Et tu, Girls Write Now?

If you don’t follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter, you should. Her tweets are always insightful and incisive, and I appreciate that she regularly calls out organizations that claim to empower people–or in some cases, even fight for higher wages and workers’ rights– while not paying their own interns.

Her latest example is, sadly, Girls Write Now, a non-profit that provides writing mentoring to at-risk and underserved girls in New York City. As Kendzior dryly points out: “Organization claiming to champion impoverished teens seeks unpaid employee to work 25 to 35 hrs/week.”

Girls Write Now is only one of many, many organizations that expect interns to do entry-level-type work, full-time or near-full-time, without pay. But it’s especially disappointing because I’ve always liked them (and probably even given them money, although I don’t keep track of my donations well enough to know for sure).  As someone who was once a girl and has always loved to write, I know firsthand how amazing it is to grow into your own voice with the support of mentors, peers, and a community. I want all girls who are interested in writing to have that experience.

It’s incredibly frustrating that an organization doing such important work would expect their interns to work 25 to 35 hours a week unpaid, especially in a city as expensive as New York. It virtually guarantees that most of their interns will be well-off–from backgrounds nothing like those of the girls they’re serving.

It’s frustrating on the personal level too. If I lived in New York, I’d be so eager to work for a place like Girls Write Now, and would hate to be shut out of their entry-level positions (which these internships really are–just look at the skills and experience they’re asking for, and the tasks they expect of the interns). As it is, I can’t count how many times I’ve come across a job posting and thought, “Wow, that sounds so cool,” only to find out that it was an unpaid internship.

At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind the difference between unpaid “internships” that are actually entry-level positions and ones that are very part-time and intended for the benefit of the intern rather than the company or organization.

My friend Kit writes about why such internships have been important, even life-saving, for her:

As a severely-disabled person, I can’t work anything paid at this time, aside from very occasional babysitting for families I know are friendly and who are well-aware of and accommodating toward my disabilities.  Such accommodating jobs, even occasional or temp/seasonal or part-time work, are hard to impossible to find, especially in this economy.

Yes, this includes paid internships…  I am, at this time, only capable of occasional or unpaid work.  Even if the paid work is an internship and learning-focused.  Paid internships have more expectations and requirements than unpaid ones, because they pay you, and so expect you (rightfully) to contribute more to them than they contribute to you.  Unpaid internships, on the other hand, I’ve found to be the reverse (they are all about what the intern wants to learn; the employer may benefit, but to be honest, they often do not benefit as much as the intern does, because of all the training they have to do for little reward as the intern doesn’t stay very long).

I am extremely grateful to all the companies that have given me the opportunity to work for free and have trained, mentored, and provided emotional support to me in the process….Before I did unpaid internships, I stayed alone in my house, all day every day, suicidal because I feared I could never gain any skills that would allow me to make something (anything) of myself and my life.

She notes that, in order to be accessible to everyone, such internships should require a small number of hours, have flexible scheduling, and offer remote work options when possible.

This is what unpaid internships were supposed to be, before so many companies appropriated them for free entry-level labor.

This is why I won’t say I’m against all unpaid internships–I think people should have opportunities to learn new skills without the pressure of a paid job. The problem isn’t unpaid internships, per se: it’s companies and organizations that misuse them to exploit their workers (which is often illegal). And that’s a huge problem, one that I’ll keep speaking out against.

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2 thoughts on “Et tu, Girls Write Now?

  1. Yeah, when I talk about unpaid internships I talk about what they’re *supposed* to be… what you’re talking about is basically, as you said, unpaid entry-level employment, which is exploitative and not ok particularly in cities like Boston and NYC and DC and San Francisco (which is also where I’ve noticed most such “internships” are located). x.x

    I can *maybe* see a case for an unpaid internship with more hours, *if* it’s very short-term (like, I’m talking a month or two during school breaks), largely intended for students or apprenticeships, and so can be financially supported with federal aid and loans etc, and if someone who has recently graduated wishes to beef up their resume with one, then there should be some other way of applying for at least *some* financial support (whether from the organization itself, a philanthropy organization, the government, etc.)

    There actually are already many philanthropy organizations that give grants to support people doing unpaid internships, particularly ones that work with people entering certain fields with high need (nursing for instance), and also vocational programs for people with disabilities, impoverished youth, people leaving the criminal justice system and re-entering the workforce, veterans, single moms, teen parents, etc. I LOVE the idea of such programs, since I know also from talking to friends of mine that similar programs/internships have allowed a lot of people I know to get out of dead-end jobs or other bad situations. But they’re not all equally effective, that’s for sure…and some do take advantage of the people they’re supposed to be serving, and that’s really not ok.

    Take a common example: programs training incarcerated individuals to train/work with shelter dogs. The dogs are usually on death row and instead of being euthanized, are given a second chance through the prisoners, and are eventually trained to be service dogs for veterans with PTSD or people with other kinds of disabilities/needs. The prisoners are given meaning in their lives and have a chance to enter the animal care/dog training field. Great idea all-around, right? Not necessarily…

    Some organizations that do this pay the parolees, even while they’re still in prison, and give them the option to participate or not. Others don’t pay, or perhaps pay a stipend but coerce or even force the prisoners to participate in the program. Not everyone is interested in animal care as a career path; just because they’re a captive audience doesn’t mean they should be “grateful” for being given the “opportunity” for mandatory unpaid labor. x.x

    So yeah… it really depends a LOT on the specific situation, not only the pay (or lack thereof) but the hours, flexibility, training/mentoring (or lack thereof…) included, if there are ways to get financial support from places other than the organization you’re working for (if it’s a non-profit that can’t afford to pay directly but refer to organizations that can, that might be ok again depending on the set-up of the whole experience).

    Like, as another example, when I was at my previous college, their internships worked differently than my current college’s (which are very-part-time during the school semester, alongside classes), mostly because my previous college is in an extremely rural location that could just not support an entire college all attempting to get internships at once during the semester. So you had two options… internship in winter break or in summer break wherever in the world you want and can get housing, 30 hours/week for 7 weeks either way. Now though, up to 15 of those 30 hours could be entry-level PAID work at a coffee shop, retail, childcare, work-study at the university, etc, wherever you might ordinarily work in school breaks. The college itself also gives grants to those who qualify, and some internships in their database are paid anyway. So even though it’s close to full-time and many of them are for non-profits that can’t afford to pay all interns directly, the skill level required is NOT on par with what is expected at actual paid entry-level employment, it is largely training/mentoring and they don’t expect you to know your stuff walking in (I mean…that’s the whole point of an internship, right?), and there were plenty of ways to pay your way through the 7 weeks, with the college fully-supporting helping you find a way to pay for it (whether through applying for a grant from the college, applying for a paid placement, applying for a part-time job, etc).

    In terms of housing during the work term, there is also an extensive database where parents and other relatives/friends offer their child’s bedroom, a spare bedroom, or comfy semi-private couch and home-cooked dinners for the duration of the term, while their own child is away doing their own internship somewhere else. At least in my time, families were always very willing to help each other out, since we all knew how hard finding both work and housing placements for a 7-week duration could be. So basically, in terms of funding…all you had to worry about was breakfast, lunch, transportation, and spending.

    I wouldn’t be living where I do now, with the friends that I have now (including you), if it weren’t for my internship at the theater company (which did ultimately get me an actual paid job for the same company), and the spare bedroom I found through a fellow student’s family for free. I took care of their adorable cat and dog in exchange for free room and board (in my case, this included dinner AND breakfast at least during the week, and I generally just packed a sandwich for lunch and sometimes ate out with friends on Friday and/or Saturday nights). I’m still in touch on Facebook with the whole family (parents, the daughter who also went to my college but we had never run into each other prior, and the cat and dog who have their own Facebook pages…lol). I’m still in touch with all my coworkers and my former internship supervisor turned boss. She (my former boss), is now one of my best friends… we meet about once a month for coffee, catch up, we bear our souls to each other even, I’ve babysit for her and her partner since they’ve adopted, and she’s been an invaluable resource to me in terms of connections and low-cost or free venues for my activism and SoulCollage workshops. Now I’m on the board, and as a board member, I get free tickets to shows, free trainings, again low-cost or free venues for activism and SoulCollage workshops, opportunities to show and sell my art through them… in the last 5 years, they’ve MORE than made up for the initial 7-weeks of my “unpaid” work, especially since even at the time, it included a hell of a lot of training that I’d ordinarily have to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get from an adult education center.

    THAT is what I’m talking about when I say unpaid internships saved my life. I’m not talking about bullshit long-term, full-time “internships” that are actually unpaid entry-level work. Seriously, these so-called “internships” give the rest of them a bad name, and for that reason alone (and of course for all the other multitude of reasons), I hate them with a passion even while also advocating for supported, flexible, part-time and/or short-term actual internships that train people to enter certain hands-on fields. In particular, I advocate for such internships made easy and financially-supported for marginalized/vulnerable groups of people (of which I am a part of several), but I do NOT advocate for so-called “non-profit” organizations claiming they are there to help marginalized groups when really, they take advantage of these same marginalized groups in order to save themselves money. UGH. x.x

    In any case, thanks for sharing my post and for giving a very nuanced, thoughtful response to this issue yourself. Too many people, in my opinion, are so firmly planted on one or the other side of the fence, that they fail to realize that there are many different kinds of internships, and also that different things work for different people.

  2. Pingback: Activism opportunity: #ChangeTheWorldNotOurBodies | Tutus And Tiny Hats

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