What attracted you to this internship?
I began to engage with questions of inequality and social justice at an early age. The suffering of others was never something I could ignore. This tendency of mine was crucial to not only my decision to attend Washington and Lee, which unlike many schools has a Poverty and Human Capability Studies minor, but also my decision to intern with the Equality and Human Rights Action Centre (ACTEDO) in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. ACTEDO's pro bono network for human rights and focus on gender-based violence appealed to my interests in human rights and gender equality, two topics which inform my evaluation of institutions and everyday interactions.
How did you learn about it?
The Shepherd International Internship Program is unique in that you have the freedom to create an opportunity for yourself and the community with which you will work; because the options are endless, actually securing an opportunity requires persistence. Without the encouragement of Lorri Olan (Associate Director of Career Development and Pre-Law Advising Coordinator) and without the help of Fran Elrod (Associate Director for Community-Based Learning), I never could have secured an opportunity that suited my interests. Fran put me in touch with Kate LeMasters '15, who spent a year in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, with the Cluj School of Public Health after graduation. Kate's community engagement led me to this opportunity. Without Kate's connections, I never would have learned about the opportunity to collaborate with ACTEDO through the Cluj School of Public Health's community practice program; more importantly, without Kate's example, I never would have thought to come to Romania.
What gave you an edge in landing this internship?
The framework provided by my minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies, coupled with my experience working with organizations on campus that focus on gender relations, demonstrated a level of preparedness and passion necessary to work with an NGO that focuses on human rights and gender equality.
Describe your daily duties.
On a typical day, I walk an hour to work and arrive at ACTEDO's office by 10 a.m. Once there, my supervisor and I make coffee while talking about the latest news, interesting books we have read, or our current frustrations with the state of the world. Because ACTEDO is a small NGO with a single office, the rest of my day is spent working as a member of a team, which means that I not only work on my projects but am also exposed to the important tasks the NGO's key members tackle each day to keep the NGO running smoothly. We eat lunch as a team and decide when to head home as a team, so the schedule varies, but I usually head home between 5 - 7 p.m. My hour walk home is a necessary time to reflect and unwind. In addition to my work at ACTEDO, I recently started to volunteer, usually in the morning before arriving at work, with another organization called Thesaurus. This volunteer work affords me the opportunity to work firsthand with the vulnerable populations ACTEDO serves.
What are some tasks/projects you've been working on?
A week after arriving on the job, I started a project on human rights education in local high schools. After concluding this project, I began to familiarize myself with the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in preparation for the Romanian Development Camp conference we would attend in Bucharest (Romania's capital). Now, I am working on position papers and policy briefs to submit to the UN's Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Fittingly enough, I will conclude my experience, in a way similar to the way I started, by delivering a presentation to a group of students on Everyday Ethics: A Human Rights-Based Approach to Interactions with Ourselves, Others, and Our World. Once back in the states, I hope to start a crowdfunding project that will benefit Roma youth. Stay tuned.
Have any courses and/or professors helped you prepare for this internship? Which ones?
At the beginning of my internship, I often worried about what I could contribute to the NGO, given that I had little experience with European Legislation on human rights. More often than not, I found myself answering with a timid "no" when asked if I knew about this legislative document or that human rights case. So it came as a huge relief when my supervisor one day said, "You have so many skills." When I expressed doubt, she went on to describe how few people have the necessary framework when approaching human rights. Because of my studies with Professor Pickett in Poverty 101 and community engagement in Poverty 102, I was able to make valuable contributions to the NGO. When reading position papers and, especially, when debating issues at the Romanian Development Camp conference, I noticed the salience of my studies as a Poverty and Human Capability Studies minor. I found myself engaging with the key terms, concepts, and philosophers to which I was exposed in Poverty 101: Martha Nussbaum and the ten central capabilities, John Rawls and the veil of ignorance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, absolute versus relative poverty, us versus them mentality, justice, and dignity, to name a few. Professor Pickett's emphasis on asking better, or more critical, questions, coupled with Professor Eastwood's approach to poverty as an open system, one that is complex and difficult to study, in SOAN 266: Neighborhoods, Culture, and Poverty, invested in me the patience and critical thinking skills necessary to make the most of my summer internship experience. And as an English major, I must conclude by stating what is obvious to me but grossly overlooked by many: the ability to write critically is arguably the most important skill in any field.
What do you hope to learn by the end of your experience?
There is a quote I read this summer that I now think about a great deal. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "There is much more happiness to be found in the world than dim eyes can see, if one calculates correctly and does not forget all those moments of ease which are so plentiful in every day of every human life, even the most oppressed." Inspired by this quote, I hope to learn how to embrace pockets of happiness in my life and how to create pockets of happiness for others, even — and especially — the most oppressed.
What was your favorite part or perk of the internship?
Placed in a foreign country and outside of my comfort zone, I came to examine critically my philosophy. Did I have one? Did my thoughts about myself and others fully acknowledge human complexity? No longer numb to these questions, I realized that what we see and what we say tend to be reflections of ourselves, not reproductions of reality. To see the value in each person, I first had to see the value in myself. To do so, I began to take self-care seriously for the first time. To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I needed to treat myself with compassion and respect. And in time, it became clear: if I want to be a human rights advocate, I need to advocate for myself; if I want to listen to voices that are so often silenced and ignored, I needed to listen to myself: body, mind, and soul.
What did you learn from living in the city where the internship was located?
While in Cluj-Napoca, I had the opportunity to interact with Roma, one of Romania's largest and most disadvantaged minorities. I witnessed firsthand a clear violation of human rights after a visit to Pata Rât, an area located on the outskirts of the city near a landfill and chemical waste dump to which 300 people were forced to relocated after being evicted from their homes in 2010. Neither an immediate nor a simple solution to this human rights atrocity exists, but I have come to better understand the importance of civil society in acting as watchdogs, advocates, and changemakers, which gives me hope.
What key takeaways/skills will you bring back to W&L?
After observing the interplay between civil society and the government during my internship, I have a new outlook on what should be a reciprocal relationship between student organizations on campus and the Executive Committee. It is not enough to seek formal recognition and budget allocations from the Executive Committee. As student leaders, we need be engaged with our student representatives. A good way to do this: attending the Executive Committee's weekly meetings to make certain this exchange occurs.
What advice would you give to students interested in a position like this?
Be humble — in the application process, in the planning process, and in the workplace. Ask questions — seize the opportunity to learn something new from each person with whom you interact. Be ebullient — bring good energy to your work environment and your daily interactions.
Has this experience influenced your career aspirations? How so?
My internship experience has confirmed my interest in social justice. While I do not know to what capacity I will be formally involved with the non-profit sector, I know that as a Poverty and Human Capability Studies minor I will continue to advocate for human rights and engage with members of vulnerable groups. The big question facing me for life after W&L still remains: How can I do the most good with the talents I have and the opportunities I have been given?
Describe your experience in a single word.
Kassie's internship was made possible by the the Class of 1975 Shepherd Poverty Program Summer Internship Endowment. Give to an endowment supporting student summer experiences.