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.
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.