Unpaid Interns: An Apology

I regret having supervised unpaid interns while working at a previous employer, and would like to apologize. I’m truly sorry. Free labor is exploitative and exclusionary. I’m writing about it now in hopes that it will spark others to change.

During the course of more than three years at a progressive non-profit organization, I worked with dozens upon dozens upon dozens of unpaid interns. I selected and directly supervised about a fifth of the interns in the office. Supervising unpaid interns means that I was complicit in a modern employment system that is elitist, racist and treats workers in a horrifyingly bad way. Rather than name and further exploit the interns I supervised, who were all somewhere on the continuum between pretty great and really great, I would simply like to acknowledge that if you’re reading this, I can see your faces in my mind, I think you’re awesome, and I’m sorry.

No one should be expected to work for free, especially in order to, as the lore about unpaid internships goes, “make contacts and get a job someday.” While publications make sport of who can most lambaste the millennial generation for being lazy and self-absorbed, they rarely report on the growing expectation that our youngest workers should give away their labor for free. If you work on a regular schedule — not as a volunteer who controls your schedule and the projects you will and won’t do — and report to people who are getting paid, you should get paid, too. Period. It’s unacceptable to force workers starting their careers in a ho-hum economy to work for free, simply because they are young. It’s also unacceptable to replace paid workers, often older, with younger interns who are not (or barely) paid.

Those people in power who insist that unpaid interns are required for an organization to survive should get real. If your organization depends upon the artificial condition of employee-like unpaid laborers to survive, your organization needs to either get a new business plan or dissolve. From both moral and operational point of views, this holds true even for non-profit organizations not legally required to comply with unpaid internship rules the Department of Labor has created for for-profit organizations. From an unpaid intern point-of-view, you’re not any more or less not paid whether or not your employer is driven by profit. On the operations side, if you’re filling a niche that is no longer relevant or resists being filled according to your formula, change your business plan or quit and work with a similar organization doing a better job serving the needs of today. If an organization can’t survive enough to pay its workers, it’s on artificial life support — one that is extremely harmful to the people working there for free.

Everything bad about race, class and gender comes out for unpaid internships. Women are 77 percent more likely to hold an unpaid internship. High-income students are more likely to be involved in paid internships. Whites are more likely to be able to afford the privilege of putting an unpaid internship on a resume. Want to learn more? A recent study by Intern Bridge should be all you need to read, vomit and resolve to push for change.

Beyond those I worked with and/or directly supervised, I have known many unpaid interns in my day. Much, but not all, of the non-profit “equality” organizational landscape depends on the free labor of youth. I know how to recognize when people aren’t eating enough not because they are dieting, but because they have no money for food. I find it reprehensible that “free food” is a joke to fetch interns in Washington, D.C., where many interns go to briefings and parties because they are hungry in the poverty sense of the term. I think, specifically, that feminist organizations can do much better, and I resolve to be a forceful advocate for paid internships wherever my career may take me.

In the meantime, I am sorry to my wonderful unpaid interns past. Even if you were satisfied with our time together, and referrals or recommendations I may have given you since, you deserved to be fairly compensated for your work. If I could go back in time, I would fight for you to be paid. You earned it. What I can do now is help to call for change. I hope that others in supervisory roles will join me.

In Praise Of Slowing Down

It feels funny, from my maternity leave, to write in praise of slowing down. I am occupied. My left forearm, at times, is numb from rocking my baby in the cool, silent dark. During the day we walk outside and observe the slime mold in the mulch. We practice cooing and tracing our eyes around the room. We have one play mat with a hanging stuffed elephant, giraffe, bird and monkey, and it is so stimulating when I lay her down beneath them! We sing songs and look up and learn one new word from the dictionary every day. The world is small and new.

Within the confines of the adult world our activities are not particularly cognitive. I used to spend most of my leisure time reading books that kick my ass. Now I have a baby who depends on crying and screaming to communicate that she is tired and needs my help to calm down. In this space we have discovered silence, quiet, deep breaths, relaxed muscles and gliding on the balls of my own two feet. If the crying escalates I will whisper to her, “We’ll get through this. We always do. Every single time.” We are together and there is nothing else.

During the course of my life, I have found the most happiness in radical presence: immersing myself in the actions of love; running and other physical activities in nature; being totally and completely taken over by ideas and stories. While all of these activities could mean work (caring, physical labor, mental labor), they are typically devalued. During my life I have run in circles with a generation of women for whom “breathing out” is as much of an issue as “leaning in.” We haven’t been trying to have it all so much as prove that we can do it all. From racing from one extracurricular activity to another and then homework into working after hours to please a boss who is under (or not) paying us, and sticking to exercise, and a commitment to the arts, and social time, and the constant streams of unpaid volunteer work, and being in touch online with everyone and all the time, the world is actually so large and frantic as to make noticing the slime mold impossible. Which, I have learned, actually moves around — and quite quickly, if you keep tabs on it.

Anecdotally, men I know seem less likely to suffer from the need to “breathe out.” I don’t think this is because women are stupid. I think it is because we are undervalued within a culture that is held up as a meritocracy. It is unfortunate all this hard work has not translated into fair acknowledgement, much less happier lives.

Innately, my little girl has excellent focus. When she is crying, she is crying. When she is looking, she is looking. When she smiles, it takes effort, and it makes my whole day. I am so fortunate to learn from her.

Is Volunteer Activism More Legit?

It is fashionable, in feminist quarters, to bash the non-profit industrial complex. To imply that activist work done while receiving a paycheck is somehow less legitimate than a labor of love and only love.

There are a number of problems with this argument. Namely confusing the solution to movement organizations doing a bad job, which is creating and/or fostering movement organizations in a position to do a better job, with martyr-like personal sacrifice. However much your actions matter — and they do profoundly — personal solutions, especially ones that hurt you, will not resolve systemic problems.

Many feminists express justifiable anger with and avoidance of “feminist” organizations that purport to speak for all women while actually representing the needs of women who are and/or look like their leadership; or compromise to the point of becoming a partisan pom squad; or treat the women who work for them like shit. I agree with that. I’m there. But I want you to have your principles and be able to get paid. Here’s why.

First, “don’t get paid” feeds right into economic exploitation, particularly of younger people, that is already common practice at many non-profit women’s organizations. Unpaid internships to do clerical work? Sure, budgets are tight and maybe it’s not illegal, the way it is in for-profit business environments. It’s still highly unethical for the workers it displaces and the students who are often paying tuition for the privilege of answering phones and making copies. And don’t get me started on the low wages many junior staffers are paid, particularly when there’s enough money for others to pull decent salaries. It’s disgusting and a source for shame.

Second, the women’s movement is shifting and needs to keep shifting. #femfuture, a recent report created by online feminists in New York, named and began offering potential solutions to a problem that desperately needs to be resolved: The unsustainable nature of the unpaid work model for online feminism. I argue the concern needs to be extended to feminist activism in general, online and offline (we’re almost at the point where these distinctions shouldn’t be made anymore). We all need to be having #femfuture discussions of our own. There is a point, when people are working so hard to the point of exhaustion, that we need to say — you know what? The old model of feminist organizing, which was heavily dependent on volunteers who were — what do you know — white middle-class housewives, can’t be force-fit to women struggling to pay student loans and support families and “get it all done.” It’s impractical to the point of ridiculous to think that model can somehow be revised to fit the present-day, at least if success is the end goal. We need to figure out a way for more activists to get paid.

Finally, your activist work is not inherently more or less legitimate based on how much you are not or are getting paid for it. Period.

Now that I’ve said that, I’m going to give some advice and share an experience that are outside the realm of “go work for a feminist paycheck.” Because wanting non-profits to pay you for your work, if that’s what you want, and wanting the best for you are not perfectly overlapping circles.

Realistically you can make a lot more money working outside the women’s movement, and making money is not a bad thing. Practically you can make a huge difference in workplaces that aren’t primarily feminist spaces. We need feminists in every industry. If you can do that, and still want to do volunteer activism that speaks to your heart, great. Much of my career has gone this way.

These days I get paid for some of the feminist work I do, but certainly not all of it. It’s a newer situation. After leaving a movement job last year, I was not paid at all for the work I continued to do for some months on a self-directed basis, and I can honestly say what I’ve just described is one of the best things I’ve done for my feminism. Dreams and integrity are too precious to be outsourced to any non-profit organization, no matter what it purports to represent. But I also recognize that it’s not all lofty. I was in a situation at the time where I could afford to have my presence, including a lack thereof, match my values. Being able to afford time for unpaid activist work doesn’t make me any better than someone who can’t.

So in summary, is volunteer activism more legit? No, not inherently. More of this work needs to be paid, and there’s nothing wrong with insisting that you be paid fairly for it. At the same time, unpaid opportunities offer you chances to follow your heart that a check signer may never endorse. I know you’ll do what’s best for you.

My Morning With The Morning After Pill

You can be a good person, you can be responsible and you can still find yourself, without warning, in an uncomfortable and stigmatized situation.

One night after having sex with someone I was dating, I saw the condom broke. Not like a little. Totally shredded. This scared the hell out of me but I played it cool.

“Are you okay,” he asked. I brushed it off.

“I’m fine,” I lied. “Don’t worry about this.”

Sometimes in a moment of crisis the safest thing to do is not let others know you see it as a moment of crisis. This was one of those moments.

As he slept through the night, I kept my body motionless, bored my eyes into the dark ceiling that seemed ready to suffocate me and FREAKED OUT. “I can’t believe this just happened to me. How could this happen to me? How could I let this happen to me?” The whole gamut of denial and fear and shame.

A calmer synopsis:

At the time I did not want to become a parent, and my life circumstances wouldn’t have made it possible for me to be the kind of parent I want to be today. We, in the context of that relationship, were not suited to be parents together. It wasn’t a bad relationship. It was a decent relationship. But it did not include a shared desire to build a family together. We didn’t even discuss those issues. Some people are scandalized by those who have sex with no intention of getting married and having children, but I didn’t and don’t think there’s anything wrong with adults in their twenties, which we were, who have consensual sex. It’s normal.

This happened at a time when if you needed emergency contraception fast, which I did, your options were to call your doctor, try an emergency room or go to Planned Parenthood. The easiest and quickest thing was what I wanted. Hyper after a sleepless and terrified night, I called Planned Parenthood within minutes of opening, and did not waste any time to have breakfast, drink coffee, shower, brush my teeth or do anything else before going to to pick up some Plan B. I walked up to the front desk, showed them my driver’s license to prove my age, paid what I could afford and that was that.

In the car ride home I wept. I beat myself up for finding myself alone with a box of Plan B in a relationship where I felt most comfortable doing what needed to be done in silence. Alone. I thought of all the horrible things said by sexual fundamentalists who want to make or keep illegal every sex act that doesn’t produce a baby, and I started to internalize them. Emergency contraception is abortion and abortion is murder, they say. Never mind that there’s no science to back that up. When you feel really alone and really scared it’s easy to beat yourself up with others’ words, even ones that are incorrect and you find offensive.

Home at last. It was not even nine in the morning, I was wearing clothes from the day before and I felt like I had been walking up a difficult mountain for weeks. I kept crying in my apartment. I didn’t want to be someone who had irresponsible sex. I was trying to be responsible this time, I swear. I didn’t want to be someone who took emergency contraception without telling her boyfriend. This situation was built for other people — not me — other people. I was, as now, an ardent feminist and an advocate for emergency contraception. This was just not a situation I had been anticipating that morning. I didn’t want it. I wanted to be at work in a boring meeting. I wanted to erase and start over.

Drinking a glass of water to calm down, I read the instructions in the box. I opened the box. I told myself I would go to the bathroom, and then I would take it. I breathed. And, in the bathroom, in those moments before I was going to take the pill I wanted to scream at, I discovered that my period had started.

This story is very personal, but I’ve decided to write about it because in hindsight I’ve gained perspectives on a few themes within this story that I feel need to be said at this point in time.

First, this week’s court decision overturning the Obama administration’s order to, against the recommendation of the Food and Drug Administration, block over-the-counter access to emergency contraception for women of all ages is an important milestone for public health. As someone who has gone to get the morning after pill the morning after, I can tell you that time is not a resource to be wasted when you need to avoid a pregnancy effective now. Time is agony. Further, situations can be such that you don’t want to talk to anyone about it, even a pharmacist.

Second, I read what I just wrote and while I was beating the crap out of myself at the time, I think that what I did was incredibly mature. While I was in my twenties then, I think this holds true for women of all ages, including women in high school. Getting emergency contraception as quickly as you can when have already had unprotected sex and don’t want to be pregnant is taking control of your health, your life, your future. Teen pregnancy prevention was supposed to be a bipartisan cause. No one, including the president of the United States, should be looking at young women who know they need emergency contraception as anything but incredibly mature.

Third, I think it’s okay to acknowledge that it’s normal to have a wide range of feelings about reproductive health care. Sexuality and reproduction are intensely personal matters. I felt very sad at the time, and I was a reproductive rights advocate then. I’m one now. Having felt intense feelings nowhere near “I am woman, hear me roar” when preparing to take emergency contraception doesn’t make me any less of a feminist or a strong woman. It’s okay to talk about tough times as tough times. Tough times happen to good people, and acknowledging tough times as they are can help make all of us better people.

Fourth, I’m quite pregnant as I type this today. In fact I’m looking over a huge bubble in my abdomen, holding my future daughter. In contrast to some of the negative self-talk I engaged in then, it is so crystal clear to me at this time that preventing pregnancy is nothing like ending a pregnancy. They should not be talked about as equivalent, and shame on the mainstream media for often allowing this confusion to continue. Having used contraception regularly until I decided to become pregnant is one of the best gifts I’m giving my future daughter, because now I’m ready to have her and give her the best life I can.

If she ever needs emergency contraception and chooses to tell me about it, I will be so proud of her. Sexuality and sexual health can be really hard, sometimes. If she ever cries to me I will not judge her, but support her. I think about these things when reflecting on my morning with the morning after pill.

A Preliminary Observation On Lean In

Encouraging women to believe in themselves and their own power? Yes. In what universe should we not?

From my own experiences as a manager and mentor, as well as employee, I can tell you some of the best returns on human capital investment I’ve seen come from encouraging younger women to believe in their worth. That they deserve to be in the room. That they should air differing perspectives. That they must be treated (and compensated) fairly.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. I want women to be openly ambitious. No, I don’t think ambition alone is going to end sexism, along with racism, homophobia, class privilege, ableism and other discriminations that interact with  sexism to hold women down. But it is a necessary ingredient.

In the short term I would like to make the preliminary observation over how perplexing it is to see that the feminist blogosphere and feminist publications have been lit up with a “controversy” over whether or not Sandberg’s book is “good for women.” Meanwhile, the cover of Time magazine asks if we shouldn’t hate Sandberg because she is successful. And a few nights ago Bill Maher had four men and one woman discussing the book. It was its own joke. No one said the punchline.

As someone who has held a variety of big feminist titles, something I started doing from a pretty young age, I’ve had a number of young women ask me how I did it, because they want to “lead feminism.”

My primary piece of advice for anyone who wants to “lead feminism” is to take your ambition and “lean in” to the real world. Generational shifts, owing to the work of older feminists, have made a strong feminist leader’s options much larger than running a women’s organization, which is always going to be more insular in reach.

Go lead a business. Go become a creative director. Go run for public office. Go become a school principal. Go follow whatever your heart tells you to do, but go out into the real world, and do it where women feminists are not the only leaders. I wish we saw more feminists on Bill Maher, discussing women in the workplace with a broader group, than we are seeing discussing, in many cases, themselves within a smaller group.

Lena Dunham Is Worth It

The attacks on Lena Dunham’s $3.6 million book deal are attacks on talented young women in general.

Granted, few are as talented as Lena, who with Girls, her HBO series, has made us laugh, cry and have a national conversation about the cold truth that even young women who appear to have all the privilege in the world still have real struggles navigating exploitative employers and agonizing, often disappointing sexual relationships.

Sure, the show has flaws, but so does Facebook. Where were the calls for Mark Zuckerberg to wait his turn? Who has suggested Chris Hughes should rescind his seat at the helm of The New Republic?

The public loves its millennial superstars, when they are men.

Lena Dunham isn’t the only breakthrough young woman currently fielding sexist criticism that she’s entitled and non-deserving of a major public voice, with Sandra Fluke serving as an obvious second example.

Why the social discomfort with equally educated and unusually brilliant young women?

Could it be some of the naysayers — women and men — don’t realize they are uncomfortable with the implication that a new generational leap toward women’s equality is already in flight?

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