2007 PFIG Recipient Tommy Roberts

Career Administrator

Tommy Roberts
College of Arts & Sciences
Asian Culture and Languages
2009 Graduation Year

Internship: Virginia Organizing Project in in Charlottesville, VA.

Early this spring I was researching all the different types of internship opportunities available for undergraduate students. The legal aid offices kept sticking out in my memory as a really worthwhile and interesting way to spend my summer. As a rising third-year, I am thinking about going to law school and I thought this might be a good way to decide if that was the right path for me. At first, the office was a little hesitant to take on an undergraduate intern--all their other interns are law students. Luckily, I had made a very good contact from an earlier internship who then put in a good word for me.
Through this internship, I hope to learn a lot about how to combine effectively a career in public service and law. I do not want to go to law school simply because it's the default option for a graduate with a liberal arts degree. Hopefully this internship will help me decide if going to law school is the best way to achieve my goals, and perhaps this internship will help me to clarify what my dreams and goals are, as well.

Notes on the first week

I started interning with VOP right after I returned from an exciting week in Eastern Tennessee with the leaders of the anti-mountaintop removal movement. My experiences there got me thinking about all of the challenges and excitement associated with working for sustainable long term change, so when I returned I was full of enthusiasm.

I spent a good portion of my first week working around the office and running errands to get a better feel for the campaigns on which VOP is working. VOP has a fairly small staff, so I’ve been able to meet them all. They're great and they seem to be even more excited about helping me pick up new skills than I am about helping them with their campaigns. Everyone around me seems to be interested in finding out what I want to learn this summer so that they can help steer me in the right direction. I told some of the staff that fundraising really confused and overwhelmed me, so I've started off spending a significant portion of my time canvassing and fundraising. That has been great because I can already feel how it is helping me become more comfortable and confident when doing these tasks.

I get to work very closely with the executive director of VOP every day that I'm in the office. I've already had several hours to talk with him one on one about my personal interests and concerns. He has a wealth of knowledge from almost 30 years of organizing and it seems that he knows how to answer every question that I ask perfectly. I'm very excited about the possibilities as I continue to work and learn with VOP through the summer.

Midway

I’ve been working with VOP for about five weeks now. It’s been great — I’ve really started to get a feel for how things are done around here. One of my goals for this summer was to learn all of the aspects of running an organization like VOP, and while I have realized it’s impossible to learn that much in one summer, I’m definitely starting off on the right foot. My time with VOP has been spent doing a lot of the different organizing tasks ranging from canvassing and talking to people about predatory lending to finding and meeting donors, so I have definitely been able to experience many aspects of organizing.

I’ve been doing a lot of work to network with other people doing similar things around the state because one of the most important parts of community organizing is building relationships. I’ve met several other VOP interns from around the state and we’ve been able to share experiences about what we’ve done that has been successful. I’ve also networked with people from several local and statewide organizations. These experiences have shed a lot of light on how to build the strong relationships that make VOP the organization that it is.

Recently, one other intern and I began working to help VOP gain a presence in Nelson County. We have been working there several days a week talking to people about what they feel is important and what they would like to see changed in their communities. It’s been great because we are doing the job of an organizer- building relationship and figuring out the dynamics of an area so that we can teach people how to make the changes they want to see. We are learning how to organize by doing exactly that. We are working independently while we are in the field, so we get do a lot of figuring it out for ourselves, but we’re also receiving guidance when we are in the VOP office from people who have been organizing for many years. It’s really a great way to learn.

Final Reflections

I finished my summer internship with VOP a few weeks ago and I am still realizing how much I learned during my 10 weeks there. Looking back on the summer it really is amazing how much I was able to do and see in such a short period of time- I helped prepare a book launch, educate almost 1500 voters in Albemarle County about predatory lending, start organizing a new chapter of VOP in Nelson County, and many other tasks. It feels great to have so many tangible results, but they all pale in comparison with the relationships and knowledge that acquired.

I feel as though I learned more about the community around me every day this summer. From the very first day there when I discovered that Charlottesville has a scrap metal recycling center to the last week there when I deepened relationships with coworkers and friends from all over the area, I really did never stop picking up new information about and perspectives on life around Charlottesville. This knowledge is really helping to launch me into my last year at U.Va. I’m going to continue to work with VOP on several campaigns through the school year, and I’ve developed ideas for several other projects around the community that I am hoping to plan through the year.

My time at VOP also gave me the opportunity to experience the real life of an organizer for 10 weeks. I experienced exactly how much time and effort goes into starting campaigns and I saw how much thought goes into developing successful strategies. Even though I have taken a course on community organizing and read a few books about it, the question "what exactly does a community organizer do?" was still lingering in my head as I went into this summer. However, now I feel that I have a real concrete answer to that question based on many hours of doing all of the tasks an organizer must do. That knowledge has already helped me make important decisions about the direction I want to go with my academic and professional future and will surely continue to help.