Saying Goodbye to NARAL (But Not Really)

Working at NARAL, a tiny organization with a four-member staff, made me realize that the job descriptions offered by non-profits encompass only a fraction of the tasks employees actually undertake. I began my summer with the impression that my sole task would be to oversee the Political Interns and help build membership, never guessing that my role would eventually expand to encompass strategizing grassroots campaigns, drafting NARAL literature, and coordinating regional activist teams to accomplish initiatives remotely.

Certain tasks I was assigned this summer allowed me to accomplish the learning goals I laid out in May. Each Wednesday I supervised an intern weekly meeting, which gave me a platform to develop my leadership style. When interns gave feedback about the prior week, I learned how to be a sympathetic ear, an attentive listener, and a problem solver if the situation demanded it. Five minutes later, I had to delegate tasks assertively, offer background information about NARAL’s work that week, and occasionally offer constructive criticism of the interns’ work the week before. I learned through these weekly meetings that being a leader is not a one-dimensional role; it requires great personal flexibility in the way you handle different situations, and the interns ultimately appreciate a leader that can be both firm and personable.

This summer, I had over 25 one-on-one meetings with activists and organizational leaders in the hopes of getting more individuals and organizations involved in NARAL’s work. After hours spent chatting about abortion access over coffee, I learned that the best way to engage new activists is to frame NARAL’s work through the lens of the activist’s interests. Even those who may not initially be receptive to NARAL’s mission may become more interested when you frame NARAL’s work in a less polarized way. For example, I recruited an organization that focuses on poverty among low-income women by explaining to their Political Director that crisis pregnancy centers – false health centers that seek to deter women from receiving abortion care – typically target low-income women of color. The Political Director did not identify as “staunchly pro-choice,” but this direct appeal to her organization’s focal point made her more receptive to NARAL’s work.

Now that the summer is over, I feel like my cumulative intern experience – both this summer and in the semesters prior – has finally paid off. Two weeks ago, NARAL applied for a grant that allow for the hiring of a full time, paid staff member that would oversee our electoral work and campus program. We received the grant a week later, and NARAL has opted to hire me for the position. On September 2, I will sign my contract and continue my journey as a pro-choice advocate, this time as NARAL’s Political Organizer. Though I will be adopting a new title, I will oversee multiple teams of activists, draft NARAL-specific literature, coordinate field campaigns, a devise strategic grassroots mobilization efforts – all tasks I accomplished this summer, and will continue to build upon in my new role.

This internship gave me an in-depth look at the mechanics of grassroots organizing: mobilizing folks at the individual level to create broad political change. Grassroots organizing is deeply satisfying – in that you as an organizer develop personal relationships with volunteers and activists – but it is also exhausting, because it requires a heavy investment of time and energy with no guarantee that it will yield results. Now, I want to learn grasstops organizing: building coalitions, developing organizational partnerships, and working with elected officials to pass priority legislation. Political Directors are required to negotiate complicated political dynamics and protocols when they interact with other organizations and elected officials. As grasstops organizers, Political Directors must learn an entirely new code of conduct, and must juggle the organization’s needs with the needs of the elected officials with which they interact. It’s a complicated balancing act, one I have little knowledge of and one I’d like to become more familiar with.

As someone who appreciates structure, organization, and clear-cut duties, I would tell prospective NARAL interns that working at NARAL is a lesson in learning workplace flexibility. I learned this summer that small political non-profit organizations are often reactionary, responding to elections, Supreme Court decisions, and executive orders at the drop of a hat. Professionals in the political non-profit industry quickly learn that they must be flexible and readily adaptable, or else their organization will not be able to respond to political happenings appropriately.

This summer was my first experiencing approaching “social justice” as a staff member at an advocacy organization. It was my first experience encountering the thrills of broad-spectrum political change – and the unfortunate bureaucracy and gridlock that follow. I learned that political organizations often compromise or sacrifice their ideals for incremental success – a far cry from the romanticized “social justice” movements of the 60s and 70s that tended to be more radical and unapologetic in nature. In our current political climate, the organizations that minimally challenge the status quo and seek incremental, “baby-step” success towards their ultimate goals are the best respected. Pragmatism trumps idealism. The same can be said for our elected officials; we elect and endorse candidates not for their ideals or their liberalism, but for their viability and the projected success of their initiatives. Though I understand the paradigm of being radical, and challenging society from the roots up, working at NARAL has made me realize that I can be the most effective change agent by working slowly but determinedly to advance the pro-choice cause.