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.

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.

There’s A Lot More To Change Than Movement Organizations Doing A Bad Job

Activism and running a non-profit organization are often confused. What is sad is when the precious and rare gems who are activists get sucked into the drama of movement organizations doing a bad job, and it becomes an end in itself. Eyes on the prize, my dear doves: Change society. Let those multitudes who are not activists focus on changing the organizations that make a brand out of change that needs to occur.

Activism is a difficult, though often enjoyable, state of motion. It is fueled by a strategic demand and employs a variety tactics to change a broader culture. Activism takes time, determination, persistence. It includes a willingness to make frowned-upon personal disclosures, examine one’s own actions critically and stand up for principles, even at great personal cost or risk. In popular culture, the snapshot of activism we most see is a photograph or quote in the news, or getting to talk on television, but the cold truth is that most activist work is not that glamourous and many (by no means all) of the people getting photographed and talking on television are people who stand nearby or support the work of activists, rather than serve as activists themselves.

Women’s suffrage champion Susan B. Anthony captured the spirit of activism in the following:

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”

Susan B. Anthony

Let’s be honest. This profile does not fit most people. It doesn’t mean that most people are bad. Nor does it mean that those people are bad who offer support to a cause once it has been made palatable or popular by activists (for goodness sakes, the point of activism is not to create a righteous little club in a world of awful, but to change society — which includes building support from those who weren’t allies before).

Further, people can be activists in some life phases and not in others. This is reality. There is often, but not always, privilege supporting the ability to push boundaries. Likewise, that doesn’t mean the people pushing boundaries are bad, but it does mean that when people need to be able to afford to eat, which is always, they might not always be able to speak out on an issue at the present time, which is often.

By its nature, running a non-profit organization affiliated with a cause or movement is a radically different state of affairs than activism itself. You have funders. You have boards. You have bureaucracy. It’s not uncommon for non-profit organizations that started out as activist collectives to, over time, become institutionalized and spend increasing time focused on the maintenance of themselves.  Sometimes, but not always, that includes developing a stake in the non-resolution of the issue that caused the non-profit to be founded in the first place. When times are bad, funders dump dollars. If the mission is accomplished, we have to go away. Type of thing. (Previous sentence is a verbal tic from a character in “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel about employees in an IRS Regional Examination Center. Analogy purposeful and painfully apt.)

Which is not to say that you don’t have activists who work for non-profit organizations. But it is to say that it’s pretty hard to do both. There is a tension between maintaining institutions created because of the status quo, many of which will eventually outlive their relevance, and making change.

If you are an activist, recognize the non-profit industrial complex for what it is. You want a job in one? You want to volunteer for one? Go for it. Good for you. Service organizations do wonderful work to support individuals affected by an issue. Movement organizations often support activism and do wonderful work to help those making change on an issue, but no movement organization should be mistaken with the movement itself (while the media does this all the time, an activist should not bother). Political organizations help to change elections and the public policy making process, often leveraging activists, but no political organization should be mistaken with a social change movement.

Activists are rare indeed. If you are one, protect your activism fiercely to the extent you can. One of the best ways to do that is focus on changing the broader world, rather than changing a movement organization doing a bad job. It is sad to see how much time is wasted by those willing to be despised … trying to change a non-profit that is not advancing the issue they care about. If a movement organization is doing a bad job, acknowledge it and move on. Do not confuse changing it with changing society. Instead, be the change you wish to see. Think bigger, and create the conditions you believe are needed in the broader world from a space that is effective. Be awesome or don’t bother.

P.S. In a post like this, I would be remiss not to mention I’m giving an activism how-to workshop designed just for this year’s Visions in Feminism conference: Bringing Feminism to Un-Feminist Spaces. It takes place Saturday, April 6, in Washington, D.C. You’re invited!