I’ve only been privy to some of the goings-on at a single nonprofit, so I certainly cannot speak for the world of work as a whole, nor for social justice work in general. However, I have learned quite a bit about what it looks like to operate within a legal nonprofit that, despite its considerable resources, brainpower, and passion, still has to work within the confines of a system that is pitted against its clients. I’d imagine this can be said for a lot of organizations similar to Legal Aid. Social justice work cannot exist without injustice. The impetus for the work is necessitated by a lack of that which nobody should have to fight for: basic respect, compassion, and protection by one’s fellow citizens and the government. Social justice work, from where I stand and from the little exposure I have had, seems to be about working simultaneously within and outside of the systems at play to ensure the humanization of the clients.
I’ve been asked to write about what impact I’ve had on the organization in the time I’ve been there. I always struggle with this question. It’s not how I like to think. But, I’d say, in the short run, I’ve opened up space for the lawyers I have worked with to focus on tasks that only they are capable of doing. In the long run, I hope I will make the jobs of those at the organization a bit easier by mending the world they have to navigate with their client in some way. And it’s not an easy world.
One thing I’ve only begun to understand is how much let-down there is in this line of work. I was the person who discovered, due to some clerical error in the nebulous vacuum that is USCIS ( United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), that the visas we were preparing for a family of seven were going to take six years longer than expected. I discovered that a DACA client I was working with was actually ineligible for this status. I read the emails of a staff attorney desperately trying to get the casket of a young client she had worked with back to his mother.
There are barriers at every turn, yet there are also tremendous rewards. I’ve reassured many people, signed them up for benefits, listened to and documented their stories, and hopefully have made them feel heard. The other night I was interviewing the son of a woman who had suffered domestic violence, to hear his perspective. He’s fifteen. I explained that this would be the last time we would speak because I was an intern, but that his mommy ( he calls her mommy 😊) would be in very good hands. He looked at me and said “Oh nooooo, don’t go!” in a playful but earnest tone. In that moment, to have some confirmation that he and his mommy felt helped and heard was amazing. You can’t help everyone. So many things are out of one’s control; even the most senior of lawyers say that. But to know that there are concrete ways to make life better for some people helps to soften the blows and invite in hope.
My advice for someone interested in this internship is to just give it a try. Call someone, e-mail someone, apply. It doesn’t have to be something you are 100% certain you will like. That defeats the purpose. A friend called me to talk about nonprofit work because he thought he might be interested (Like I’m some expert! No way!) and I had very few concrete answers for him. That’s when you stop thinking, and just start doing. Something. There is no other way to learn, especially in the nonprofit world.
If you’re interested in immigration, a great place to start is TRII (The Right to Immigration Institute). I’m still trying to connect more with the Waltham community, and this is a sound way of doing that and getting some truly hands-on experience not afforded to many undergraduates.