By Emma Jackson, Centre College (2018)
There I was: standing in my office, the walls papered with photographs and interview transcripts, facing down the lens of my very own camera. “What does UPO mean to you?” I had been asking people this question all summer. But now, faced with that very question, I froze. What could I say that in any way compared to the amazing stories of hope, resilience, and passion, that I had heard over the past two months? What does UPO mean to me?
Emma (Centre, 2018) worked for UPO in DC in 2015 assisting with three communications projects.
This summer, I interned in the Communications Department at the United Planning Organization (UPO) in Washington, D.C. UPO is the designated Community Action Agency in D.C. Locally, it is known as a super nonprofit because it funds and run over 30 different programs spanning from early childhood learning to career development and everything in between.
My boss was as new as I was, arriving a few short weeks before I did, filling a five month vacancy as Communications Director. Our job was challenging because we had to start from scratch; but that made it even more rewarding. We were given an enormous amount of freedom and resources with our main task being to remind the public just how much UPO has been helping the community. The day-to-day was so different. On any given day my boss and I traversed all over Washington, D.C.
Three projects that I worked on over the summer made a lasting impact on both me and the communities that UPO serves. The first program was a Reading Literacy program that I was asked to develop. In underprivileged school systems, the rate of illiteracy is alarmingly high. The correlation between literacy and a better quality of life has been proven time and time again. With little knowledge on the subject, I was asked to design a reading program to get both kids and parents involved. I focused on making reading fun, researching successful programs such as Drop Everything And Read. By the end of my project, I produced a model for drawing young children into the wonderful world of reading.
The second project that drew my attention was a healthy living program. I was told to create an all-encompassing healthy living program for families in the poorest sections of the city. After much research, I was shocked to find that not only did the most underprivileged Wards in the city have the highest obesity rates, they also had the fewest full-service grocery stores. This meant that there was less healthy food readily available. Fast food culture is real. When families can’t afford or don’t have access to healthy foods, they resort to what is readily available. What is readily available is often double deep fried and without an ounce of nutritional value. The program that I developed focused on three different aspects of healthy living. First was the acquisition of healthy food. Second, I focused on the preparation of that food. Finally, I focused on exercise. I came up with the idea for an interactive map that would show where in the neighborhood different healthy foods could be found. I also came up with a newsletter full of tips for preparing food as well as simple exercises that could be done in and around the home. The idea was to encourage families to eat well and exercise by proving that they could fit into their budget and lifestyles.
The third and final project was where I devoted most of my time. My boss came to me a few weeks into my internship with a proposal. She wanted to create a photo-story to share the success of UPO with the public. We interviewed a myriad of people that had been involved with UPO, from former board members to current employees and customers, and take their pictures. This was every aspiring photographer’s dream. I readily agreed and for the next month and a half we compiled dozens of interviews and photographs. By the end of my time at UPO I had heard so many incredible stories that I could clearly see the impact that a nonprofit, especially a community action agency, can make on people’s lives. From hearing about a man who commutes three hours to work every day because he loves his job so much to a woman who was six months pregnant, jobless, and living on the street, who now has a roof over her head, certifications and a job, and is starting her own small business, UPO truly changed lives as well as my perspective on poverty.
Yet, as good as this all was, I encountered problems while working for UPO. The biggest problems was that my beloved nonprofit had been taken advantage of time and time again. Because UPO is a nonprofit and because it is government funded, many businesses assumed they could get away with producing low-quality work. There were several instances this summer in which I encountered work that was absolutely terrible. It had been carelessly put together in the hopes of a quick pay day. My boss and I made it a priority to show that this behavior was unacceptable. Yet, this shoddy work will continue to happen to nonprofits, preventing them from growing and being taken seriously, as long as this “take what you can get” culture persists.
The other problem that I noticed was the lack of communication between various branches of UPO. UPO has many different wings, and there is a good deal of overlap in terms of funding and projects. Yet, I found that the branches did not seem to talk to each other. Hence, there were missed opportunities for collaboration or duplicate and wasteful efforts to reach out to community members. The most important thing my boss did was sit down with every branch and tell them to talk to each other. From listening to other interns explain their experiences, it is clear that communication is a problem in many nonprofits. It is essential for an efficient and successful organization.
All of these thoughts raced through my head as I pondered the question before me. What does UPO mean to me? Coming back to that initial question, one word kept turning over in my mind: Perseverance. UPO means hope in the face of adversity and continuing on no matter the odds. I am proud to have been a member of this organization for a summer and I am proud to have served and learned as a Shepherd Intern.