This summer has been full of questions—starting from the very first one, “What is public interest communications?” Given my total unfamiliarity with the field, when I was asked in my interview why I wanted to do this internship, I admittedly panicked. Even though I wasn’t sure what this summer had in store for me, I knew what I wanted to get out of it.
I’m majoring in political science and hope to go into electoral politics. When I was asked in my interview how this Fellowship would fit into my goals for the future, I remember talking about how the voices of people and communities who are actually living through the hardships that politicians are debating are left out of the conversation. Without even knowing it, this problem is exactly what public interest communications seeks to solve.
Another question that has been in the back of my mind this summer, and even before, is “Where does my voice fit in?” We’ve talked a lot about storytelling this summer, but I wasn’t sure what stories were mine to tell.
I grew up in a low-income family in Rockford, Illinois and will be the first in my family to graduate from college. This fall I will be graduating from Yale University with a degree in political science and zero debt. I’ve been fortunate enough to have countless incredible opportunities, like the Karel Fellowship, to pursue my passions and be in privileged spaces without constantly having to stress about money.
So the question becomes, “How can I talk about my experiences growing up while also recognizing that my life now is very different from the lives of many people in my community that I grew up in?”
One takeaway from this summer is that a central part of communications is learning how to leverage privilege and resources not to tell the stories of others, but to help them tell their own stories.
For example, this summer I worked on a project for Piper Kerman, renowned author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Piper uses her platform to shine a light on the struggles that women and girls in the criminal justice system face every day. During one of my last weeks, I attended a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on “Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System” with Piper.
At the hearing Piper sat next to Cindy Shank. Piper is a middle-class white woman who served 13 months in a facility that was near her family. Cindy, on the other hand, is a low income Latina woman who served 9 years across the country from her three young children. Both had similar charges, but the sentences were completely different. During the hearing, even though many questions were directed to Piper, she was constantly mindful of deferring to Cindy, who could speak to a much more typical experience of women in our unjust criminal justice system.
Another question that has been on my mind is “Why haven’t I had the opportunity to take any communications classes at Yale nor learned about what careers in communications look like?”
In my experience, students are too often taught to just do their work , but not to communicate their work to others, or to incorporate the voices of people who they claim to work on behalf of. I’ve been asked to write papers about possible solutions to the affordable housing crisis in New Haven without ever once being asked to talk to the people down the street from campus who are living through the crisis or the many community activists and policy makers trying to solve the issue.
This summer hasn’t answered all of the questions, but I’ve learned more than I ever thought possible. The end of the Karel Fellowship is by no means the end of my journey into the world of public interest communications–I’m still learning how to tell my story and uplift the stories of others.