Elevate Difference

Raising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare, and Caribbeans Creating Community

When Tamara Mose Brown had her first child in 2004, she began going to different Brooklyn, New York parks on sunny afternoons. In each, she found dozens of West Indian nannies caring for the babies and toddlers of the largely White middle- and upper-income denizens who lived nearby. Questions about both the nannies' work and the race, class, and gender dynamics of their lives prompted Brown—the Canadian-born daughter of Trinidadian immigrants—to begin spending time with these women. Their conversations were eye-opening. For one, Brown came to realize the centrality of paid childcare to U.S. economic life. For another, she was shocked to find that employers who labor at home often require nannies to work outdoors, or in libraries or community centers, for upwards of ten hours a day.

What’s more, Brown quickly recognized that childcare workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, are routinely exploited—underpaid, and required to do household chores far outside their job description, from picking up dry cleaning, to cooking, to going to the pharmacy or market. Nonetheless, she also discovered that domestic workers have found ways to create social networks to make their work lives easier and more enjoyable. Often predicated on a common ethnic heritage, these networks enable childcare workers to share everything from food to gossip. By pre-arranging meetings in public spaces, they can watch the kids in their care while also socializing and breaking the monotony of their jobs.

But, Brown writes in Raising Brooklyn, as wonderful as these networks can be, there’s a down side. To wit, nannies in public spaces are easily observed. Take the website I Saw Your Nanny. In one incident, Brown reports that people with limited information logged onto the site and reported that a toddler had been lured away by a suspicious man while his caretaker—who was eventually identified as the child’s mother and not a nanny—was obliviously chatting. Turns out that the man was the child’s father, but, of course, the notice was posted before this fact was ascertained.

That said, Brown chronicles the ways nannies support one another, whether meeting on a particular park bench at a particular time each day or gathering for story hour at the local library. Cell phones have been a tremendous boon, she continues, giving otherwise isolated workers a way to connect with one another, an easy way to share news from home or strategize about ways to deal with a difficult child or a demanding employer. They’ve also enabled them to organize, and many of the workers Brown interviews are active participants in Domestic Workers United, an organization that successfully pushed the New York state legislature to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010.

Brown has done a masterful job—as a participant observer—of reflecting the everyday world of female domestic laborers. While she, herself, straddles two worlds—belonging to an Afro Caribbean community that is victimized by racism while simultaneously having the financial resources to hire a part-time nanny to care for her two children—her ethnic identity allowed her access to an insular community. The result is both fascinating and compelling. Although Brown occasionally lapses into sociological jargon, Raising Brooklyn is generally accessible and insightful. Her own insider-outsider status is clearly presented; at the same time, her compassion for the twenty-five nannies she interviewed makes Raising Brooklyn a wonderful testament to the valuable contribution working class women of color make to life in the U.S. of A.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, March 7th 2011