How My Poverty Studies Internship Instilled a Lifelong Practice of Getting Comfortable with Discomfo
By Kelly Nichols
Ms. Nichols received her undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University with a major in English in 2000. From 2001-2003, she returned to her alma mater as Intern Director for the Shepherd Program on Poverty and Human Capability. She received a master’s degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in 2008. Before founding Woollard Nichols & Associates in 2013, Kelly was Planning and Policy Manager for the City of Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, overseeing a team of planners, research analysts and communications professionals. She is married to fellow W&L alum Jason, and they have two children, Grace (6) and Charlie (3).
“We had it all figured out for them, and they saw in that – and in my presence that day – racism, bias, and paternalism,” writes Kelly Nichols (W&L 2000).
In the summer of 1998, I was part of the first cohort of Shepherd Alliance students to venture out across the eastern seaboard to “experience poverty” in a new program that found me sharing a dormitory below an emergency shelter in Washington DC with four fellow female interns: three African American women and a Japanese exchange student. It was an uncomfortable summer, but one that is burned into my memory and has greatly impacted my path to a vocation almost two decades later.
I had participated in the inaugural Poverty 101 class at Washington and Lee the prior fall, and felt that I had a good understanding of the basic issues and concepts surrounding poverty from that coursework. Now, it was time to figure out how to build a career around these topics. Very logical, practical, and most importantly, comfortable for my planner personality.
The discomfort of the internship actually began long before summer started. I had decided that the best placement for me would be one in familiar Lexington, where I could live with my roommate during the school year and spend weekends sunning on the rocks of Goshen Pass. My dogged advisor had other plans for me, and I was soon planning for a summer internship at N Street Village, with a summer camp for children of the women who were working on improving their lives through the programs at N Street Village.
It wasn’t long after I began my summer internship that I knew the work itself would also not be comfortable. Working with kids was not my calling. They were loud, often disruptive, sometimes rude, and not at all grateful that I had given up my summer to work with them. I soon realized that my summer work would be noteworthy only in that it would solidify that being an educator was not a path at which I would be successful.
The life-changing part of the summer came through the profound education that came from being immersed with people from vastly different backgrounds than my own. One episode from the summer serves to illustrate. One of the women I lived and worked attended Spelman College in Atlanta; she was a talented student and exceptional leader and had won a national award from the NAACP for which the awards ceremony was held in DC during our stay. She invited me to attend the ceremony to sit at her table, and I accepted. As the banquet began, the guests were invited to sing the “Negro National Anthem,” the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” As one of a very few white people in the room, I felt discomfort that not only did I not know the words to the song, but I hadn’t even had a clue there was such a thing as the “Negro National Anthem.” But soon, the discomfort was replaced by gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to learn. Gratitude that I had been trusted to be a part of this special moment in my new friend’s life. Gratitude to understand the world a bit more from a black person’s perspective.
Stepping out of your comfort zone. Experiencing cognitive dissonance. Moments of grace. Whatever they’re called, I spent the rest of the summer soaking up these kind of moments: celebrating my birthday at the home of the Sudanese refugee family whose mother I had been tutoring in English; watching the Fourth of July fireworks on the National Mall with friends from around the world; attending Mass at churches radically different from the Catholic church I had grown up in; sitting in on a focus group of women in recovery from substance abuse; taking the children to the local recreation center pool where I was the only white person; getting to know the homeless woman who dreamed of being a movie critic.
After my internship, I continued my poverty studies with a capstone course that allowed me to continue to focus on the structural issues I had seen at play in the summer; and which probably formed the foundation of my later decision to get a master’s degree in public policy. These academic experiences were incredibly important. But my poverty studies internship also changed me personally – afterwards I was not the same person I was before I lived at N Street Village. I was more able to trust that a higher power was in charge of a plan for my life; I was braver; less fearful. When, the spring after I graduated, I received a call from that same dogged advisor about a job opportunity with the Shepherd Program back in Lexington, it made me much more likely to be open to the opportunity, even when it didn’t seem like part of my plan at the time.
Years later, I would have another moment that didn’t just make me uncomfortable, it made me feel shame. I was standing at the front of a room of a mostly black audience, trying to maintain control of an increasingly ugly public meeting. I was the Planning and Policy Manager for the City of Austin Housing and Community Development Office, and I had just served as the lead grant writer on a successful grant to receive a highly competitive $3 million Sustainable Communities grant from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department. I understood the history of racial segregation in Austin. I worked closely with many colleagues who were people of color; I sent my daughter to a diverse preschool. But these people didn’t care about that. They cared that the City hadn’t even bothered to notify, much less have a conversation with them, about what the grant proposal would include. We had it all figured out for them, and they saw in that – and in my presence that day – racism, bias, and paternalism.
We are all ignorant until we’re not. My Shepherd internship taught me to lean in to my ignorance; to explore my blind spots; to embrace the unknown. It helped me to swallow my pride and reexamine how we could build a process to administer the City of Austin grant in which we created a shared power structure with many of the people who were in the room for that initial uncomfortable public meeting.
And it was this same comfort with discomfort – starting with my Shepherd internship – that empowered me to leave the City of Austin in 2013 to start a small business focusing on strengthening Austin’s social sector. The work I do now is focused on transforming systems to promote equity and social justice. The first principle I work from is having the right people in the room to have the conversation, and that means including people with lived experience of poverty, discrimination, and injustice. The foundation of my work was formed almost 18 years ago in my Shepherd internship – the simple notion that spending time with people from different backgrounds is an investment. That investment can be awkward, downright uncomfortable, and even shame-inducing, but it yields a profound return on investment for individuals, communities, and institutions.