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.