GrassScoops: An Interview Series – Carlos Mark Vera, Pay Our Interns

Carlos Mark Vera is the founder of Pay Our Interns, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing paid internships across the county. Using a variety of advocacy efforts, from federal lobbying to social media campaigns, Pay Our Interns has tasted success with high-profile wins, including campaigning the Senate Appropriations Committee to set aside five million dollars to finally pay their interns.

Using the power of narratives and community organizing, Carlos has mobilized supporters on the local, state, and federal levels. Having interned for the White House, the House of Representatives, and the European Parliament for free, his own story lays out the foundation for why he was inspired to start this movement and how he has increased awareness on the issue of paid internships nationwide. We spoke with Carlos to discuss his experiences and how he used grassroots advocacy to influence legislators and win a campaign.  

Can you tell us about yourself/your professional background and how you came to be involved in advocacy?

I’m an immigrant from Colombia, I’ve been in DC for seven years, I did several unpaid internships. And it’s because of that I decided to start Pay our Interns a year and a half ago.

What internships did you do that were unpaid?

I did the one at Congress as a freshman, the White House, and the European Parliament.

How were you able to fund yourself without having paid internships?

I basically almost always had a side job working, when I was interning on the Hill, I was interning about 25 hours a week, working 20 hours a week, and then taking six classes.

And you still graduated with good grades?

You know, as opposed to enjoying my internship, I was kinda fighting not to fall asleep, so that was my experience.

So that’s what led you to create Pay Our Interns?

Yes. For me it’s really the White House internship, because I was a full-time [intern], and I couldn’t work a side job. You had to wear suits everyday and I only had one suit, so you know having different barriers. But it was because of those experiences that I kind of realized the job market has changed. In the past, a degree was enough to get a job. Now employers want a degree and experience, and how do you get experience in college? You have to intern. The problem is, a big portion of internships are unpaid, particularly in the public sector and the government. So really it leaves out thousands of talented youth that have the drive and the will, but they just don’t have the resources.

What’s your role as the founder of Pay our Interns? What do you do every day?

I just want to call it the Renaissance Man, because you kind of do a little bit of everything. There’s fundraising, there’s doing some meetings/interviews, and then talking to your Board, and talking to different stakeholders, Congress, your team, so it’s never a boring day.

You were affected by unpaid internships, and you fought your way through the system. And now Pay our Interns is using advocacy to change the norms. What advocacy efforts is Pay Our Interns doing?

We’ve done several projects, the main one has been on Congress, so getting Congress to pay their interns. We started going there last year, we found out there’s no data on who gets paid and who doesn’t, so we collected that info and then went back to Congress, and said hey, you should pay your interns per office. We collected data and then we released a report called “Experience doesn’t pay the bills. Why Congress should Pay their Interns,” and then used social media and different tools, including Phone2Action, that have really helped us with several campaigns. One I would say is recent, is April, the Senate got an increase in funding, so we launched a campaign for them to use some of those funds to pay interns and it worked out.

So what does Pay Our Interns do now to make sure that we change that?

So we’re split in half. We promote paid internships, we have literature, storytelling and policy-making, and once we get organizations to pay their interns, we connect students from underrepresented communities with these paid opportunities. So basically creating a diverse talent pipeline one paid internship at a time.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you learned as you engaged unpaid interns to become advocates for the issue?

One thing that we realized is that everyone can be an advocate for this issue, it shouldn’t just simply be us, it’s [asking ourselves], “How do we empower other folks?” And I think, using the toolkit from Phone2Action, you get people that are passionate about this, you get them signed on, and then you make them part of the fight, so it’s not just us. That has really helped us with getting folks invested.

Do you collect a lot of stories from interns?

A hundred percent. A big issue we’ve had is the stigma of speaking out on the difficulties of taking on an unpaid internship, there’s a lot of stigma of being like, you know what, I can’t afford this—so how do we demystify that? You know what, you’re not the only one in this position. There’s a lot of folks going hungry, having issues paying their bills, while doing these unpaid internships.

How do you think the win in the Senate can be used for more future wins in Congress?

Well this is the first one in history, and the fact that it was bipartisan sends a strong signal. The way Congress goes, so does everyone else. So that kind of set the tone in DC and nationwide. So since we got the Senate, it’ll be easier to get the House, and then you know, take this up across the country.

Yeah and you’ve been featured in the front page of the New York Times and many other articles. Its amazing, do you continue to talk to reporters as news comes out about paid internships?

A hundred percent. You know, the media is a powerful tool, to get the message across but also hold folks accountable and people in power.

Can you tell me about your strategy on social media? I know you’re very popular on Twitter for calling people out, like the Governor of Colorado. And your Linkedin and Facebook posts, can you tell me a little bit about the strategy behind that?

Social media as an organizer, social media is not everything but it’s definitely a powerful tool—how do you spread the message on a campaign, getting folks involved, sometimes you can do it with a meme, a gif, different formats. But it’s something that we always use and we’re always posting about, whether its articles or sharing stories through social media, and then having other people retweet like, oh my god, I’m going through this, and then they’ll reach out and say how can we get involved. So that’s definitely been a tool to get the message out, especially since we’re a new organization.

That’s amazing. So what’s next for Pay our Interns?

Like I said, one of the goals is connecting folks with these two thousand paid internships, getting the House, continue pushing non-profits, and then going to all 50 states. You know, if you want to come to DC and get paid, that’s awesome, it shouldn’t have to be the case. Folks should get paid for their work, whether it’s here or Montana. That’s kind of my philosophy.

Are you doing work on the State level?

Yes, so we actually introduced a bill in Massachusetts that provides stipends for interns in their State Assembly, so yeah we’re kind of starting to do things outside of DC. We also got the DNC to pay their interns.

Do you have any advice for people who are starting a new non profit?

I think, one thing folks do is they start a non-profit, and they want to get everyone on board, and that’s just not a very good strategy. You should have an idea, have a concept, have a game plan, and then try to appeal to the folks that actually care about this. Because the fact is not everyone cares about paid internships. But then again, there are also a lot of people that have done internships, paid and unpaid ones, and want to make it easier for other folks. Those are the people that we connect with, and build partnerships or relationships, and then use them as a base to push organizations to pay their interns.

How do you think advocacy will change in the next couple years?

I think it’s becoming more and more decentralized, you’ve seen a lot of rallies but a lot of it is on social media, and now we’re seeing more citizens jumping in and holding folks accountable. It’s usually an organization, now you see citizens, sometimes tweeting about a video and that going viral. Its a level playing field. The fact that myself, a 24-year-old Latino who was just a server last year, doing this type of work shows you how advocacy is changing.

Check out the full interview below and hear more about Carlos’s journey and what he envisions the future of grassroots advocacy will look like.

Want more GrassScoops?

Read the GrassScoops interview with Eric Ebenstein, Head of North America Public Policy at DJI or Adam Nielsen, Director of National Legislation & Policy Development at Illinois Farm Bureau.

 

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