2019 Parents Fund Internship Grant Reflections: Kat DesCamp-Renner

Kat DesCamp-Renner

Internship Location: Churches for Middle East Peace

Journal Entry #1:

My name is Kat DesCamp-Renner and I’m a rising third year at UVA, double majoring in Foreign Affairs and Global Studies: Middle Eastern Studies. This is my first journal reflection on my internship experience as funded through the Parents Fund Internship Grant. This summer, I’m interning for a nonprofit organization called Churches for Middle East Peace. Churches for Middle East Peace, or CMEP, is a coalition of 27 national church communions and organizations in the United States, including Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Evangelical denominations. According to our vision statement, CMEP works to encourage US policies that actively promote a comprehensive resolution to conflicts in the Middle East with a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. It seeks to mobilize American Christians to be advocates for human rights, equality, security, and justice for all peoples in the Middle East. The organization is based in Washington DC, with the office right next to the Supreme Court, but has employees all over the world including in other parts of the US, in Europe, and in the Middle East.

My role this summer is as a Government Affairs Intern. Although the organization is a coalition of churches, most of what I do focuses on government, particularly legislation in Congress that is relevant to issues in the Middle East, and particularly those regarding Israel/Palestine. I’m working with our Director of Government Relations this summer, so much of what I do is based on working with him on government outreach and lobbying for policy positions and legislation that we believe will help bring a just and durable peace to Israel-Palestine. My work will involve, among other things, researching different legislation, organizing meetings between Christians and their members of Congress so they can advocate for certain legislation, and learning about the situation in Israel/Palestine on a deeper level in order to understand the implications of US policy. I also get to work on a few of my own side projects based on my interests; those will probably involve researching topics such as Iranian-American relations, or water rights in the Middle East, or the ethno-religious Yezidi minority in Iraq.

So far, during my first week, I’ve done a lot of orientation tasks, such as getting used to our online platform, learning how to send emails to our many thousands of members, and learning more about the organization, the other staff members, and what we do. I’ve also gotten the chance to go to several meetings with members of Congress and lobby for certain pieces of legislation. Beyond that, I’m also coordinating all the meetings with members of Congress for our annual Advocacy Summit, which takes place at the end of June. What that means on a practical level is that I send a lot of emails to congressional staffers, and make a lot of spreadsheets. Although it’s time consuming, I’m very excited to see the fruits of all that work, because at the end of June the result of it all will be dozens and dozens of meetings between US citizens and their members of Congress where they get to lobby in support of legislation that will help bring a peaceful and just resolution the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Overall this summer I’m hoping top help myself develop more of an understanding of what I want from a career. I think this summer will be extremely beneficial because I’m going to get experience doing a few different things I’m interested in: working with legislation and government relations; working in a non-profit that focuses on human rights; and doing self-driven research in the field of Middle Eastern studies. Hopefully, by getting experience in all three of these areas, I can determine which I want to pursue for a career. In terms of personal goals, I’m hoping to better my interpersonal and professional skills, and to learn and improve on my performance in past jobs. I’m also hoping to explore Washington DC and decide if it’s somewhere I’d like to live after I finish school. I’m excited for the summer and endlessly grateful to the UVA Parents Fund for giving me this opportunity.

Journal Entry #2:

It’s hard to believe but I am now more than halfway done with my internship at Churches for Middle East Peace. I feel very lucky to have already gained so much experience, and have learned so much in the past two months, both in terms of the content of the work I’m doing, the operational aspects, and the culture.

During June much of my work focused on organizing and helping run our annual advocacy summit, where we brought together members of our organization from around the country, along with international advocates, to discuss issues of peace in the Middle East, and particularly how we as individuals and an organization can be effective in promoting peace. As part of this conference, I arranged meetings with over fifty members of Congress or their offices, for more than one hundred people. This was very fulfilling, as I knew the work I was doing meant that constituents were able to sit down with their members of Congress and staffers to discuss their priorities. Constituent pressure is a major way in which legislative priorities are influenced, so I was very glad to help bring these constituents and their concerns to their legislators. I also led the delegation of constituents from California, meaning when we were meeting with members of Congress and their staff I was responsible for briefing those staff members on the specific pieces of legislation we were discussing and why they were important. In preparation for this I tried to become an expert on these legislative issues, which was stimulating and challenging, but also made me realize how incredibly complex and convoluted the existing systems that govern these issues are. On it’s face, a policy or system may appear to do one thing, and it is only in the very fine print, often not readily available in government resources, that it actually functions in a completely different way. 

Throughout the month of July I have continued to work on issues of legislation, as well as delving deeper into some of my own side projects. One thing I’m focused on right now is the upcoming five year anniversary of the genocide of the Yazidi people of Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This is something my organization hasn’t focused on in the past, but given that we work to mobilize US Christians to support peace in the Middle East and sometimes have a focus on religious minorities, I think it’s very pertinent. I first became aware of this issue during my work as a research assistant for Professor Jerry White at UVA, and am now able to bring this knowledge to CMEP. It’s amazing that because there’s an organization and a network of contacts and support already in place, and because I have access to that, I am now able to help influence our advocacy priorities and even affect meaningful change in terms of raising awareness. 

I’ve also felt like this internship has really challenged me to think differently and on a deeper level about many of the issues that we address as an organization. One of the issues I’ve focused on most heavily this summer is Israel/Palestine, which is of course an extremely fraught topic, emotionally, politically, and historically. We all approach these issues with our own biases and background experiences, which of course influence how we view the topic. I have certainly confronted some of my own biases and assumptions this summer, and I think hopefully I will come away with a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of the issue. One thing I’ve found this summer is that this is a subject area where it is much more comfortable if you operate under the assumption that everything is black and white. When you begin to consider varying viewpoints and look at the conflict on multiple levels, it definitely becomes much more complicated and thus a much more uncomfortable space to occupy mentally, because our brains don’t like uncertainty. I think this really helps me understand why this conflict is one that is so entrenched and divided, even here in the United States, and my hope is that my generation can be the one to help end it. 

Journal Entry #3:

As my internship wraps up at the end of this week, I’ve been reflecting on what an incredible experience of learning and personal growth this has been for me. I was given the opportunity to live and work for three months in our nation’s capital, a city I had never spent more than an hour in prior to moving there. I interacted with members of Congress, the State Department, religious leaders, experts on the Middle East, and everyday people whose lives have been touched by conflict in the Middle East. I had my first experience being employed in a formal office setting. I also learned about what it’s like to work for a nonprofit, and the highs and lows that come with working in advocacy circles and on humanitarian issues. I got insight into the workings of Congress and legislation, as most of my work focused on government affairs and relations. I’ve also gained practical skills like social media management, donor outreach and coordination, event planning, and more. I became adept at researching and writing literature reviews on a topic, and would go within the span of a week from having practically no knowledge on an issue, to being able to confidently speak about it to my coworkers and bosses. I led a delegation of California residents, all of them older adults and faith leaders, to lobby in their senators’ offices in support of legislation that would promote more peaceful resolutions to conflict in the Middle East, something I never would have imagined I would be comfortable doing. This internship also opened my eyes to so many opportunities for further employment, introducing me to jobs I never even considered, such as foreign policy staffing in legislative offices, or research at think tanks that specialize in the Middle East. I feel incredibly lucky to have been given this opportunity, and could not have pursued this internship without funding from the Parents Fund, for which I’m extremely grateful.