Interns must be included in our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion
Do-gooding is one thing, but putting in unpaid hours while attending university full-time and racking up student loan debt is not sustainable
30 Sep 2021

Back in 2015, a UN intern made headlines for living in a tent during his stint at European headquarters of the UN to bring attention to the plight of unpaid interns. However, we know that beyond Geneva, unpaid internships are pervasive in the development sector — and they’re an increasingly bad look in an era where organizations are finally being forced to critically evaluate their policies and programming. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, many organizations and institutions have published their commitments to anti-racism and social justice. It’s time to interrogate if their actions support these words. This field has a lot to learn and do to become anti-racist, including ending the elitist practice of free internships.

Working for free is not a viable option for most

In my experience in the non-profit world, there is an expectation that young people will work for free as interns to secure salaried positions with an organization. Unpaid positions are often defended by an organization’s “not for profit” title, and I naively agreed that I could volunteer my time with an organization as a way to give back.

Do-gooding is one thing, but putting in 25–30 unpaid hours per week while attending university full-time and racking up student loan debt is not sustainable. So why does it continue? Career counselors, mentors, supervisors, and networking connections all advised me to secure an internship while in school or upon graduation— “it will get your foot in the door”, “you’ll create valuable networks”, “you’ll get to try different areas of work and gain great experience as a young professional.”

They were right — all of those things are true. I completed two unpaid internships in Washington and another abroad where I had to finance my travel. That experience with big-name organizations and fieldwork landed me some incredible jobs. However, I am in the minority of people who can spend over a year working for free, and that is the glaring problem that remains.

In 2015, The Brookings Institute likened unpaid internships to the glass floor, “One of the obstacles to greater intergenerational mobility […] is the ‘glass floor’ that keeps less talented children born to affluent parents at the top of the income ladder. […] there are less visible forms of protection, such as paying the summer living costs that make an unpaid internship feasible. This is not meritocracy: it is opportunity hoarding.”

As things stand now, organizations have little incentive to pay their interns — why spend a limited budget on roles they can get young eager people to do for free in exchange for valuable experience? Especially when organizations are encouraged to cut operational costs for grant funding. That strategy seems logical until you consider the fact that reserving opportunities for the elite and privileged is not aligned with the mission and values of an organization supposedly designed to help people.

Isn’t it ironic?

Unfortunately, the non-profit model developed to help marginalized and exploited communities may be reinforcing these structures. I don’t want to believe unpaid non-profit internships were designed to exclude people, but I do believe that’s how they currently function. Monetary incentives aren’t the only solution to greater equity, but I see an expectation of unpaid work as a significant barrier to many of those without the benefit of generational wealth and other structural privileges.

In addition to the obvious right to and value of equity, a diversity of perspectives also enriches any movement. “Innovation” has been the buzzword in development and many other industries for years. It is said that innovation will be spurred by “new minds” and “change-makers.”  What if those currently at the table aren’t the only ones with novel ideas and solutions? What if doing the work to include more communities and perspectives in this field is a way to bring in new ideas? If the way we address problems stems from our unique history, culture, challenges, and world views, how can we expect such a small, elite subset of our society to have all the answers?

The revolution will not be diversity & inclusion training

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion trainings and committees are not enough when the leadership makeup does not change nor do their hiring and management practices. Abolishing free internships is key, but sustainable change will also need to come from the top. Diversify the board, the senior leadership, and program staff who are brave enough to report damaging practices. It won’t solve all the sector’s problems with privilege and power, but providing paid internships could encourage greater representation and inclusion in the space. My hope is that organizations will see the great value paid and fair work can have on prospective young talent and on overall programmatic impact. This generation of interns will someday be staff, leadership, thought-leaders, and decision-makers. It is a disservice to a field striving for positive change in the world to be represented and led by such a small margin of voices and perspectives.

* Cassidy Howell is a Member of the Fair Internship Initiative.
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