“The Silver Lining” Pay your Interns 

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A group of interns chats at a coffee table. In this article, Silverman explores the opportunities in the human rights field. Photo courtesy of: unsplash.com

As you can see, I’ve settled on a title for my column. Vagueness aside, “The Silver Lining” represents the outlooks we may gain from our experiences and perceptions, and whether positive, neutral or negative, we must acknowledge the value in all of these outcomes. My goal is not to limit myself – in matters of content or topics – but rather provide some sort of parallel structure in my arguments and establish a basis for a cogent and linear theme throughout the semester. It may not be perfect, but at the end of the day what is? We’re all human, right?  

I spent this past summer as an intern for a human rights organization based in New York City. My position was primarily centered around advocacy, however I feel as though I gained enough of an insight into the world of human rights nonprofit work to discuss what I’ll be presenting today as a concern.  

Human rights lacks diversity. Academic programs are dominated by white students and faculty. The lack of financial support in the nonprofit field leads to occupational opportunities being filled by individuals capable of sustaining themselves via their financially privileged backgrounds. The requirements for entry into leadership positions assumes one or multiple graduate-level degrees, often from private institutions with unholy price tags attached to them. The field has become oversaturated by wealthy, privileged individuals who rarely fulfill more than one form of diversity, and when coupled with the fact that most of these organizations are located in financially-inaccessible cities such as NYC, I cannot help but question who this field is really for.  

These problems are not unique to any particular human rights organization or body, nor are they present in all of them. However, when thinking about which of these bodies are cited most often in my own experience as a human rights student, my exposure to their teams throughout the previous few months has only heightened my awareness – and concerns – regarding the path human rights has set itself upon.  

The greatest threat to the future of this field begins early in the process, however. The opportunities presented to students in human rights undergraduate and graduate programs are severely limiting because such experiences are often unpaid. The United Nations, its sub-sections such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNICEF and the UN Developmental Program, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International exist as the crème de la crème of governmental and nonprofit bodies and organizations for internship opportunities. With the exception of Amnesty, all of these organizations require a bachelor’s degree for most of their internship programs, and all including Amnesty present such programs as unpaid opportunities.  

The assumption that following graduation, a college student who has likely incurred tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt can afford to provide unpaid labor to these bodies is unjust. The nature of these opportunities and their lack of pay do not achieve the so-called goal of fostering a competitive and passionate group of applicants, but rather limits the applicant pool to only those who have pools themselves. Mediocre puns aside, human rights groups must change their hiring and funding procedures in order to ensure an equitable and non-elitist approach to gaining labor and support from students.  

Granted, this is not entirely the fault of these organizations. States do little to support human rights movements and their promoting actors, not to mention their oftentimes direct involvement in the violation of human rights to begin with. Nevertheless, it remains upsetting to see great minds opt for higher paying opportunities in typically less-than virtuous lines of work, simply because human rights does not pay, and it remains equally as upsetting to watch those who can afford to pursue human rights do so with little accountability for their actions.  

Furthermore, all of these issues – lack of diversity and pay, elitist requirements for hiring and so on – are further exacerbated by the western nature of human rights themselves. I won’t get into the argument that human rights are western because such an argument is founded on a factual claim: human rights are indeed western. Rather, we must address what these issues fail to, which is the historical significance of colonialist actions which use human rights as a means to justify imperialist interventions or problematic anthropological expeditions.  

The junction between unpaid internships and colonialism is smaller than it may appear. Propelling one privileged demographic into a field at the entry level of post-college internships directly contributes to the lack of diversity in human rights organizations and governing bodies. Assigning the task of helping oppressed groups to the children of society’s elites and upper class bears little fruit in the upward battle that is human rights activism, and by nature poisons the entire crop instead.  

Am I contributing to the westernizing of human rights? Can I ethically partake in this field? These questions plague the id of UConn human rights students as they apply to internships with two emotions in mind: Worry, that they won’t be able to afford to pursue the field they so passionately study, or shame, that they are contributing to the colonization of global bodies and their nonprofit counterparts. Neither of these feelings are fair, and the weight of such emotions may easily contribute to the loss of some powerful and righteous minds.  

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