Truth, Justice and the American Way: Carolyn de Leon

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Slight of build but not of spirit, Carol de Leon has been through more than she lets on.

Originally from the Philippines, she came to the United States in 1991 employed as a domestic worker with a well-to-do family of executives in Westchester. Little by little, she realized that working for a wealthy family did not guarantee living well: Though she had a contract stating that her employers would provide health insurance and winter clothing, she soon discovered the only way she would get either was if she paid for it herself.

She couldn’t. At just over $2 an hour for more than 12 hours of work each day, six days a week-cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, walking the dog, tutoring the children, grocery shopping and shoveling snow, even though she couldn’t afford a sweater and coat-almost a year passed before she could pay for her own visit to a doctor. Worst of all, 8,500 miles from her family and friends, she felt isolated and alone.

Ten years later, de Leon can talk about this experience, but just barely. Normally quick to giggle or beam a smile, she fights back tears when talking about her first year here. She doesn’t discuss it much, not even with other members of Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), where she became a full-time organizer last year to head its Women Workers Project.

But on May 3, 2001, de Leon took the stage at the New York Women’s Foundation’s annual breakfast to describe that first year, and successive years spent learning of other domestic workers’ low wages and abusive working conditions, to almost 2,000 people. Her short but impassioned speech was more than just descriptive–it was a challenge.

She recounted the story of that first job. And then, de Leon rebuked the wealthier members of her audience: “In New York City the CEOs, doctors and diplomats would not be free to focus on their career without us,” she said. “Without us, this city would stop in its tracks.”

It wasn’t what well-meaning funders, many of whom employ housekeepers and nannies, wanted to hear. De Leon’s speech prompted some to wonder aloud if they were part of the problem. “She made a lot of people in the room uncomfortable,” remembers Miriam Buhl, executive director of the NYWF. “I was very grateful for her personal strength. She isn’t a natural-born rabble rouser, but when things are important to her, she gets over it and says what needs to be said.”

At the tail end of her transformation from babysitter to organizer, de Leon is still shy and sometimes nervous when she speaks; her family can barely believe she lives in New York, she jokes, because she was always a clingy crybaby. But as staff coordinator of the Women Workers Project, de Leon is “totally fearless,” says Ai-jen Poo, who used to hold de Leon’s current position. “She gets right to the point.”

And sticks to it. Once, a domestic worker won a court case against her employer, a doctor who had paid her with five bounced checks in a row and owed her thousands of dollars. Even after the court ordered him to pay up, the doctor still refused. “Every day she would call his office or go by,” Poo says of de Leon. After a couple of weeks, he paid in full.

Other workers “see her fighting back, talking to employers, demanding respect and dignity,” says Poo, “and I think it really gives them the sense that ‘Hey, I can do this too.'”

If you praise her for this or anything else, however, de Leon gets embarrassed. Nahar Alam, co-founder of the South Asian worker’s rights group Andolan, has watched de Leon slowly overcome her fears. “I found she’s changing a lot,” says Alam. “I believe she’s going to be a great leader.”

Now, she speaks out often-on panels, television, at press conferences and meetings. She helps run a justice clinic for workers, a health care program for undocumented women and training courses for nannies. Domestic Workers United, which she and Poo work on with Andolan, recently introduced a bill into the City Council that would give nannies some workplace legal protections. The NYWF invited her to join its prestigious Allocation Committee, which visits potential grantees. And she was even interviewed for a documentary film shown at the UN World Conference Against Racism last year.

Sometimes, though, she misses the kids. She keeps in touch with the last family for whom she babysat, occasionally volunteering to pick up their two kids from school, then take them to the park and dinner. Their mother sends her pictures. De Leon even delayed going full time in early 2001 in order to wait for one of the children’s birthdays–and because she didn’t want to burden CAAAV with finding her replacement if she couldn’t do the job.

Her shyness has not, underneath it all, eased. Even with her newfound exposure and responsibilities, she feels she has to question everything, “whether it’s putting on makeup or high heels, whatever I say or do, or wherever I go.”

“It’s still hard for me to get out from my shell,” she adds, “but when my position or the organization’s position is on the line, I have to put on a strong face and do what I have to do.”