You Don't Have to Take That Unpaid Internship

Hey, you. Hey you who's ambitious and anxious and lost and hopeful. Hey you whose insides are made of pizza and knots, and whose life energy is powered by caffeine and idealism. I see you. You're perfect.

You probably don't feel that way. The brink of adulthood is confusing and ambiguous. You might be insecure about what awaits you after you've scaled the castle wall and retrieved your diploma from the tallest tower. Because of that fear, I also know that you want to set yourself up for success so that once you decide what success actually is, you'll be ready for it.

But you don't have to do it at an internship that won't pay you in money, college credit, a portfolio, or training.

You might think this is just the way things go in the arts. Talk of slim opportunity for creators and budget cuts for theatres has seeped into your lungs like smog--unnoticed and insidious. Maybe you're thinking, what do I have to lose?

If you take this opportunity, you will lose your time.

There will be time to clean up old messes and learn the rules of a world that doesn't teach them. We all have a part to play and we all have dues to pay. But a company that respects you will also understand that paying your dues shouldn't come at the expense of paying your bills (particularly if they hope to help make the arts socioeconomically equitable).

You will lose your assurance of safety.

When a company invests energy and money into an internship and makes it known to their wider community that they have a program, they claim responsibility for their investment. If they don't, no losses incurred means no accountability. So if things go south, they have nothing to lose.

You will lose your self-respect.

I used to be a master at chasing opportunities and damning the costs. I would wave away warnings of no pay because I was told that "making it" is all about who you know. I didn't know who I was, and I would do anything for someone if I thought that they could tell me.

But who you know can't compare with who you are. And by taking rewardless opportunity after rewardless opportunity, who I became was someone who, sure, knew her way around a spreadsheet or a Starbucks menu or a light flirtation with a wealthy donor. But she was also someone who was groomed to ask for attention instead of being trained to command it. Someone who would accompany her input with "I'm sorry," instead of "you're welcome." Someone who was tossed a bone and mistook it for a meal.

I didn't know who I was, and I would do anything for someone if I thought that they could tell me.

Many companies don't realize they're doing this. Many truly don't have the funds for another set of hands, especially in the current climate. But lack of money shouldn't excuse lack of care or accountability. For organizations without the budget for an intern, is there a reason they can't give you a private lesson or educational interview with their visiting artist? Or fund your training on a software or tool you'll need inside this organization and out? Or sit down with you once a month to look over your professional materials and offer career advice? If an organization takes more than it gives to young artists, it either expects something for nothing or it doesn't know how to design a partnership that reflects its values.

This is what's tough and real and true: I've been tokenized, objectified, bullied and harassed by some of the very people I've worked for for free. They weren't paying for it, but I sure as hell was.

If your organization needs help designing a program that is equitable and also budget-conscious, or if you're an artist in need of help applying to and seeking out programs that match your goals and values, get in touch here.

Alexandra, founder of The Hustling Creative, is a performer, composer, audiobook producer and business owner based in New York City. She holds a BM from the University of Delaware and professional certificates from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Harvard Business School. She has been engaged as a speaker at dozens of universities and conferences across the country.

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