What first-time interns for social justice work should know

The time I spent at National Consumers League has taught me valuable lesson about social justice work. It was a bittersweet journey, so now I am going to share it with the intention to better prepare those who want to pursue an internship or career in this field.

First of all, remember that there are many, many people and organizations working on the same issue as you, and you need them. Social justice work relies heavily on the the power of the crowd. We need people and groups to help reach a larger demographic, which will band together to be the pressure needed for changes. At NCL, we have coalitions for every thing: child labor, forced arbitration, health care … and we were able to utilize local group connections to bring in victims or influence politicians from other states across the country. As a lot of individual organizations are small with limited resources, it would have been impossible for them alone to achieve such success.

Social Justice work is powered by the number of people involved

However, you must also remember, when there are many people involved, the logistic and planing process sometimes could be incredibly slow. Every organization must go through with the plan, and there are conflicts of interest. It is very different from a start-up environment where it is mostly project-based small groups working together in a time-pressed manner. So if you want to work in social work, it is really important to be patient and be able to have a wide network that helps you connect and coordinate with other organizations. Also, from time to time you will feel like your contribution is but a grain of salt adding to the ocean. That is not to say your effort is futile, but that it is marginally small compared to the many people working on the same thing as you are. When those moments arise, keep in mind that your cause relies on the number of people involved. So your contribution, albeit small, is crucial to social justice work.

The second advice I have has to do with dealing with work conflict, which applies to every field, not just social justice work. After my experience with NCL, I believe the best way to deal with conflict is to be direct and talk to the person you work with or with the person who might have an issue with you. If you don’t talk to them, there is a high chance that they might complain about you to others and bad rumors will circulate around the office with your knowledge. Be direct but soft! Ask them if there is anything they would like you to improve on, or what time they expect you to hand things in. Constantly communicating with your supervisor not only gives you the feeling of how they evaluate you but also gives you the chance to fix any issue before it gets too large. It also creates a bond between your supervisor and you and elevates trust. Also, for those who crave being challenged and constantly learning new things, being a summer intern, whether in social justice work or other types of company, means you are a guest to them. Don’t expect them to welcome you with a lot of responsibilities like you expected. A good piece of advice is for you to take the initiative and offer your assistance to them. Even if they don’t have some tasks available right then, they will remember you when they do.

Always try to have a positive relation with your supervisor

Social Justice, what I learnt in Brandeis v. real life

Other than the education I receive from my classes at Brandeis, I have learned a great deal from talking with Prof. Charles Chester from International Environmental Policy courses. We mostly talked about how environmental advocacy and NGO groups function around the world. But coming to work at National Consumers League, I realized the experience is very much the same for similar organizations in different fields. It does not matter what industry you work in, as long as the organization is trying to mobilize politicians, the way of work is very similar.

One thing we discussed was how these organizations are inefficient. He explained that for many organizations, the staff have to spend a lot of resources finding funding for the activities and for the organization itself to survive. So the time and money that are supposed to go to doing activities to support the cause actually go to paying people to apply for other grants that hopefully will pay for those activities. The problem is worsened if there are many third parties organization in between the original donor and the organization which actually does the practical work, as along the way there will just be more “leaking buckets,” as my professor said it. So by the time the money reaches the actual work, it will be a fraction of what the original amount of money. And that is certainly a waste.

A member of our 2-person sponsor relation team

Now, fortunately, National Consumers League is not the type of origination that does grassroots work. And other than traditional donations, where our sponsors just donate a certain amount to the organization, we have a project-based system for donors who want to give for a specific project that we run. We also have a department of two people specializing in opening networks and working with sponsors to get more grants. This funding system and the size of the sponsor relation department, in my opinion, give donors the confidence that their money, to the maximum degree possible, is not being used for the wrong purpose.

At Brandeis, I also had the pleasure of talking to my business-savvy upperclassman. We argue about how organizations are inefficient in a different way: how they are swayed by the power of the money from their donors. He argues that most organizations receive their money from for-profit business and thus are incredibly restricted in what and how they can support their agenda. Given that I am in a consumer-rights industry right now, this is particularly relevant. Business and consumers are not always the best harmony when it comes to benefits. I have experienced this struggle when I first worked on my project to identify and promote brands of products are child-labour free. Of course, I was discouraged with the concern that advertising (while I merely consider it educating and informing customers) certain brands would have the organization be at odds with other potential sponsors. It was incredibly dampening as I don’t see how we can be informing people while being influenced by those who give us the money we need to survive as an organization. Luckily, my doubt was slightly mitigated after I learned that our director once wrote a blog advocating for the limitation on soda drink sales in restaurants due to its being linked with diabetes–and some of those brands are actually our sponsors. The NCL, while taking precautions when giving out criticisms of certain brands, is still an independent entity that informs and advocates for what it believes in.

Of course, I cannot say it is or can be the same for every organization out there to operate with some kind of independency or with the maximum efficiency possible, nor can I say the NCL is the ideal model that every organization should follow. But I do believe for now we have the balance needed to carry out our work.

Reid and I talking to the survivors of child labour in a Child Labour coalition meeting

Things I have learned from my internship

So far into my internship at National Consumers League, I have learned valuable skills I do not get exposed to on a daily basis in the academic environment of Brandeis. My first assignment there was to get used to using Twitter as a means to connect our followers. At first I was mentally hesitant since I was not used to constantly being on social media, and it was overwhelming to handle all aspects that come with it. But gradually, I learned that social media is a very effective way to reach out to the general public.

Except for researchers or reporters, who are responsible for finding extensive and reliable sources backing their news or findings, average people find minced and succinct news to be easier to digest and more accessible. Thus I constantly have to find a way to jam the load of information into a tweet with a maximum of 140 characters. And when I don’t have to give out information in the form of tweets, I keep my comments and article brief and concise. This job not only gives me the opportunity to practice and improve my research skills, it makes me realize the most effective way to feed the general public news and information. In the future, I may not continue to work on social media or Twitter, but this has become a mentality I keep in mind whenever I write something: be succinct and be mindful of how my target audience will best absorb the information.

Weekly meeting with all the staff and interns

Another skill I have learned is interpersonal skill. When I first came to my job, there were things I believed should be done in certain ways that might not be exactly what my supervisor believed should be handled. At first, I chose to blindly follow what my supervisor wanted, although there was some frustration with having to redo the project all over. But later, I realized that it was a complete waste of my and my supervisor’s time and energy, and it could be potentially straining for our relationship. After that, I was determined to have better communication with him. Now, whenever we enter a project or assignment, we make sure to talk to each other first. We think about the approach we’d like to use, what expectation we have, who the project targets, and if there are better ways to do it. After our session, we come out with an agreed upon solution and keep on that track, so as to not waste our time and improve our relationship and trust.

I also learned that I should voice out my disagreement in these sessions in a contributory manner. It may seem scary to tell your supervisor you disagree with them, but my supervisor is a very kind and patient man who is more than happy to hear out concerns about our work. Plus, when both parties understand the expectations we have, it is easier to work with each other in the long run. Last but not least–and I can’t stress this enough–it is important to remember that asking a lot of questions does not mean you are unqualified for your job or that you don’t know what you are doing. Asking question simply means you care about your work and you want to do it properly.

My supervisor in Child Labor department

The way we work at National Consumers League

These last two weeks I have been increasingly assigned to work directly with the director of National Consumers League. As the director, she works on many issues regarding consumer’s rights and safety, ranging from hotel cancelation period, increasing regulations on table saw safety, better laws to protect a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, to discouraging automakers from lobbying to rollback fuel efficiency standards. To be able to work on these different issues is an great opportunity for me to better understand not only the values and the extent of work the NCL cares about, but also how the process works in a small and dedicated entity like NCL.

Among the issues that the interns have been working on, such as those mentioned above, none of them really fits into any department we have at NCL, except for Public Policy perhaps. But that department does not handle these issues. And to be honest, I have no idea what Public Policy is specifically working on right now. Instead, to have the director of the whole organization delegate these issues to interns and personally oversee the research, the report and communication process is amazing in its own way. How are the content of issue selected? It is actually a very random but up to date process. Usually, the director would find these issues in the daily news. These could be big and obvious and receive a lot of attention from the media and the public, or they could be very elusive and only appear in a column in the local newspaper. Regardless, when she assigns them to the interns, we treat them with the same standard of intensive research, expressive statements and in a very timely manner.

6 page research with more than 12 sources, all for one blog post

Many might think it is inefficient, and that she should have department heads work on these issues instead. They maybe right, but the NCL is a small organization with about twenty employees in total. So department heads may already have too many responsibilities on their hands already and may not be able to catch up with that is going on. Instead, here the interns not only get intimately within the system and are mentored by the person with the highest position in the organization but we are also working with the latest issues and are not hindered with the bureaucracy of chain of command. This way the NCL can have the resources to both deal with long-term battle like health care, child labor and other work extensive issues and have a say in sneaky matters that many may not even realize are there but have a significant impact on our lives.

Just finished a big media project raising awareness on how child labour fuels the chocolate industry

Honestly, this is a very effective strategy that I have never heard from other organizations. We are participating in on all fields when it comes to protecting consumers and people’s rights in general, which is much broader than I have imagined when I first applied to NCL. And every step we make in the process ensures that the view the NCL holds are scientifically and empirically supported, helping consumers make informed choices.


My first month at National Consumer League

I am currently working as an intern for the National Consumer League, a consumer advocacy organization, representing consumers and workers on the marketplace and workplace since 1899. The organization deals with real-life knowledge-based education for high school students (LifeSmarts program), eliminates hazardous child labor and fraud, and develops programs to help patients keep up with their medication schedules.

NCL is a small organization, with a total of around 20 employees, which makes it a perfect environment for an intern to get to know everyone, from the director, department heads, to other interns, and learn about what they are working on. NCL is accommodating to the interns’ needs and preferences to improve ourselves. We have C (for privacy purpose, I will only include their initials), who is the general supervisor of all interns. In the first week, the interns will have a one-on-one talk with her about our field of interest, what we want to improve about ourselves, and what goals we would like to achieve. Then, she lets us choose who we will be primarily assigned to. We will work with our supervisor of choice on specific field and assist them with research, blogs, and manage their social media outlet.

I chose to work with R, director of Child Labor issues. Honestly it was not a field I had much background knowledge of prior to the internship. In fact, I hardly ever thought of such matter at all. Talking to R, I realize that is the exact problem we are having with fighting child labor. It is so far removed from the supply chain that average people would never even consider the possibility of some children aged 9 or 12 doing back-breaking work to help produce things consumers use everyday. It startles me to realize virtually everything has some tint of child labor, the cotton in our clothes, the tea leaves and coffee beans in our daily beverage, the bricks in our house and everything else.

My primary work here is to manage the social media outlet of Child Labor Coalition (please follow us on Twitter if you are interested in news and facts about child labor). I respond to questions by followers, follow people who share the same interest, and post facts and news about child labor, or other related issues. It is a never ending job, in a sense of you have to keep doing it everyday. To be honest, there is no sense of accomplishing anything as every morning you wake up, you have to do it all over. It is also never ending because everyday, there is some news about child labor no matter how elusive, as long as you know where to search for them. It is mentally and emotionally draining when you think that it is the 21st century and there are still 168 million children out there participating in labor, often too hazardous and without proper protection, when they should be in school, learning and playing. It is taxing but I am also learning so much.

My goal in dealing with child labor is to think of a way to better communicate this issue and assist consumers out there to make direct, informed and conscious choice in their consumer behavior. So far I am thinking of writing a series of blogs, suggesting how consumers can notice signs of child labor and other types of modern slavery and sweatshop, which sustainable brands to buy from and which unethical ones to avoid. It is a work in progress so far. I will update in my next report.

Credit: All photos belong to NCL Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/nationalconsumersleague/

Trang Nguyen