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It seems like just yesterday that this picture was taken of our seminar class at Dupont Circle. In just three short months the people in this group have gone from being strangers to classmates to personal mentors for one another. I have appreciated this class for how we have been able to be so open with one another and for how the small group setting has allowed for honest discussion and productive feedback. Over this past semester it is clear that all of us have grown as individuals, as professionals, and as leaders. 


As I look back on this past semester, I am amazed by all the incredible experiences I have been able to enjoy. Just today I went to the White House Holiday Tour with a few of my co-workers from Center for Community Change. Upon arriving in DC, I would have never dreamed that I would set foot in the White House during my time here. While I was walking through the various rooms, I began to think of all the different people who have occupied those rooms over the years. My mind soon wandered to the movie The Butler, which was based on the story of a man who served numerous presidents in the White House. This naturally led me to one of my first memories in DC, when several of the WII students went to Georgetown to see The Butler in theaters. 

I am thankful to have met so many great people in this program and so many inspiring professionals in this city. When I return to Chicago to finish my last semester as an undergrad and prepare my post graduation plans, I know I will draw on the insight that I gained during my semester in DC. I admit that I am still somewhat nervous to leave the college bubble, but due to my internship experience I feel much more confident in my ability to excel in the working world as a young professional. 

 
 
Yesterday, upon returning to DC after spending Thanksgiving in Chicago, I realized that this city has truly become a home away from home. Our nation's capital is no longer a distant land that I have only seen and read about in textbooks or newspapers articles, but is now a place that I have seen and experienced firsthand. During these last three months, DC has felt less and less like an overwhelming metropolis, and more like a friendly and welcoming town. The lady at the coffee shop down the street from my internship knows that I am the one who always orders an apple cider. I can confidently navigate the Metro system without worrying about getting lost, and I know that the Smithsonian museums will always be free and accessible (as long as there is not another government shutdown). 

I have appreciated living in this city not only for infinite opportunities that it has to offer, but also for how it has shaped me as a person and a professional. Living and interning in DC has given me a sneak preview of what it will be like to enter the working world. Up until this semester, my past work experience consisted of working at small, family owned businesses. My internship has given me valuable insight for what it takes to function in a larger working environment and to operate among various departments and teams working towards different objectives. Overall, my time in DC has helped prepare me for the transition that I will make after I graduate this May. I am so grateful to have had this experience and for the people and places that I have met along the way.
 
 
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During this past week or so I have been able to check several items off of my DC bucket list, such as: 
  • Newseum
  • Spy Museum
  • Founding Farmers
  • Library of Congress
  • Botanic Garden
  • Freer Gallery
I really enjoyed the Newseum and thought it was incredible that they had a segment of the Berlin Wall up on display. The picture on the left shows the west side of the wall, which is covered in graffiti, but the east side of the wall was completely blank. 

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My favorite exhibit at the Newseum was the display of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. All of the photos were so captivating that I could not skip over any of them and felt obligated to look at each of them, one by one. However, they were a bit emotionally draining since many of them depicted war or tragedy. As I viewed the photos, I relived not only pieces from American history, but also events from all over the globe.

In regard to the Spy Museum, I must say that I was a bit disappointed. For anyone who is considering going, unless you are a James Bond fan, I would say that it is not worth the admission charge. There were some mediocre displays of spy gizmos and gadgets, but overall the museum was a strange mix between fiction and history. Since I do not watch spy movies, I did not like that so much of the museum was dedicated to fictional characters from movies. The layout of the museum was also strange and confusing.  

Before the WII luncheon with Senator Tydings, I made a quick stop at the Library of Congress since I had never been there before. I was not expecting it to be so beautiful on the inside! When I went up to the 2nd floor I noticed that there were quotes lining the upper section of the wall. One that stood out to me was the following: "The foundation of every state is the education of its youth."

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Right after the luncheon, since I had the day off from my internship due to a staff retreat, I stopped by the U.S. Botanic Gardens. It reminded me a lot of the Garfield Park Conservatory back home, but with one key difference. In the first room where you walk in there were mini replicas of buildings such as the Capitol Building, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Washington Monument. All of the miniature models were arranged just as they would be if they were laid out on a map.

Finally, the Freer Gallery was definitely worth visiting. It was a smaller museum, not as overwhelming as the National Gallery, and it featured unique Asian art pieces from places such as India, China and Japan. Some of the pieces were extremely old, dating back to the BC era. If you decide to go to this gallery, the Peacock Room is a must see. 

 
 
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Last week, Center for Community Change (CCC) hosted around 50 immigrant children to come to DC to participate in an event called Keeping Families Together: Youth in Action. The weeklong event highlighted the experiences of children who come from immigrant families, and revealed the consequences of the House of Representative's failure to call a vote on reform. Some of the participants were in their teens, but others were as young as five. All of the children either had immigrant parents or were immigrants themselves. 

During their week in DC, the children had the opportunity to interact with three women who took part in the 1963 Children's Crusade march in Birmingham, Alabama. These women shared their personal stories, explained why they decided to participate in the march and took questions from the children. They told the children that the immigration reform movement is the civil rights movement of our time, and the children were delighted to learn that they could call themselves civil rights activists. It was incredible to see the parallel drawn between the 1960s and today and to observe how eager the children were to gain insight from the Civil Rights veterans. 

Early last Wednesday morning Carmen and Jennifer, two teenage girls who traveled to DC for the youth event, sought out Speaker John Boehner at a diner on the Hill. The girls shared their stories with Boehner and told him how their families have been impacted by deportations or the fear thereof. Carmen's father was detained for three months and he is now awaiting the court date for his deportation proceeding scheduled for May 2015. Both of Jenni's parents are undocumented, but she is a U.S. citizen, so she lives with the fear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers could come and take them away from her. You can view the video of Carmen and Jenni speaking to Boehner by clicking here. 

Pictured above are Josue, Leslie, and Ariana. Josue is five years old and lives in Massachusetts, and Leslie and Ariana are sisters who came from New York. All three of them have witnessed ICE officers storming in their home and taking away a family member. In Josue's case, it was his uncle; for Leslie and Ariana, it was their father. The girls currently live with their mother, but they do not know when they will be able to see their father again. Until I heard these children tell their stories, I would have never imagined the tragedy caused by our current immigration system. As I listened to the children and teens talk about how our country's immigration policy has disrupted their families and their lives, I came to realize how much I had taken for granted. Growing up I never had to live with the fear that I might be separated from my parents, but many of the children who participated in the event have to live with that fear on a daily basis. More than anything, the children demonstrated that immigration reform is not just political, but personal. 


 
 
A couple of weeks ago I conducted an informational interview with a young woman at Critical Exposure. For those who may not be familiar with the organization, Critical Exposure is a non-profit that teaches low-income students how to advance school reform through photo documentation and community engagement. The organization ultimately trains students to use their photography skills to highlight the changes that they believe should be made to their schools. Critical Exposure gives a voice to those who are generally absent from conversations about school reform while empowering students to become advocates for positive social change.

The voices of these students were featured last week in a temporary exhibit that was in collaboration with Foto Week DC. I went to the exhibit this past Friday after work and was pleased to see that a whole room was dedicated to the photos and biographies of the students from Critical Exposure. One young man focused on how students at Roosevelt Senior High School in DC must enter through the back door since the front entrance has been permanently locked for decades. His photos revealed how students have to walk to school through a dirty alleyway lined with dumpsters and littered with broken glass. Given that the school is 70% African American and 30% Latino, forcing students to enter through the back door certainly carries some negative connotations. 

The Critical Exposure photos were uplifting in the sense that they enabled low-income students to speak out against the injustices that they face at their schools, but at the same time they were also somewhat disheartening. They painted a rather bleak picture of the way that some students come to experience their education, with a few students expressing that their school often feels more like a prison. The students' photos conveyed a message that words alone could not since the images provided stark evidence of the reality in which the students live. Had I read a book or a newspaper article about the issues presented in the photos, I'm sure I would have still been disappointed. But the photos were more compelling as they allowed me to see the world through the students' eyes, and not through the words of a scholar or a journalist. 

In many ways, the work enacted at Critical Exposure reminds me of the work carried out at my internship at Center for Community Change (CCC). Both organizations aim to amplify the voices of low-income people, while giving them the opportunity to have a say in the policies and decisions that affect their lives. Just as CCC interacts with immigrant families and immigrant rights organizations to advance the interests of the immigration reform movement, Critical Exposure works with teenage students coming from low-income communities to promote school reforms as the students see fit. 

Although it was a bit discouraging to see the conditions that some DC Public School students are subjected to, it was inspiring nonetheless in knowing that their photos are helping to bring about positive changes to their schools. The students at one high school have persuaded their principal to hire a full-time librarian since they did not have one before, and some students at another high school are working to address the school's discipline policies. Almost any form of social change will take time, but I think that the students' efforts at Critical Exposure are especially effective since they are working at the local level at the very schools that they attend. To view an online gallery of some of the students' photos click here.
 
 
A couple of weeks ago my supervisor had sent me an email asking me to list the skills I have learned so far at my internship, as well as the skills I would still like to develop. She has been very receptive to my feedback and has started assigning me new work assignments such as writing press releases and helping the immigration campaign team. 

One afternoon as I was getting ready to leave for the day, my supervisor handed me a report co-authored by CCC and the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO) that proposed recommendations for expanding Social Security benefits for women, people of color and same sex couples. She requested that I read it that evening so that I could be prepared to write a press release about it the following day. I was particularly excited about this writing assignment because in recent weeks I had fallen into the routine of writing blogs and composing social media posts. This assignment was a new challenge for me since it was different than anything else I had ever written before. The final version was sent out last week and I was pleased to see that I could still recognize the writing as my own. Very few edits were made to my draft of the press release, and the only major difference was that some content was added to the introduction. 
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In response to my supervisor's email about what skills I would like to learn during my remaining time at CCC, I had mentioned that I would enjoy spending more time learning about community organizing and the planning process that goes into it. One example of community organizing is shown in the picture on the left, which I took a couple weeks ago in the Longworth Building outside Speaker Boehner's office. People traveled from Arizona and New York to visit Boehner's office to ask that he bring the House to a vote on comprehensive immigration reform. Unfortunately they arrived to find a locked door, but they gathered outside his office nonetheless and joined in a group prayer. 

During these next few weeks I will be helping to plan events that will involve children from all over the country coming to DC to press for immigration reform. I am looking forward to learning how CCC mobilizes people from the local and state levels to the national stage and to hearing the personal stories of the children who will take part in the upcoming events. Last week I sat in on some meetings that discussed possibilities for the itinerary for when the children will come to DC in mid-November. So far I have grasped that these conversations are as practical as they are creative; the planning not only involves basic questions of logistics, but also how to engage the children in a meaningful way. 

Even though I am the press and media intern at CCC, I am glad that my supervisor has been so accommodating and has allowed me to branch out to other areas. Up until this point I have been working primarily with the communications team, and I am excited to have the chance to interact with a new group of people on the immigration campaign team. 

 
 
PicturePhoto credit: http://www.criticalexposure.org/
This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to conduct an informational interview with a young woman named Kimmi Ramnine. Kimmi works at a non-profit called Critical Exposure, which is an organization that trains students coming from low-income communities to use photography to advocate for school reform. This interview showed me that reaching out to an organization (even as an unknown college student) can, in fact, produce results. I had sent a message to Critical Exposure through the "Contact Us" tab on their website and was skeptical if I would even hear back since I was not directly contacting a specific person there. However, within a week I received an email thanking me for my interest in the organization and offering to set up a time for me to talk to one of their staff. This response was very encouraging to me as it proved that initiating contact is the most important step, and from there the situation can only look up.

I was then put in touch with Kimmi, who is a youth organizer at Critical Exposure. She invited me to meet her at the office, where she gave me a brief tour, and from there we went to grab coffee at a nearby café. This was my first time conducting an informational interview in person; my previous two were carried out over the phone. While I enjoyed being able to speak with Kimmi face to face, it was somewhat difficult for me to strike a balance between being fully absorbed in the conversation while also jotting down notes. As I was interviewing her, I felt I had to be more aware of using open body language to show that I was engaged, rather than just huddling down over my notebook scribbling down her remarks. If I conduct another in person informational interview, I might try taking notes on my computer rather than by hand. Depending on the circumstances, I might also consider asking the interviewee if he or she minds if I record the interview on my phone so I can refer back to it later.

All in all, my interview with Kimmi went well. I learned that she is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and she has been working at Critical Exposure since September. As a youth organizer at Critical Exposure, Kimmi helps the students develop their advocacy organizing skills and enhances their understanding of issues relating to politics and social justice. She also shows students how they can use their photography skills to fight for positive social change.

I was excited to hear about Kimmi's work at Critical Exposure since the organization takes a unique approach, giving a voice to those who are most affected by substandard schools. It seems that any input from students is largely absent from conversations about how to improve the schools serving low-income communities. But at Critical Exposure, students use their photos to show principals, superintendents and other people in positions of power what changes need to be made to their schools and why. One of their most recent projects was persuading the principal to hire a librarian. 

According to Kimmi, Critical Exposure serves students in the D.C. area, at three different D.C. public schools, but I would love to see them expand their program to other urban areas across the country that have similar struggling school systems. I think it is incredible how the organization empowers underprivileged students, encouraging them to identify the ways in which their schools can improve and allowing them to use their creativity to communicate that message. 

During my conversation with Kimmi, I was able to identify specific concepts that I have learned in the classroom and how they applied to her work at Critical Exposure. For instance, she mentioned the three elements of oppression (institutional, interpersonal, and internalized) and explained how they relate to her role as a youth organizer at Critical Exposure. I was inspired to see how the terms that I learned in a textbook are more than just a list of words and definitions, and how they have the potential to be applied in the real world. 

Moreover, my informational interview with Kimmi revealed the value of developing people management skills, which was the focus of my presentation in class last week. However, Kimmi did not use the words "people management," and instead described it as facilitation skills. By this she was referring to the ability to direct a group, to identify capabilities of members within the group, and to develop and strengthen their potential. In my presentation I mentioned how it is important for a manager to function as a team player, rather than as an authority figure. I think this is especially true for Kimmi's position as a youth organizer since she aims to build leadership in her students. Treating them as subordinates would only work to counteract this effort. 

Kimmi's insight has had a positive influence on me and my hopes for my future. Hearing about her experiences gave me more food for thought as I consider which direction to take after graduation. My ability to schedule an interview with her was very reassuring as it proved that I have nothing to lose by sending out cold emails. I may not always receive a response, but it never hurts to try. 
 
 
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At my internship last week I was asked to write a blog post about the impact that the government shutdown had on low-income people across the country. The full post can be accessed here

Sure, I was just as upset as the next person that I could not go to any of the Smithsonian museums until Congress managed to reach a consensus. I even felt bad for the tourists I read about in the paper who had made untimely visits to the nation's capital and were unable to carry out their desired itineraries. But these are only minor misfortunes when compared to the hardships that others had to endure as a result of the shutdown. 

The underprivileged members of society were the ones who had to bear the greatest brunt since their basic needs were put in jeopardy. Due to a lack of funding from the federal government, states were forced to come up with their own money to continue running government assistance programs such as Work First and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). With limited funds, many states stopped accepting new applicants altogether, which meant that new mothers and young children were denied access to proper nutrition and healthcare.  

As I was drafting the blog at my internship, I became less frustrated over the fact that I could not visit one of the national museums and more upset at how the government shutdown worked to further oppress those who are already vulnerable. It made me question how the government decides between what is essential and what is nonessential. I realized that the inconveniences that the shutdown presented for me were nothing compared to what it inflicted upon others. 

This past weekend I went to both the National Zoo and the National Museum of American History. As I observed the animals at the zoo, I could not help but think how these creatures were still provided with food despite the shutdown, but some impoverished American citizens were not. If another shutdown happens in the future, I can only hope that Congress will think twice before cutting off funding for the programs that people depend on for survival. 



 
 
PicturePhoto by Michael Saldarriaga
This past Tuesday I attended a rally on the National Mall called El Camino Americano: Concert and March for Immigrant Dignity and Respect. With thousands of people in attendance, this rally was much larger than the one I went to back in September. But it served the same purpose: to pressure Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

The event took up the whole day, starting at 12:00pm and lasting until the early evening. There was a large stage set up on the Mall where musicians performed and political leaders gave speeches. The members of Congress who spoke were Nancy Pelosi, Luis Gutierrez, and Robert Menendez, and Los Tigres del Norte and Lila Downs played concerts that highlighted the immigrant experience. Although I had to spend most of the afternoon in a tent backstage checking in people from the press, I could feel the energy of the crowd nonetheless.

Around 3:00pm I joined protestors in a march from the Mall to the Capitol, where a civil disobedience was scheduled to take place at 4:00pm. I was blown away by the mass of people trekking along Jefferson Drive. Particularly striking was the group of children who led the march, many of them wearing shirts that said  “Don’t Deport My Mom.”

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Photo by Michael Saldarriaga
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Once the march concluded on the Hill, those taking part in the civil disobedience began to organize themselves in the street as everyone else crammed onto the sidewalk. Some people even climbed on top of statues to get a better view. Over 200 people were arrested in the action, including 8 members of Congress. The week before, my supervisor had told me that there were Congress people who had agreed to get arrested, but it was not until I saw it happen in person that it really hit me. All of the other people there were dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts, but the members of Congress stood out in their business attire. It was a powerful image to see them getting escorted away by police officers alongside activists, immigrants, and young DREAMers. Their participation proved that actions really do speak louder than words. Policymakers can voice their support for immigration reform time and time again, but the ones who took part in the civil disobedience truly showed their commitment to the cause.

As I watched the arrests take place, with the Capitol building looming close in the background,  I wondered how long it would actually be before Congress passes reform. When I first started at my internship and attended the women’s civil disobedience on September 12th, it felt like they might call a vote on it before the end of the year. But with Syria and now the shutdown, it is uncertain if immigration reform will pass in that time. I was inspired by all of the people who turned out to rally around the cause, and I hope that Congress will soon start to feel the same urgency that they do. 

 
 
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This past week I attended a couple of events, one at the New America Foundation and another on Capitol Hill. The event hosted by the New America Foundation was a talk that focused on comprehensive education reform efforts in the state of Delaware. Then on Thursday, for my internship, I had the chance to go to Capitol Hill to attend a press conference on immigration reform. 

At the New American Foundation I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting near me by asking her what organization she was with. Her name was Brandy and I learned that she worked at a foundation in Arlington advising donors to support local non-profits. I did not use any of my elevator speech pitches with her and we did not exchange business cards, but I enjoyed the conversation nonetheless. Brandy asked me all the typical questions such as where I intern, where I am from, what is my major, and what I would like to do when I am done with school. I was able to respond to her inquiries with ease since I did not feel as if I needed to really sell myself to her during our interaction. Instead, it was casual small talk as the other attendees arrived and found their seats. But still good practice for breaking the ice and interacting with new people.

On Thursday I went to the Hill for a press conference about the Democratic bill on immigration reform that was introduced in the House. While my supervisor and I were walking to the site where the press conference was going to be held, I overheard a young woman mention NAFSA, which is an organization for international education. The woman's name is Katie O'Connell and she is the Associate Director of Media Relations and Advocacy at NAFSA. This encounter taught me that all I really have to do is initiate contact to get the ball rolling. Our conversation was very brief, but it ended with Katie giving me her business card. 

Several Congresspeople spoke at the press conference, including Representative Luis Gutierrez from Illinois. There were also two activists who spoke: Ben Monterroso of Mi Familia Vota and Mehrdad Azemun from Center for Community Change. I have attended meetings with both of them during my temporary position at Alliance for Citizenship, so it was quite exciting to see some familiar faces behind the podium. 

Before we left to go to the Hill, a woman from America's Voice (a partner organization that works closely with Alliance for Citizenship and shares the same office) asked me if I would live stream the press conference to their website using an app called U Stream. After I agreed, she gave me a tripod and some painters tape and told me to just tape my phone to the tripod, the results of which are pictured below. Since I arrived to the press conference well before the professional cameramen, I took the spot front and center, right in front of the podium. Before long, I was flanked on either side by two big video cameras, which made my set up look that much more ridiculous. One of my co-workers at Center for Community Change wanted to document the hilarity of the situation, and he requested that I get in the picture. 

While I still do not feel 100% confident in my ability to network and meet people who may become a resource for me, I think I am starting to make progress. Talking to people itself is not what scares me. Rather, I think it is having to articulate my career goals and ambitions that makes me a bit nervous. While I have certain areas of interest or ideas for what I would like to do after I graduate, it is not always easy to articulate those thoughts into a concrete career path. But I am hopeful that with more practice and perhaps some more reflection on my post-graduation plans, I will start to feel more comfortable talking about my future with others.
 

    Author

    Robin Curran is a senior at Dominican University, a liberal arts college just outside of Chicago. She is a double major in Sociology and Italian.
    She is currently an intern at Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C.

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