Are Internships Building the Leaders We Need?
What does an organization owe to the larger field where its leadership development programs are concerned? Does a traditional internship model facilitate learning that extends beyond specialized proficiency to include strategic thinking, a value for cultural equity, and adaptive processes?
Today’s emerging leaders will need to be proficient, savvy, self-aware, and boundlessly resilient in order to meet tomorrow’s challenges; and yet, the long-term value of the short-term internship model appears to vary by organization and pupil. What makes an internship meaningful and worthwhile for both parties?
Current dialogue surrounding this question has led many to support the reemergence of the apprenticeship model as a more sustainable alternative to internships. The benefits are certainly appealing: by making a long-term and gradual investment in a pupil’s development, a leader could save time, money, and effort in having to train new pupils over a short period of time. Historically, apprentices often paid those who trained them, though their housing and food were taken care of. Though we might scoff at the idea of paying another person to provide them with our free labor, are unpaid internships any more progressive? Although young people today are graduating from college at rates much higher than any American generation to date, many incur incidental expenses and take additional survival gigs to provide the fruits of their education to institutions across the country without compensation—never mind housing or other supplemental benefits.
Innovation in the field of leadership development creates a path for optimism, however. Organizations local to my hometown of Baltimore have demonstrated that traditional internship models result in maximal benefits to both the organization and the emerging leader when those models are flexible, emphasize the unique strengths of program participants, and entrust the participants with an opportunity to address a strategic or creative challenge.
The nomadic and non-collecting The Contemporary museum recently released its fourth intern-produced publication; this current issue features The Very Black Project (André D Singleton, Justin Fulton, and Trae Harris), Robyn Lynne Marquis, Najee Haynes-Follins, evictees of The Bell Foundry (Elon, Person Abide, and Qué Pequeño), Elissa Blount-Moorhead, MacArthur Fellow Joyce J. Scott, Morgan Monceaux, and Rebecca Nagle. Such an opportunity elevates the members of each intern class with equal parts responsibility and visibility while building their connections to The Contemporary’s larger network.
Through the generous support of donors and season-long intern sponsors, participants in the Katherine Vaughns Professional Internship Program at Baltimore Center Stage (BCS) are provided with housing and a stipend for their work, and spend an entire season working alongside leading theatre professionals in an area of their interest. Equal impact is not guaranteed for every participant, as is true for all interns in any organization. “At the end of their time at Baltimore Center Stage, interns who have arrived with a plan and taken advantage of opportunities to work and network will have a great idea of the life they have chosen (and if it is for them),” says BCS Managing Director Michael Ross. “They will also have a solid network of professionals from throughout the country (and world), who can help guide them on their paths.”
As we seriously consider the lifelong implications of the programs that support early-career artists and administrators, I hope that we may remain open to inspiration. I invite you to utilize the comments section below and share additional examples of internship models that deliver on their promise to an eager and deserving generation of leaders.