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Unpaid and Critically Engaged: Feminist Interns in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex
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In 2011, the National Women Studies Association (NWSA) joined a national conversation about civic engagement by publishing what has come to be known as the Teagle White Paper (Orr “Women’s”). In this document a panel of women’s studies scholars make the case that women’s studies, as a field, has been developing pedagogical approaches that look very similar to the work currently being advocated in national educational reform movements. Women’s studies, as a result, can (or, perhaps, should) be considered a vital resource for scholars and, more importantly, administrators looking to infuse campus life with civically engaged curriculum. The national movement aimed at jump-starting the civic purpose of colleges and universities started in the mid-1980s, when a handful of university presidents founded a coalition (Campus Compact) that supported and promoted civically engaged practices and programs (Hartley; Musil). As Matthew Hartley notes in a review of the movement, curriculum reform was central to this effort, but community service or the integration of community-based activities into university coursework was equally important (12).

Bridging campus and community, or theory and practice, has long been a critical component of women’s studies, especially at San Francisco State University, where an internship course has been part of the department’s core curricula since its inception. However, the terms of engagement in women’s studies are strikingly different from those in national educational reform movements. The Teagle White Paper links feminist pedagogy to the civic engagement movement and makes the work and history of women and gender studies more legible to our colleagues, students, community partners, and campus administrators. While we share the goal of making the intellectual and political contributions of WGS more visible, we hesitate to embrace the phrase “civic engagement” because its historical focus on “producing ‘better’ citizens” (Orr, “Women’s” 6) can unwittingly underplay the role the corporate university and nonprofit sector have in maintaining rather than disrupting the status quo.

In the discussion below, we trace the development of an internship class in women and gender studies at San Francisco State University, showing how it shares some common elements with the broader trajectories of the civic engagement movement, even as it departs from it in productive ways. We offer our internship class as one example of what we are calling “critical engagement,” a phrase that foregrounds how innovative feminist pedagogical approaches both bridge and interrogate the gap between campus and community, theory and practice. We conclude by discussing two key outcomes of our internship course: that it remains a space of contradictions and that it complicates notions of praxis.

The Internship Class in Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University

The internship class in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University is required for graduating seniors and an elective for graduate students. Over the years a network of community organizations working on issues important to women and gender studies have generously mentored and supported our students during their internships. At exit interviews with students before graduation, and in anonymous exit surveys and student evaluations, students repeatedly mention the internship class in terms that suggest its transformative potential. Students enthusiastically note that this class provides an opportunity to enact and embody some of the feminist principles and theories with which they have grappled in their other coursework. At a recent alumni panel in our department, where former students return to talk about how women and gender studies has prepared them for work and community engagement, student after student mentioned how important our internship class had been to their education and subsequent work.

Despite these positive reviews, the internship class raises difficult questions about the role and purpose of unpaid labor for women and gender studies students specifically—and about the workings of neoliberalism more broadly. Since at least the 1973 National Organization of Women Task Force on Volunteerism, feminist critiques of volunteer labor have argued that unpaid service work offers at best a band-aid solution for social inequities and at worst prevents deeper social change (Bojar 39). Wary that women and gender studies as a field might uncritically provide community organizations with unpaid interns and future underpaid employees...



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