Solidarity and the Levels of Interaction within Nonprofits

Steff Niessl is a rising senior and interned at Legal Momentum this summer. 

Throughout this program, it has been a struggle to come to terms with the idea of working for social change professionally. It is a privilege to be able to love what one does I suppose, but being exposed to and attempting to alter all of the negative aspects of what you love can be extremely hard. Similarly, it can also be necessary to come to the realization that it is neither your place nor within your realm of duty to alter specific things. While a certain period of acclimation can be expected while starting any new job, the critical difference in nonprofit work is that one is usually becoming acclimated with injustice and discrimination. Not in the workplace environment itself (hopefully), but rather in our society as a whole. Such is what I took away from working as an intern for the National Judicial Education Program at Legal Momentum for the past eight weeks. Nonprofit work is not an easy way out, but rather the gateway to an entire attitude that one must adopt in order to be able to confront life’s harsher realities each and every day.

One of the major pieces of advice I took away from the Duke Engage Academy back in May was the notion that “helping” a community required a level of mutual respect between the community and the outsiders who are serving it.  For me, I think it was less difficult to strike a balance between myself and “the population we were serving” because I didn’t interact with people who were largely different from myself. A lot of the work I did this summer consisted of research and small writing pieces, mainly for the purpose of educating judicial personnel on specific aspects of sexual assault cases. Indirectly, my work could be potentially helping victims of sexual assault by informing judges, lawyers, and juries of things like “implicit bias” and the predictable behavior of domestic abusers. The emotional toll wasn’t there because I could easily identify with these (mostly) women in terms of basic descriptors such as gender or age, yet through at least a few degrees of separation. I know for a fact that this summer would have been much more difficult for me if I was directly interacting with those who I am “supposed” to be helping. I look back on this aspect of my work with neither regret nor relief, but rather a sense of wonder about how dramatically different my summer could have been. Technically my work aims to benefit all women, so is it applicable to say that I helped myself?

This notion of “different levels of interaction” certainly relates to the larger theme of the vast differences between nonprofit organizations themselves. From grassroot startups to full-fledged foundations, it is hard to grasp entirely the intricacies of the networks that link feminist nonprofits together. Yet these networks exist, underscoring first and foremost that despite differences in background, demographics, and viewpoints on issues, we are to some greater extent working together to combat inequality. This epiphany became the driving force behind how I tackled my Duke Engage summer, and also changed my attitude towards what it takes to actively be participating in the movement. At the same time, I realized that half-heartedly championing for a cause is no way to productively instill change—a person who believes in themselves and the work they do is not always easy to come by, but is nearly necessary in the world of nonprofit work. Working for Legal Momentum this summer made me realize that I should incorporate social justice into my daily life, not just in what I do but more importantly in who I am.

1 thought on “Solidarity and the Levels of Interaction within Nonprofits

  1. It’s unfortunate you did not have an opportunity for direct contact with women experiences the circumstances about which you researched and wrote. Working with victims of sexual assault gives concrete meaning to the dualities of the power of a victim’s resilience and the darkness of one’s traumatic despair. While you are neutral on not working directly with women who are victimized by sexual violence, it is a “level of interaction” essential to deepening how one understands this crime at individual, community, and societal levels.

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