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Intern Power

Byline: Susan LaTempa

Student interns hit Southern California's social justice organizations this past summer in a perfect storm of brains, guts and savvy. In just a few short months, they dared to research what no one has ever researched before and climbed mountains of paperwork previously unscaled. Plus, whenever one of them entered the room, the social networking capacity of an organization quadrupled.

It's easy to recognize the short-term contributions interns make, but when I checked in with students who'd worked with LA Voice PICO, Asian and Pacific Islander Equality-LA, and Pomona Economic Opportunity Center last week, I got a strong sense of the lasting, long-term value to the progressive movement of their participation. These are practical, prove-it-to-me students, and despite the barrage of negative political noise in the national conversation, they expressed faith in the possibility of social progress. And although their issues and projects varied, each took away a similar life lesson: Community organizing works. 

Intern pic "You can’t have a good campaign without good solid research," says Michael Clegg, a junior with a double major in politics and economics at Occidental College. He should know. In just 11 weeks this summer, Clegg tackled three major projects for LA Voice. He was drawn to the group because it is "one of the few organizations that works with different faith groups: synagogues, Catholic churches, Seventh-Day Adventists."  

Clegg delved into "how to track and define affordable housing in the pipeline" so that nonprofit developers (such as A Community of Friends) could link with LA Voice groups to mobilize public support for projects in their neighborhoods. He gathered information on local banks for an emerging bank accountability campaign. And he researched policies developed by other cities to support transit-oriented development ("You can kill two birds with one stone if you [develop] affordable transportation and affordable housing all in one") and how such policies could be implemented in L.A. He used his research to create reports, slide presentations for community meetings, and summary documents for officials and the public.

Interning at LA Voice, says Clegg, has "made me reevaluate what I want to do with my life. . . .The organizers at LA Voice could be making a lot more money in a lot more places. But I don’t know if they could have more impact on people’s lives than they do currently."

With a mind already boggled by talking to a guy who selects economics as just one of two majors, I next spoke to Tommy Tseng, a UCLA grad who's now at the Harvard Kennedy School working on a master's in public policy. He, too, undertook three research projects this summer, but with a twist. "About 95%" of his work for Asian Pacific Islander Equality-LA (API Equality-LA) was in Chinese

Tseng looked at attitudes in Chinese-speaking Southern California communities about advancing the right of same-sex couples to marry. First, he surveyed and analyzed organizations and individuals working against marriage equality in these communities. Then he looked at "Chinese ethnic media," not only surveying previously published articles on the issue, but writing and translating press releases sent out by API Equality-LA in the wake of the Walker decision finding Prop. 8 unconstitutional. He advised API Equality-LA on how its communications with Chinese-language media could be enhanced. Finally, Tseng was the sole worker on an ambitious survey project to identify sources of anti-LGBT bias among Chinese-speaking voters in L.A. County. He conducted and is compiling information from 30 in-depth interviews.

Tseng, who has been a union organizer as well as a field organizer on political campaigns, says this summer's internship has confirmed that working in the LGBT community "is the work I want to do."  He's impressed with API-Equality-LA's effectiveness as a mostly volunteer organization and says he felt "particularly useful" through this group and able to make a unique contribution. "There had been no research whatsoever done on how [Chinese-speaking voters in Southern California] feel on these issues. And not to do the research is to give up the vote in those communities."

AJ Lee A.J. Lee, a graduate student in Asian American Studies at UCLA and another API-Equality-LA summer intern was placed through Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc. (LEAP).  Lee, who worked in finance before beginning his graduate studies, is considering nonprofit management as a career. "I have signficant HIV and AIDS advocacy experience, " he says, "but I didn’t have political engagement experience," so he was enthusiastic about the chance to be involved in the activity around Prop. 8 and to meet and work with marriage equality activists. 

Asked to evaluate reasons for the group's successes and learn what was contributing to its growing membership of LGBT-identified people and allies, Lee put together a presentation of 60-plus slides describing "who we are, what we’ve done, where we're going," and also began to use video to document the marriage equality movement and API Equality-LA's work.  He offered a plan and won approval for a video production program, then filmed events as well as interviews with API Equality-LA's committee chairs, who represent many different communities, occupations, and perspectives.

"One of the unique and important things about my internship was to be involved in grassroots organizing," he says. "It was really important for me to be there when I was but also because I'm gay and [marriage equality] is something that's close to my heart. When something is so personal, you appreciate the opportunity to be involved."

IMG_2096 Emma Thorne-Christy, an American Studies major at Occidental College, segued from intern to summer staffer this year. She first interned at L.A. Voice PICO last fall, working as a community organizer in Pasadena on a campaign to pass a parcel tax for education. "I was interested in how religious institutions work to create communities and I knew L.A. Voice worked with congregations and synagogues. I also really liked that it wasn't a one-issue organization. The staff takes its cues from the community and works to help people do what they want done."

"I used to think 'Oh god, I hate politics, it’s just too complicated. You can’t really change anything,'" Thorne-Christy says. "But working with an organization that works on local issues has really changed things for me. I never knew about all the different ways you can help your community. I always thought volunteering was something you do through direct service, like handing out food to homeless people. I never knew how community organizing works. How you’re trying to give people in the community the skills to serve themselves, advocate [for] themselves and make the change they want to see."

Image156 At the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center (PEOC), Pitzer College senior Paul Waters-Smith's internship work included joining organizer Eddie Gonzalez in giving immigration rights trainings and attending worker meetings not only at PEOC's Day Labor Center but on day-labor corners in a number of communities. Waters-Smith taught a weekly English as a Second Language class at the center and also began research into worker co-ops although, he says, "There's quite a bit more to be done on that front. I didn’t get as far as I want to." And about research, Waters-Smith is "increasingly of the mind"  that "academic research is most meaningful when it’s done to support a community movement project so that it gains a purpose. That kind of research project is what I think would be a more fruitful path, particularly within the social sciences."

Figuring out how to even incorporate college students into its work is actually one of the characteristics of the Center he finds impressive. "It's a big shock, going from the private liberal arts college to the day labor center for any period of time," he says. "Just how hard the work is, that was striking to me. It’s a lot of confronting the more emotional realities of the economic situation, of people trying to survive." Faced with the daunting reality, he says, some students "are unable to deliver and have a tendency to drop out" and he recognizes that the staff has to cope with the "contradictions" of partnering with internship programs "in a way that supports the work the day laborers are doing."

"Coming in with your own ideas is not fulfilling the mission," says Waters-Smith, "You're supporting the work the day laborers already have underway." He mentions his admiration for Jose Diaz, a day-laborer leader and PEOC board member who not only participates in the day-laborer rights struggle but also works on immigrant rights, contributing to a frequently-updated information hotline used throughout the Pomona Valley and the Inland Empire. "It's amazing what he does," says Walters-Smith, "I work with dining hall workers and they rely on his work. Even though he lives on very little money, he commits many hours a day. One of his top priorities is to pursue his work in immigration."

It's the kind of insight gained through experience that can shape attitudes for a lifetime. As to his own work this summer, says Waters-Smith, "I don’t know if I made a huge contribution. But I tried."

Special thanks to Liberty Hill's 2010 students interns, Marcia Hale, Taylor Masen and Corey Matthews of UCLA and Katherine Hensley of NYU. For information about internship opportunities at Liberty Hill, please email Paula Litt.

Photo of Emma Thorne-Christy by Rochelle Martin.

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