As the pandemic, racial unrest, and protests against police brutality crisscrossed the country this past summer, many ER&M students did not watch in idle. Some embarked on meaningful summer opportunities such as interning at non-profit social justice organizations, or finding new ways to connect with and advocate for underrepresented and underserved communities in New Haven, their hometowns, and beyond. This series of posts highlights the compelling summer activities that our inspiring students undertook and features the students’ reflections on their work. This week, Isabelle Rhee ER&M’22 shares with the ER&M community her internship experience at the Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice in Honolulu.
Could you describe the internship that you did this summer?
This past summer, I worked remotely as a policy intern at the Hawaiʻi Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice from my home in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. Appleseed is a non-profit law and policy center dedicated to advancing economic justice and race equity in Hawaiʻi through policy development, grassroots coalition building, and advocacy at state and local departments. During my internship, I was primarily responsible for researching and contributing to policy briefs on COVID-19 relief funding allocations in Hawaiʻi and racial/ethnic data disaggregation for the state’s incarcerated population. I also helped to update the center’s 2020 report on the State of Poverty in Hawaiʻi, which features economic policy recommendations, such as raising the state minimum wage, enacting a refundable earned income tax credit, and expanding Medicaid and SNAP eligibility.
Why did you pursue this opportunity? How did your ER&M courses prepare you for your internship work?
In summer 2019, I interned for Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI). Although this was a really valuable experience in familiarizing myself with progressive legislative advocacy at the federal level, I hoped to expand my interests in public policy through non-profit and legal work that is more aligned with the goals and strategies of local community groups and organizers. Through my experience at Hawaiʻi Appleseed, I hoped to cultivate a more capacious understanding of what advocacy is and what tools—law, policy development, know-your-rights workshops, etc.—can be deployed to contribute to the center’s goals of economic security and justice. As an ER&M major, my courses gave me the theoretical frameworks to be able to discuss race and indigeneity in the context of public policy, especially since much of my research dealt with the disproportionate rates of COVID-19, incarceration, poverty, homelessness, etc., among the state’s Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations. My courses in ER&M have always stressed the importance of recognizing how historical patterns and trends are intimately tied to structural inequities in the present moment. This knowledge helped me to center the voices and needs of historically marginalized communities when conducting policy research.
Did you face any challenges or surprises in the course of your work? What were they and how did you handle them?
One challenge in particular that Hawaiʻi Appleseed was confronting when I joined was the lack of Native Hawaiian representation on its leadership team—which had led to the organization traditionally focusing on issues of economic justice without a consistent race or gender equity lens. During my internship, I was initially assigned to work on a project that connected historic Native Hawaiian displacement and disenfranchisement to present-day inequities in housing and incarceration. However, it was impossible for the other interns and me to ethically and knowledgeably report on these topics without engaging Native Hawaiian perspectives. Fortunately, later into the summer, Appleseed was able to hire a Native Hawaiian Equity Project leader and transform the project into a more holistic, long-term effort focused on how Appleseed’s policy research and legal advocacy could best support the work of local Hawaiian civic organizations. It was valuable to see how the organization’s goals and values were being transformed to better support existing Indigenous advocacy efforts and center the needs of the Native Hawaiian community.
What were some of the important lessons that you learned?
In addition to reflecting on the importance of directly engaging the communities for whom policy proposals are being written, I was able to strengthen my sense of investment towards my local community. Before my internship at Appleseed, I didn’t have a deep understanding of community organizing efforts in Hawaiʻi, nor did I plan to return home after finishing school on the mainland. Yet, through my involvement with Appleseed, which connected me to community organizations like Parents and Children Together, and legal advocacy efforts such as prison release projects amid COVID-19, I gained a greater awareness of local issues I had assumed existed primarily on the mainland. While issues of police brutality and mass incarceration in Hawaiʻi seemed distant and isolated from from the Black Lives Matter protests being organized on the mainland, the research I pursued at Appleseed illuminated the disproportionate rates of incarceration among Native Hawaiians, who comprise 20% of the state population but nearly 40% of the state’s prison population, with many being placed in the Saguaro Correctional Center—a for-profit prison located in Arizona. This research made me realize how much I have yet to learn about the structural inequities stemming from anti-Blackness and the history of colonial violence in my home state.
How might the internship prepare you for your remainder trajectory as an ER&M student more specifically and beyond Yale more broadly?
This internship experience served as a valuable way to apply theory to practice—to apply ER&M concepts of race, nationality, and indigeneity, along with methods of community organizing, to policy-making and coalition-building. As a human rights scholar, this internship also pushed me to think about how human rights are intrinsically tied to the social conditions that so often determine who will suffer abuse and who will be shielded from harm. The idea of structural violence is articulated by the anthropologist Paul Farmer in Pathologies of Power, where Farmer describes human rights violations as symptoms of “deeper pathologies of power” linked to social inequity. This concept of structural violence underscores the importance of including the right to social and economic security within the human rights project. Organizations like Appleseed are committed to this vital work of ensuring the realization of what I believe to be fundamental social and economic rights. I hope to approach my future studies at Yale and involvement in public service with this framework in mind, as well as the continued interrogation of my own understanding of the communities I am lucky to be a part of.