Whether it’s from knowing one of their myriad passionate student interns or donating to their biannual fundraising drives, most students at Vassar have probably heard of local activist organization Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson (NLMH). According to their mission statement, NLMH prides itself on being “A multiracial, intergenerational, grassroots organization building power for a Hudson Valley, New York State, and country that works for all of us.” NLMH focuses on community organizing to address the challenges that low-income people and people of color in the Hudson Valley face, mainly via supporting local electoral campaigns.
I was thrilled to join their team of remote summer interns in May, eager to work with a local social justice organization that has benefited our community in such tangible ways. Formed in 2012, NLMH has grown immensely over the years and achieved numerous victories for low-income families, immigrants and other vulnerable populations in New York. NLMH has advocated for life-changing policies—for example, the expansion of a state-wide low-income utility assistance program—through their Climate & Energy Justice Campaign, Immigrant Justice Campaign, Healthcare and Housing campaigns and civic engagement work. Among the organization’s most notable successes is winning access to driver’s licenses and municipal IDs for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in New York State.
Due to the remote nature of this year’s summer internship, I found myself one of 61 names on a spreadsheet. The interns were divided into teams, each with one staff member at the helm; these were the only people we saw regularly on our Monday through Thursday, five-hour Zoom shifts. We learned about the organization’s mission and work and engaged in limited “political education,” but the bulk of our work was dedicated to supporting the summer fundraising drive and phone banking for political candidates. The summer fundraiser was a huge success, and we managed to raise $337,000, which was $137,000 over the goal. Then, less than a month into the internship, NLMH terminated every single intern. I’ll get to why, but first, some context.
This year’s summer internship started on June 3—right at the beginning of what has become a months-long national movement for Black lives. The murder of George Floyd on May 25 sparked national outrage, and protests erupted not only in Minneapolis, where he was killed, but across the country. Social media was ablaze with Black Lives Matter infographics and ways to help the movement. People were circulating resources about anti-racism education and where they should donate money. When the internship started, the country was in the midst of a reckoning.
Even though we were excited to get to work, the Black Lives Matter movement and the tragedies that sparked it preoccupied all of our minds. Many of us were frequently out protesting. I felt affected immensely; I was living in St. Paul, one of the “twin cities” where George Floyd’s murder took place. I can’t even begin to imagine how Black interns and interns of color were feeling. It was the elephant in the room, and yet NLMH didn’t address it—at least for a while. Since NLMH is a social justice organization, we were expecting a response, and were stunned by the silence.
I remember speaking with my fellow team members and wishing we would have a small block of time to discuss what was happening. We wanted to debrief together, support each other (especially our Black interns) and discuss the ways in which we, as volunteers for a social justice-oriented organization, could help the movement. We asked the NLMH staff to grant us this space, but we never got it—instead, we were subject to hours upon hours of orientation activities. Although I’m sure it wasn’t the intention of the staff, it felt dismissive.
That’s why a group of interns decided to write a statement in support of BLM. When it was sent out on June 23, NLMH as an organization still had not addressed the movement. The interns condemned NLMH’s silence and noted, “The staff’s lack of leadership in the conversation left many of us feeling concerned, overlooked, and disappointed as we forged our own discussions.” While I was not involved in the writing process, I signed on along with 49 others in solidarity.
What initially began as an acknowledgement evolved into a list of 16 demands for the organization. I cannot speak for the other interns, but I was surprised at the breadth of this list. I can understand how the leaders of an organization would be hesitant to take on such extensive appeals made by unpaid volunteers who had only worked there for a matter of days. Some of the demands, such as redirecting the work that interns were doing in order to support Black-led Organizations and even changing the structure of the internship, were well intended, but not within the power of interns to change.
However, several of the demands were reasonable. Six of them, in fact, didn’t require NLMH to change their operations. These demands were: 1. Firm, Undeniable, Explicit Statement in Support of Black Lives Matter; 2. Express Relationship with Black Lives Matter; 4. Land Acknowledgment; 5. Structural Transparency; 6. Transparency in Communication among Administration, Staff, and Interns; and 8. Public Commitment to Diversity. The demand for structural transparency was born out of the fact that we as interns had virtually no concept of how the staff was organized or where the money that we fundraised was going.
Two of the demands—14. Clear and Thorough Research into Political Candidates and 15. Agency in our Political Education—would have demanded a little more of NLMH, but the interns wrote them in response to feeling undervalued. Of course we were unpaid and temporary labor, and therefore not the organization’s priority, but we were doing lots of important work in the form of fundraising and phone banking. We phone banked for about two hours every day, but sometimes we were thrown into shifts with little to no knowledge about the candidate, unable to answer basic questions about their platforms.. We were also put into a Zoom shift with a representative from the Working Families Party with little to no preparation, and it was embarrassing to admit that we didn’t have any information about the policies at hand. It felt like we were disposable labor—we didn’t even deserve to know the platforms of the politicians we were being required to support.
The interns also demanded bigger changes from the organization—such as creating or supporting a mutual aid/bail fund for incarcerated people in the Mid-Hudson Valley (10. Community Mutual Aid) and providing a stipend that would prioritize interns of color and low-income interns (11. Financial Equity within the Internship). These demands, while ambitious and perhaps not the place of summer interns to request, were made in good faith with solid reasoning. The BLM movement has highlighted the need for bail funds for low-income people and people of color. Unpaid internships do perpetuate class inequality by being accessible only to those who can afford to not work a summer job, unless you are able to secure funding from your school or elsewhere.
I did not expect the staff to implement every demand. I did not even expect that they would implement any of the demands before holding a meeting with us to discuss the statement and what had prompted its making (this meeting was actually another demand: 3. Organization-Wide Town Hall). I did expect them to take us seriously and give us a voice in our own experiences with the summer internship, since we were dedicating hours upon hours of unpaid labor. None of us expected to be fired.
It is important to note that NLMH did not terminate us immediately after sending out the statement and demands. First, the staff replied to our statement by scheduling the requested meeting and canceling all intern shifts in the interim. They seemed committed to discussing the statement and demands. They also offered one-on-one meetings with two of the staff members for any interns who wanted to voice their thoughts. I was hopeful that we had prompted the beginnings of what could be a meaningful conversation, and that NLMH would give us the space for that conversation to happen.
However, Demand 3 specifically asked that the interns had a hand in organizing and running the “town hall” to ensure that their voices were heard. The staff had made it clear that they would be running the meeting alone, so in response, a handful of interns sent an email insisting to be included in the facilitation of the meeting, along with an escalated list of demands.
Although I cannot know what the staff of NLMH were thinking, I believe this reply is where it may have gone wrong. In this reply, the interns were aggressive in tone, charging the staff with not acknowledging the purpose of the town hall and taking an “authoritative” role in the planning. I agree that it would have been ideal for interns to be included in the planning and facilitation of the town hall, but personally, I’m not sure the accusatory nature of the reply was warranted. If I had been the staff, I would have interpreted it as a very forceful approach from the side of the interns, and an unwillingness to let the staff of NLMH lead. However, the many of us who had signed onto the initial statement and demands did not sign onto this email. We did not even read it before it was sent.
That night, at 9:20 pm on a Friday, every summer intern received an email. In the email we were notified that, in light of the statement, demands and escalation on the side of the interns, all of our internships were immediately terminated. NLMH would give us the option to reapply at a later date, with no guarantee that everyone who reapplied would be accepted. We had no discussion with the staff about the Black Lives Matter statement or any of the concerns raised in the list of demands. And yes, even those who had not signed the statement were let go.
Getting suddenly and unexpectedly fired from your summer internship would come as a shock no matter the circumstances. But in this case, the interns who had drafted, written and signed the statement truly thought we were doing the right thing. We were not trying to attack the organization, but rather offer constructive critique (something we had been encouraged to do during orientation) in order to better it. I agree that a list of demands seems aggressive and not the best way to offer critique, but we were hoping to start a conversation that might lead to change.
The language in the email we received notifying us of our termination was extremely accusatory. We were told we had exhibited “a lack of humility and deference to our member base” and that we were trying to transfer power from the staff to ourselves. The most concerning part of the email for me personally was this: “Vassar, Bard and Skidmore have been made aware of these demands and our decision on how to move forward.” I did not apply through the college for this internship, so why would NLMH have to notify our schools? The first thing that came to my mind, and to everyone’s mind who was in the same position as me, was stipends.
NLMH knew that many of the interns had applied for funding from their schools to be able to do an unpaid internship. I had received a stipend from Vassar for the program and by that point had already signed a legal agreement to pay rent for the whole summer. NLMH immediately telling Vassar that they had terminated my internship felt like a threat. Thankfully, Vassar did not revoke my stipend because I had a second internship. I do not know what happened with other students on stipends.
I recently spoke with two of my fellow former interns to get their perspective on the whole situation. They gave me permission to quote them anonymously, and one said, “The point of all of this is not to cancel NLMH, but a sort of call to action. We care so much about the organization, but there are so many discrepancies within the org and those can be remedied and changed so that the org can be the best that it can be.” They noted that NLMH should address intern inequity as well as inequity within the org, and that NLMH is a very white space.
I, too, believe in the ability of the org to make change and the amazing power of community organizing that NLMH has managed to harness. NLMH has done a lot of fantastic work, and I hope they continue that work. I think most former interns would agree. But as one intern put it, “We deeply believe in Nobody Leaves’s mission, but my trust has been broken [in] that they are really working towards that vision. In order for me to continue to support them, they have to make a lot of changes. The whole organization has to reflect that mission.” We as interns wanted to help make those changes. Instead we were shut out. The interns’ approach was not perfect, but the response was rash and extreme.
I don’t want to drag NLMH through the mud. I want to form a constructive conversation, and maybe if their staff reads this article they will understand the perspective of an intern who just wanted to do the right thing. But I do think the Vassar community deserves to know about the experience of myself and the other 60 summer interns. I hope that NLMH will be able to address some of the issues we raised, even if it only benefits the next round of interns. I hope they continue fighting for justice in the Hudson Valley and beyond.