How the history of care work impacts today’s narrative

Headshot of Jhumpa Bhattacharya the co-founder of Maven Collaborative

A conversation with Jhumpa Bhattacharya of The Maven Collaborative

When you hear someone say that we undervalue care work in this country, that is because despite the important role care plays in our lives, care workers still can barely make ends meet and receive little to no benefits or paid sick days. On top of that, the United States has no universal paid leave policy to support families in need of care.

Using research, advocacy, and narrative change, The Maven Collaborative is working to create gender and racial equity across our country. Co-president and co-founder Jhumpa Bhattacharya sat down with us to discuss the history and negative narratives around care in our country and to explain the group’s approach to shifting narratives.

Krysten: Maven’s work is centered around dismantling racial and gender inequity in our country. I know your approach to this is to create an economy where Black women and their families are valued and can thrive. Can you explain this philosophy a little bit, and why centering Black women is combating racial and gender inequity on a larger scale for all communities?

Jhumpa: When we started Maven, we had an explicit desire to be intersectional in our analysis. When we were thinking about all the ways in which our economy is not working for most of us, quite frankly, there are ways in which race definitely plays a role. So, we talk a lot about anti-Blackness. When you think about who has been pushed to the utmost margins of our economy, Black women are really a group of people that have been very marginalized. [They’re] not the only ones, but they are one of the big ones. If you look at any economic metric — income, wealth, job stability, access to retirement, birth outcomes, etc., Black women have the worst outcomes. We really believe in the philosophy that if you take people who have been pushed to the margins of society, bring them to the center, you're actually creating an economy or a society that lifts up everybody.

Krysten: What is the history that leads to the harmful narratives around care work that need to be acknowledged and shifted to support care workers?

Jhumpa: Care work is highly undervalued in this country. We have to think about why. It's not enough to just recognize the fact that their work is undervalued. If you take a racial justice lens to it, it's really Black women's work originally. If you go back to the time of enslavement, it was Black women who were forced at that time to care for white women's babies, whether it be wet nursing, whether it be helping them birth, cooking, cleaning — all of that is forms of care. And that was work that was originally assigned to and forced to be done by Black women. That history holds meaning for us now, because I really do believe there is a through line between what was originally forced upon Black women to do and then, when they were freed of slavery and were allowed to actually get money for their labor, there were only certain jobs that they were allowed to do and those jobs were in the service and care industries. If you look at the American society budget, what do we spend money on? War? Violence? That kind of stuff, maybe sometimes infrastructure. But things that are related to care and education and really human needs are not valued in our budgets, and it's because it's women's work and it was Black women's work.

We really believe in the philosophy that if you take people who have been pushed to the margins of society, bring them to the center, you're actually creating an economy or a society that lifts up everybody.

Krysten: How does working to combat the anti-Blackness narrative also trickle into other communities and play into the larger movement for supporting care workers?

Jhumpa: When you look at the care industry [in California] it’s a lot of Latinx women, Latinas, and it is a lot of Filipino women and other API communities. But, they're working in the vestiges of anti-Blackness. So now these women have jobs in the care industry, but because it has been undervalued because it was Black women's work, they are now forced to be paid terrible wages, to not have access to benefits. It's the legacy of sexism and racism in that intersection that is now impacting them as well.

Krysten: How are you working to create positive narratives to combat these racist and sexist ones?

Jhumpa: I think first and foremost, when you're doing narrative change work and you're thinking about what are the most harmful narratives that are out there, in order to change them, you need to understand what you're working with first and then move folks past that. I think that's where a lot of people get stuck. You need to message to move people from where they are to a different place. First and foremost, what we have to understand is the root causes of why things are the way that they are. This is why we talk about anti-Blackness so much. This is why we talk about sexism too, and that intersection, and think about how do those two oppressive factors impact the way our economy was built? Then, the way we change that is that we actually ground ourselves in the lived experiences, desires, and dreams of Black women. We have to really ground ourselves in the humanity of Black women and lift up narratives that show that they are actual human beings that have desires, that have families. [We have to] ask them: ‘Well, when you think about care, what does that look like for you?’

Krysten: What can the general public do to help create positive narratives? Then also what can philanthropy or people working in the social justice space do?

Jhumpa: In terms of building positive narratives as everyday people, I think [you have to] start questioning everything that you see, the images that you see, the stories that you hear about specific populations. And then think about if this narrative is coming from the communities themselves or is this something that's helping drive some kind of other systemic oppression. I think that's one thing everyday people can do. I think for funders, you know, narrative change takes time. I think giving organizations the ability to kind of test and try different things, be innovative and then learn from that. And [allow space] to really be innovative and try different things and know that this is a nascent field, and we need to be funding creativity and imagination right now. 

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