An unusual internship

Giving young people in conflict with the law opportunities at UNICEF Headquarters

22 February 2021

When thinking about the typical UNICEF or UN intern, the term “best and brightest” immediately comes to mind... But what about those young people whose talents, passions and potential lay hidden and undiscovered merely because of the circumstances to which they were born?

Caitlyn Pritchard

“What if I was able to bring on some of them as interns on our team…Can I do that?” 

“That would be amazing.”  

This is a brief summary of a conversation that my colleague Callie King-Guffey and I had a few years ago. She had just returned to the office after conducting a workshop for the  SDG/Climate Comic Contest with a group of girls under the age of 18 incarcerated at Riker’s Island – a maximum security adult prison in New York City – at the time. (You can read more about Callie’s experience on the UNICEF Connect Blog here).  

I have always been interested in how we at UNICEF can bring a diversity of voices and views into our own work - and became even more passionate on this topic through my experience in leading UNICEF’s engagement in the SDG negotiations’ process from 2012-2015. The rallying call that emerged from the SDG process is: Leave no one behind. It is a simple statement but an incredibly complex and ambitious task… so my challenge was, how can I apply that ethos to some of the tasks and opportunities in my own team?

The "best and the brightest" vs the "hidden potential"

When thinking about the typical UNICEF or UN intern, the term “best and brightest” immediately comes to mind. It is a competitive process and the young people that typically secure these internships are accomplished, passionate, and come from some of the most prestigious schools around the world. It is wonderful that we are able to attract such talent to our organization and these young people have undoubtedly contributed enormously to advancing the cause of child rights through their work with UNICEF.

But what about those young people whose talents, passions and potential lay hidden and undiscovered merely because of the circumstances to which they were born? Those who don’t have the opportunity to study at the best schools, or may have never even heard of UNICEF or the United Nations? How can we reach them - not only through our programmatic work - but by opening up opportunities to build their skills, knowledge, and marketability for future jobs through opportunities to work at UNICEF?

Collaboration with two local organizations to bring the internship pilot to life

Callie’s introduction to working with the young women at Riker’s Island was facilitated by another passionate young woman named Gigi Blanchard who runs a local organization called The Kite. Gigi herself had spent several years incarcerated as a teenager and when she emerged, she founded The Kite, whose mission is to provide creative writing and re-entry classes for people who are incarcerated. Gigi also introduced us to another organization called the Center of Community Alternatives (CCA), whose mission is to “promote reintegrative justice and a reduced reliance on incarceration through advocacy, services and public policy development in pursuit of civil and human rights.”

We started the pilot in early 2020 and the students selected for the internship were facilitated through CCA and the Kite and receive school credits and remuneration for their internship hours through these two organizations. Our current cohort of interns – Mic, Ariana, Brianna, Caitlyn, Tookie and Darren – range in age from 14-26 and the internship kicked off in September 2020.

Piloting the internship in a COVID-19/virtual world

We knew from the start that this internship would not follow a traditional path of tasking our interns with following intergovernmental negotiations or writing briefing notes, but of course it was made even more complex by the onset of COVID-19 pandemic and not being able to meet with the interns in person. Therefore, the challenge for us was how to make the internship engaging and mutually beneficial to both the interns and UNICEF in this virtual world. 

We started with a simple concept. The students filled out a survey that centered around two fundamental questions: what are you most hopeful about and what are you most fearful about for yourself, your community and the world?

Those who don’t have the opportunity to study at the best schools, or may have never even heard of UNICEF or the United Nations? How can we reach them (...) opening up opportunities to build their skills, knowledge and marketability for future jobs through opportunities to work at UNICEF?

Fall 2020 Project – The negative impacts of social media on the mental health of young people

We spent the next two internship sessions (we meet virtually once a week on Thursday afternoons) discussing the results and recurrent themes that emerged from the survey. The idea was to spark a discussion on the most pressing issues young people are facing and how these issues relate to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the work of UNICEF. The students self-selected the topic of social media and its impacts on mental health after a lengthy discussion around ways in which young people can support themselves and make money, with one of the students remarking that “social media is the new resume for a young person.”

Although the students saw the great potential of social media to bring fame or wealth, they quickly identified many of the darker sides of being online – online bullying; internet addiction; body dysmorphia; depression and anxiety over getting enough “likes” or “views;” and the dangerous spread of harmful misinformation and conspiracy theories. The students agreed that the likelihood of stopping young people’s use social media was highly improbable.

A drawing depicting a woman looking at the mirror
One of the interns, Briana, chose to focus her work on unrealistic beauty and body standards portrayed on social media which can lead to depression, low self-esteem and body dysmorphia, especially among girls and young women.

But through their art, music, filmmaking and poetry, they wanted to express their feelings on the dangers of social media and raise awareness of these risks amongst their peers. 

Over the next several weeks, the students worked on teasing out the issues and thinking through the details of their projects.  I was also pleased to let the students know that UNICEF had recently taken the decision that improving the mental health of children and young people would be a global advocacy priority for our organization over the next few years.  They were thrilled to hear that their projects and inputs could help to shape our advocacy and programmatic approach to this important issue.

I don't know, I feel like the world has defeat me

But I'm gonna keep tryin', I'm going to keep strivin'

Even though so many people close to me be dyin'

Lyrics to a rap song written and performed by Ariana, UNICEF PPD Advocacy Hub Intern

The Presentation

17 December was a proud moment for me, the coordinators from CCA and the Kite and, of course, the students. When we had first met, some of the students were incredibly shy and barely spoke on our calls – and now, 14 weeks later, they were presenting to UNICEF experts across the organization. 

I was blown away not only by their amazing and creative talents but by the strong research and practical guidance presented to UNICEF staff on how to authentically and effectively reach out to young people on this difficult and sometimes taboo subject area of mental health. I know that their insights will be incredibly valuable to UNICEF as we develop a global mental health advocacy agenda, and the students have already showcased their work through Voices of Youth and UNICEF social media channels on the recent occasion of Safer Internet Day on February 9th.

Next steps

In early 2021, the internship coordination team (UNICEF/the Kite/CCA) will meet to discuss next steps. I hope to personally continue the programme in my own small team - but I also believe that should only be the beginning. My hope is that this experience will inspire others to think creatively about how we can reach vulnerable young people - not only through our programmes and services, but by truly seeing their potential as future change-makers… and perhaps even future colleagues!

My sincere thanks to Isabel Geddes and Annalisa Orlandi in UNICEF's Public Partnerships Division who assisted with the internship, as well as former UNICEF staff member Callie King-Guffey for her inspiration. Thanks as well to colleagues in Division of Communication - especially Ignacio De Los Reyes Mora and Emma Ferguson - who have been very supportive of showcasing and using the work done on mental health by our current cohort of interns.

Shannon O'Shea is the global lead for UNICEF's work on Public Partner Advocacy, Visibility and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With extensive experience in research, policy analysis, and advocacy, she has successfully led campaigns advancing children rights on Governments and other public partners agendas.

Drawing symbolizing human addiction to social media
Caitlyn Pritchard
In another piece done by Caitlyn – entitled “Dopamine” – her research uncovered that ‘likes’ and ‘views’ on social media can release dopamine to the brain. Addictive drugs and gambling have a similar effect.