In one of the first weeks of my summer at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington D.C., the chairman came down to introduce himself to the interns. When introducing ourselves he asked the interns to answer “how we found the DCCC, or how the DCCC found us.” As my fellow interns went around the room, I quickly realized that my story was not like the rest of my peers.
“My aunt is a major political influencer and she connected me.”
“My brother used to work here.”
“My mother is a Congresswoman.”
My answer: I had applied online and decided to accept the offer. No one flagged my resume or knew me before I had arrived. Before I arrived in D.C., I had no exposure to the networking-based job market, which often blurs the lines between professional connections and nepotism. My dad grew up lower-middle class and my mom immigrated from China just a year before I was born. I had no family connections in D.C. who could set me up for a job like so many of my peers.
Another thing the other interns had in common: They were wealthy and mostly white. In a class of 22 interns, four (including myself) were people of color. My peers ate sushi and purchased food for lunch every day, while I budgeted $25 a week for groceries. They lived in townhouses in Georgetown, while I had a room smaller than my freshman dorm with three other girls on bunk beds.
I knew that this internship would be unpaid when I was selected for it. I had worked for the year before with the goal of saving for the summer. I made a budget. I picked the cheapest housing I could find. So when I arrived in D.C., I felt relatively prepared to live frugally but ready to survive in the city. But I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock of the D.C. world of unpaid internships.
There were often points in conversation where I felt uncomfortable, like the odd one out. This was my first exposure to Washington and its East Coast elitism. The interns I worked with were nice and talented, but they came from a different world than I did. They all had pictures of themselves with famous politicians from fundraisers their parents were invited to and grew up talking politics, whereas my family never did those things.
I also was not the only one who felt this way. Another intern (who also goes to the University of Michigan) became my ally in the organization, as we were both Midwestern Asians in the political elite environment. Often we would lock eyes when one of our colleagues said something controversial or strange with a mutual understanding of our circumstance.
It was in this environment that I realized that something needed to be done. Someone had to step up and point out that not everyone had the same opportunities in this unpaid structure, that the unpaid nature of the internship prevents lower-income and diverse candidates from working in an organization and for a party that prides itself on representing those groups.
Thus began my crusade to create a paid internship program at the DCCC.
I reached out to an organization called Pay Our Interns, who had just secured funding for interns in the Senate. They suggested that I draft a letter to the DCCC leaders urging them to start a paid internship program and have other interns sign on, which I did. Most of my peers supported the effort and signed on, though a few were hesitant and feared backlash.
In the end, the letter picked up some traction in the press and the DCCC agreed to begin paying their interns in the future.
This victory was not personal. I didn’t get paid from this, nor did I earn any significant praise for leading this charge, and I didn’t want any of that. If people bring it up nowadays, I tend to brush it off as just sort of something that happened without boasting. This article isn’t meant to brag about some accomplishment of mine. Instead, I hope to convey the message of why unpaid internships are harmful to lower-income students, as they grant opportunities only to those who can afford them.
If we want to make significant change in Washington then the people who have the opportunity to get their foot in the door here with increasingly essential internships cannot just be rich white people. Even the well-intentioned and qualified rich people, like those at the DCCC, cannot truly understand the perspectives of those from lower-income or minority communities, and that gets reflected in their policies.
Paid internships are essential to increasing representation in Washington and providing opportunities to all young people. I am proud of the DCCC — and now Congress — for taking action to pay interns.
This is part of a series of articles examining the impact of unpaid internships on students of limited means. To see the rest of this week’s issue of Statement Magazine, see here.