Equity, Access, and Inclusion, and What it Means for Interns
On the evening of June 12th, the 2017-18 Lark Apprentices hosted a convening for theater interns, fellows, and apprentices in New York City in the hopes of starting a dialogue about the inequities they faced and are currently facing in the field. The Apprentices were joined by early-career theater artists from different backgrounds who have worked in various companies throughout New York City and the U.S.
We’ve spent our year at The Lark discussing issues of equity, access, and inclusion as they applies to artists. We wanted to extend this conversation to interns, apprentices, and other entry level positions. When we look at the generally homogeneous (white, cis, male) majority of who holds leadership positions in theater, we thought it could be traced back to who is able to even start a career in theater leadership and arts management. This led us to many a conversation about issues of equity and access as they applies to internships, and, ultimately, to the creation of the convening.
Our three-hour convening just skimmed the surface of the hurdles theater interns face. While we are so grateful to the space that was held, we were also left with so many questions: What would a truly equitable field look like for interns? How can interns be protected against harassment and misconduct? How can more internships have higher wages so they are more accessible? What do we, as interns, need to be successful, and what would happen if all companies set up their interns for success? What does the field need to do to be more welcoming to interns of color, LGBTQ interns, or interns who can’t afford to take an unpaid/stipend-only position? How can we create an organized network of interns to share resources, or even just to see they are not alone in the fight?
The evening was broken into three parts. This is the beginning of an incredibly important and necessary conversation as we work towards a more equitable field. Excerpts and thoughts from each discussion are shared below! We would also like to thank everyone who came to the convening and all those, especially Lark staff, who supported the convening. You all inspire us!
As our apprenticeships wrap up at The Lark, we are starting to plan how to continue these conversations and create these spaces in the future. We will send out and publish more info as we begin to organize at the end of the summer. In the meantime if you have any questions or want to get involved, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
PART I: WHAT HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED?
After introductions, the group began a share-out discussion of their different experiences. Conversations about mistreatment and accessibility dominated the discussion, as did talk of how these two things are inherently tied to the intersection of our different identities. The most common problem faced by the group was the lack of proper compensation for internships and fellowships. Because of this, most early-career theater artists either have to sustain a second job, or have to pass on an internship opportunity altogether.
One participant stated: “It's this unfair balance especially for young people to have where we are all, like, I really want to get into this business and I really want to know people so I can get my work seen and I can do my art. But I have to sit here and question do I have the time and the resources to do it for free. And not everybody does. A lot of people don't. And even the people who can, it's not fair to ask them to do that much work for no reward except I get to say that I worked for free for a year or two years.”
Multiple participants discussed feeling caught between a rock and hard place when it comes to taking an internship. It is often extremely difficult to take an internship and make a living, especially when many internships pay nothing or below minimum wage, but it often feels like the only way to get your work seen or prove your worth as an arts leader. And often, internships are left to those who can afford to take the low wages.
And on top of that, the amount of work that is given to interns cannot be justified, especially when there is no monetary compensation.
“I had an experience working at a regional theater where the job I was doing was the same job, literally, for one department as paid coordinators were doing for every other department in the theater. And they were fully salaried, full benefits, everything, and I literally was doing the exact same job as them. And the only reason they could get away with it is that it was a highly competitive position, with lots of folks applying who would gladly do the work for free. So they knew that someone was going to sign up to do it.”
And for interns of color, LGBTQ interns, interns with disabilities, and any other interns whose identities have in some way been marginalized, this work goes beyond physical labor. Many organizations rely on them for their EDI/EAI work without any regard to their emotional wellbeing.
Person A: "These are my intersections, right? It gets reemphasized for me by being a woman, being a woman of color. All of these other, you know, ways. So it's not just that you are sort of the bottom wrung of the ladder. There's, like, your identity comes into it in a way that is not acknowledged and then is also‐‐ ”
Person B: “Let alone understood.”
Person A: “The worst part is when people come back and say oh, we really wanted to know your opinion this whole time. Why didn't you say something? Or when they start asking you for your opinion, you can't actually tell them, you know.”
Person B: “Or they don't like your opinion when they actually ask you it.”
Person A: "It just turns it up, oh, so what did you think? And trying to figure out what they want you to say. You know. And it's just, I don't know. I don't know. That goes back to emotional labor, right? You just say okay, it was good.”
PART II: WHAT RESOURCES DID YOU WISH YOU HAD TO MAKE YOUR INTERNSHIP EXPERIENCE BETTER?
For the second part of the discussion, we talked about what could have been done differently during our internship (whether programmatic or external resources) to have made us more prepared for our internships.
We were left with the question: What would happen if our internships had a structured onboarding process, where we could get to know the company, and the company could get to know us? Many participants expressed the feeling that every mistake is dire as an intern. When we are not paid, or paid minimally, there is a subtext that we are replaceable, and than many other eager young professionals would jump at the opportunity to have our position. It would be so helpful if companies took the time at the beginning to set up a clear dialogue with interns, where there are defined expectations and transparency in regards to what is needed from us, and to what we can expect to get out of the internship.
“If there was one thing that would have set me up better for success, it would have been having a list of protocol. Like having a union or a union‐like thing that was, like, hey, this is standard code of conduct, because then I would have known more quickly that some of the stuff I was subjected to was really screwed up because there is that sense of oh, this is a great privilege. Everything is fine. Is it fine? So at least if there is some sort of visible, like, hey, this is actually what's okay and if anything's happening outside of that, like, that's not okay. Because you go into denial, because it is true you have this great privilege and this great honor and they do have so many people they could have chosen and you are expendable in this way. But you shouldn't be.”
A debate about educational programs and on-the-job internships broke out. Most of the group expressed a frustration for how internships are being advertised and how they are actually structured, and the promise of a mentor, but actually getting a supervisor.
“I would be better set up for success if I, for lack of a better word, wasn't lied to. If you are putting up pedagogical language... this is an educational program, this is, like, for you, the intern, right? Theoretically, the company does not benefit from you. We are losing money because our employees could be doing something else, right. If you are using that language, and I know they are using it because of legal reasons, right, they have to use it if they are not going to pay you.”
“If you are not being supervised, if you are not being supervised by someone who understands the power of education and I'm not evenly talking about formal education, like, you are kind of fucked.”
PART III: WHAT’S NEXT?
The discussion ended with the group sharing what they think the ideal of the internship field would look like, which led to a short wish list and next steps.
Chris: “A resource page - resources in terms of finding grants that could help fund you in doing an internship, or statistics of demographic breakdowns, just a page where we could see all of this.”
“If there was a third party or like an element of HR that was specifically oversight for internships, that would help. I mean, they still work for the company, but it's a way to hold them accountable for what they said they were going to do and the code of conduct they are supposed to be upholding.”
“Yeah, rate my internship.”
“Something like that. That would be useful like even if interns got together and just started to do it on a forum.
“For every field, too. It doesn't just have to be theater.”
“A Bill of Rights or Code of Conduct.”
We plan to continue the conversation after our apprenticeships wrap up at The Lark. We will reconvene at the end of the summer to start planning. In the meantime if you are a current or recent intern please join our facebook page or email us at email@example.com.