There is nothing wrong, nothing at all, with the Ford Foundation using its resources to help underprivileged students by giving internships to a select group of students. It’s Edsel Ford’s money (more or less), and its stewards can use it to promote whatever they want.
At the Ford Foundation, we take seriously the responsibility to ensure our paid internships help dismantle privilege. In addition to screening for strong academic performance and an interest in social justice issues, our managers require that interns be recipients of needs-based financial aid. In this way, we offer sought-after positions to young people who otherwise might not have the chance to pursue them.
President of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, explains at length the benefits of a sexy internship on a student’s future, as if nobody knows.
The stakes of America’s broken internship system are high. As report after report reminds us, this generation of students faces significantly worse job prospects than its predecessors. Without the short-term opportunities to help them learn, grow, connect with mentors and begin climbing the earnings curve, many promising young people with limited means are denied the chance to rise as high as their talent will take them.
But is America’s “internship system” broken? What Walker refers to is the allowance for unpaid internships. When SDNY Judge William H. Pauley III held that internships without some form of compensation, whether monetary or college credit, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, it was seen as a blow for social justice, leveling the playing field between the privileged who could afford to work for free, and the unprivileged, who had neither the contacts nor ability to take advantage of unpaid internships. None of this, of course, formed the basis of Judge Pauley’s decision, but the consequences seemed to fit the narrative.
Not everyone applauded.
We need internships. We need unpaid internships. We need to give young people an opportunity to learn their craft, to impress potential future employers, to show they can do the job they hope to hold for years to come. And if internships must be paid, they aren’t internships and the they aren’t worth it.
And until the Second Circuit reversed Judge Pauley, real life consequences flowed. Rather than unprivileged students riding unicorns on internship rainbows, internships disappeared. What fails to occur to the willingly blind is that interns are pretty useless, a suck on time and productivity, and a general pain in the ass. Sorry, kids, but you don’t actually contribute anything. It’s not your fault. You lack the skills beyond the ability to fetch coffee, since very few corporations have a burning need for an analysis of critical theory in the production of their widgets.
But the Ford Foundation isn’t a business. It makes nothing. It spends money to promote causes in which it believes, which is great and what foundations are supposed to do. And it pays its interns. And it only hires interns who receive need-based financial aid, which is clearly classist and discriminatory, but its the good kind of classist discrimination according to the victim pyramid. And that, too, is fine.
Walker, however, calls for everyone to do as Ford Foundation does.
Fortunately, there is another option. Many organizations are beginning to pay interns. This is important because employers should not only compensate students for their time and contributions, but also eliminate barriers that prevent low-income and underrepresented students from pursuing these opportunities.
While some nonprofits may be unable to pay their interns — even though they depend on their contributions of energy and know-how — the government can help turn unpaid positions into paid opportunities for those at risk of getting left behind.
If a corporation can, and wants to, pay interns, that’s huge. Walker is quite right to note that this enables students who have to worry where their next meal is coming from to take on jobs that will certainly help them to prepare for the future, and make them more desirable job candidates when they enter the market. Good on them.
As a college student who bought a package of fish sticks for my dinners (3 per night to stretch it out), earning money was always an issue. As a law student, I took some jobs of which I am not proud because paid cash at the end of the shift, meaning I could eat again tomorrow. I know, being a white male and all privileged, I should have been able to eat at the Club with Muffy, but somehow my folks blew their advantage. Bad parents. So I worked my butt off to eat.
But then, Walker’s two-step devolves into a black hole. The Ford Foundation has moolah to spread around, but it’s unwilling to put its money where Walker’s mouth is. Other non-profits can’t afford to pay interns? Great, the Ford Foundation wants to fund your . . . oh wait. No, it doesn’t.
The Ford Foundation wants the government to fund its dream of equality, where the poor can get paid (and the not poor enough can go fly a kite) by taking taxpayer money and using it to fund students who are already receiving scholarship money to beef up their resume so they can get better paying jobs out of college. While Walker never mentions the word, what he’s calling for is another layer of welfare, the Edsel of transfer payments.
Years ago, I used to take on summer interns, and I paid them because I personally like the idea of paying it forward given my college and law school hunger games. They would help wherever they could, and otherwise watch and listen, like a shadow. Then something changed, and interns felt entitled to speak. A lot. Ask questions. Interject with clients. In court. Say stupid things that they thought were brilliant. Constantly.
They told me they were entitled to do so, as that’s what they believed would help them. I told them to apply for a job at Dairy Queen, as they were then too much of a burden and annoyance to have around. And I never took on another intern. You couldn’t pay me to take on an intern today.
But if your organization is willing to take on interns, that’s great. If it’s willing to pay them, even better. If it helps students who would otherwise not have the connections to gain resume fodder about their mad coffee-fetching skillz, so that they can use it to get a better job after college, you’re a wonderful humanitarian. But don’t look to those who want to tell other people how to spend their money, and deprive other students of opportunity when organizations choose not to pay student interns.
And if Darren Walker and the Ford Foundation really want to help underprivileged students succeed, it might consider using some of Edsel’s wherewithal to tell them not to major in gender studies or critical race theory, and instead learn something that some employer might find desirable in a new hire. And stop spending their time whining about the Royall Crest and study harder. Or if this hurts your social justice feelings, then perhaps the Ford Foundation could just put its money where Walker’s mouth is and fund internships.