Unpaid internships and the art of empathy

  • Article by: CHRISTINE BRUNKHORST
  • Updated: July 17, 2013 - 6:45 PM

The next step is to acknowledge that others don’t, and to imagine what this means.

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When I run into former students, I feel pride and affection, seeing them suited up and taking on the larger world with the competence and confidence we tried to instill in them when they were in high school. As they dip their toes into the stream of networking that will carry them into their futures, I feel as if I’m watching from the shore, waving my syllabus and shouting: Don’t forget to use your imaginations! Because, although we taught them to be confident and competent, we also hoped they would be compassionate — a trait that begins with imagination and fully flowers with empathy.

Which brings me to the current debate about unpaid internships. The unpaid internship may be a thing of the past after a federal judge ruled in June that Fox Searchlight violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. The decision has started a kerfuffle among the beneficiaries of unpaid internships. Their argument? If interns gain skills beyond what they learn in the classroom and if they are willing to work for networking opportunities and other “career capital” in lieu of a paycheck, what’s the problem?

Here’s the problem: suspiciously lacking from this debate is the truth that unpaid internships give a leg up to the well-off. As a teacher hoping to send students into the larger world with sympathetic imaginations — and if not yet a kinship for people of lesser means then at least an awareness of their plight — I find this omission disappointing.

I am not against unpaid internships. My point is that I would like to see a healthy acknowledgment, by those fortunate enough to avail themselves of them, that unpaid internships give people of means an advantage. I’d like to see that because humility and gratitude are much better for our democracy than lack of awareness and a sense of entitlement.

I know that working a productive job is important to keeping our economy clicking, and I applaud every young person who finesses his connections to get a good job. But I also agree with Alexis de Tocqueville when in “Democracy in America” he suggests a downside. Individualism, he wrote, is “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into his circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”

This is not the attitude students should take with them into the world.

There is no lack of insular thinking in our society; failing to acknowledge our advantages only makes it worse. And it’s not just unpaid internships that favor the well off. Unpaid service work (recently disdained in a Wall Street Journal commentary as mere “résumé fodder”) is also an opportunity more available to the wealthy. The difference, however, is that service work — for résumé fodder or more altruistic purposes — more likely prevents insular thinking because it brings people together who might otherwise remain divided by circumstance.

For 40-some years, my father worked as a social worker. Every day he would suit up and head downtown and do his best to find homes for children orphaned by drugs or crime. He saw sad things and often felt powerless. He never said much, but he did say these words (which I took to be wisdom from years in the trenches): “These people do not want to be on welfare.”

Empathy is born of proximity, and if our jobs or lives don’t take us among the disadvantaged, we must at least acknowledge their disadvantage, see them truthfully, and not pretend they don’t exist, or that they should “just get a job,” or that someone else will take care of them.

As I tell my students: We cannot physically be everywhere, in every place, and every walk of life. So that is why we have imaginations.

In his book “Tattoos on the Heart,” Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, suggests that if we can envision kinship, we can attain justice. “We imagine no one standing outside of that circle,” he writes, “moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.” Kinship, Boyle writes, is “not serving the other, but being one with the other.”

As many of my former students zip along on the current of their charmed lives, adding internships to their résumés as they go, I want them to remember that their imagination is not just a tool we used in 10th-grade English. It’s their ticket to empathy, their passport to the human race, and they should use it. Start, I want to tell them, by acknowledging the advantages you have and being aware that others don’t have them. Next, don’t just “give back,” but bring the world together by first seeing the divide, then imagining it gone, and then working to make it gone.

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