Manifesting Tech for Social Good: My ACLU Internship Experience

Priya Pai
Priya Pai
Dec 6, 2019 · 6 min read

When I first interacted with computer science as a freshman in college just three years ago, I believed that civic issues and technology were mutually exclusive. It was an easy narrative to buy. Professors advertised jobs from the same few companies and prepared us for those specific interview questions. Friends in my classes labored over coding challenge after coding challenge to secure selective jobs in big corporations and banks. My additional English major and campus activism often felt like side interests rather than spaces where I could integrate my tech skills. I began to feel like there was a specific future set out for me in tech, one I wasn’t sure I even wanted.

Cue the first of my many, many college existential crises. Coming to college from a large, diverse public school in Texas, being a child of immigrants, navigating the American education system on my own — social impact is personally significant and critical to me. I spent many nights worrying whether my major in computer science would exclude me from working on social issues I cared so much about.

I found an internship on the ACLU Analytics team by mere chance. Call it fate or destiny or just a lucky Google Search at the right time. I had proudly donned ACLU stickers on my laptop for years, but didn’t even stop to think that a tech team existed there, much more one specifically devoted to analyzing meaningful and socially impactful data. Before I even got the internship, I was washed with excitement over the fact that a job like this could exist. I remember I quoted just the job description to my friends for a full week.

After two semesters here at the ACLU, I’ve learned a lot. About the power of technology to manifest social change. About myself and what I want from future career opportunities. About team dynamics and what a healthy work environment looks like. I could go on and on. But as I finish up my internship this week and sappily reflect, I decided to boil my experience down into a few main takeaways from this internship experience.

  1. Tech is essential in the advocacy and social justice space.

Like I mentioned, tech in the nonprofit and social justice arena is not something I easily heard about in college. However, the projects I worked on during my internship showed me how critical technology, especially data science, is to help this space grow and to actually make an impact on big, social issues.

This semester, I worked on a research project running Python and R scripts on massive amounts of arrest data from the FBI. Through these scripts and aggregating all of this data, I was able to look at breakdowns of arrests, specifically analyzing the racial disparities. Another project I worked on was a bail reform project, where I pulled hundreds of arrest entries from a public database and analyzed the average length of detention using R. Again, we were able to break down jail stays by race and gender to identify disparities in incarceration. It’s one thing to discuss racism at school and within larger discussions of the American justice system, but it was incredibly eye-opening to be able to find and show actual quantitative and analytic support for these issues. I began to wonder how many social issues that we talk about at school for hours on end could be revolutionized by showing the exact numbers and facts to support those issues. It became really apparent to me that the intersection of tech and social impact isn’t just an interesting combination but one that is direly needed for progress.

2. The work, no matter what, is always exciting because I care about its contribution to a mission I believe in.

It sounds cheesy to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: I looked forward to every single day of work at the ACLU. This isn’t to say that I was doing groundbreaking work 24/7. Like any tech internship, there were parts of the work that weren’t very sexy — a lot of staring at code, trying to fix bugs, and watching the code fail over and over again. Sometimes I wrote scripts for smaller, technical projects, like email grading and data cleaning. Regardless, I felt constant excitement and motivation to do this work because I knew that my work was contributing to something larger than me, something that I deeply cared about. The ACLU’s mission never failed to inspire me. So even when the work wasn’t super exciting, I was happy to do it and work hard at it because I desperately wanted the ACLU to succeed.

If I’ve learned anything after the very different internships I’ve had, it’s the fact that when the organization’s mission inspires you, your motivation and your work performance skyrocket. This is a useful thing to learn as I search for post-graduate jobs and opportunities now, and it’s something you aren’t really taught in school but something I’m very glad to learn early on in my career.

3. A good team is one that supports you, mentors you, and helps you grow.

Finally, the best part of my internship at the ACLU was hands-down the people I met and worked with. First, it is a unique experience to be able to work alongside people you share core social values with. Because we were all so committed to the same impactful mission, I always felt safe and welcome to voice my opinions and ideas, never fearing that I would be undermined or disregarded by my team.

Second, everyone was always willing to help and support me in any way they could. Whether it was to give me quick tutorials on complicated technologies, debug a messy code error, or walk me through the data and help me understand it, everyone was always excited and happy to help me learn. I felt that I grew so much in an environment like this, where people were willing to teach me in such overwhelming and kind ways.

Finally, it was invaluable to work on a team of people so willing to mentor and root for me. I believe as such a young professional (?) entering the “real world” very soon (uh oh), it’s critical to have mentors who can give you insight and help you make tough decisions. It was incredible to be able to ask someone at work to get coffee with me and then have such an open and interesting conversation about their life journey and advice they have for me as a confused 21-year-old. I feel like I’m coming away with having built many meaningful relationships and friendships with not only my team but other people in the office, and I don’t think this is a very common experience at other organizations. I truly feel so lucky.

Our team dressed as data storage clouds for the annual Halloween contest!

I’m so grateful for the people I met, the incredible work I got to do, and of course, for the extraordinary things I learned. I’m really sad to leave my internship at the ACLU, but in a weird way, I’m really happy that I’m sad. It meant that this experience was something that impacted me, even to the very end, and is something worth missing.

Me with some incredible analytics ladies who never fail to keep inspiring me :)

ACLU Tech & Analytics

Behind-the-scenes perspectives from the ACLU tech and data…

Priya Pai

Written by

Priya Pai

Senior at Columbia University studying Computer Science and English Literature. priya-pai.me

ACLU Tech & Analytics

Behind-the-scenes perspectives from the ACLU tech and data analytics teams

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