My name is Zachary Sessa and I’m an incoming Junior at UP, majoring in Social Work and Spanish with a minor in Political Science. I did my Interns for Justice internship at an non-profit organization called Workers Defense Project in Austin, TX. WDP is a membership-based organization that empowers low-income workers to achieve fair employment through adult education, legal services, community organizing and strategic partnerships. The organization has a focus on transforming the construction industry in Texas as it is one of the most dangerous lines of work in the state and also an industry in which exploitation is rampant.
I first encountered WDP when I volunteered with their development team (fundraising, applying for grants, etc.) in the Summer of 2018. I was manually noting errors found within the donor database, super fun stuff! By chance, I ended up in the same office space as the executive director and lead attorney, so I was exposed to all of the behind-the-scenes action going on which gave me great insight into the work they do. I knew these were career paths I should explore more because I could see myself in their positions in the future, so the Interns for Justice program was the perfect way for me to learn as much as possible during my internship.
I’m now finishing my last week of my 12 week long summer internship. It’s a very bittersweet feeling to be finishing my time at WDP because it has been everything I could’ve hoped for and more. My official title is the Workers Rights Advocate intern, but to describe my position in a nutshell I’m a paralegal/organizer within the legal department, fighting to win strategic wage-theft and workplace violation cases that occur within the construction industry. Because we predominantly work with Spanish speakers, my internship has been as close to an immersion experience as I can get without living in a Spanish-speaking country. I have been able to apply so much of what I learn from my Social Work, Spanish, and Political Sciences classes to real life, practical situations. This has provided such meaningful and personal context that will continue to strengthen my future classroom experiences and allow me to better my practical skills to impact people’s lives in a positive way.
The best example I can give of applying my theoretical knowledge from the classroom into practical purposes is the theory of change WDP uses as their mission for social justice. In my Social Work classes I have learned that those who have experienced oppression know how to combat it best because it is their lived reality. WDP uses people power, developed through the membership-based model, to gain economic and political power in order to make change. This theory of change, that those who experience oppression are those best equipped to be leading the fight against the oppressors, aligns with what I’ve learned in my Social Work classes. Every practice of the organization, whether it be the legal department, the research and policy department, or adult education revolves around the empowerment of our members, so that they can lead the fight against oppression/exploitation.
Working in the legal department means that my role supports relationship building with clients at our weekly legal clinic, what we call Junta, and developing the life of a case through mutual contributions from clients and the legal team. We pride ourselves on not operating like a traditional law firm does, so if a member has a case with us we let them know that there’s an expectation that they contribute their own granito de arena (grain of sand) by coming to Junta every week and working their case. This means that instead of a client presenting their case and the law team handling everything else after that, we take a more hands-on approach expecting weekly collaboration from our clients. This aligns with the mission of WDP as through the legal process we want to make sure we’re educating members on their workers rights in the U.S in order to prevent future exploitations, while also acknowledging the power the worker has in navigating intimidating systems, for example; filing a wage claim, properly organizing evidence, and negotiating with their employers via a civil route or through external agencies.
As the legal department we heavily focus on supporting strategic cases which brings me to one of the most important things I’ve learned during my time as an intern; Quality>Quantity. At one of my first trainings I heard veteran colleagues of mine express how it’s important to remember that you can’t help everyone. If you stretch yourself too thin trying to help every single person, then no case is receiving the amount of attention it needs, and the quality of help you can provide drastically decreases. I was stunned because in my mind non-profit workers have huge hearts filled with compassion, so they will do everything in their power to help someone out. First, that’s not a sustainable practice and leads to burnout, which is prevalent in non-profit work. Second, it’s important to recognize that different cases require different skills, so we aren’t always the best equipped resource which could cause a disservice rather than being helpful. Third, it’s important to accept a certain amount of strategic cases in order to make long-term, structural change, instead of playing whack-a-mole and making short-term progress solving tons of individual cases, but not getting to the root of the problem.
Everything I learned through my internship was made possible through the Interns for Justice program and I can’t express how appreciative I am to have had this experience. I gained great insight for future career paths, exponentially improved my Spanish, and started new relationships with people who share similar values as me. I highly recommend the Interns for Justice program and am extremely grateful to have been a participant of it for Summer 2019.