Most of the leaders of Domestic Workers United are middle-aged Caribbean women who have been in New York for a decade or more. They’re less vulnerable to abuse than less-experienced nannies, but they have not forgotten what it was like to be new to the city and working fourteen or sixteen hours a day for minimal pay. When they talk about the Bill of Rights, it’s these women they focus on—new immigrants, underpaid and overworked, too scared to stand up for themselves.
It’s been a year and a half since Francois stopped working for Matthew Mazer and Sheryl Shade, but in her mind the trauma of the incident is still very fresh. In her home, she still displays photographs of their daughter. “I love that little girl,” says Francois. “I still love her.” A Snapfish photo album the family made for her in 2008 rests on a shelf. Inside, a photo caption hints at how they once saw themselves: “Pat’s Second Family.”
Francois, now 51, has no kids of her own and lives alone in a tidy apartment just off Flatbush Avenue. In her living room, she’s surrounded by evidence of her political awakening: Malcolm X stares down from one wall; a small U.S. flag, a souvenir from an immigration rally, leans against the windowsill; a poster propped up in the corner features a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
She walks into the kitchen, settles into a chair, and hits the play button on her answering machine. She has kept a series of voice mails chronicling the aftermath of the incident—evidence of an intense relationship gone horribly awry.
The father: “Hi, Pat. It’s me calling. [Our daughter] misses you terribly … If you could please give her a call, I think it would perk all of us up and begin part of the spirit of reconciliation I think the new year warrants and we all deserve—you and she most of all.”
The mother: “Hey, Pat … Still haven’t heard from you. I’m wondering how you’re doing … Are you coming back? … Please call me at some point and let me know. Talk to you. Love you.”
The daughter: “Hi, Pat, it’s me. Just wanted to say hi and please, please, I really miss you … My mom and my dad have changed. My dad has been praying for you to come back and my mom really misses you. And I do, too … Bye-bye.”
As the familiar voices fill the room, Francois hugs her knees to her chest. When she hears the voice of the girl, she becomes visibly distressed, closing her eyes and exhaling loudly.
The father: “Hello, could you please give us a call. It’s important … that we talk. We’ve tried to talk to you before. Please give us a call. Out of mercy’s sake. Thank you.”
The mother: “Hey, Pat … Um. I really need to talk to you. Because of this, uh, my whole life is coming down. Um, and I just … I just need you to talk to me, ’cause I don’t know what to do and I don’t know what you want. And I thought you were my friend … I’m just … I’m so confused … Please do call if you can. Thanks.”
By the time the last voice mail ends, twelve minutes have passed and Francois looks utterly spent. “I’ve been victimized and humiliated,” she says. “I’m a human too.” A tear slides down her cheek. “This man really hurt me.”
After fourteen years as a domestic worker, Francois has little to show for her efforts. No savings, no job, no leads. In recent days, though, she’s had reason to feel optimistic. Over the past six years, she’s made some 25 trips to Albany to lobby for the Bill of Rights. When the State Senate passed it last week, she was looking down from the balcony, tears in her eyes. “It will be reversing decades and decades and decades of injustice,” she says. Now she had something to show for her years of hard work, something more than the photographs of the children she helped raise.