Intern Reflections Archive

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Diving in the Depths of the Ocean While Walking on Jello

By Carissa Smith

This past year has been a whirlwind of experiences for me. Last fall semester I got my feet wet in advocacy working with the CCSJ Advocacy team and being President of our NAACP chapter.  Then I left my post at Creighton to answer my call to go to the Dominican Republic for the semester. After spending a semester away from home I decided to go away again and accept an internship in Washington DC with the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach for the summer (an opportunity that I got through the CCSJ). Through these various experiences I’ve come to really learn the importance of the praxis spiral especially when it comes to advocacy work.

When I left for the Dominican Republic I was more uncertain about my convictions and about my worldview than I ever had been at that point in my life. I realized that a liberal education really meant walking on jello because whatever I stood on was no longer solid and was subject to change the next day depending on what new discovery I had in class. The only thing I was firm about was the fact that the world was a messed up place. I was very aware of many of the problems of the world and felt pretty convinced that we all had a responsibility in fixing it in whatever capacity we are able.  However, my goal that semester was to challenge myself on the very fundamentals that underlie those principles and even the study of the social problems and their solutions of which I became aware.  And that’s exactly what happened! That semester the more I learned and the more I saw the more I realized that I didn’t really know anything at all. As I worked to challenge myself I was also much challenged by my peers, my teachers and by all the people of the Dominican Republic that I encountered. What I took away the most from my experience in the DR was that extremists and fundamentalists are one of the world’s enslavers and biggest fallacies, thus embracing an attitude of balance, openness and understanding is the way to truly love one’s neighbors and enemies.

After spending about two weeks at home with my family and friends I was swept away again to head to Washington, DC where I began my advocacy internship with the Columbans. This time I went with the only firm conviction that I didn’t know much of anything.  I remember the first congressional hearing that I attended (titled The US’s role in the World Bank and Multilateral Development Banks) I was astounded with the internalization of my surroundings. I just spent the last couple of months in places with people who are forgotten, or simply ignored, and at that moment I was in a room full of people in the place where the forgetting happens. The experiences and insights that I gained through my internship are immeasurable and something that I’m still trying to process. I know that I have garnered a better sense of compassion and desire to understand those with a different viewpoint than my own. I came to realize that the world is a lot more gray than black and white and that the gray area was as wide and deep as the ocean. More than anything else I have undoubtedly gained a more humbling desire to know and understand the world with the profundity of conviction which requires me to dive into the uncomfortable and overwhelming depths of the ocean. Scary!

In my journey in advocacy work this process has simply come with the territory and I can either sink or swim. I am already in the ocean surrounded by the good and the bad of the world and the opposing currents of thought and action that either work for or against it’s harmony.  I have learned that our responsibility to change social structures to change lives requires a questioning heart and mind with a deep understanding and awareness of the numerous currents that push and pull to shape the world that we know as well as one’s place in it. In other words, to ask oneself, “am I swimming for or against the currents of harmony!?” However, it must be accompanied with the intuition that the risk of not doing anything is worse than the fear of being wrong. In order to be promoters and workers of justice it is essential to first have an experience that is followed by a reflection with a multitude of questions (and a critical eye of oneself and others). Then we are able to act again and create more experiences in a more genuine and just manner that will be followed by more reflection and action. Advocacy doesn’t mean that you have the answer of how to fix the world just that you have the courage to act on the conviction that you can’t stand idly to watch it destroy itself. Although it is difficult to know exactly which current I am swimming (as only time will tell) I choose to swim rather than drown in my inaction.

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A Lasting Exchange – Al Robey In Ethiopia

I spent five weeks with five other incredible volunteers, four amazing Daughters of Charity, one compassionate Vincentian priest, hundreds of wonderfully enthusiastic and loving students, and a beautiful, hospitable city. We did our best to teach English (the language of instruction in secondary education in Ethiopia). I taught in a very, VERY small classroom in a brand new school located in Tulema. Tulema is a “leprosy village” in Jimma. It is a place that the Daughters of Charity secured for the hundreds of people whose families have been affected by leprosy. The Daughters have helped them build homes, gain livelihoods, and participate in a top quality Montesorri kindergarten program at a school in Tulema (education is a top priority for all of the families — parents and siblings will do everything in their power to help their children get a good education). Prior to the establishment of Tulema, people who had leprosy and their families were living in the Catholic cemetery, as they were designated “the living dead.” Though there are only four or five active cases of leprosy in Tulema, and the disease is completely contained, the children and grandchildren of those who have and had leprosy are still ostracized. Everyone who is able in Tulema, including children, do all that they can to earn money to make a living. I would regularly see my students selling tissues and chewing gum or shining shoes on the streets outside of class time. Despite their concerted efforts, many, if not all, of the families are struggling to meet their basic needs. On top of all this, HIV/AIDS is devestating this community, as it is in so many communities in Africa and around the world.
Though every day in Tulema is a battle, a spirit of determination, joy, and love is palpable the moment you step foot on the mud path that leads to it (and I mean muddy… cars cannot drive down it, and we saw a number of horses and mules get stuck… we, thus, invested in some beautiful knee-high boots. Thankfully, our students met us at the beginning of the road each morning and helped us traverse it with as much ease as possible (for “farenges,” that is). I had sixty first and second grade students. And while I sincerely love all of you, they are my new favorite people, and I miss them SO MUCH. I don’t even know how to begin to express how much I love these kids and this community (so much for that English degree). If this is any indication, I got physically ill the moment I left Jimma, and I am still experiencing the remants of that illness a week later.

Anyway, if you’re still reading this very long email, here is a little story from my journal…Pardon the writing — it is a bit raw.

“Today was our last day of classes in Tulema. We decided to do a short review of what we had learned and to take our pictures together. After class, we had a coffee ceremony held by a few of Krissy’s 5th graders. Apparently they wanted to give us something, so Sr. Tsige suggested a coffee ceremony. They pooled their money to purchase the bunna (coffee), dabo (bread), and a small amount of candy, popcorn, and animal cracker-like cookies. Two of the girls wore their feast day dresses. We all gathered around as they finished the preparations and began to serve (with their ever-present, unbounded, famous Ethiopian hospitality).
After a few minutes, Awel (one of my second grade students) who was leaning on me throughout the ceremony, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Alicia, what is this?” I looked over at him to see that he was holding a small heart-shaped cookie. A big smile spread across my face.
At the end of every class, I would call up each student to the door, give him/her a sticker and a hug and a kiss, and ask her/him a question from that day’s class. The last few days of class we worked on the question and answer, “What is this?” “This is a ________.” I also had a large number of heart stickers, so we learned the word for “heart” and that people drew them to say “I love you” (in Amharic it is Wah – de – shar – lo
Awel paricularly enjoyed our one-on-one time at the door, and he LOVED the hearts. Each time I gave him one, he pulled down the collar of his shirt to reveal a large heart shape scar on the upper part of his chest, indicating for me to place the heart sticker in the middle of his scar. As I did so, I would ask, “What is this?” In his sweet voice, he’d reply, “This is a heart.” Then, I would say “I love you” and give hima big hug and kiss on the cheek, sending him out the door.
So, when Awel asked me “What is this?” as he held out his cookie to me, I thought of all those moments over the last five weeks. Fighting back tears, I said, “This is a heart.” Then, Awel very quietly said, “I love you,” and he placed his cookie, the only cookie he had received, in my mouth and rested his hand on my shoulder.
Feeding someone is a customary gesture of care, compassion, and love. For these past five weeks our souls have been well-fed by this community teeming with love.
As I think about this brief, special moment with Awel today, I am reminded of the anxiety I felt before I left the states for Jimma. Tears streamed down my face as I literally flew over my home in Stewartville, watching it slowly disappear from view, and wondering why I was traveling half way across the world to teach English. I was doubting my abilities, my strength, and I was fearful that I would fall in love with a community that I would have to leave in five weeks.
Though I did not master English language instruction (or even come close), and I did continue to question the effects of my presence there, I gradually overcame my fear of falling in love with this community that I would to leave. This is because I knew I would never leave them, and they could never leave me. Just as Awel and I literally and figuratively exchanged hearts, I know a part of me will stay in Jimma and a part of Jimma will stay with me.
People say this all the time… and I’ve said it before, as well, about different communities I’ve visited and loved over the years, but I have never felt such an immense love and such a deep sense of connection to a community as I do to this one. I have a feeling this love is going to contiue to lead me back to Jimma and down the muddy path to Tulema over and over again.”

This is just a small sampling of stories and people who made this time in Jimma truly life-altering… Perhaps I’ll send another when my eyes dry (if that ever happens).

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Will Rutt on summer with Interfaith Worker Justice

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Interfaith Worker Justice 2006

Rachael Hoffman Interned at Interfaith Worker Justice during the Summer of ’06

Interfaith Worker Justice (the non-profit that I’m working for this summer) was influential in this campaign (in rallying community and faith leaders to support the ordinance and call their aldermen/women) = I was at the finance committee yesterday where they voted in support of it! check out these photos of me on the job…

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Maureen Book – NETWORK

Maureen with Ana and Senator Ben NelsonWorking in D.C., the nation’s capital, was probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. Life in D.C. is fast-paced and people are tremendously driven and always well-informed—everyone seems to know everything about everything. There was always something happening and the ripple effects of politics was spectacular to watch. My internship also taught me a great deal, not only about the issues I was working on, but about American politics in general. With constant debate and discussion, I was able to clearly understand what my own personal values and concerns are. And I was always sure to meet people who thought the same as me – as well as many people who didn’t.
Experiencing D.C. was definitely empowering, and in a strange way, a little reassuring. After an entire year as a member of the Cortina community, learning about incredible social injustices in our society, I was understandably frustrated and angered that no one was doing anything. Though this is definitely somewhat true, it certainly doesn’t mean that no one is talking about it. I met so many people and groups in D.C. that knew way more than me about lots of issues and who were definitely concerned and making their voices heard in D.C. politics. This was definitely reassuring to me. D.C. politics also made me realize how empowered and important we are as citizens of this nation – no member of Congress will make a decision on something without listening to his or her constituency. Our members of Congress really do want us to write and call to tell them what we think – which gives us a tremendous amount of power. Working in D.C. further cemented my commitment to social justice and has made me eager to learn as much about the world as I can. I can’t write enough about how wonderful my D.C. experience was and I am so grateful to the CCSJ for giving me the opportunity!

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Will Rutt – Interfaith Worker Justice

I arrived at the worker center not really knowing what I was going to do and what the worker center was all about. As the summer progressed I started to hear the workers’ stories first hand and connect with worker, and immigrant struggles in Arizona. Pressure quickly began to rise as the court cases piled up and the date of the implementation of SB1070 neared. One week I had the opportunity to be a part of three different protests. I was able to help organize and coordinate both of the protests that our worker center organized. Going to both of those, seeing the national support, and seeing the success of the actions was inspiring. It was so great to see some of the hard work that I did this summer really become concrete. We made steps toward a more just workplace for workers in Arizona. The third protest was that against SB1070. This was an intense day filled with lots of emotion. Watching so many people stand up for what they believe in by getting arrested was inspirational to me. It gave me hope for this fight for worker and immigrant rights.
This experience is one that I will not forget. I got a first hand look at the plight of workers, and our undocumented brothers and sisters in Arizona. I was introduced to the crazy world of organizing that I hope to be a part of in the future. My eyes were further opened to the importance for every person that does have a voice to stand up and fight for people who do not have a voice. I was right in the middle of history in this fight against SB1070 and for immigration reform. Most of all I learned from the workers and the importance of the dignity of every human being no matter their status, skin color, age, or religious affiliation. I will continue to learn and grow from this experience at AIAWJ as I reflect and look back on my time here. I would like to thank Nic, Cristina, Maria and Trina for all that you have done for me, I will miss working at the center. Thank you to Father George for being my spiritual advisor throughout the summer. Thank you to Creighton Center for Service and Justice, IWJ Nationals and all the people that supported me this summer.

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