In writing about innovation and arts sector reform, Diane Ragsdale issued a call to action urging all of us to “actively address the social inequities in our country.”
Typically, my initial response to such a call would be something like, “let’s make sure that low-income neighborhood schools have the arts!”
I could then write some letters, “call city hall,” or contact members of the school board. None of those actions would require any substantial change in my conceptual frameworks or daily habits.
While committed to the goal, my efforts would be undertaken with a feeling that they would accomplish little. I am also aware that I may prefer such predictable actions not because they produce results but because they are, well, easy. Maybe that’s just me.
The Emerging Arts Leaders of Atlanta Network hosts regular events, often with one speaker or a panel of speakers.
Last summer, at one such meeting, I heard all sorts of great things about a particular internship program. That same meeting raised the issue about labor laws requiring that unpaid interns are not do work that someone else would otherwise be paid to do. I thought I might put together a panel with some interns who were willing to talk about their experience along with the people who run that intern program and a human resources professional to clarify legal mumbo jumbo.
It was a perfect storm. There I was, proud of having such a stellar panel, and proud of having a room full of people who listened as I pitched questions based off my naïve assumptions. I can say some pretty dumb things when standing in front of a crowded room, not because I am brave, but because I have, until that moment, been quite satisfied exposing myself to an easy access, limited kind of perspective.
I live and work in the city of Atlanta, and Emory University happens to be located there. Emory is a pretty progressive school and its Center for Ethics has established an innovative Ethics and Servant Leadership Internship Program.
After we spent time talking about the legalities of unpaid internships and how to walk the fine line, they pointed out that I was ignoring the much bigger problem with unpaid internships, namely that they were socially inequitable to begin with.
I bypassed the fundamental starting point, and the Emory Ethics and Servant Leadership folks were more than happy to call me out for it. God bless ‘em.
It was a hard truth* and something I should think about more: Unpaid internships overwhelmingly privilege those who are privileged already. Only those who can already afford to work for free get this advantage. These are internships provided to people who can afford to take two months, four months, sometimes a year off, and work for free.
There may be some exceptions, but unpaid internships are filled by people who can afford to work without getting paid for it. In a lot of schools and cities, students are now actually paying money (a lot of money) to intern.
They are paying to work for free. Those internships can often turn into jobs, or networking opportunities, or at the very least a padded resume.
Maybe that’s not what Diane Ragsdale was thinking when writing about “social inequities” that we should be tackling.
In fact, I am pretty darn sure she was trying to make us think of things much bigger. But every time I think of bringing in an intern, I feel really guilty because we can’t afford to pay them, and we are likely continuing to participate in a system where the privileged are getting yet another advantage over those that can’t afford it.
I love my new friends at Emory’s Center for Ethics, particularly its Ethics and the Arts program.
When they challenge me on things like this, I don’t have a response for them quite yet. It is a problem that runs rampant in the field. When they called me out on advancing a system that privileges the privileged, I used the easy response (which I am continuing to provide today):
We can’t afford to pay our interns. Can’t help you. Sorry.
I’m not naïve, I know my organization, like many of yours, cannot afford to pay interns. But to be fair, my ethics friends are completely right that the failure to do so helps cement social inequities.
I have no answer to the problem, easy or otherwise, so I am going to kick this one out there and see if you have any ideas…or at the very least something that helps me feel less ridiculous when my answer is simply a mumbling “but we can’t afford to pay them.”