by Becca Turley ’21
Over the summer I was given the great opportunity to work as a Government Affairs Intern at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Chicago). CAIR-Chicago is a local chapter of a national non-profit organization whose mission is to defend civil rights, promote tolerance, and fight bigotry. At CAIR-Chicago, our Civil Rights Department provides legal services for members of the Chicagoland Muslim community, mostly focusing on immigration cases relating to the current administration’s limitations on travel and immigration status for Muslims. The pro-bono legal services at CAIR-Chicago provides protections for Chicago’s Muslim community in the face of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity.
My first week on the job was interesting, to say the least. We were preparing for our Taste of Ramadan iftar and spent the week hanging up streamers and balloons to decorate our office for the event. While the arts and crafts time was a great way to get to know my fellow interns without feeling as though we were interrupting the workflow, I was nervous that the entire internship would be busy work and the negative clichés you always hear about internships- coffee, cleaning, photocopying, etc. Over the following weeks, I began receiving legitimate work to do and started to feel as though my time and effort was producing valuable work.
As a Government Affairs intern, my work mainly focused on civic engagement and policy research in addition to writing articles for our online publication. The bulk of my policy research dealt with the Illinois General Assembly where I compiled a list of relevant legislation that has been introduced or passed this year in both chambers of the Assembly. Most notably, the General Assembly passed landmark legislation relating to women’s reproductive rights, marijuana decriminalization and legalization, and employment civil rights.
Throughout the summer, the Government Affairs team and I planned a few events for the general public. First, we held viewing parties for the DNC debates in June and July where we wrote profiles on each of the 23 prospective nominees. We also made an appearance at Chicago’s World Refugee celebration in June where we participated in a march and set up a table to pass out information and “Know Your Rights” pamphlets ahead of the ICE raids in Chicago. In addition to these minor events that we participated in, we planned a larger event at the end of the summer called “Bridging the Gap: Conversations Between Politicians and People.” We invited local politicians from Illinois to have a panel discussion regarding issues that directly impact the Muslim community in Chicago. Although some of our guests never showed up, we were fortunate to have a Congressman from the Illinois General Assembly and a representative from a state Senator’s office in attendance. The state Representative, who had a long career before his appointment as a rabbi and an activist, brought a fresh perspective to our conversation and provided him the opportunity to speak to a politically underrepresented community that CAIR supports.
Beyond the day-to-day work at CAIR, the interns participated in a series of “Immersion Days” where department heads would teach us about a specific topic of interest to them. The most fascinating and inspiring Immersion Day that I attended was at the West Side Justice Center where we met members of the Black Panther Party and the Rainbow Coalition. These men, some of whom founded the Chicago chapter, took us on a tour of their exhibit which featured posters, newspapers, and documents from the founding days of the party with Fred Hampton at the helm. This immersion day was one of the best experiences I have ever had the privilege of attending and I learned so much about the underground history of my city.
Along with meeting some incredibly inspirational people, I also had one of the most challenging experiences of my life when an organization of former white supremacists and Neo-Nazis attended a two-day workshop at our office. In small groups, we discussed various questions relating to media coverage of terrorism and extremism and ultimately relating those biases to the experiences of our diverse group. After spending several hours talking to a former white supremacist in my group, I learned that in his past he committed hate crimes against Jewish people and synagogues. As a young Jewish woman, I immediately felt defenseless and terrified, never mind the fact that I had to wake up the next morning and sit at a table with this man for another 7 hours. The next day I walked into our office—putting all of my reservations aside— only to thoroughly enjoy our second day, including taking our “formers” to the local masjid to observe the midday salah.
Overall, my internship at CAIR-Chicago was a wonderful opportunity for me in both my personal and academic life. CAIR fostered an incredibly welcoming and friendly work environment where I met wonderful people of all different backgrounds, ideologies, and experiences. I learned so much about the incredible diversity in thought, practice, and belief within the worldwide Muslim community, and became friends with some inspiring and passionate young adults. My time at CAIR was significantly elevated by all of the intelligent, hard-working, and friendly people that I met along the way, and I still feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity.