IMAGE COURTESY: © 2011 DREAMWORKS II DISTRIBUTION CO, LLC
Standing at the center of a circle of women, a housekeeper tells of finally fixing herself a meal after working seven straight hours, only to have the mistress of the house storm into the kitchen and throw the pan of food into the sink, banning “that ethnic food” from her home. Next up, a nanny recounts the most recent day when after working eleven hours straight, her employers requested that she stay late into the night to care for the children. Unable to jeopardize her job, she stayed, going one more night without seeing her own children. The other women in the circle nod in weary recognition and, in turn, tell their own stories.
These are not scenes from the popular and controversial movie, The Help. These are twenty-first-century experiences being shared at the Los Angeles gathering of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance (NDWA) this past weekend. The women present call themselves “the real-life help,” and the meeting was held in conjunction with the Oscars to remind Americans enamored with the Hollywood vision of civil rights era maids asserting their dignity that things have not changed as much as we might think.
Linking their campaign to the Oscar buzz of The Help is a savvy move for one of the only organizations dedicated to protecting the rights of our country’s 2.5 million domestic workers. In doing so, NDWA is trying to jump start a conversation about an insidious and largely invisible problem in our culture. They are having some success. NDWA co-founder and director Ai-Jen Poo recently spoke on a widely reviewed panel at USC on the power of film to create social change with writer and director of The Help, Tate Taylor. Students, professors, and press were introduced to the idea that this work of fiction has disturbingly real life parallels we have yet to confront as a society. In her acceptance of the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, The Help star Octavia Spencer praised the work of real life domestic workers. And the campaign twitter hashtag #BeTheHelp that launched during the Golden Globe Awards gained traction during last night’s airing of the Oscars.
On the USC panel, Poo explained, “Change has to happen on many levels: on the level of policy, on the level of behavior, but also very importantly on the level of hearts and minds. And what this film did was open up the space and the hearts and minds of this country to actually imagine a day when this work would be respected and valued and protected and that’s just meant so much to the workforce especially as we continue to fight for recognition and protections.”