Finding My Voice: Yanely Perez on a Summer with DC Jobs with Justice
Yanely Perez (COL ’17) reflects on her experience with the Kalmanovitz Initiative Summer Organizing Internship in 2014. Apply for the 2015 Summer Organizing Internship by Friday, March 6!
My time with the Kalmanovitz Initiative Summer Organizing internship not only let me grow as a person but also use that growth to make deeper connections with DC workers and organizers. I am humbled to have worked with so many passionate people that really care about other people and their struggle.
I was placed with DC Jobs with Justice, “a dynamic coalition of labor organizations, community groups, faith-based organizations, and student groups dedicated to protecting the rights of working people and supporting community struggles to build a more just society.” At least that’s how I have learned to describe it to other people, but to me, DC JWJ became a wake up call.
I worked on DC JWJ’s anti-wage theft campaign. DC previously passed legislation to increase the minimum wage and extend paid sick days, which were huge victories for DC workers. During my time at DC JWJ, the DC City Council also passed the strongest anti-wage theft law in the country. I sat in the Wilson building for six hours just to hear them pass the bill. Though I have never been so incredibly bored in my entire life, it was a moment of clarity and it is something that I have recently reflected on.
I was there to support these workers whom I had started building a relationship with, but I see now that my presence was small. The workers and the organizers had devoted so much of their time, and they had built a unique relationship in solidarity with each other. They had spent hours upon hours not just sitting in that chamber but also reaching out to council members in person and working to build support from workers around DC. I was happy when we got the unanimous vote, but it did not sink in until we convened in another room in the Wilson building.
We had cake and talked about the victory. Some workers left to make it to their afternoon/night jobs and some had just arrived from their morning jobs. In most business transactions, people shake hands and maybe pat each other on the back on a job well done, but not here. Here, people congratulated each other on the victory, sang happy birthday for two of the organizers, and made their way home. There had been so much work put into this bill, but the workers knew that there would be more fights to come for other laws.
The internship gave me perspective on issues affecting DC communities and the fights that have been going on for years or are just starting. As much as I learned from this internship, I still feel like I should know more.
That is why I accepted an offer to stay on as DC JWJ’s administrative assistant after my internship ended. When asked why I wanted the job during the interview, all I could think was, “Because if you would have asked me to stay at the beginning of the internship I would have said no.” There were a lot of things that I had to assimilate to that pushed me past my comfort zone for which I am grateful. I have learned to interact with people, I know how to start a conversation that could lead to a partnership, and I am more aggressive in conversations that matter. I am passionate about issues like wage theft, but I had not found my voice until I spent more time at DC JWJ.
Even though organizing is not easy—it takes a lot of your time and energy to even get the hope of meeting with the right people or getting support for something that would ultimately benefit a lot of people—I can now see why people stay in this field. They really are making a difference and even when they lose, which is honestly a lot of the time, they keep trying because it matters. The people they are fighting for appreciate the effort and more importantly feel validated. This validation is priceless.