Hometown: New York City
Major: Global Politics
Minors: Women's and Gender Studies, Poverty and Human Capability Studies
Agency: Housing Works in Washington, D.C.
What did you enjoy most about the internship? Acquiring hands-on experience at a leading organization in the fight to end HIV/AIDS, while being able to put to use all that I have learned in the classroom. It reaffirmed my passion for the cause.
What was the greatest challenge? Putting myself up-front and center in the advocacy process. I had to learn that it's okay to feel a little uncomfortable in advocacy and, even more than that, that it's necessary to push others out of their comfort zone to get the policy result that you want.
What was the greatest lesson you learned through your experience? That unfortunately, even when passionate people have the knowledge and ability to affect positive change, the political process prevents quick and holistic action.
How might the internship affect your career path? Before this internship, I knew exactly what subjects and issues that I was passionate about and, thus, the general field I wanted to go into--women's issues, public health and human rights. What I didn't know was what kind of role I wanted to play in that field. This internship really challenged me to consider all the different ways I can make an impact while following my passions. It even caused me to consider roles that I had previously discounted. Interacting with many people this summer, all of whom are devoted to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic but with very different job descriptions and work experiences and employing organizations, I was able to really explore the different pieces of the advocacy and political puzzle. I'm still not sure what role I want to have, but anyone who interacted with me this summer will tell you that this internship put the question of what role I want to have, not just what field I want to be in, at the forefront of my thoughts.
This summer, I was the National Advocacy and Organizing Intern for Housing Works in its Washington, D.C. office. Housing Works is a healing community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, whose mission is to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain their efforts. This summer's internship was a phenomenal crash course in advocacy. I learned how to be a successful advocate, what many of the field's challenges are and what a career and life as an advocate would entail. I learned these lessons from two veteran advocates and truly impressive supervisors, Christine Campbell and Larry Bryant. They taught me, challenged me, questioned me and believed in me--professionally and personally.
My first lesson came at 9:30 a.m. as I arrived for my first day of work at the Washington, D.C. office. My bosses weren't there! I soon understood that there is no such thing as a daily routine in advocacy, and that opportunities arise at a moment's notice. I received a call from Christine and Larry, who had just zipped up to New York City (where I live and from where I had just traveled). I was informed that I should get on a train to head back north that afternoon. At the United Nations, there were high-level meetings about AIDS-related goals for 2015 and beyond. Housing Works was planning multiple actions to raise awareness and to make demands throughout the city. I spent four days working in NYC and marched in my first rally. I was timid and uncomfortable at first, but soon found myself chanting along with thousands of other advocates. The following week, I flew to Los Angeles with Larry for three days to meet with the West Coast chapter of the Campaign to End AIDS, as well as other leading organizations in the fight to end AIDS. Then I returned to D.C., where one day I attended a conference on the ADAP crisis. The next day met with the Department of Health, and on the following day I met with members of the Washington community to discuss the epidemic on a local level. It was all very enlightening. My tasks were varied. I booked airline flights for a conference for two dozen people, helped with financial/accounting documentation and office organization and wrote a Housing Works blog post. There was never a dull moment, and on most days, I arrived at work not knowing exactly what I'd be doing. And that is much of what advocacy is--taking advantage of opportunities to try to accomplish your goals.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I took away from this summer is a realistic insight into the political process. I've always been frustrated with the sluggish speed at which things get done in Washington. This summer, I witnessed that convoluted bureaucratic slow lane over and over. Timing is everything--and it seems to take too long to accomplish goals. There is a lot of talking, ego and emotion involved, and a huge cast of characters. Once a group of advocates decides there is a problem, then they need to hone in on the specific issue. Sounds simple, but before determining how the problem can be solved, a plan of action must be made. That plan involves further debate among a number of people, nearly all of whom are convinced that their opinion is correct. Finally, an agreed-upon plan can only be implemented with resources, both human and monetary, the latter of which has been dramatically curtailed by cuts in government and nonprofit funding. During the first few weeks, my supervisors kidded me that I was hard to please, because we'd come back from meetings and they'd ask me, "What do you think?" I told them that I was unimpressed. I heard a lot of talk and didn't see any action. One day after another meeting, I said that not one less person was being infected with HIV, not one more person was receiving life-saving treatment, and not one more person was being educated in prevention. It left me feeling somewhat hopeless. But I also understand that for better or worse, this is the process that exists, and good results can take time.
By the end of the summer, when I left a meeting I was able to agree with Christine and Larry on small successes achieved. There was a focused aspect of the greater issue addressed. We came up with a timeline for further action. And visiting advocates took new information and ideas back to their individual organizations. In the political process, small successes are everything. Big victories would be fantastic, but I now understand they are built out of small successes. This slow pace has nothing to do with incompetency at the table. In fact, I was consistently blown away by the passion, knowledge, resources, experiences and achievements of the advocates I met this summer. They had political will and dedication. They knew what needed to get done and had great plans to do so. But in the end it is because of resources and stigma that 34 million people worldwide are HIV-positive and 2 million more are infected each year. This was the most disheartening lesson I learned: We are now 30 years into the political process of fighting HIV/AIDS. The will and knowledge to drastically fight and perhaps end AIDS exists. Advocates have endured for 30 years a fight which I felt had been too long in eight weeks. Now the epidemic could be at a real turning point, but Washington and the world aren't committing the necessary resources and the general public lacks awareness.
My biggest challenge and project of the summer was helping to plan and facilitate the Youth Action Institute, held this year in Detroit, Mi. Every year the Campaign To End AIDS offers a week long HIV/AIDS advocacy and activist ‘boot-camp' for youth ages 15 to 25, complete with a hands-on and interactive trainings from experienced activists and HIV professionals. Skills building included fund-raising, developing and implementing advocacy strategies around specific HIV/AIDS-related issues and developing and executing a direct action in support of local community issues.
The week was truly phenomenal. As a facilitator I was able to both learn from the Institute and get experience behind the scenes in institute planning, which is something I may be interested in pursuing further. I was able to help with travel arrangements, create materials for the week, run daily ice breakers and sit in on facilitator meetings every evening. My biggest challenge was to give a presentation on the National HIV/AIDS Strategy that President Obama produced in July 2010. Not only was I able to report on the goals of the 60-page document, but I was able to assess how far (or little) we as a country have been able to come in fighting the epidemic in the past year.
At the end of the week we put all of our new skills to use by planning and implementing an action in about 48 hours. We felt an important issue for the city of Detroit was a lack of funding for LGBTQ youth housing. We organized a rally outside of the city council building near the Spirit of Detroit statue downtown. This issue touched home with many of the local Detroit Institute participants. The support we received was inspiring--local news stations came out to do stories about our rally, we had pedestrians who were passing by stop and join us, we had public city buses honking their support, and we had local police officers come over to give their support of our cause. The head of the city council and his staff took what we said to heart. A few of us were able to go to his office, give out the materials we had created, and arrange for further meetings with our Detroit locals. Standing on a street corner passing out flyers and chanting "no housing = no future" is not something I have ever done, but this challenge was an unbelievable experience. To be able to help out a city that is hurting so much right now and to see actionable political results from the week was inspiring.
Christine and Larry both questioned me and made me question myself every day. I came in passionate about the cause, but as someone who was raised to be polite, I struggled with two very big cornerstones of advocacy. The first is grassroots advocacy. I never thought I wanted to be a grassroots advocate and I honestly didn't believe it was effective in garnering real change. I much preferred working within the system and guidelines set forth--I don't really like to step on any toes. And though I'm still not sure I would like to be a grassroots activist in my career, I now know without a doubt that grassroots advocacy works and it works well. Having this experience and perspective in grassroots advocacy will make me a more able and skilled advocate in the future.
The other cornerstone of advocacy I struggled with at first but now consider a mantra for my future is something my supervisor Christine would say: You have to make the comfortable a little uncomfortable if you want change. This is true for any change in life, not just political issues. It applies to everything from picking a college to deciding to find a new home. I learned this summer not just that I need to make people in power a little uncomfortable to get them to do what I want as an advocate, but also that as an advocate I will be more effective if I am willing to make myself a little uncomfortable too. And that is certainly something I challenged myself to do every day while working at Housing Works.
Lastly, I end this internship with a clearer goal for my future. I have always had a passion for the cause, but now I have a passion for advocacy as well. With the constant guidance of my supervisors, this internship helped me to explore the kind of person I want to be and life I want to live. My mentors helped me solidify my graduate school plans and gave me insight to what kind of job positions would be a good fit for me. I'm thankful for the Shepherd Alliance, without which I would never have been able to have this learning and challenging intern experience.