Many companies, nonprofits, and government agencies use internships to help provide career development opportunities for people entering their field — and to tap into promising talent and maybe get some free or cheap labor.
Some organizations bill these internships as part of their diversity efforts. Internship programs can help provide opportunities for those who would otherwise not be able to access career development and professional networks because of cultural, economic, or social barriers.
But does yours?
Many organizations take the path of least resistance to create an internship program. So they:
- Go to their current networks, especially the kids of their current employees (which will only be as diverse as their current employee cohort),
- Identify prospects who are already engaged in the relevant field (who may not need the added support of an internship to be professionally successful),
- Offer an unpaid internship (which will exclude participants who need to earn money to meet family obligations), and
- Trust that the participants will have the resources to participate (which excludes participants with transportation barriers, family care obligations, or other resource barriers).
The easy way to do internships has value. It does provide a career exposure opportunity, connects the employer to emerging talent, and expands the professional networks of participants. It can also serve as a minimum viable product for an internship program to begin a cycle of learning and iteration.
But remember, the people who are excluded from career pathways are not excluded because they don’t want to be there. They are excluded because they face resource, access, and cultural barriers to participating in the sector. Clearing these barriers takes resources and attention.
Ignoring these barriers may give you a quick and easy path to an internship program, but as Yoda said, “If you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil.” OK, maybe not an agent of evil (Yoda can be a bit click baity), but it feeds into a “those who have, get” dynamic that will actually exacerbate the inequalities in your sector.
The good news is that with some attention and some resources, you can make your internship program a force for inclusion.
Where to start
The two first steps to creating an equity-aware internship program are:
- Pay your interns. If taking your internship means that your intern will take home less than she would if she were working as a barrista, you have a problem. Yes, I’m sure you can find someone for free or for cheap, but then you are building a system that only works for people who already have access to resources. What’s more, paid internship programs have better applicants, lower risk, and better recruitment potential. I’ve run a cash-strapped nonprofit, I know this can be a hard investment to make. Start with what you can. Start with a stipend. Partner with career placement programs that might have funding. Do what you can now, you can always improve on it later.
- Diversify your outreach strategy. White people’s social networks are 91% white. If you want to open doors into your sector, you need to go out to the people who don’t already know you, who aren’t in your network, and invite them to apply. That might mean reaching out to educational institutions with higher percentages of students of color. It might mean posting to professional groups that focus on under-represented minorities.
Doing these two things will make a tremendous difference to make your internship program more equitable and inclusive. But maybe you want to go deeper. Good for you! We have a process for you.
Every change process depends on knowing where you are, where you want to go, and a sense of the path from here to there. So, to create a kick-ass diversity-focused internship program, take some time to think through those three elements:
- Where are you? What is your current program? How do you recruit, compensate, and train interns? What are your current goals?
- Where do you want to go? What is your vision of an ideal program?
- What are the next steps? Between where you are and where you want to be there will be a gap. What are steps you can take now to close the gap? You don’t have to have the whole thing planned out. It’s ok to take what adrienne maree brown calls the “next most elegant step.”
If you want a bit of structure for the process, at Change Works Consulting we have designed an internship program planning tool that you can use with a small group to explore your minimum viable internship program, your aspirational vision of an internship program, and the gap between them.
There are countless ways you can make your internship program more equitable and inclusive, from aggressive outreach to underrepresented candidates to wardrobe, transportation, and childcare assistance.
Don’t get caught up in the paradox of choice. You don’t need the perfect next step, you just need to move forward.
Take the first step. Make it the new normal. Celebrate it. Learn from it. Then take the next step.
Inclusion is a process.
If you need help with the next step in your process, schedule a free consultation. We will be happy to help you build clarity around your next steps to create a diverse and inclusive team.