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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Recently, I watched as a group of artists and activists stood outside the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library beside the brightly colored NannyVan, talking to a steady stream of nannies about their rights and the obligations of their employers. The van, a refurbished 1976 Chevy (once the main ride for punk musicians everywhere), is part of an outreach program developed by artist and activist Marisa Jahn that offers information and guidance to domestic workers. The van itself is now a gussied-up superhero ride, painted a glossy red and emblazoned with the NannyVan logo. It’s an attention–getting centerpiece that anchors the discussion and sets the informal tone needed to facilitate conversation and pass along information.
At the NannyVan’s strategic setup by the library, just blocks from Harvard University during children’s story time, it seemed that everyone accompanying a child here was a nanny. In the midst of dozing kids in expensive strollers, a startling picture emerged — a picture that included racial prejudice, job insecurity, and what could only be called a fundamental lack of decency on the part of some parents who employ these workers to care for their children.
The numbers are grim. According to a recent survey conducted by Home Economics, the plight of domestic workers (nannies, home heath care aides, housekeepers, and gardeners) in the United States is, while improving, still rather bleak. The survey concluded that substandard working conditions and low wages combined with often harsh and abusive treatment from employers create a scenario that would be intolerable in any other profession. The statistics are alarming, as a small sampling from the Home Economics report suggests:
67 percent of live-in workers are paid below the state minimum wage, and the median hourly wage of these workers is $6.15. Using a conservative measure of income adequacy, 48 percent of workers are paid an hourly wage in their primary job that is below the level needed to adequately support a family. Less than 2 percent receive retirement or pension benefits from their primary employer and less than 9 percent work for employers who pay into Social Security.
As Jahn says, “Since the massive entry of women into the labor market over the past few decades, public policies supporting working families such as maternity leave, family leave, or child care or elder care have not caught up to reflect the invaluable labor that working women provide.”
This labor often includes taking care of children, sometimes for 50 hours a week; as one nanny told me, it is more a form of co-parenting than work. Which, if anything, can make the situation fraught with emotional ties that inhibit the nanny’s ability to firmly negotiate terrain that other types of workers would. Needless to say, over time, real bonds are developed between these women and the children they care for. And yet, while the nannies are trusted to feed, educate, and socialize kids, their work is often drastically undervalued.
Ironically, these conditions persist in what one might think are the most progressive parts of the country (hello, Park Slope, Brooklyn!). And people do it because they can. This holds true even in places that have passed legislation protecting domestic workers; in part, the problem is complicated by the undocumented status of some workers and their lack of access to information about legal working conditions and employment regulations.
Jahn, a new mother herself, came up with the idea for the NannyVan while taking yoga classes before her child was born. “For several years I had been producing creative media projects with and about domestic workers,” she explains. “But as I looked around, I realized that I needed a different way to talk about the issue with the new moms I was meeting. The outmoded grassroots issue tends to put people on the defensive. I saw that a cultural approach that employed humor was really critical to speak to new audiences. And, to reach workers, I sought to create a ‘vehicle’ (sorry for the pun) that could meet busy nannies where they’re at — at the park, where they worship, on the street … ”
Along with the NannyVan, Jahn has developed, in collaboration with Studio REV (a nonprofit she founded) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Domestic Worker App. It is, essentially, a phone number — (347) WORK-500 — that domestic workers can call from any type of phone to get information about a host of subjects pertaining to what they do.
“You can listen to humorous episodes about your rights (think ‘Click and Clack’ on NPR’s Car Talk, but for nannies), be routed to different legal or social services, and subscribe to receive weekly tips via SMS/text message about your rights, health and safety, the growing movement, and more,” Jahn notes. The vignettes that provide information are funny, informal, accompanied by a tinny soundtrack, and available in both English and Spanish. While the project is not really technically an app, the low-fi approach is designed to accommodate a population that perhaps can’t afford or access more advanced technology. And the retro feel of the menu setup is a perfect nonthreatening introduction to gathering information and finding help
At root, the concerns that Jahn addresses are larger than just how we treat the people that care for our children; they range across issues like immigration reform and social justice to the ever-widening gap in the US between the haves and the have-nots. Inserting themselves into the debate, artists like Jahn not only are taking a stand but also articulating the beginnings of a working diagram for other artists with a social practice to both follow and build upon.
More information about Marisa Jahn’s NannyVan, including its future whereabouts, can be found online.