Paying Interns is Foundational to an Equitable Environmental Movement

The move towards inclusion involves supporting the next generation of workers. Internships are a necessary entry point for young people of color trying to get a foot in the environmental field. However, when these internships are unpaid, they pose an additional barrier to the already limited professional opportunities accessible to young people of color.


Take the story of Green 2.0 Fall 2022 Fellow SaAnkhessa Meskheniten:

One summer, I was in need of an internship opportunity. I applied to a great internship at a large environmental organization, and I was initially not hired. The organization returned to me and then offered me an unpaid position while they paid the rest of their interns. I felt devalued and unappreciated for my work, but I took the opportunity because I needed it. As a college student, I often feel the need to take every opportunity that comes to me, even if it is not good for me, because it's a potential career builder. Many organizations hire interns but exploit them by providing low or no pay, and working above the agreed upon hours.” 


Many organizations preach diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ), but equitable compensation is a critical foundation for all equity efforts. It should be a starting point, not an afterthought. Of the 68 environmental NGOs surveyed in Green 2.0’s 2022 Transparency Report Card, 21% do not offer paid internship opportunities. NGOs, nonprofits, research institutes, and universities fall into this trap. Unpaid interns save environmental organizations from budgeting for the total costs of their operations. This issue is further complicated when these same interns are most often people of color who are most affected by environmental problems and whose voices are most critical.


Research from Pay Our Interns supports the business and equity case for paying all interns. Paid internships enlarge candidate pools, ensuring they have representation from the most mission-centric and competitive candidates. When organizations give equitable compensation for fair labor, they allow candidates of all socioeconomic backgrounds to participate.


Unpaid work will continue to devalue young people's skills, time, and contributions, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds like young people of color.


How can I support equitable internship models at my organization?


  1. Pay all of your interns. Don’t just pay some that you have arbitrarily dubbed “high-skill” positions and not others.
  2. Assess your volunteer positions and postings. Are some volunteer positions unpaid internships in disguise?
  3. Assess your recruitment efforts and educational requirements. Does someone need an expensive graduate degree or any degree to do the work? Will listing a required or preferred degree discourage applicants from under-resourced backgrounds?
  4. Assess how you are defining “skilled” labor and social capital. Youth of color come from highly skilled communities and families. However, employers systematically undervalue these skills and professions to justify low wages and disregard labor law. We have tons of social capital but not the specific types valued in predominantly white, high-income sectors like public affairs and environmental nonprofits. Consider that the communities youth of color came from, and can connect you to, are likely the exact communities your organization should seek out to build relationships.
  5. Advocate for wage transparency on job listings. Compensation should, at minimum, always be transparent. It is unfair to expect applicants to take chances and invest time in chasing opportunities that may not be financially feasible. 

Tags: Economic Justice, Youth Activists Stories