Fighting Like Hell to Stop Brett Kavanaugh

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

The National Domestic Workers Alliance joined September 27 rallies in support of Dr. Blasey Ford's hearing, and all of the other survivors who have come forward. (Photo courtesy of the National Domestic Workers Alliance)

​Like many par­ents, Daniela Con­tr­eras woke up last Thurs­day and helped her daugh­ter get ready for school. But the long-time domes­tic work­er who now orga­nizes with the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (NDWA) then hopped on a train to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. to take part in the protests against Supreme Court Nom­i­nee Brett Kavanaugh.

Dur­ing a Sep­tem­ber 27 press con­fer­ence of sex­u­al assault sur­vivors and sup­port­ers, includ­ing #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, Sen­a­tor Kirsten Gilli­brand and Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Annie Kuster, Con­tr­eras spoke about her expe­ri­ence being assault­ed as a 16-year-old child­care provider.

Every day, I hear sto­ries of work­ing women just like me, sto­ries full of pain, fear, silence and same,” Con­tr­eras said in her remarks. But through our orga­niz­ing, we’ve passed laws and poli­cies to pro­tect domes­tic workers.”

Thanks to Domes­tic Work­ers Unit­ed, NDWA and oth­ers, a 2010 New York Domes­tic Worker’s Bill of Rights now pro­tects against harass­ment, abuse, wage theft and oth­er work­place vio­la­tions. Last Decem­ber, NDWA helped change New York City anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion law that required a busi­ness to have four or more employ­ees in order for a claim to be filed. Now work­ers can file a claim even if they are the only employ­ee, as is the case for many clean­ers, nan­nies and oth­er domes­tic positions.

But when she’s not fight­ing for change in New York City or at the cap­i­tal, Con­tr­eras is meet­ing with domes­tic work­ers out in the world, encour­ag­ing them to stand up for their rights. In These Times talked with Con­tr­eras about NDWA’s role in protest­ing Kavanaugh nom­i­na­tion — and how the activism con­tin­ues after the media spot­light ends. 

Han­nah Steinkopf-Frank: Why did you par­tic­i­pate in the press conference? 

Daniela Con­tr­eras: I was asked, but I want­ed to be part of this. If you’re a new orga­niz­er, a lot of work­ers will not trust you. But if they see me in the media, they’ll feel I’m more cred­i­ble. It gives us more cred­it. The oth­er rea­son is because I was 16 when I was assault­ed, but nev­er said any­thing. The more I talk about it, the more peo­ple will be able to come for­ward at any point. 

A year ago, I came out pub­li­cal­ly as part of #MeToo. I have friends who just now are com­ing for­ward. It does strain me a lot because I’m feel­ing exhaust­ing at the end of the day. But I’m no longer afraid. I’m speak­ing out. I felt pow­er­ful being in that space with all these amaz­ing, pow­er­ful women. We are doing this togeth­er. I remem­ber that 16-year-old girl who could­n’t say any­thing. Now I’m this old­er woman talk­ing in front of all the women sup­port­ing me. 

It is sad to see all these women who have been through all of this. You would think it’s only you, but then hav­ing all these women, it makes you real­ize how many more are out there who have not come for­ward. Is this what this soci­ety looks like? It is very upset­ting to know this, but at the same time, I think that it was a very pow­er­ful moment. There’s a say­ing in Span­ish that trans­lates to, Where there’s uni­ty, there’s pow­er.” I know they went through all of this, but we’re all stand­ing alone togeth­er. If he does­n’t get nom­i­nat­ed, then we won. 

Han­nah: Do you feel con­nect­ed to Dr. Chris­tine Blasey Ford? 

Daniela: When all this alleged­ly hap­pened to her, she was only around 15. She said the rea­son she did­n’t want to say any­thing was because she was going to be believed. She was afraid. It was shame­ful to talk about it. I felt the exact same way. I did­n’t come for­ward for the same rea­son. I was afraid. I had no one. What was I sup­posed to tell my moth­er? Just because I’m sup­posed to go and help her out finan­cial­ly, this is what hap­pened to me. I did­n’t want to make my moth­er feel guilty about it. I felt nobody would have believed me if would have said some­thing. The trau­ma goes on with you for the rest of your life. I’m won­der­ing now what would have hap­pened if I had said something. 

Han­nah: How did you become involved with the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance?

Daniela: I was a domes­tic work­er not by choice, but neces­si­ty. I need­ed to get a job. I was pret­ty much engaged to my daugh­ter’s father, but a week before she was born, he left us. He took every­thing with him and left us pret­ty much on the streets. I had a new­born baby and my moth­er was sick. I had bills to pay, because he stopped pay­ing the bills. I was no longer work­ing because he asked me not to while I was preg­nant. I became a nan­ny again because get­ting a reg­u­lar job was going to take me a while. My daugh­ter was­n’t going to wait. Her hunger was­n’t going to wait. 

One day, in the neigh­bor­hood where I was work­ing, anoth­er nan­ny told me about a meet­ing with the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance. I did­n’t know there was such an orga­ni­za­tion. The title excit­ed me. I kept going to every sin­gle meet­ing. The first thing I liked about being in that space was I felt wel­comed. For the first time, I was able to bring my daugh­ter to a meet­ing. They had a pro­gram called Ground­break­ers where you learn about Bill of Rights in New York. You pret­ty much become a lawyer. You go through this train­ing for six weeks and then you can apply to do out­reach where you talk to oth­er work­ers. It’s the same way the oth­er nan­ny invit­ed me to a meet­ing. We go to the parks. We lis­ten to their sto­ries and try to find any red flag, if any work­ers are going through sex­u­al harass­ment or wage theft.

Han­nah: How do you build trust and com­mu­ni­ty with domes­tic workers? 

Daniela: One thing I have to tell them is I’ve been a domes­tic work­er. I know what they’re going through. I know the strug­gles, good or bad. Some­times because of immi­gra­tion sta­tus, lan­guage, or because there will be retal­i­a­tion, they don’t want to say any­thing. Or they come for­ward either after they’ve quit their job or when they no longer can take it any­more. Some of them went through sex­u­al harass­ment when they were little.

I had a house­clean­er who I’ve been talk­ing to for two years. One day I met with her and brought up the top­ic of abuse. She said, It hap­pened to me when I was six.” It might take a while to build trust. It might take a hint, like some­one say­ing, Things are not so great at work. I feel uncom­fort­able.” They’re not real­ly telling exact­ly what’s hap­pen­ing, but you have an idea.

Per­son­al­ly, I was­n’t sex­u­al­ly harassed just as a nan­ny. I was at many dif­fer­ent jobs because before I did­n’t have a sta­tus, I was more vul­ner­a­ble to these kinds of inci­dents where employ­ers knew that. They felt like, Okay if you’re undoc­u­ment­ed and you don’t speak the lan­guage I can take advan­tage of you.”

The last time it hap­pened was a decade ago. I was work­ing at a restau­rant where most of the wait­ress­es were undoc­u­ment­ed, but the own­er knew we need­ed the jobs. He would do the nas­ti­est things to us. Some­times he just picked on me. One time I did­n’t stay qui­et. I went to his apart­ment and made him file a report. I said, You’re not going to do this any­more. I’m no longer afraid of any­body, and this is going to change.” That gave me pow­er, but it didn’t work in my favor because he had a good lawyer. He was able to change the sto­ry on me. The lawyer said that, accord­ing to the employ­er, I was the one harass­ing him. It made me upset, but my cowork­ers saw what hap­pened. A few years lat­er all the wait­ress­es orga­nized. They filed anoth­er law­suit and this time they won. 

Han­nah: Why is it impor­tant to high­light the sto­ries of domes­tic work­ers in #MeToo?

Daniela: One, because the places where they work, it’s pret­ty much the employ­er and the work­er. There are no super­vi­sors. There’s no one you can go and tell, Look this is what’s hap­pen­ing.” The only per­son you can tell is your employ­er, but what if they’re the per­pe­tra­tor? That’s why we had to go and say some­thing. That’s why we felt like we need­ed to be there. We need to be heard.

At the 2018 Gold­en Globes, our exec­u­tive direc­tor Ai-jen Poo was Meryl Streep’s guest. While receiv­ing the Cecil B. DeMille Award, Oprah talked about her mom who was a domes­tic work­er and why they have to choose between bring­ing a pay­check and or com­ing for­ward. I met a few Hol­ly­wood peo­ple who have done domes­tic work, so they under­stand too.

Han­nah: What changes would you like to see for domes­tic worker?

Daniela: The Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights was passed in 2010, but even now domes­tic work­ers don’t know about it. That’s why we’re going on the streets and giv­ing them this infor­ma­tion. We want them to know they’re pro­tect­ed and have an extend­ed statute of lim­i­ta­tions. But I still wish there would be more time. It took me 20 years to come for­ward. We want to pro­vide pro­tec­tion for them, but also let employ­ers know that, yes, you have some­one work­ing in your place and it’s pri­vate, but there are work­ers’ rights and sex­u­al harasse­ment is includ­ed on the job.

Two weeks ago, we had our month­ly meet­ing and we had new work­ers. A nan­ny said that her employ­er told her, I looked at the Bill of Rights, and accord­ing to what it said, you don’t have that many pro­tec­tions.” The nan­ny was upset. She said she knows what her rights were and that her employ­er was tak­ing advan­tage of her. That’s what makes me real­ly upset: When employ­ers know that domes­tic work­ers are very vul­ner­a­ble and they still take advan­tage of them. I would love to see a change with that. 

Han­nah: What self-care do you take part in after shar­ing your story? 

Daniela: I just come home and hug my daugh­ter. I’ve also been dis­con­nect­ing myself from the world, stay­ing home with the peo­ple I love and just doing reg­u­lar mom­my things. I’m always play­ing music. I’ve also been sleep­ing a lot. It does take a lot out of me to do this. It takes me two to three days to feel back to normal.

Han­nah: What hope do you have for the future?

Daniela: I would love for my daugh­ter — hope­ful­ly she nev­er have to deal with this — but if she ever goes through some­thing like this, she will be believed at any age. I hope she or any sur­vivor won’t have to wait all these years. And I hope that per­son who’s done it will suf­fer con­se­quences. I am very opti­mistic. Like a lot of women, I came for­ward for a rea­son. It’s hard. It’s painful. But we want to see change, and I know there will be change. I want to say that I made a dif­fer­ence for future gen­er­a­tions by just speak­ing out. I don’t know what’s going to hap­pen. But I want to say that I was part of it.

Han­nah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chica­go-based free­lance writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Her work has appeared in the Chica­go Tri­bune, Atlas Obscu­ra, Bitch Media, the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review, JSTOR Dai­ly and Paper Mag­a­zine, among others.
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