College student interns linking poverty, privilege
MIDDLEBURY — “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”
This quote, attributed to Brazilian Catholic archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara, came up last week during a meeting of Privilege & Poverty interns at Middlebury College.
In addition to working for social service organizations in Addison County this summer those interns have been navigating the vast gulf between helping people in need and addressing the underlying causes of those needs.
“How do you create a society that doesn’t need WomenSafe?” asked Olivia O’Brien, who interned at the Addison County organization. “How do we evolve and not get stuck? I want to move in a direction toward something.”
Several students agreed, including Peter Mehler, who spent the summer living at the Charter House homeless shelter in Middlebury and interning at Mary Johnson Children’s Center.
“A lot of forces are creating barriers that feel hard to break through,” he said. “Charity is seen as super-positive. Helping is good. But asking ‘why’ is too hard.”
And yet, he added, “it’s dangerous to avoid discussing institutional change because it’s somehow ‘political.’ You can avoid discussing anything by calling it ‘political’ and saying ‘We can’t talk about that.’ ”
Middlebury’s Privilege & Poverty Academic Cluster (P&P) is a learning community that brings classrooms and communities together to critically examine and address the causes and consequences of poverty. The summer internship program has existed in various iterations since 2005.
This summer, eight Middlebury students interned locally, and another seven interned around the country — all funded by the college.
“This question of effecting change is essentially what impelled these students toward these internships,” said Jason Duquette-Hoffman, assistant director of P&P. “It’s messy work and it raises a lot of questions — ‘Why do I get to be this person who goes to Middlebury College? And why not the person I’m here working with?’ — but it can be internally transformative.”
It can be transformative for the organizations, too.
“Students are students — they’re actively engaged and curious, and they carry that into their internships, which in turn supports a culture of self-reflection in these organizations and a focus on the larger picture.”
Josh Lanney, Patient Services Coordinator at the Open Door Clinic, agreed.
“It’s really great to have a fresh mind or pair of eyes — people who ask questions and provide additional viewpoints,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts here and a lot of systems in place, and we’re always fine-tuning.”
It would be tough to do the clinic’s work without assistance from the college community, including year-round faculty and staff volunteers, Lanney acknowledged.
But the relationship is reciprocal.
“We offer an internship that’s hard to find, especially in terms of the breadth of information and experiences that are being absorbed,” he said. “It has a lasting impact both on our organization and on the college community.”
Anna Durning, who will graduate from Middlebury next February, has been one such beneficiary. Last fall, Durning began volunteering once a month as an interpreter at the Open Door Clinic. This summer she worked as an intern.
“When I was volunteering, I would interpret for one person in one situation, and then I would just leave,” she said. “But now I’m sometimes there through the whole process, through multiple appointments. It’s deeper and more social, which in turn helps me be better at providing services — or knowing which ones are needed.”
In addition to internship work, the P&P summer program provides an educational component, Durning explained, including meetings like the one last week.
“There’s a lot of self-reflection involved,” she said. “Asking ‘What is my role? What do I want to be?’ ”
Some P&P students have answered those questions by sticking around after they graduate — finding permanent employment with their organizations or joining their boards.
TOWN & GOWN
“The community is always asking the college, ‘What can you do for us?’” said Duquette-Hoffman, who is himself a local resident. “But what is the community doing to say ‘You’re welcome here’? I’m not sure how people would answer that question. But I think a piece of that plays out in this work. This is a way of saying ‘you matter’ to these students.”
It’s also a potent reminder, he added, that Wall Street isn’t the only option after graduation.
“You can challenge yourself in a small town.”
John Graham Housing and Services has been a part of offering that challenge since the Middlebury internship program began, said the organization’s co-director for housing, Pete Kellerman.
“It’s a wonderful program,” he said. “It’s just one great candidate after another. They hit the floor running and bring different skill sets with them.”
They also come with a certain openness, he said.
“They’ve all had deeply impressive — and diverse — experiences. The diversity factor is really helpful.”
John Graham offers student interns a “total immersive experience,” Kellerman explained. In addition to routine chores like cleaning, students spend a significant amount of supervised time with residents.
“You don’t get a true understanding of how people deal with a crisis or trauma until you’re in the middle of it, until you spend time just being present with them.”
For the most part, Kellerman said, students are welcomed by the residents, and by the time they leave, they’re well-liked.
Rising third-year Middlebury student Cynthia Ramos interned for the Charter House this summer, cooking, cleaning and gardening.
“I think what shocked me the most was how kind some of the Charter House guests have been toward me,” Ramos told the Independent. “Someone who has had the worst of life thrown at them can still look at me, smile, and thank me from the bottom of their hearts. There seems to always be an abundance of kindness where other things are lacking.”
Ramos would rather not have them feel like they need to thank her, however.
“At our core, we are equals, despite the economic disparity between us,” she said. “That’s what I think people tend to forget when they are voting in elections. It’s easier, and more profitable, to criminalize and vilify the poor than to actually look at the system, see where it’s failing and fix it.”
She wishes the public was more aware of what the Charter House does, what’s at stake without it and what more could be done, she said.
“We could always do with more volunteers, more funding, more upgrades. We still need to figure out composting. The walls need to be repainted. The basement needs to be cleaned out. In the winter, a new volunteer mentor program will hopefully be set up to support families better.”
But, Ramos also asked: Should Charter House be improved, or should the town of Middlebury step up its game so Charter House doesn’t have to?
Connor Wertz, a rising sophomore who interned at John Graham this summer, was the one who quoted Câmara at last week’s meeting.
“This is something I struggle with, because I identify more as an activist, and so (I believe that) structural change is much more critical and will help many more people,” he explained in an email to the Independent. “There is so much amazing social work going on in Addison County — if we had as many absolutely dedicated political champions, the difference would be huge.”
Wertz praised the college for funding all the work he and his fellow interns are doing this summer. At the same time, he has higher hopes for the program, which mostly attracts “soft science majors.”
“Think of what would happen if every political science and every economics major — the people who will be developing our policy in 15 years — sat down and had a heart-to-heart with any person that these internships provide services to.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].