For many young people interested in a career in politics, unpaid internships are a typical first step. But that’s a privilege not everyone can afford. The lack of pay associated with political internships can be an impossible barrier for some students. This is especially true for Black students, who are more likely to be unpaid interns than their white peers.
Deesha Dyer knows this problem well. When Dyer first applied for a White House Internship, she was a 31-year-old community college student with multiple jobs and no idea how she would afford to work without pay. But her passion for community engagement and a belief that things would work out drove her to apply anyway. She was chosen for the internship that eventually led to her role as the White House Social Secretary.
“Finances should not be a reason why Black students cannot pursue internships. But, unfortunately, in politics and public service, a lot of internships are unpaid or really low paid…I was very blessed and lucky that I was able to have people help me financially in my internship. But I applied not knowing that would happen,” Dyer recalled.
Now, Dyer is paying that good fortune forward through her scholarship fund, Black Girl 44. Founded in 2019, Black Girl 44 is funded by Dyer and other Black women who served during the Obama administration. The scholarship is named in honour of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, and for the audience it supports – Black women who want to step into politics.
Dyer hopes that supporting Black women in political internships will help to remedy their ongoing underrepresentation in US office. While a historic 26 Black women are serving as members of Congress in 2021, before that, only 47 Black women were elected to congress between 1968 and 2021. The numbers are equally poor in other political spaces. But Dyer was clear about the importance of giving Black women a seat at the table in local and national politics.
“We’ve seen the consequences of Black voices being excluded from the conversation about policies that hurt and harm us – from the school-to-prison pipeline to Daunte Wright being shot and killed in Minnesota. We need to be at the table of power where these decisions are made for us and our communities to remain a priority and get justice for what’s due to us. Part of the scholarship is for me to invest in the changemakers that are going to make the world as it should be,” Dyer said.
In the two years since founding Black Girl 44, Dyer has worked to expand the reach and impact of the scholarship. In 2021, the number of donors grew from 53 to 105, and there are ten recipients instead of six. The recipients are also from all across the country instead of only the Washington, D.C. area.
“We realized that more people are staying home instead of moving to Washington, D.C. for internships. And we realize that people are making changes on a local level and shouldn’t be excluded because they don’t want to come to D.C. We wanted to take the elitism out of it,” Dyer said about the national expansion.
But while some of the logistics have changed, Dyer is determined to stay true to the mission that inspired Black Girl 44. The scholarship still serves any Black woman candidate of any age who is completing undergraduate studies and has secured a summer internship in politics. Dyer also continues to tap her network to find and share entry-level opportunities in politics and public service with ethical companies that pay a living wage.
“The premise is still that we want Black women to know that we have their back financially, and we’re a resource for them. So, it isn’t just that somebody gets an internship, and they never hear from us. We try to help provide resources. I’m currently helping someone who was a 2019 recipient get a job. So, we’re there to help them through as they get their footing in politics and public service,” Dyer said.
For students who are not eligible or selected for the scholarship, Dyer offers other supports and resources through Impact of a Vote (the initiative that houses Black Girl 44). Impact of a Vote gives Black college students the chance to learn about and explore ‘non-traditional careers and pathways in politics and public service,’ through free workshops and weekly newsletters with relevant job postings.
“Anybody who has the will to say, ‘I want to learn more about this or go into this field,’ we try our best to support them how we can,” Dyer said.
Dyer has continued to leverage her experience, network, and passions to drive the change she wants to see, running a social impact consulting firm in addition to spearheading Black Girl 44. While she has set herself apart in both business and social impact, Dyer has not forgotten what it felt like to battle the impostor syndrome so many Black women feel. Reflecting on her own journey, Dyer encouraged Black women struggling to feel confident at work (or internships) to leap anyway.
“Too many times, we put these barriers and we psych ourselves out, whether it’s money, age, experience, or confidence. We allow ourselves to say no before anybody else does. So, the advice I have is to just go after it. Have the faith that if something doesn’t work out, you can go after something else,” she said.