Spring break of my freshman year in 2005, I did a 2-week internship at a little nonprofit in Chicago called the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, where a recent alum was one of four staff members. NCBG's mission was to get local neighborhood groups a voice in city infrastructure projects, and at the time they were focused on the renovation of the L's Red Line. The city seemed determined to go ahead with the renovation without civic engagement in the process, but NCBG couldn't prove the exclusion was intentional because when they went to request the relevant records, they were recognized and refused service. My most notable contribution to their work was to go incognito to the records department and obtain records that turned out to prove the city had deliberately excluded the public from these meetings. They were able to publicly embarrass the city officials into giving the public a few seats at the table.
Here are some of the other things I learned during the brief internship:
- The right person in the right place at the right time can make a big difference.
- I don't like Chicago, especially in the winter or early spring!
- I like subways. To get a feel for what NCBG was working on, every day after work I rode a different line of the L from end to end. It was a great way to get a feel for who rides the train and where they're going.
- Gentrification is a thorny issue. My host's apartment building was in the process of organizing into a co-op so they could buy the building from their landlord, and the main objection was that the buy-in price of a co-op might price low-income people out of being able to live there. How do you raise the quality of life for the people living in a place without making it unaffordable for others to live there?
- People bond over all kinds of TV. I had friends at Grinnell who would get together to watch sci-fi on PBS for hours every Saturday night, and I knew people did that with football and soccer, but my host's friends were the first I'd seen to turn NBC's Thursday night so-called "Must See TV" lineup into a party, complete with snacks and drinking games. I wasn't familiar with any of the shows, so it left me cold.
- Knowing a little about technology can get your foot in the door anywhere. At the time I had only just started working as a User Consultant at Grinnell, but I was able to help NCBG set up a document scanner and their first Internet connection, with email for the whole staff and a start on a Gopher site. (I had not yet learned to make Web sites.)