This summer, I had the opportunity to intern with my home district Congressman, Max Rose, in his district office on Staten Island. It was a really great experience which allowed me to get an inside understanding of how a congressional district office is run. It also afforded me an opportunity to serve and give back to members of my community in a really unique way. At the outset, I hoped to improve my ability to determine and apply policy, create innovative solutions to complex problems, and work with a variety of groups and people. Additionally, I hoped to learn more about where my career interests lie and what I could learn more about government employment through my time interning in this congressional office. As this final write-up will delve into, I believe that I improved in all of those areas and more throughout the summer.
When I was searching for internships, I covered a wide array of industries including politics, government, consulting, and law. I decided to intern with my Congressman for a variety of reasons, but I really was interested in learning more about the issues that face members of my home community. As the weeks went on in my internship, I had a much deeper understanding of the separation required between partisan politics and casework conducted on behalf of our constituents. We received calls and emails daily about issues ranging from seemingly municipal problems like problems with certain bus stops to much larger problems people are facing like the increased threat of deportation while living in the era of the Trump administration. One major case I helped with was that of a man who was seeking a letter of support so that his mother and siblings could attend his wedding in New York. The man came into our office as many did, very emotional and displaying a mixed countenance of despair and desperation. He had this wedding planned for months and believed that his family would be all set to attend but was railroaded by a certain federal agency. This man had the rug pulled out from under him during a time that should be filled with happiness and celebration. I realized that this federal agency had wronged him severely. When transferring over records from his application to their system, immigration officials made a mistake in the spelling of the name of one of his sisters and switched her birthdate with that of her mother. In a system that could take years to issue visas and green cards so that families can be reunified even temporarily, this was a huge setback in this man’s journey. It took time to recognize this mistake, but we were able to resolve it with the agency and allowed for his family to take an expedited trip to the states.
Reading the news and staying up to date with the current domestic affairs in our country provided me with the background knowledge that immigrants are being treated in a manner inconsistent with our founding values. But getting a chance to learn more about the issues facing one of my neighbors gave me further insight into the real costs of federal policies upon regular citizens. My coursework at Jepson was also a huge asset to me throughout my internship experience. As a Leadership Studies and Political Science double-major, many of my classes contained information relevant to the area of work I was in this summer. My Leadership in Politicsclass gave me an understanding of how politics is run at the municipal level which proved to be much more applicable to a congressional district office than I expected. In a district that includes Staten Island and South Brooklyn, many people come to their congressional leadership for issues that are inherently under the jurisdiction of the Mayor’s office. This occurs in part because New York City has over eight million residents, so our constituency tends to find a more personal approach at their congressional office. For example, one constituent came to us regarding an issue of flooding at her bus stop every time it rained. This is a problem that falls under the authority of the city’s MTA (metropolitan transit association) and therefore is categorically a city problem. Interestingly enough, however, constituents don’t appreciate their elected official at any level telling them that the problem they’re facing can’t be dealt by them even if it is the right answer. Instead, we took on those city issues and they became a large chunk of the issues our office dealt with. So, all this goes to say is that the reading and discussions I had on city leadership and government through reading Mayor Nutter’s book from Philadelphia and conversing with Mayor Stoney in class came to good use when members of my community sought help with municipal problems.
My Democratic ProspectJepson class probably came into play the most during my internship. While the class focused mainly on democratic theory and the course by which our democracy has taken to get to the point where it is today, I constantly saw a correlation between day-to-day tasks in the congressional office and to our larger role of serving as a representative body for the American people. Although I wasn’t reciting Alexis DeTocqueville or Alexander Hamilton when I got assigned some of the initial intern tasks like data entry or grabbing coffee, the purpose of my work never left me and I owe that in large part to what we studied in class.
Leadership theory also played a role in my understanding of the organization I worked for. David Messick’s leadership theory about the legitimacy rang true in Congressman Rose’s office. Messick’s theory is a culmination of five different facets of leadership which play into the perceived legitimacy of leaders. The first portion of his theory relates to what a leader provides their followers. First in his theory is vision and direction; this refers to the ability for a leader to form a cohesive, coherent story of where we are as a team and where we hope to be. Congressman Rose and his district director have made it clear that our focus had to remain on the constituents and their needs. Further, the leaders of our office made it abundantly clear that our work must remain separate and independent from campaigning; that our focus must be on helping those in need. This was a matter of congressional ethics rules as well a general understanding that the needs of those we represent must come first in all we do and not get bogged down by political inconveniences. when a person called up asking for help with a certain issue, we didn’t ask who they voted for in the previous election and nor did we care. Next, Messick posits that leaders must provide protection and security in order for their continued success. Our district director created an environment that was safe for interns to go out on a limb and increase our political knowledge and get our feet wet in the political process. We were consistently challenged in our casework assignments, as well as in our policy focused assignments, in a climate dedicated to learning. Messick’s third criterion for legitimate leadership is the ability to make followers feel that they can accomplish things that wouldn’t be possible without the leader’s presence. I’ve written about a few personal contributions this summer and I honestly believe that my staff supervisor and district director set me up for success in a way that wouldn’t be possible without their guidance. For example, the Veterans issues case that I described in one of my previous posts, related to mental health and suicide, was an experience I couldn’t imagine handling if it were not for the presence and example shown by my supervisor. The fourth criterion that Messick lays out is the ability for a leader to cultivate an environment of inclusion and belonging. From day one in this office, I immediately felt a part of the team through my interactions with my district director. She made it clear from the beginning that she and the staff were excited to get to know me and to create a space where I could contribute and learn a lot. Finally, in Messick’s theory of legitimate leadership, leaders provide their followers with the ability to feel pride and self-respect. As aforementioned, I knew from my first day in the office that my supervisors cared about me as a person and cultivated my potential.
I can honestly say that the organization I interned with helped me satisfy my desired learning outcomes. I believe I learned a lot about the needs of members of my community as well as the functions and workings of a Congressional district office. I also learned that due to Congressional Ethics rules, all campaigning is done outside of the district office and that it is an ethics violation to discuss a political campaign or anything related to that campaign in a district office. Additionally, and most importantly, I learned a lot about an interesting career area I had only read and heard about. From the outset, I expected a much more cutthroat and constantly fast-paced environment but was met with something entirely different once I arrived. This was due in large part to the fact that it was a district office and not a D.C. office, but it was still a congressional office nonetheless. Where I expected almost cynical young staffers in the political arena, I was met with intelligent professionals who deeply cared about the work they did and the community they served while also ensuring that the Congressman’s political agenda didn’t become too distant.