Finale

Lava hisses from

My soul like ash

And neon.

Hot and bold

And colorful

I unfold into

A dance that

Can birth sunlight

And dim darkness.

I wish I had written those rich words, however I they are from a poem entitled, Neon Soul by Alexandra Elle. I’ve been staring at those words for the past few days trying to get at what they mean.  I think I finally have an answer that my English teachers would be proud of.  However, I’ll reveal that shortly.

My internship at Public Citizens for Children and Youth has been all that I hoped for and more.  No other endeavor has ever touched me the way this one has, and I am sure I will remember the experience for the rest of my life, using it to inform my career and life choices.  Not only have I learned so much about educational issues, government, policy, and advocacy–while also expanding my skills in the wondrous platform that is Excel; but, I also have begun to break down the walls within which I used to operate.  The practical skills and the knowledge of the issues are great, but it is the mind-widening experiences that truly have made this internship invaluable.

I learned how to talk to people.  Sounds a little lame however, I was never used to having to deal with people in a professional, polite manner when they aren’t so professional and polite.  Thanks to the countless phone calls, interactions with legislative receptionists who weren’t ecstatic to see me, and other experiences, I have grown a tough skin.  This emotional intelligence growth spurt will surely be of aid throughout my life, and for that I am grateful.

I also learned of the social injustices that are deeply embedded in our educational system.  Access to early childhood education is scarce, to say the least.  Pre-k is a cost that most families, even rather well off families, struggle to afford.  Parents avoid putting their children in care to save money, and thus end up at home looking after them.  At home, not working, and not making money.  Then, their children end up entering kindergarten with no pre-k; they lack socialization and basic cognitive skills.  They start off behind everyone else, and if they aren’t able to read by the third grade they can say hello to the jail cell.  It is a vicious cycle, and it is not enough to tell someone, faced with impossible obstacles and barriers, to simply “work harder.”  There is a strong selfish sentiment ingrained in our society.  It’s all about my child, my home, my money and that others just need to “work harder”.  It should be about investing in the country’s children through education, because that is an investment in all of our futures. I am thankful to have gained this sentiment.

Previous to my internship, my thoughts operated within a very small box.  I have privileges being white and middle class.  I was sheltered incredibly, and even after going to college and learning about these social injustices in class, it wasn’t until I was witnessing them in action that they caught my attention and got me to think.  I was under the impression that the world just was a certain way; that everyone had a family, that everyone had a fair shot at success.  I found myself shocked and emotional when I slowly found out this was not the case.  However, I also found myself swelling up with the urge to take control and do something about it.  I became more motivated to do my job, even if it was just working in Excel.

Tackling our country’s education injustices is an incredibly daunting and overwhelming task.  However, I believe this monstrous change can occur because of this feeling; the pull to offer everything in your ability to make a change, to help even just one child.  Organization, mobilization, and accomplishments are fed with the motivation, passion, and perseverance of the advocates who devote their lives to the cause.  

I found Elle’s words to bring that concept to life.  Neon Soul encapsulates a personification of the most fortified kind of strength. A strength through passion.  Lava; hot, bold, colorful, and bright originating from a soul; powerful and beautiful, with the ability to accomplish the impossible. How do you birth sunlight and dim darkness?  It’s easy when it’s a dance.  When people are passionate, when they truly live for what they are doing, any goal is attainable.  No matter what I end up doing with my life, I know it will be something that ignites my soul, and that arms me with the strength to accomplish the impossible.   

I overheard the director say to someone the other day, with as much frankness and honesty I have ever heard in a person’s voice: “This will be the greatest thing you will do in your life. The greatest.”  

 

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I hate that.

My emotional intelligence received a shot of adrenaline to the heart, Mia Wallace style.  I was shocked at first, realizing how rude people could be to me.  I was just an innocent intern, I had no clue was I was doing, surely they could empathize?  The “they” I speak of is no one in the office, they are all downright lovely people.  The “they” I speak of are the legislative receptionists, parents at tabling events (yes parents with their kids), and plethoras of other pissed off people.  

I remember one instance in particular where my supervisor, Shawn, and I were at a school for a “Kidsfest” event.  Along with dozens of other organizations, we were running a table, passing out information, and interacting with the kids.  I had just finished sticking a temporary tattoo on the cutest kid, when a woman and her three children came up to our table.  I smiled at her, prepared to give her my spiel, when she spurt out “How do I oppose this?” and whisked her hands over our table like she was swatting a fly.  I thought maybe she had just misspoken, or that I interpreted her incorrectly, so I began talking to her about PCCY.  She then interrupted me, spat out the same question and proceeded to say “my husband and I are both surgeons and we have six kids, you are all pushing it in the same direction and I hate that!” I replied with, “Excuse me, no it’s not” and then she stormed off, her confused children scuttling behind her.  What the “it” was I don’t know, I just felt like I was attacked and had to refute whatever she was saying.  And I’m fairly positive the woman did not know what the “it” was either, or what our organization was all about.

I stood behind the table, astonished at first, then I shook it off and continued on.  Now that I have had time to reflect, I realized the most significant aspects of that interaction were the anger in her voice and how purely idiotic the whole thing was.  Who comes to an event with clowns, jugglers, bouncy houses, and tables of non-profits; an event that is literally called “Kidsfest”, to get pissed off and go table to table berating the people sitting behind them.  The fact that they would come with their children to do this is so next level that I can’t even begin to articulate how messed up it is.  Yes, I remember this moment with some anger.  However, I also remember it with some new insight.

I realized that she, a surgeon who spends her days interacting with unconscious bodies, has no idea or grasp on the lifestyles of others or the issues that good, hard-working, Americans face.  She couldn’t possibly know about the social injustices that are deeply embedded in our system of education.  She can’t understand the level of obstacles a child born into poverty faces, already behind their peers by age one.  She doesn’t understand that everyone’s parents aren’t surgeons, and that some children don’t have parents at all.  She doesn’t understand the monster that is child care; low income families spend 50% of their salary on childcare, people lose their jobs because of a lack of childcare, and kids lose their lives because of low quality child care.  As a white surgeon, she couldn’t possibly understand the struggle a minority single mother has to go through to put her children in care.  The largest burden the hateful surgeon bears, is the burden of her own hate.

This woman was so full of hate and anger, but the most striking thing about her was the putrid odor of ignorance, seeping out of her every orifice.  It’s scary and disappointing, that someone who is supposed to be smart and honorable, a surgeon, was full of so much ignorance and disregard for others.  It is people like this that scare me the most; the ones who refute facts, and who turn a blind eye to the wreck around them.  They live in an alternate reality.  The information and truth is available; the facts, the reports, and the numbers are there.  Yet, there are people who insist on asserting false realities that exclude populations of people, perpetuate social injustice, and feed hate.

I feel a new responsibility after completing this internship. A responsibility to hold up the truth in whatever I do.  I will speak up in the face of ignorance and hate.

The Big Top

My internship is way more entrenched in the mud of politics than I ever would have expected. Naively, I assumed that education and children’s issues were pretty much a top priority for everyone, and so finding a viable revenue source must be an easy task.  I was very wrong to say the least.  Hello there, soda tax.  

The soda tax is a revenue producer for funding more subsidized pre-k seats, and for rebuilding parks and libraries that desperately need renovation.  We need to educate our children and provide safe spaces for them, and for that we need more money.  What better way to get that money than to tax an item that is detrimental to health.  Now, who could possibly oppose that concept?

It was June 23rd, and a hearing concerning the Philadelphia soda tax was being held in city hall.  The strange part was that it wasn’t being hosted by the Philadelphia City Council, rather it was being hosted by Pennsylvania state senators.  The issue?  Philadelphia doesn’t have the right to tax itself, and so the soda tax cannot be legally implemented.    

The opposition is laced with former Pepsi executives, and “big soda” campaign donation receivers.  As a political jab, these corporate senators opposed to the tax came down to city hall to tell Philadelphians what they can and cannot do.  To make matters even worse, one of the pro-tax people who was originally supposed to speak, was barred last minute from doing so.    

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the political hot bed I walked into on that Friday morning.  I sat down next to my coworkers and waited patiently for the hearing to begin.  However, it never did.  Instead I watched a brilliant display of democracy unfold before my eyes.  As soon as the state senators walked in, a community leader began to blow a noise-making horn, and slowly one by one every Philadelphian in that room began to create noise in defiance.

The chanting consisted of; “this is our house!” and “this is what democracy looks like!”  I joined in, sort of shyly at first and sitting down.  Then as more and more people joined in, I felt a swell of confidence.  I stood up and joined in next to my coworkers, holding a sign that said “Glad to pay soda tax for Philly kids.”  

This was not my first protest yet, I still found myself welling up with emotions, feeling proud, anguished, and anxious.  My heart was pounding and I watched in awe as pre-k providers marched their 3 and 4 year old students up to the city council seats.  The kids, holding little signs, sat and stared up at the men trying to remove their means to an education.  I thought to myself: how can these people look down at these children with their innocent, wide eyes, some plugging their ears against the booming voices behind them, and argue to take away their chance at success?

I did not and still do not understand completely the argument against the tax.  Some say it’s not a sustainable source of revenue, some say it’s putting local, family owned grocers out of business, some say it affects people disproportionately.  Others would say that the soda industry was already on the decline, they would say that those small stores were already going out of business thanks to large corporate competitors, and that low income people need education more than they need soda.  We are all entitled to our opinions, thanks Uncle Sam.  Don’t like the soda tax? Fine, I respect that.

What I don’t respect is aiming to delete the soda tax, with no other viable plan in its place for generating those crucial revenues.  Until there is a solid alternative source of revenues to fund the success of our future, please keep the soda tax.  It means the difference between thousands of kids succeeding and thousands of kids spending their futures incarcerated.  

Don’t just oppose something because your party doesn’t like it.  Where’s your honor as an individual? Don’t just disagree to disagree, be rational. No perfect policy exists or will ever exist, so recognize when something has a net positive effect for your constituency. For the sake of practicality, wake up! Stop wasting time trying to figure out a revenue source that doesn’t upset your campaign donors, that doesn’t hurt your precious share, and that wifey agrees to.  Quit trying to align yourself with the beliefs of a party for the sake of marketability. Separate your personal business endeavors from people’s lives.  Stop focusing on how you are perceived and start doing what makes sense.  

The people will thank you for it, and you can go to bed at night not feeling like an ass.

I think I speak for alot of people when I say I am fed up with the circus.  Now to loudly bang on my keyboard, and angrily punch numbers into an Excel spreadsheet.

Bye for now.

Kind and Fierce

Nonprofit.  A seemingly sweet, kind, and soft word.  People who go into nonprofit work are passive, non-competitive, and idealistic.  They are mostly women, they are sweet, and they are soft.  

After working at PCCY for a while now, that word creates quite a different imagery for me.  I think of strong, diverse people united in a resistance, fueled with refusal of inadequacy, using truths to organize, mobilize, and accomplish.  

The people I work with are nothing but fierce.  They are passionate, articulate, intelligent, and activism pumps through their veins.  The executive director, Donna, is the strongest embodiment of these qualities and despite being slightly intimidated by her, I have extreme respect for her and hope I can one day lead with her confidence and style.   

To keep it PG, Donna is not afraid to really cut into someone; she knows government and she knows policy.  I sit at a desk in the office adjacent to hers, and it’s strange if I don’t hear her talking on the phone to someone, using whatever language she pleases.  Sitting in front of a round table of white, Republican men, Donna commands interest and respect.  Not one of those men would have dared to interrupt her.       

Donna also knows management.  Some days, our modest office in the United Way building sounds more like a Wall Street trading floor than anything else.  As soon as news goes off that City Council may not pass a bill that needs to be, Donna lights up the office; “phone calls, phone calls, phone calls!”  And she has everyone, from interns to policy coordinators, calling Philly pre-k providers to rally grassroots support.

My immediate supervisor, Shawn, is respectable in her own right.  She is very intelligent and experienced, and I feel lucky to have been placed under her wing.  It is obvious how passionate Shawn is.  She becomes visibly upset when we receive bad news, and overjoyed when we experience a win.

When I think of activism I think of Shawn.  She has worked for nonprofits in a diverse group of spaces, including health care, domestic violence, children’s issues, abortion rights, and probably more areas that she has yet to tell me about.  She protested the Vietnam War, apartheid, and has fought for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights.  Shawn embraces democracy, fighting for what she believes is true, and is living her life to the fullest, most American extent.  For this, I also have extreme respect for Shawn and believe she is one of the most courageous people I have encountered.

In addition to the admirable people I work with, nonprofit work contains a larger amount of strategy and even manipulation than I ever thought it would.  There is a lot of work that goes behind every move, and I see Donna implement strategy that I studied in some of my Wharton classes.  It’s all about knowing who your audience is; parents, schools, politicians, businesses, etc.  Identifying what their specific wants are is next.  Do they want to be perceived in a certain light? Do they want their children recognized? Do they want their school bragged about? Feeding into those wants in order to accomplish one of our own goals is a strategy I have witnessed time and time again.  What language are we going to use to communicate with the specific party?  How are we going to act around them when we meet with them in person?  

I was really taken aback at the level of business strategy and skill that this type of work demands. And I found myself realizing the assumptions I made, rejecting them, and replacing them with the truth.  

Nonprofit work is strenuous, it takes the most intelligent, emotionally and intellectually, to be able to accomplish goals and affect change.  Contrary to a popular belief held by those not involved in the field, children’s advocacy is not for the light of heart; I witness the fierceness of those around me every day and I feel myself growing into tougher skin.

Finding my motivation

Character, personality, and career are conglomerates of experience and the people we meet.

So thanks to the people whom I’ve encountered in my 20 years of living; my family, friends, mentors, teachers, and strangers, plus a great deal of luck, I have ended up with a powerful and humbling internship.  Powerful because I get to complete work that directly impacts how someone lives, and by extension, fights the larger societal structures that continue to pulse through our country.  Humbling because I, an Ivy-league student, a white person, a member of the upper middle class who has basically been handed everything in her life, has just been thrown into the world of government subsidies, state and city level politics, and an office who has dedicated their careers to an advocacy organization.  

So how can I possibly relate and find motivation?  I don’t understand the struggle of having to trust a sketchy, out of home day care center with my child. I don’t understand the anxiety of having to rely on our tumultuous government to create a means for my family’s upward mobility.  I don’t understand the frustration of a 14,000 long waiting list for a quality public pre-k education.

Yet, why did I feel the pull to work here? Why did I feel so moved when a mother called our office the other day, asking for subsidy money when we are merely an advocacy organization?

I believe my motivations may come from simply being human.  To the cynics who have been battered down by focusing on the troubling aspects of their lives and have allowed themselves to succumb to all of the hardship highlighted by the media, have at it.  Don’t believe that people do things for each other simply because they are both human-beings and please, chose to believe that people are solely motivated by their own extrinsic gains.  This is your life, and it’s your choice to view humanity through that type of lens.  And I’m not just saying that this isn’t just my liberally college educated mind talking, I’m saying I think it is valid. Because despite all of the differences between myself and these people, I feel a human motivation and I think everyone else who works for a non-profit feels it too.  

It isn’t just the startling numbers that make my heart beat faster and my mind swirl in bewilderment.  Like how 125,807 children in Philadelphia were living in poverty, plus another 60,686 living in deep poverty in 2014 and how those numbers have only gone up.  How the cost of childcare is now greater than an in state college tuition, and how we pay the people who pick up our garbage more than we pay the people we entrust our children with for 180 days a year.

It’s hearing the voice of a mother over the phone, just trying to get her 7 year old disabled daughter into a summer day care, so that she can go to work to provide for her. Frustration’s purest manifestation was in the sound of that voice.  Its seeing the smiling faces of children who are now going down the right path because they were able to enroll in a high quality pre-k program.  Its flipping through stacks and stacks of signed cards from people all over the state, pledging their support for universal pre-k.  

It is these purely human experiences; frustration, happiness, and unity, that I feel the most motivated. These experiences tug at my capacity and will power, and plead me to exert every ounce of myself.  It is the undeniable sense of shared basic human experiences that are the most compelling, and I think will continue to motivate my work and activism throughout the summer.