How paid internships show a commitment to social justice

"Nonprofits asking for interns to work without pay is not just unfair, it actually has racist undertones," writes Angelique Molina.
"Nonprofits asking for interns to work without pay is not just unfair, it actually has racist undertones," writes Angelique Molina.
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"Nonprofits asking for interns to work without pay is not just unfair, it actually has racist undertones," writes Angelique Molina.

How paid internships show a commitment to social justice

Nonprofits may find themselves contributing to inequity and the racial wealth gap when they don’t pay interns.
September 3, 2021

Let’s face it. Experience doesn’t pay the bills. We’ve heard this many times, from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to so many interns who work and go unpaid. Many advocates fight for paid internships, yet, there are still nonprofits here in New York city asking interns to work for free.

Nonprofits asking for interns to work without pay is not just unfair, it actually has racist undertones. Students of color are less likely to have paid internships. Without paid internships, students of color will either find themselves taking out loans to make up for their living expenses, which will essentially reinforce the racial wealth gap, or be discriminated against completely, as many simply do not have the financial capabilities to take them on.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that only 6% of students with paid internships were Black and that Hispanic students were more likely than any other racial group to not have had an internship by the time they graduated. These are alarming statistics that shed light on the barriers Black and brown youth face when attempting to obtain opportunities that will help them climb the socioeconomic ladder. 

As a young brown woman growing up in the segregated neighborhoods of New York City in 2010, paid opportunities for youth of color were very rare. The Department of Education was facing constant budget cuts, and because my school was specifically located in a neighborhood that was nearly impossible to access through public transportation, opportunities were out of reach. So, the only logical way to make money was simple: work at the closest stores, which tended to be fast food or retail. Unfortunately, these experiences are not looked at as valuable and are many times scoffed at when seen on a resume. 

Transitioning to college with the hopes of obtaining a job or internship in my field slowly but surely, turned into a dream rather than an attainable goal. I was so excited about learning more about how nonprofits fought for social justice and underserved communities and looked up a lot of great nonprofit organizations looking for interns, only to find out that most of them were unpaid, and if they were paid, they asked for work experience and were highly competitive.

Here in New York City, the city with the largest wealth disparities in the country, Black and brown students face barriers obtaining paid professional development opportunities. And when there are opportunities, those opportunities are always threatened to be defunded. For example, in the summer of 2020 when COVID-19 was well-underway, the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program was cut, until advocates and other supporters fought to get it re-established. SYEP is a lifeline for most Black and brown students, so the attempt to cut it was devastating. 

Nonprofits that are so-called “committed to social justice” are still perpetuating inequity by asking for unpaid interns, which again, will either cause Black or brown students to take on crushing debt or discriminate against them completely. Nonprofits already face a diversity issue, both in leadership and departmentally, and continuing to hire unpaid interns will only exacerbate that problem.

When I finally landed an internship, the only reason it was paid was because it was through a scholarship program I was accepted to. To top it off, I was disappointed in the investment of time that staff members put into creating the internship experience. I was asked to do a lot of work that staff members should have been doing themselves, like organizing business cards or alphabetizing magazines or mail. There were even times where I was given no work to do and would end up staring at the wall. Administrative work will always be something a nonprofit staff member has to deal with and there’s nothing wrong with giving interns admin work but it is important to ensure interns are given fruitful work that they will learn from.

So, what are some solutions? Well, I once saw a young woman of color create a GoFundMe account to raise money for her internship in Washington, D.C. This was a great and creative way to obtain valuable experience while still getting funded. However, students shouldn’t have to do this. Students cannot depend on a fundraising website as it is oftentimes unpredictable to know whether it will raise enough for a person’s expenses. 

Nonprofits have to be the ones taking the initiative to ensure change. A suggested route for nonprofits is to prioritize paying interns a living wage when performing their budget review and really strategize which departments need or should have interns. If a nonprofit claims to not have the budget to pay an intern then the nonprofits should really look into redistributing wealth and reassess how much executive leaders are being paid. The average salary for a nonprofit chief executive officer is $103,661, so is it truly a problem that nonprofits don’t have the budget, or is most of the money going to executive leadership?

Lastly, it is important that a nonprofit ensures their hiring process for interns is equitable and that they are truly investing in a young person’s experience by being prepared with work to give them. Understanding that a young person may not have experience is crucial. So creating a screening process that reflects that understanding makes for a more equitable process. Also, giving interns a quality experience by planning out their workload and mentoring them should be standard practice.

Internships can be a great source of education and open doors for other opportunities. For nonprofits, it is an opportunity to cultivate leaders while also receiving the help they need. Ultimately, it is great for everyone but it must be done right. 

Interns are an investment and if you can’t pay your interns, you don’t deserve their work.

Angelique Molina-Mangaroo
is a freelance opinion writer and founder and executive director of The Wealthy Youth Project, a nonprofit organization that empowers young women, trans and non-binary people by hosting financial literacy workshops that teach students life skills such as how to pay for college, entrepreneurship, homeownership and saving/budgeting.
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