Would I qualify to be my own intern?

Consider this — Have we limited the space for idealist youngsters to enter non-profit advocacy?

I’m a professional human rights/social justice advocate and I’ve been one since the early 1980s. My generation created a career path for the professional non-profit advocate. While I’m proud of what we have achieved, I’ve been wondering if we inadvertently contributed to some of today’s political problems or at least our lack of ability to solve them. This first series of blogs will focus on today’s environment and the possible downsides of “professionalization.”

When I started out there was no such thing as a professional advocate. Human rights and other social change organizations were staffed by volunteers or people paid next to nothing. Those who started WOLA in the mid-70’s were seconded by churches, started as volunteers or received tiny stipends.

A decade later, when I began, things were not much different. As people matured and had families they couldn’t afford to stick around. They went to graduate school or moved on to other sectors. Non-profit advocates were expected to get “real” jobs.

My generation changed that. We made long-term work in advocacy a possibility. The term used to describe that process was “professionalization.” Those of us who ran these organizations learned management and our offices became well run. We established policies for advancement and benefits, like health insurance and retirement contributions. The work became sustainable. It was possible to stay in the non-profit sector because you could afford have a family and maybe even buy a house.

We also became experts in our fields and gained the respect of those in government, academia and the media.

These are good things. People should have retirement plans and maternity leave. I’m proud of the sustainability, fairness and professionalization that we brought to the sector.

But, every yin has its yang. As we became experts and good managers, and less activist volunteers, I’m wondering if we didn’t lose some things along the way.

I think we need to ask ourselves some questions.

Does the current professionalized environment reduce space for idealistic young problem solvers?

Because the field I entered was not highly professionalized, there was a place for someone like me, with energy and commitment, but not much skill. When I started working on Latin America and immigration issues I wasn’t “qualified.” I didn’t even speak Spanish (although I did make myself learn shortly thereafter).

I became who I am today because there was a place for an eager idealist from Wisconsin with no qualifications.

Today, internships in Washington are a competitive business, even the unpaid ones. WOLA has a rotation of interns – about 20 of them a year – and these are highly coveted positions. If you aren’t bi-lingual, you need not apply. Most applicants have some kind of cross-cultural experience already under their belts. I often joked that if I had started in the current environment, I wouldn’t have qualified to be my own intern.

That’s kind of sad. By requiring so much expertise of interns are we not limiting who can enter the field? The next time you hire an intern, take another look at that enthusiastic kid who isn’t too qualified.

Next installment – Experts talking to Experts

8 thoughts on “Would I qualify to be my own intern?

  1. Fascinating insight. Having followed a similar path to Joy’s, i recall a number of years ago thinking that I would not qualify for some demanding field rep positions I was recruiting for. Quakers have had a long-standing tradition of “Released Friends” who take on a concern in the world, get the blessing of their meeting, and go forth to see what they can do. Some have made remarkable contributions, such as laying the groundwork for the Law of the Sea convention. Lately fewer “Released Friends” are going forth, because of the pressures of professionalization in non-profits and more rigid credential requirements for operating in complex inter-organizational – multilateral – governmental contexts. Yet something is lost, including the moral clarity and persistence often brought to bear on complex problems by such persons.

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  2. Thanks Joy. I too often wonder what we’ve lost in the course of professionalization, though I believe that we’ve gained more than we’ve lost by making advocacy a viable career which means people like me, whose parents didn’t go to college and won’t be leaving me a trust fund, can become advocates without trading off financial security. This is another question I’d pose: are we doing enough to bring in interns from underserved communities? And I like the name of your blog as is!:)

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    1. I agree that professionalization was the right choice. I couldn’t have continued to do this work without it either. However, I’m going to do a few more posts on the potential downsides to professionalization, not meaning that it should go away, but there are things that may need remedy.

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    1. No. I stepped down at the end of 2016. It was time for me to do something different and for the organization to have new leadership. It’s a complicated thing to do on a personal level, but I think it was the right decision.

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  3. Joy, I think this is a really good point and am glad it’s being discussed. During my time as WOLA’s Intern Coordinator I learned that one of the best indicators for success in our interns was not a fancy resume but rather a passion for the issues that would endure through the less glamorous parts of the job. What’s more, we frequently looked for the applicant for whom our internship would be an authentic stepping stone in their career–a turning point–and not just another notch in the resume belt. Applicants’ recommendations often felt more sincere coming from the hometown shop manager than the Ivy League professor.

    I’m glad to see that as WOLA has grown it has sought creative ways to make its internships available to students who may have fewer resources but do have a burning desire to make the world a better place. This way of seeing people and considering equity has stayed with me and I hope continues to spread!

    In short: I totally agree! Looking forward to more posts 🙂

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  4. Joy, I think this is a really good point and am glad it’s being discussed. During my time as WOLA’s Intern Coordinator I learned that one of the best indicators for success in our interns was not a fancy resume but rather a passion for the issues that would endure through the less glamorous parts of the job. What’s more, we frequently looked for the applicant for whom our internship would be an authentic stepping stone in their career–a turning point–and not just another notch in the resume belt. Applicants’ recommendations often felt more sincere coming from the hometown shop manager than the Ivy League professor.

    I’m glad to see that as WOLA has grown it has sought creative ways to make its internships available to students who may have fewer resources but do have a burning desire to make the world a better place. This way of seeing people and considering equity has stayed with me and I hope continues to spread!

    In short: I totally agree! Looking forward to more posts 🙂

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  5. I got my start in human rights because Joe Eldridge took a chance on me. I was long on enthusiasm and short on just about everything else. But I was willing to work hard and learn from whoever would teach me. I would not have qualified to be my own intern now. This is a good avenue of inquiry. I think the isolation of what passes for the human rights movement in the United States is due in part to an over-emphasis on “expertise”.

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