Why We Must Invest in Black Youth through Paid Internships

By Mar’Quon Frederick

“If you teach a man to fish, you can feed him for a lifetime.”

My sophomore year of college was a challenging one. My motivation and grades slipped as my post-graduate plan of going to law school became less certain. An internship and college courses that I took revealed that the legal practice was not my passion, and systemic issues beyond the courtroom were not being addressed. I informed a mentor of mine of my dilemma. He encouraged me to apply to the Institute for Responsible Citizenship. It’s a fellowship that enhances the career direction of undergraduate Black men through paid internships, briefings with prominent leaders, and seminars on economic and constitutional principles. I took his advice, applied, and was accepted. The network and insight that I have gained through the Institute and my internship with the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) is why I believe that policymakers must invest in Black youth through paid internships.

Dr. William Keyes established the Institute after witnessing how wealth disparities between white and Black Americans influence unequal access to opportunities such as internships. Research shows that internships allow people to explore different careers, gain valuable work experience, and network with professionals in various fields. This, in turn, makes one a more competitive candidate for post-graduate employment, increasing the likelihood of financial security.

In fact, studies show that college seniors with internship experience are more likely to secure post-graduate jobs and perform better in job fairs than those without internship experience. However, according to the same research, Black youth are less likely to participate in internships. This is because nearly half of all internships are unpaid, limiting access to young people from more privileged backgrounds who can afford to take an unpaid internship. Black youth are often unable to afford the costs of travel and living when performing unpaid work. Meanwhile, those who do participate often have to take out loans, widening the wealth gap.

The Institute was designed to combat this problem. Not only are scholars provided paid internships in our fields of interest, but we are given free housing, a free college course, and a stipend to cover food and transportation. Participating in the Institute has given me access to information and leaders that I would not have been able to access otherwise.

In addition to seminars and trips to cities such as Chicago to learn about the various policies that have historically marginalized the Black community, I have been able to form relationships with government officials and chief executive officers like John Rogers, co-founder of the largest Black-owned investment firm in the country. Through these conversations, I have been exposed to so many things, including corporate finance and the tech industry, which has broadened my worldview.

The I4RC 2022 cohort taking a group photo outside of the Institute Office to commence the Washington Program.

Additionally, I was able to acquire valuable skills and perspectives through my internship with CLASP. As an intern, I conducted policy research and attended meetings with other nonprofits, policymakers, and White House staff. These meetings gave me a better understanding of what government jobs look like and the role that stakeholders play in policy decisions. Moreover, I was able to travel to Atlanta, Georgia, for a leadership conference. The event in Atlanta gathered youth activists from across the country for a town hall to voice issues affecting their communities. Hearing their stories reminded me of the conditions that I faced as a child. It also reminded me that despite coming from different backgrounds, Black youth are often unified through a common struggle that is perpetuated through systemic racism.

My involvement in the Institute and CLASP is testimony to the notion that “if you teach a man to fish, you can feed him for a lifetime.” I was filled with a determination to pursue public policy and construct systems that will help others feed themselves through the Institute. At the same time, I was able to obtain the tools and capital necessary for my own success through my paid internship with CLASP. I am dedicating the rest of my life to ensuring that policy is working for the benefit of all. In doing so, I hope that one day everyone will be able to feed and invest in themselves. In the meantime, I urge policymakers to invest in Black youth through paid internships and subsidized jobs for young people. Youth are the future leaders of tomorrow. Let’s invest in them today.