PEN America, New York, NY
This summer, I spent eight weeks working as an intern in the office of PEN America, a non-profit organization that fights for freedom of artistic expression all over the world. Since 1922, PEN America, the largest in a network of centers of PEN International, has implemented a variety of innovative, far-reaching, impactful programs to help enshrine this freedom. I was a joint-intern, which meant that I worked for two different programs, and reported to two different supervisors, switching from one to another on a week-to-week, or sometimes hour-to-hour, basis. This set-up posed some challenges: Sometimes I was expected to work on two projects or tasks simultaneously, while other times each of my supervisors thought I was working with the other one. But I really appreciated the opportunity to get such a diverse experience, in terms of both subject matter and type of work. By the end of my time at PEN, I had significant training and experience with conducting many different kinds of research, drafting memos, social media posts, and graphics, maintaining websites, and organizing and analyzing data-sets, on subjects ranging from Supreme Court cases on exceptions to the First Amendment, to the artistic influences of Jasper Johns.
The first program that I worked for was the PEN’s Artists-At-Risk Connection (ARC). ARC works with artists around the world who are at risk of arrest, or other forms of persecution, because of their art. It acts as a hub to connect these endangered artists with groups and agencies willing to provide them with the resources they need. It also helps raise awareness for these artists, and the encroachments on their artistic freedom that they suffer. ARC is committed to the belief that artistic freedom is an indicator of a free and healthy democracy, while the censorship and prosecution of art is the work of oppressive autocracies.
Despite having such ambitious, global goals, ARC has only two full-time staff members. This means it has to rely heavily on its interns for day-to-day operations, such as maintaining its website, producing and scheduling content for its many social media accounts, and writing and editing long-form profiles on the artists and resources that it works with. Usually, my ARC assignments fell under one of these categories, but there were also quite a few other special research tasks. For example, on my first day at PEN, I was tasked with helping out a social media campaign related to the opening of the World Cup (which drew attention to the many instances of oppressive censorship and prosecution of artists in Russia, the host nation) by researching former soccer players who might have been willing to speak out and share our message. Another day, I was asked to make a list of modern art curators who fit the necessary criteria (experience with activism, not affiliated with any major museum, relatively famous, etc.) to be potential board members of a new award that ARC was in the process of creating.
My most extensive assignment from ARC came during the fifth week of my internship, the week before the second anniversary of Zehra Dogan’s imprisonment. Zehra Dogan is a Kurdish artist, journalist, and activist, and frequent critic of the treatment of Kurds in current President of Turkey Tayyip Erdogan’s oppressive regime. In the summer of 2016, Dogan painted a Turkish military declaring victory in her hometown of Nusaybin, where the Turkish tanks were reimagined as large, fanged monsters. After she displayed this work in a nearby coffee shop, she was detained and arrested on charges of terrorism. To commemorate this anniversary, PEN centers around the world coordinated a “twitterstorm,” encouraging concerned activist groups and allies to tweet the hashtag #freeZehraDogan as many times as possible between the hours of 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. GMT. In addition to writing twelve distinct tweets, I designed graphics, which featured Zehra’s paintings, as well as excerpts from her writings about the state of free expression in Turkey. After the “storm,” I used Keyhole, an online social media analytics tool, to analyze the performance of each tweet, and then wrote a memo outlining the trends that I had found.
The second program I worked for was the Campus Free Speech division of PEN’s Free Expression program. In 2016, PEN published “And Campus For All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech on College Campuses,” a 70-page report that described the state of free speech on college campuses and put forth a series of recommendations for administrators, student activists, and others committed to creating open dialogue and debate. The report’s most groundbreaking finding was that many current campus speech issues, such as protesting, “no-platforming,” or disinviting controversial speakers, implementing “bias response lines,” and the increasing demand for campus “safe spaces,” are better characterized as efforts towards greater inclusivity, rather than potential threats to free speech. While speech is sometimes threatened, the report argued, the common narrative of college students as “sensitive snowflakes” is largely inaccurate. This summer, I assisted Campus Free Speech Coordinator Adeline Lee with background research as she worked towards drafting a follow-up report on any new developments in this field since the first report.
One of my main assigned areas of research was in the field of newspaper opinion pieces. The report is slated to have a chapter summarizing the current public debate on different issues surrounding campus speech. For this summary, I worked on creating a catalog of every opinion piece published by a major newspaper on a subject related to campus speech in the past two years. For each article, after entering in the relevant information (headline, publication date, author, link to author bio, source, etc.) I wrote a three-sentence summary, and then assigned it an appropriate sub topic. Over the course of the summer, I found, summarized, and cataloged more than 100 articles. I also read and summarized longer-form reports written either by college “Presidential Task Forces” or by other free speech watchdogs like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Towards the end of my internship, I began writing up the findings of my research, and wrote and edited five pages that may be used in the final report.
As I have noted, I learned an immense amount in my eight weeks at PEN. I came away with an enormous amount of new knowledge and insight into the legal and political issues surrounding creative expression and free speech around the world, and on American campuses. I’ve gained experience in some fields, like basic graphic design and social media analysis, that I had no experience before, and become much more proficient and able in the areas, like drafting memos and conducting research, where I had some (minimal) prior experience. More broadly, I think that I have a much better idea of how to function in an office setting, and how to better communicate with coworkers and superiors, skills that will serve me well in any future job or internship. And I have a much clearer idea of how a successful non-profit organization functions, and what a career in that field might look like. I’m extremely grateful to the Williams ’68 Center for Career Exploration and the Class of 1972 for allowing me to have such an instructive, inspiring, and fun summer internship.