Thanks to Netflix and 8th grade field trips, when most people think of Washington D.C., they conjure up images of The West Wing or 24. I’ll admit I too thought that when I accepted an internship with a lobby group in the District I would turn into my television idol Josh Lyman, stomping around the Capitol building with a clear purpose; in reality, I spent a lot more time asking people how to get to the various Senate offices than I did asking politicians how they proposed improving the nation.
Over spring semester I spent a lot of hours considering what field I wanted to intern in—journalism, teaching, politics or whichever field would pay me a decent wage. I knew I needed to live on my own and in a city, but beyond that I was open to suggestions. It actually got remarkably close to summer-time before I finally found a position that piqued my interest: political activism in Washington, D.C.
Out of respect for a high school teacher of mine I’d submitted an application to NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, a well-known lobby group in the city. The lobby group boasted an impressive 30-year resume fighting against the Paul Ryan budget, reduction of welfare provisions, as well as in support for comprehensive immigration reform, the Affordable Care Act and economic justice. Most impressively, the Executive Director of NETWORK, Sister Simone Campbell, had delivered an address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The job promised that interns would meet with legislators, lobbyists and journalists invested in federal politics; basically, I thought I had no chance of getting the job.
When I eventually was accepted I went through two layers of shock: one at actually getting an internship, meaning I wouldn’t be making a human-sized dent in my parents’ couch; and two, when I realized that I would need to get a second job just to afford my internship. As most students know, while earning a spot in an internship program feels amazing, the realization that the word “unpaid” comes before it makes summer plans much more difficult. Luckily for me, I found housing in a fairly unsafe part of the city and a minor amount of funding—enough to pay for basic food—from a fellowship program. My “house,” an abandoned convent next to a hospital, promised me a revolving door of international nuns, a computer-tech slash reverend’s son for a landlord and two roommates from other universities.
With such a daunting set of conditions both domestically and professionally, I had no idea what I kind of summer experience I would have. I had also never lived in or commuted to a city before, and the prospect of traipsing around the southern city in the summer felt extremely beyond my savvy.
So upon arrival in Washington I was surprised at how quickly and easily I transformed into a Washingtonian. Within a week my roommates and I were laughing at tourists who didn’t follow the “step back from the opening doors” command on the Metro and the barista at the Starbucks by Union Station knew my name.
I joined NETWORK directly on the heels of their cross-country bus tour advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. The hilariously named program, “Nuns on the Bus,” featured dozens of nuns traversing 6,500 miles through 15 states over the course of one month. The colorful bus stopped in 40 cities, at churches, regional congressional offices and town centers to inform citizens of the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform. At these rallies, as well as through their newsletter, the lobby group passed out thousands of postcards, written to Congress, advocating for an immigration bill.
I mention these postcards because they became my main task. Over the course of my two month internship I received, documented and sorted over 10,000 postcards by zip code; I also spent many spare moments shipping out thousands more.
While this job may seem like clichéd and unimportant intern-work, I found that somehow these tasks prove highly influential in both the internal politics of a firm and on Congressional offices. On my second day I was asked to stand at a copy machine, photocopying duplicates of 5,000 postcards; I stood beside that machine hitting “START” again and again for almost 10 hours before job was done. (It is also interesting to note that made my break-free stand the same day as the infamous Texas filibuster by Wendy Davis) Although my feet were sore and my patience was low, I learned the work mattered.
The next day I was allowed to accompany my bosses on a trip to dozens of Senator’s office delivering these photocopied postcards and discuss our position with legislative liaisons and chiefs of staff. Thus, within my first week I had somehow managed to make my way into Congress and introduce myself to Senators.
As I continued on my battle with the postcards I also had two other profound moments in the halls of Congress. The first came when Sister Simone was called to testify before Members of Congress, including Congressman Paul Ryan. My boss invited me because she knew I had adopted a McDonald’s budget (an unealistic proposal made to McDonald’s employees) and had been writing brief, daily blog posts on working two minimum wage jobs to make ends meet in Washington. Congress asked her to speak on behalf of welfare programming, and the event informed me of the diversity of opinions in Congress on issues of poverty and welfare.
And, in the last week of my internship, as a reward for my continued labor on postcards I got the honor to meet Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and several other Senators. NETWORK hosted a Congressional briefing to motivate Congress to pass the immigration bill, and all Congressional offices were invited. As I looked out the office, watching a slide show I designed repeat behind the speakers, I was profoundly moved by the words of wisdom and encouragement these Senators offered. To great joy in my office, before I left Washington, the comprehensive immigration reform passed the Senate.
Although I learned a great deal from my experience with NETWORK, my summer featured many other, equally important, moments. I had the pleasure of celebrating on the steps of Congress when I heard the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, mark the Fourth of July with fireworks and dancing on the National Mall and plan events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March of Washington.
Moreover, for me, working in Washington DC also meant living in the city. Over my two months I learned the struggles and joys of living in such an urban space. Even on my limited budget I was able to enjoy the numerous offerings of the metropolis. Unlike New York City, most museums and film screenings are free.
Each weekend my roommates and I could see the White House and the Washington Monument and then, within half an hour, be viewing paintings. The most expensive outing we ever took was viewing a Nationals game and eating dinner in the stadium, a typical Friday-night date for interns, and that only cost us $12.
For all of its influence and its political celebrities, I made myself at home in Washington.
Now, back in Poughkeepsie, it’s hard to remain hopeful with the actions of Congress. In the last few weeks I’ve watched some of the issues I devoted my summer to, immigration reform and economic justice, suffer blow after blow; the House of Representatives voted to cut $40 billion from the food stamps program and the bill promoting comprehensive immigration reform seems to be perpetually stuck on the back-burner.
However, one thing is reaffirming: the passion I found for change in that city, and with people across America. While some Congressmen may appear out of touch or so partisan that they will gridlock Congress for personal gain, I will always remember that there are hundreds more people fighting to enact change.