BEING SURE OF THE UNSURE:
An Emotional Journey
By Mandy Duncan
At the beginning of this school year I thought I knew (very roughly) what I wanted to do in “life”. You know, the thing you try to figure out when you are a child but then by the time you are eighteen you have given up being an astronaut to only feel that emptiness of not knowing what is coming next. I had become part of the statistic that says such a large percentage of college students change their major more than once before they graduate. After seeing an “ad” for a doula on the back of CityBeat or CinWeekly a couple summers ago I started researching what this meant and discovered I very badly wanted to become a midwife. Needless to say it wasn’t a year later that I was thinking, “Maybe midwifery is not for me yet” and changed my major to another socially aware one: social work. And so started my journey.
I needed to fulfill an elective and found “Non-majors environmental internship” was available and signed up yet I did not know that my life was about to change. I never even believed I would actually be doing it. An internship sounded like a thing I could not possibly be ready for, plus I feel I knew enough about the environment to think I would really be making a dent in the issues at hand (what the issues were, I didn’t know either). Very quickly Autumn, my Internship Coordinator, matched me up with an organization called Ohio Citizen Action (OCA). I went in for an interview, did some work to make it official and got myself involved in what is considered to be a legacy.
At the start of working with, not for, OCA I was dubbed “Assistant Program Director”, which sounds extremely important and “head-honcho-esque”. At the start OCA was in a transition period. They had recently won a successful campaign with Lanxess Plastics (“a very dirty plastics company”) by getting them to update technologies therefore reducing regular emissions and accidental emissions. As an interim project for the office OCA was helping the Columbus office on their campaign to get Dupont to agree to quit allowing the use of their “harmful-for-human-consumption” material, Teflon, in food packaging. Ruthie, who I was the assistant to, told me how exciting and awesome my position was because I was going to be helping to choose the route that OCA was going to take in the next campaign. She was going to soon be facing the decision of which campaign to pursue and that my work would ultimately help sway here decision. I was given the task of researching the health affects of certain chemicals that were suspected to be emitted by one of the companies we possibly would be pursuing. I also got to play Sherlock Holmes and track down the names of board members of another company, where they lived and their connections to the world. Needless to say we’ve now chosen our next campaign with another extremely dirty company.
The highlight of my OCA/internship experience was the emotional, mental and physical wake-up I experienced toward the end. Twice a year members under OCA’s umbrella organization, Hudson Bay Company, get together for a conference. I happened to be extremely lucky to be interning during the time that the annual winter conference in Paducah, Kentucky would be happening. This was an educational and bonding experience for me, as it is intended to be for everyone. I heard social, political and environmental activists speak (which are all really the same thing). Kathy Kelly is an anti-war activist who went to a maximum security prison for a year for planting corn seeds on a weapon center’s fence-line in Kansas. I heard from a man in another OCA office who had helped pioneer the Bucket Brigade, which is a grassroots-yet-accurate way to collect air samples. I learned of electronic waste being dumped in Nigeria and what Macintosh is doing (or not doing, in reality) to control their waste. I felt like I had been struck by lightning suddenly and I had found a purpose and a goal to pursue. I wanted to be a part of this group of people. I wanted to experience the rough work of canvassing for a cause. I wanted to meet more of these people and I wanted to let that person inside of me out.
I never thought for a moment that I would fall head-over-heels in love with an organization or the work I would be doing. I never thought I would meet people who were so different from me and my own background, yet I would still feel so connected to them. If I had never known empathy before, I knew by the end of my internship what the word truly meant. The thing that baffles me is that I still do not know what I want to do long term in life outside of making a difference. I switched back to the midwife track and have started working for pay at OCA. I do know that what I am doing right now will help me in whatever I do tomorrow. I know that the people I meet will make a lasting impression on me, because they already have, and I will carry this with me forever. My advice for anyone else seeking an environmental internship: You can try to be ready to ride a rollercoaster of emotions that you will experience, but there is no way to be ready. You just have to get on.