First Person Perspective
Interning in a Pandemic
By Sarita Benesch, Felisa Concepcion and Antonella Portugal
Social justice internships, at first glance, do not naturally align with remote work. The spring interns at the Justice Policy Institute transitioned from in-person to remote work halfway through their internship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the perspective of Felisa Concepcion, Sarita Benesch and Antonella Portugal on what it’s like to work for a national social justice nonprofit organization during this time.
Social justice organizations across the country will be challenged with maintaining the effectiveness of their internship program during these prolonged stay-at-home orders. Regardless of the organization or mission, interns beginning their experience in the coming months can learn from the perspective of our spring cohort.
Q. What is a remote day like at JPI?
F: Every morning there is an option to login on our video platform to have short convos with one another before the day gets started. We have weekly staff meetings that are very engaging, and bi-weekly intern meetings with our great supervisor where we provide updates on our projects. The rest of the day I am working on my project, doing research, and log off at 5pm like a normal work day (minus the commute)!
S: I used to enjoy talking about current events with the staff whose offices were around me (Hi Paul!) so I make an effort in my morning routine to catch up on any relevant media. Especially with the current situation, the priority of different projects can change within a day. Throughout the day, I like the flexibility to switch between long-term research projects once priority tasks are completed. If any questions come up or I want feedback on my work, I’ll send it off to the point person before the day ends.
A: As Felisa mentioned, we have great video conferencing in place to keep all staff up to date and in communication with each other, even if you haven’t been working directly with everyone. For projects that co-interns work on together, supervisor check-ins also help us pull together questions we may not have been able to answer for each other and outline any next steps.
Q. How did going online impact the work you’ve been doing?
F: Prior to these circumstances, the work I was doing was very independent. Going online didn’t impact my work that much, but it would have been great to be able to walk into staff offices to get their guidance and knowledge on the specific project I’ve been working on. That being said, the accessibility of video conferencing help levitate some of the issues.
S: A lot of short-term projects used to arise from passing thoughts in physical proximity or an idea branching off from a meeting. Right now, though, I’m not sure spontaneous ideas would even fit on the plate. Going online in this pandemic meant streamlining the relevancy of my work as an intern.
A: As a non-remote intern, much of my work was already independent research-based. While I am no longer able to work on replying to mail from the inside, or drafting testimonies anymore, the core of my work hasn’t changed much. Working remotely has required that I use email more to communicate with other staff members about any questions or ideas I may have.
Q. How does JPI’s organizational structure affect a remote position?
F: JPI’s work for interns is mostly research and writing. Being remote does not affect the work of interns. It’s just like attending school and having to do the work at home. JPI is made up of a small, but mighty, team and if you ever need help/guidance you’ll know exactly who to connect with.
S: Once the structure of an office was gone, I appreciated that JPI has clear feedback channels for our work. Urgency became even more important in the advocacy sphere once the pandemic hit, but it has always been clear who I need to email. Plus, I guarantee that the response will be quick.
A: Because we are a small office, as an intern, you really have an opportunity to work with all aspects of what JPI does. The organizing, communications, and research teams don’t work completely independently from each, so while remote work for interns may be more research heavy, people will reach out to you about getting involved in other types of projects going on.
Q. How does JPI’s mission/purpose affect a remote position?
F: Because of COVID-19, a lot has been changing in the criminal justice field nationally. We are seeing diversion practices implemented and releases of incarcerated individuals. JPI is always up to date with these daily changes, which has challenged the organization to be cautious of what to advocate for, how rapidly, and what should be on pause because of COVID-19’s spotlight.
S: I think with social justice organizations in general, this situation has called for an all hands on deck approach. Contributing to this work has actually been a really grounding mission when so much else seems uncertain. I also appreciate that the issues are complex, and JPI doesn’t shy away from the harder questions. It can be difficult to have these discussions remotely, but I’ve witnessed everyone in the office make the space, from extending the allotted time of the meeting or carrying conversations over to email.
A: Because policy and advocacy are changing so quickly, keeping on top of the issues that currently affect incarcerated individuals and returning citizens is crucial to pinpointing potential best practices and advances in the field. Recommendations in our work still need to come from a holistic and careful review in order to prevent any reckless advocacy that may result from pushing material out quickly.
Q. Advice you would give an incoming remote intern?
F: JPI is such a great organization and the work you will be doing will be meaningful and impactful! You might have a handful of projects. One thing that worked for me is writing a list by priority. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Jeremy when you have questions or need guidance. Also, ask for deadlines!
S: Take the time to get oriented with JPI as an organization! Putting in that time upfront will help future work that requires an understanding of older reports or broader organizational goals. With projects, guidelines are clear, but you have the chance to introduce a new angle and develop the evidence for why it should be included. I would also say that you shouldn’t discount any of your talents. If you have experience with social media analytics or a niche subject knowledge, let Jeremy know! One of my favorite projects was to bring a research brief to life by pulling out my hobby for design.
A: Make the most of your time at JPI! Even though you won’t be in the office for a time-period, this is a great opportunity to do valuable work and meet great people. I’d recommend reaching out to everyone so you can really get to know the team. Also, if you’ve never worked remotely before, try finding a makeshift office space to stay focused and on track.
Sarita is a recent graduate from Cornell University. She majored in human development, focusing her coursework on the justice system’s interaction with youth development. She is excited to move beyond theoretical teachings to practical experiences in research, advocacy, and communication strategy at JPI. She intends to pursue a career of social justice impact litigation after starting law school in Fall 2020.
Felisa just completed her Masters in Social Work at Howard University with a concentration in public policy and criminal justice. There she served as Vice President of the School of Social work and is a graduate assistant for a criminal justice professor. Felisa is also a part time research assistant for The Policy Equity Group, a consultancy firm on Capitol Hill. Prior to joining JPI, Felisa spent time volunteering for local DC nonprofits such as Free Minds, Women Involved in Reentry Efforts, and Miriam’s Kitchen.
Antonella has just completed her junior year at Brown University concentrating in Public Policy and Political Science. Her studies are aligned with the American Politics and Law, Government, and Ethics tracks. She first became interested in criminal justice reform after studying urban policy and the intersection of race in the criminal justice system. At JPI, Antonella is working with the research and communications teams to produce briefs and other advocacy materials promoting justice reform. After college, she hopes to keep working toward equitable and fair policies and practices related to the criminal justice and immigration systems.