The thoughts expressed in this Guest Opinion are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of S&P Global.
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Elected bodies in the U.S., from city governments and state legislatures to federal agencies and Congress, do not reflect the diversity and demographics of the communities they represent and serve. Carlos Mark Vera realized this fact when he was a teenager and has since sought to fix it.
Vera, an immigrant from Colombia, grew up in California until moving across the country at 17 to start college at American University on a full scholarship. During his college years he attended an event on Capitol Hill and visited the office of the Congressman representing his district. While there, he asked the chief of staff how he could get involved—the answer being, apply for an internship.
Vera ultimately got the job, but it turned out to be unpaid. He couldn’t feasibly work at an unpaid internship alone, so he interned 20-30 hours a week with the Congressman while also taking on another job to cover his expenses, still carrying a full college course load—all at 17. While interning, Vera noticed that no one (from the staffers to the names on placards outside Congressional offices) looked like him or members of his community, save the custodial workers. Vera would again feel the challenges of being from a working-class family while interning at the White House when he realized he did not have the budget to invest in enough professional clothing for every day of work. He found he was not alone in these experiences – many others were interning under similarly difficult circumstances.
In 2016, Vera dropped out of American University (he would complete his degree in 2020) but continued mentoring others. During this time, he learned one of his mentees had to skip groceries to pay for professional clothing to carry out his unpaid internship on the Hill.
Vera could not accept these conditions, for himself and for others. So, in October 2016, he created Pay Our Interns—a Facebook group for informal organizing and information sharing among interns, current and past, with the objective of creating pathways for interns at all levels of government (local, state and federal). He strongly believed that without representation of people of color and working-class individuals in these public sector decision-making organizations, key decisions were being made without regard for the actual life experiences of those affected.
Vera and a colleague moved beyond their “Facebook stage” and established a non-profit organization, Pay Our Interns. The two began by sending emails to members of Congress about the critical need to pay public service interns. Nothing happened. They quickly realized that without having more data about their problem (of which, there was none at the time), they would never elicit any kind of reaction. So, each day for several months, Vera would get up at 4 am and work his way down the list of over 500 Congressional offices, visiting and speaking with Congressional members to collect data on internship programs and positions; then at 3 pm, he would switch to his server job until midnight so he could cover his bills.
Vera’s grit and commitment to obtaining data powered the initial success of Pay Our Interns. Once the data came in the results were surprising, at least to them: there were more Republican Congressional representatives paying interns than Democrats. Moreover, Vera noticed that there were representatives on both more conservative and more liberal ends of the spectrum who supported paying interns, including Republican Senator Inhofe and Independent Senator Sanders. Vera realized that despite the difference in views on how government should operate, intern pay could be one of the few issues that could create bipartisan support and collaboration. He and his colleagues then realized they needed to find ways to articulate the need to pay interns in ways that resonated with both parties. That led to the writing of a white paper on the issue for the entire Congress. Through research and strategic thinking, they hit on two themes: engaging working-class youth for Republican stakeholders and facilitating inclusion for Democrat representatives. Their research also showed that there was historical precedent for paid internships, namely, the past Lyndon Baines Johnson Internships. The white paper issued a call to action by urging Congress to include a line item for paid Congressional internships in an appropriations bill.
The next steps were to gain credibility and expand the network of support. Senator Van Hollen was the first elected official to support the call to action, which helped establish credibility. In April 2018, an opportunity opened to slot $5 million budget in the Senate for paid internships, but the opposition of one Senator (a chairman of a subcommittee) was enough to stop the dialogue. Despite the fact that Pay Our Interns only had $1,800 in the bank at the time and being advised to take a step back to fundraise and reevaluate strategy, Vera knew that this was a “now or never” opportunity to seize and that the right course of action was to commit the next several months to make it happen. In a committed push, Vera doubled down on reaching out to Senators and worked with a lobbying firm that agreed to do pro bono work for Pay Our Interns. It worked. The turning point was the night before the vote: a decision by Senator Lisa Murkowski to vote for the legislation, against the Republican chairman’s own views. Senator Collins followed shortly thereafter with her support. The next day, the Senate voted unanimously to support the full $5 million budget line item for paid internships for the Senate. In parallel, the House passed its own version of the bill – but with $8 million — with strong bipartisan support.
With this success under its belt, Pay Our Interns evolved into a mini-think tank—providing advisory services to congressional offices and teams, collaborating with elected officials on how to make internships more equitable and inclusive, conducting research, and creating toolkits on how to execute and implement paid internship programs. The national legislative accomplishment had a positive ripple effect. Pay Our Interns started seeing young people organizing their own campaigns for paid interns across the country. For example, Jordan Laslett launched a campaign for paid internships with the Mayor’s Office of Philadelphia after the Mayor made a comment about dignity of pay while his office conducted unpaid internships. Pay Our Interns helped amplify Jordan’s work and through their collaboration and commitment, were able to achieve secured funds for paid internships in the Mayor’s Office.
Based on its work in Philadelphia, Pay Our Interns’ scaling approach moving forward is to apply the lessons from its success in Washington to organize at the state level. Interestingly, this is the opposite scaling direction by which many social movements have achieved sustainable success in the past – from local to national.
At the same time, Pay Our Interns is now targeting a $100 million in budget commitments for all federal agencies to pay interns and sees scaling across federal operations as timely for three reasons: to employ young people in light of COVID-19, which left many unemployed; to expand inclusive and accessible pipelines for more young Americans who are typically underrepresented in public service or have financial barriers to the opportunities; and to grow the pipeline for the next generation of civil servants, given that 43 percent of federal employees will be eligible for retirement by the end of 2022 (while less than 8% of federal employees are under the age of 30). Beyond the federal system, Pay Our Interns is working to induce states to commit some of the federal pandemic rescue aid to fund employment of youth at the state level through public service.
As Vera looks back on the evolution of Pay Our Interns, now that it approaches its five-year anniversary, he identifies several takeaways that could inspire and influence other young people and organizations that are looking to scale. To start, “We shouldn’t be scared of reimagining what’s possible,” Vera advises. “Do not feel limited by the status quo in thinking about solutions and paths forward.” This advice to think big extends to philanthropic goals, as well. Moreover, when working in spaces or contexts that are typically characterized by divisiveness, lead with good intentions while creating accountability. Finally, Vera feels strongly that individuals should not underestimate their abilities: “You don’t have to be rich or powerful to do this work—it’s about working with others and being strategic.”