Rising New York University sophomore Katia Altern dreams of working for the United Nations one day.
She’s one step closer with her summer internship, thanks to the Student Activity Fund of the Long Island Area Council of Unitarian Congregations funded by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock through its Veatch grant-making program.
Altern, a Great Neck resident, is spending her summer days as the racial justice coordinator at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s United Nations office in New York City. Though technically it is an unpaid internship, Altern earns $10 an hour through the UUCSR’s Veatch grant program in Manhasset.
“I love the program. I’ve never heard anything negative about it ever,” Altern said. “It offers such a variety of options for a bunch of different people, whether it relates to manual labor or office jobs, so I think it’s a great program.”
Program coordinator Diane Cohen said the Veatch program has been helping pay Long Island high school seniors and college students for social justice and social work internships for 43 years. Based on the annual amount of the grant, students are told how many hours they can work and are paid accordingly: $9 an hour for high school students, $10 an hour for college students and $11 an hour after working 500 hours.
Cohen said students can work through the program for up to four summers, and many come back after the first year. When students are trying to figure out what organizations to approach, she simply asks “What are you interested in?”
“What we do helps our kids live their [Unitarian Universalist] values, the seven principles,” Cohen said. “It helps them be exposed to social justice agencies and social services and still get paid. If you have to make money over the summer, you can’t do an unpaid internship for eight weeks. You might have to work at the grocery store or the pool.”
During the Student Activity Fund’s annual Leadership Training Workshop Tuesday night, three social justice organizers spoke to the group about their jobs, the struggles they face with underfunding and lack of volunteers, and what they can do in the future to help.
Angel Reyes with Latino Justice is an undocumented immigrant from Peru who came to the United States as a teenager with his mother and younger brother. When his mother was pulled over for a traffic stop without a driver’s license, she was arrested and deported.
Upon her return, she asked Reyes to send his brother back to Peru to be with her while he stayed here, a young adult with no family in the country and no idea where to go next.
Mimi Pierre Johnson with the New York Communities for Change works to help solve the housing crisis and has a soft spot for working with homeless shelters. Throughout her responses to moderator Marybeth Guyther with the Long Island Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Roundtable, Johnson said that throughout her life, she’s come across situations where she didn’t know how to proceed, such as running for New York State Assembly to represent District 21 in 2010.
However, Johnson said, she pushed through, she asked questions, she read everything she could and she learned how to make change happen in New York.
Shameika Hanson, a recent Stony Book University graduate, works for Mothers Out Front, an organization fighting for sustainable resources and to wean the world off fossil fuels and onto renewable energy. She urged the students to become engaged on every level of the democratic process, to never stop reading and to use social media as a tool for their social work.
“I think in the future, Long Island will work a little bit better as organizations come together,” Johnson said. “New York Communities for Change in the city has a lot of different organizations and they work well together, but on Long Island, we’ve been a little bit in our own silos, so when we have a press conference or a rally, we have to get our members out there. When you have 500 people versus 10 people, it’s a big difference, and we fall short of that on Long Island because we’re all working so hard separately.”
The UUCSR Veatch program helps support Unitarian Universalist programs across the country, but Cohen said this local program that draws students from across the island is important to the organization.
“We’re lucky to have this vehicle. We’re lucky to have this program because our students then can act,” Cohen said. “You want to get involved when you’re a young person, but you may not be able to afford it, you don’t know who to call, you don’t have support. We have a structure around it, and we give them support.”