Ai-jen Poo jumped into a taxi after her flight from Chicago touched down at La Guardia Airport last week, hurtling straight into Manhattan for four days of back-to-back meetings devoted to improving the lives of domestic workers.
Soon, she was hammering out strategies to help expand access to health care for undocumented immigrants. She was planning a state-by-state legislative push to provide tax credits to people who pay living wages to home health care aides. She was discussing potential pathways to legal status for millions of foreign-born nannies, babysitters and housekeepers.
All the while, Ms. Poo managed to keep her secret. No one knew. Not her staff, not her donors and not her partners at other nonprofit organizations.
“I felt like a pipe that was going to burst,” recalled Ms. Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the advocacy group based in New York that represents 43 affiliates in 26 cities across the country.
Just after midnight on Wednesday, the news finally broke: Ms. Poo had won a 2014 MacArthur “genius” grant. The fellowships, presented by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, come with a stipend of $625,000 and are among the nation’s most prestigious prizes for artists, scholars and professionals.
Within minutes, the calls, texts, emails and tweets started pouring in. “It was wonderful and overwhelming,” said Ms. Poo, 40, who got her start as a volunteer working with immigrant women...