Post 4: Professionalism and Politics | How I’ve grown at NCL

After working at National Consumers League for seven weeks, I’ve have honed my research, analytical, and social skills far more than I would have dreamed. I’ve prepared myself for the real working world three years early instead of waiting until I graduate. I still have much to learn, but I now feel ahead of the game professionally and I’m confident that I can be successful in the working world.

Working on my food labeling policy memo and exploring nutrition and personal finance have both educated me and strengthened my research techniques. I never had the time or encouragement to delve into financial topics like loan servicing and microloans, but I learned about those two things and more with the LifeSmarts program. LifeSmarts even inspired me to look for more scholarships to help pay for my Brandeis education.

A view of the siding of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). I got sunburned while waiting to get in, but it was worth it.
I went to the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History for the first time on Friday. I also went to the Holocaust Museum. I had never been to either before despite being a D.C. native. The Oprah exhibit at NMAAHC was fun while the exhibit at USHMM was a disappointing reminder of a piece of shameful U.S. history.

My first ever internship at Fusion GPS during junior year of high school taught me lots of tricks in how to conduct good research, such as using quotation marks in a search to find exact results. Three years later I am building on that knowledge thanks to NCL. I realize I learned more at Fusion than I thought. The League is not just helping to shape my perspective for the future, it is also influencing my perceptions of my past.

Writing over two hundred trivia questions for the LifeSmarts national high school competition and developing proposals to improve misunderstood food spoilage dates have also fostered my analytical growth. The point of LifeSmarts is to motivate kids to learn life skills. When I write trivia questions for LifeSmarts, I narrow down which facts are significant and helpful. I have learned to filter out useless information and focus on what’s practical.

Food labeling policy is a broad subject that includes everything from figuring out what can be called organic to determining the date by which a grocery item should be sold. I had to propose two solutions to improve the system of date labeling and I ignored some key points at first. When I got feedback and started looking at the problem differently, I discovered what I had been missing and adjusted my proposals. Thanks to my adviser’s help, my analytical skills have improved tremendously.

When I say I learned how to interact socially at NCL, I mean that I learned social skills to use for a social justice purpose. Last Friday, I supported a rally for “One Fair Wage” outside the office of the D.C. council, who were trying to overturn a bill voted for by the District’s citizens. The League’s executive director and my fellow interns listened to protesters’ complaints while some less patient supporters of the fair wage fired back angrily.

Actress Jane Fonda getting interviewed about raising the tipped wage in D.C. to equal the general minimum wage.
I got a chance to see Jane Fonda while at the One Fair Wage Rally with NCL. She was very poised and serious.

Some people at the rally got bitter, but they didn’t change each other’s minds. As I have said throughout my experience, social justice on a personal scale cannot work without polite and open communication. I used to think otherwise, but my internship has changed my mind.

I can use all of the skills I learned to succeed at Brandeis and in the future, but the most important part so far has been learning about my behavior in the workplace. I’m still working on how I present myself, but people at NCL are already offering to be references without waiting for me to ask. I have a strong desire to get along with people and make a good impression. I’m no longer worried about increasing the pace of my workload in the future because I finish my assignments early.

Most of all, I have learned that I love working closely with others. I really enjoy learning from my colleagues, especially the ones whose offices are close to me. I have learned a lot about fraud this way and a lot about how much fun offices can be with the right atmosphere. Before, I was afraid to think about heavy workloads and office life, but after this internship, I know I’m ready for wherever professional life takes me.

Post 3: One phone call at a time | Creating change with NCL

Caleigh standing under an umbrella on a sunny day.
Anyone who’s been to D.C. in the summer knows how hot and humid it can get, but this day wasn’t too warm so I spent a little time sitting outside.

National Consumers League uses every tool in its communication toolkit to fight for the well-being of consumers and bring about positive change. Whether the outreach is online, in-person, on the phone or all three, it’s always a full-scale effort. The goal to champion consumers starts small, but with a strong base.

For NCL, progress often means persuading government officials to respond to law proposals using a consumer lens. At the start of my internship, I called dozens of congressional offices to gather contacts for the staff handling one of the League’s current projects. I passed along the names I found to a supervisor, who would send a proposal with the consumer perspective to the congressional aide in charge.

I have made more phone calls to strangers in a day at NCL than I ever made in my life, but I realize that is what makes us effective. Making change means moving out of comfort zones, meeting new people and trying new arguments. We do not try to better the world and this country by only talking to people who seem to share our views.

Each member of Congress is different, sometimes very much so. We occasionally find allies where we least expect it. Alternatively, people we thought would be on our side are sometimes the ones pushing harmful anti-consumer policies.

Less than a hundred employees work for the League, but despite the small size, we have a huge impact. Recently, the League has pushed hard for changes in the minimum wage in D.C. and developed consumer-inspired adjustments to plans that could hurt people who are the most vulnerable.

NCL has a rich and lengthy history, but I admit I had never heard of it before I applied through this program. Only after I joined as an intern did I realize how far this organization reaches.

As I explore consumer issues, I also explore my organization further. For example, while researching food date labeling for a policy memo, I found that NCL and its partners conducted a key survey on the issue, one I later used as evidence and for background in my project.

Our process is thorough. Experts from different divisions often join forces in an effort to develop the most effective policy that stands the best chance of success. Once you realize the history and strategy the League, noticing its widespread presence becomes less surprising, but no less important.

The logo for NCL's Fraud.org site, which gives advice to consumers about avoiding scams.
Fraud.org is essential to NCL’s mission. I have had great conversations with our leading counselor about fraud as well as accessibility.

Another key part of executing our mission, of course, is talking directly to consumers. We do not make assumptions. NCL’s various issues, which we talk about on our website and with our expert blogs, are issues that people have researched in depth. We are a consumer watchdog that helps consumers while giving them the facts they need to make independent decisions.

My colleague who works as the fraud center counselor has an essential role in our communication with consumers. His experience and trustworthiness makes it easy for him to connect with consumers, who he talks to daily over the phone.

The same reliability that our fraud counselor communicates goes for the rest for NCL’s hard-working crew. We are proud to show our knowledge, research, and manners to consumers and the other organizations they stand behind.

Social justice is a team effort and NCL is a wonderful team. Every process starts small, but with the high level of communication here at the League, consumers end up with huge gains.

Post 2: Lessons in Social Justice From Brandeis to NCL

My first semester with the Brandeis Hoot newspaper opened my eyes in many ways, but the most important thing it taught me was that information is useless unless you can communicate it well. Last year, my first year at Brandeis, I studied a variety of class subjects. After experimenting with these different interests, I learned many lessons that have helped me better understand National Consumers League and my role in their social justice efforts. Specifically, the networking and communication skills I learned at Brandeis, as well as the political awareness I developed, allow me to make an impact with the League.

The lessons I learned about networking came from my observations of the inner workings at the Hoot. Newspapers like the Hoot need help from sources to stay relevant. Whether we learn information from fellow students or administrative leaders at Brandeis, our network helps us inform people in the community who would otherwise have trouble interpreting the latest campus events.

In similar ways, contacts within the government, businesses, and nonprofits help the League accomplish social justice goals. Social justice cannot be a individual effort. Our partnerships enable us to have a wider reach. Among other assignments, I have worked on connecting with NCL contacts like Further with Food, an organization fighting food waste. I also observed the depth of the League’s connections while researching food labels for my policy memo and watching our executive director talk with partners.

If advocates want to successfully change people’s lives, they must spread the word. Catching the attention of community leaders who can mobilize people or execute tough plans is also essential to succeeding in a social justice mission. Advocacy involves more than just telling people your ideas – it requires getting them to actually listen.

Another thing some people fail to realize is that they will not change anybody else’s mind without finding ways to connect with them. My university writing seminar, which seemed tedious at the time, actually equipped me with the strategies to approach an argument and analyze different situations. Words can have more power than you think if you use them properly. This tenet of social justice helps me better understand my role in the world and my ability to help people in need.

A picture out front of the School Without Walls Senior High School
I ended up near my high school last week with NCL at a panel. This picture from the GWU Hatchet brings back fun memories, but also reminds me that my time at Brandeis will be even better.

The biggest change I approached at Brandeis was the social difference. At my small magnet school in D.C., I developed dozens of close friendships, while I only have a few Brandeisian friends. Starting over socially forced me to improve my communication skills and understand how I interacted with people before I knew we were going to be friends. I had to communicate clearly and respectfully, while also initiating conversations instead of waiting for them to happen to me.

Brandeis taught me the importance of reaching out. For example, if I want more work at the League, I cannot just wait for my colleagues to offer something. They are busy changing the world!

Politics are ingrained in American society, but more so at liberal arts colleges because they are full of ambitious and outspoken young people. One League-backed initiative in my native D.C. surprised me because I did not read much into the issue and heard only the other side’s points. However, I later learned that the opposition was pushed by an industry without its own employees’ best interests in mind. This event confirmed what I had learned at Brandeis about the value of knowledge and awareness.

A sunny view of the Washington Monument standing tall behind the White House.
A throwback to my favorite view ever. The White House and the Washington Monument from the Hay-Adams roof.

Overall, these lessons help me put my social justice work into perspective because I am able to see how far I can make my ideas go, but also how much help I will need to turn them into realities.

Post 1: Exploring Consumer Interests at NCL

My name is Caleigh Bartash. As the Brandeis fellow at the historic D.C.-based advocacy group National Consumers League, I help promote the interests of consumers in areas such as safety, health care and personal finances. My organization defends consumers with a broad approach that includes special emphasis on fraud, child labor, medical literacy and development of life skills for teenagers.

My colleague at the League’s fraud center, for example, talks to consumers every day and teaches them how to recognize and avoid scams. I was surprised to learn scam artists have technology so advanced they can disguise their numbers to look like a reputable organization. Innovation improves our lives for the most part, but it also makes scams much harder to detect. I would recommend anyone worried about scams to check out Fraud.org to learn how to stay safe.

NCL’s Child Labor Coalition branch alerts consumers about suspect working conditions and and lobbies for stronger protection.

A slightly cluttered, but cozy workspace shared with two other interns.
I share the front section of desks with two awesome fellow interns. I love to hang out and learn from them.

A program known as Script Your Future teaches people how to navigate the healthcare system, properly administer legal medicine and avoid illicit drugs.

The LifeSmarts scholarship program uses a trivia-style competition to teach young people about consumer issues and make it fun for them at the same time. Each week the other interns and I write at least twenty-five questions for the competition covering topics from personal finance to technology.  The middle and high school students eligible to take part get a chance to win thousands of dollars in scholarships, but anyone can take a shot at their daily quizzes.

My LifeSmarts questions have tackled food labeling, safety, nutrition, and dietary supplements. The MedlinePlus site is a great resource for understanding those topics. The information is fascinating, but I am more impressed with the kids who participate in the competition. I practiced answering some “easy” questions, but it was hard. It was quite the learning experience!

When I am not tabulating data or creating trivia questions, I engage in extensive research. I like to use government sources such as the EPA and USDA websites. I spent the last week drafting a policy memo about food labeling after learning more from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service database. I was surprised that food date labels are not nationally standardized. It turns out dates on packaging are guesses and usually refer to freshness. People who judge safety based on so-called “expiration dates” often discard products early and contribute to food waste. The canned goods you throw out after the printed date passed likely could last much longer.

A flyer for a GWU sports betting panel that I attended with NCL.
I accompanied the executive director of NCL, the public policy manager, and two other interns to a panel discussion about the legalization of sports betting.

Other highlights of my internship include writing a newsletter on how to reduce dairy waste and learning how to shape laws to protect consumers from the dangers of gambling.

I can help NCL promote consumer rights by providing a fresh perspective on the issues that affect young people. My LifeSmarts questions will help inspire kids to be independent, while the information I gather from my research will contribute to NCL’s legacy of supporting people who need it most.

By the end of my internship, I hope to have sharpened my writing skills so I can communicate more effectively. I want to have learned how to best influence the government to make laws fit basic standards of decency. Most of all, I hope to have helped consumers lead a better life.

– Caleigh Bartash

Post 1: Exploring Consumer Interests at National Consumers League

My name is Caleigh Bartash. As the Brandeis fellow at the historic DC-based advocacy group National Consumers League, I help promote the interests of consumers in areas such as safety, health care and personal finances. My organization defends consumers with a broad approach that includes special emphasis on fraud, child labor, medical literacy and development of life skills for teenagers.

My colleague at the League’s fraud center, for example, talks to consumers every day and teaches them how to recognize and avoid scams. I was surprised to learn scam artists have technology so advanced they can disguise their numbers to look like a reputable organization. Innovation improves our lives for the most part, but it also makes scams much harder to detect. I would recommend anyone worried about scams to check out Fraud.org to learn how to stay safe.

NCL’s Child Labor Coalition branch alerts consumers about suspect working conditions and and lobbies for stronger protection. And a program known as Script Your Future teaches people how to navigate the health-care system, properly administer legal medicine and avoid illicit drugs.

The LifeSmarts scholarship program uses a trivia-style competition to teach young people about consumer issues and make it fun for them at the same time. Each week the other interns and I write at least 25 questions for the competition covering topics from personal finance to technology.  The middle and high school students eligible to take part get a chance to win thousands of dollars in scholarships, but anyone can take a shot at their daily quizzes.

My LifeSmarts questions have tackled food labeling, safety, nutrition, and dietary supplements. The MedlinePlus site is a great resource for understanding those topics. The information is fascinating, but I am more impressed with the kids who participate in the competition. I practiced answering some “easy” questions, but it was hard. It was quite the learning experience!

When I am not tabulating data or creating trivia questions, I engage in extensive research. I like to use government sources such as the EPA and USDA websites. I spent the last week drafting a policy memo about food labeling after learning more from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service database. I was surprised that food date labels are not nationally standardized. It turns out dates on packaging are guesses and usually refer to freshness. People who judge safety based on so-called “expiration dates” often discard products early and contribute to  food waste. The canned goods you throw out after the printed date passed likely could last much longer.

Other highlights of my internship include writing a newsletter on how to reduce dairy waste and learning how to shape laws to protect consumers from the dangers of gambling. 

I can help NCL promote consumer rights by providing a fresh perspective on the issues that affect young people. My LifeSmarts questions will help inspire kids to be independent, while the information I gather from my research will contribute to NCL’s legacy of supporting people who need it most.

By the end of my internship I hope to have sharpened my writing skills so I can communicate more effectively. I want to have learned how to best influence the government to make laws fit basic standards of decency. Most of all, I hope to have helped consumers lead a better life. 

Above: I accompanied the executive director of NCL, the public policy manager, and two other interns to a panel discussion about the legalization of sports betting.

– Caleigh Bartash