Interview | Interning at public and nonprofits sectors

What does it feel like to work for public sectors in New York City? In this talk, we invited three second-year graduate students from urban planning, who worked in nonprofit or public departments of New York, to share their stories and thoughts.

“Fight for New Yorkers’ Benefits.”

Zheng Xin, Yining Lei, and Zhengzhe(Jay) Jia

Zheng Xin studied interior design at Syracuse University for her undergraduate education. This summer, she worked at the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT).

Yining Lei graduated from Tsinghua University, with a major in construction management. This summer she worked in an NGO called New Yorkers for Parks.

Zhengzhe (Jay) Jia graduated from Tongji University, with a major in urban planning. This summer, he worked at the New York Office of Census.

Jay:

It’s really exciting to have everyone here today. Let’s start with a bit of introduction to your internships. Yining, where do you work now?

Park Rally / Yining

Yining:

I am interning at an NGO called New Yorkers for Parks. The organization has a history of over 100 years, and mainly serves as advocates, to ensure citizens have ample access to parks, and the government provides with a proper budget for parks. We speak for citizens and make their voices heard. We also supervise park management done by the city government. So, apart from the data work I did with, I was also involved with a lot of community activities. How about you, Jay?

Census Office / Jay

Jay:

I am working in the New York Office of Census as a data analyst intern. The office runs for the census held every ten years, and the next one will be 2020. My office’s primary responsibility is to invite more citizens to attend the census so the result could be more refined. Apart from data analysis and online mapping, I also joined a lot of community activities with other interns. Zheng, since you are also working on a government department, what is your major responsibility?

Sign Shop Tour Organized by DOT / Zheng

Zheng:

I am interning at the New York City Department of Transportation. The job is full-time, and the title is internship of land use review. My primary task is to follow up with a project called ‘Greenstreets.’ Currently, the DOT owns the land, but the Department of Parks & Recreation is responsible for the management and maintenance of the space. The data on these space is outdated, so I spent a lot of time going through and editing them, including deleting wrong or old information and updating the GIS files.

Jay, does your job in the city government meet your expectation?

Jay:

It is quite different from my expectation. Of course, it depends on your specific tasks. Our team, from my perspective, is more like an electoral office. Like an elective office aiming to get more votes by using data analysis and other promotion activities, my office uses similar methods to get more people aware of the census and send back census forms in 2020. The Census matters not only to the city but also to the state. In America, the data of census directly relates to the number of seats in the House of Representatives owned by the state in the next ten years. The census is also associated with the amount and proportion of public funding from the federal government. Therefore, it is crucial to get all the communities involved.

In the beginning, I thought my job would be simply sitting in the office and editing some maps and data, but the actual efforts went way more than that. My inbox is always filled with invitations to all kinds of community activities from my colleagues, as they hope you could participate in these activities supporting and representing the office.

Yining, since you are the only one who works in an NGO, what do you think about the difference between an NGO and the government?

Yining:

It is easier for NGO, compared to the government, to speak for the public. The government needs to leverage many things, as there are usually multiple stakeholders involved. The NGO for parks, can target the issues better and make more specific efforts.

For instance, last month a fund of 43 million dollars was raised for parks in New York City, which could never be done without these NGO and other organizations. I am touched by their enthusiasm for the public interests and feel a great sense of participation. It is very different from working for the government.

So, Jay, as you mentioned that you have participated in a lot of activities, could you offer a few examples?

Jay:

There are three categories of activities

Training / Jay

The first one is the professional meeting, training, and testing on population statistics, I went to the training organized by NYC DCP. The lecture introduced the city from the perspective of the census and proved the significance of the census survey using data and facts. The talk also covered how to do a better survey. For instance, I learned that over half of New Yorkers do not speak English when they are at home, which will hugely impact our reach-out strategy.

At the beginning of my internship, I also attended a few Census Exploratory Study and Campaign Testing, which was co-organized by several departments. The testing will invite foreign citizens of different races, and one coordinator from the government will lead the conversation. There are two goals. The first is to investigate what does it feel like for a foreigner to live in New York. The second goal is to see how much they know about the census, including its privacy policy. Based on these discussions, the office would generate better strategies to get everyone involved.

I participated in two of the events. One discussion was directed at Cantonese-speaking Chinese living in New York, and the other was Central Asians such as Indian, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. My biggest feeling is that people of different ethnicities have very different styles in this roundtable discussion. Central Asians will be more proactive, often answering questions on their own initiative and even guiding discussions. For Chinese people, unless asked, they will rarely answer questions. At the same time, Central Asians will have a more positive experience of life in New York. I think language plays a big part in it.

The coordinator asked the participants if they knew that New York was a sanctuary city, which protected the privacy of immigrants, refused to cooperate with the Federal Immigration Service, refused to implement immigration policies stipulated by federal laws and would not share the immigration information of New Yorkers with the federal government. He asked the participants if they knew Title 13, a bill to protect demographic data, and then showed a few slogans that were used to promote Title 13, asking participants which ones can achieve the effect of the promotion.

I actually couldn’t understand the importance of this matter at first. The US government used the census information of Japanese Americans during World War II to assist non-demographic departments, which had a very bad impact. Title 13 was born under this circumstance, and no government officials have violated this regulation for decades. So I didn’t quite understand people’s concerns about privacy. This changed after I chatted with a black colleague on a community event. She mentioned the black group’s distrust of the government and cited this Japanese example that happened half of the century ago. I said that this happened decades ago. My colleagues said that black people wouldn’t forget this thing. At that moment, I probably understood the importance of this office’s work.

NYCHA Family Day / Jay

We also attended community events and used such a venue to promote demographics to community residents. This kind of event could be a neighborhood meeting, the NYCHA Family Day, or worship. These activities are organized by the community organizer, NYCHA, and the church. There are various organizations involved to promote different things. For example, I attended an NYCHA Family Day, where each organization has a table that promotes their organization like the club recruits in college. You can even see talks about garbage sorting here. There provided free food, karaoke facilities, and even free Mexican massage service. Those are places that we will show up.

We also attended citywide events like parades. My office and I participated in the pride parade on June 30, and my colleague also participated in the parade after the American women’s football team won the championship.

What about Xin? I saw your intern travel activities in DOT’s LinkedIn news.

Staten Island Ferry Tour / Zheng

Zheng:

Yeah, DOT has a great variety of activities for interns. They have intern tours to familiarize us with the city, and how DOT operates, including commissioner breakfasts, marathon volunteering, and trees planting. I attended two of them. The first one is the Staten Island Ferry tour: we went to the caption room and the ferry maintenance house. I learned that the two oldest ferries were manufactured in 1960, and there will be two new ferries added in 2020.

Monitor of Transportation Center / Zheng

Another one is visiting the transportation management center. Commissioner John gave us an in-depth introduction to the traffic management of DOT and NYC. We visited the surveillance room and the signal control system. We also visited the emergency management room, in which NYPD, NYCDOT, and StateDOT work together to react promptly and generate efficient strategy in case of any emergency. These tours are great opportunities to talk with peers from other departments and learn from each other.

Yining, I saw a lot of your social media posts, what kinds of activities did you attend?

Yining:

A lot. Our organization is quite small, which means more responsibility for each team member. Other than my daily technical task, I went to many communities and listened to their opinions.

I'd like to share a public hearing I attended on resilience renovation of East River Park. On the hearing, the government officers presented a great project with many human-oriented designs, yet the community residents are not happy with it and raised a lot of questions. Someone thinks the scale of the proposal is not appropriate, and the design is not as functional as it looks. Some other residents think that the renovation might be too expensive. Once the project is done, the increasing rent will cause displacement.

Apart from these common concerns, some residents raised questions that I had never thought of before. On the hearing, there was another resident, who was a professor from NYU, claims that the proposal will create irreversible damage to local biodiversity. He conducted several experiments, with the results showing that the number of species will be reduced to 300 after the renovation, while there were over 1000 species.

Some residents doubt the decision process for this project. A woman said: “I don’t know how did you (the DPR) reach your design decision, but I did something in my way. Rather than making all decisions in air-conditioned offices or fancy design firm, I went to the park, 5 AM in the morning, asking each visitor how would they feel about the park. Have you ever done that? Has any of you asked our opinions about the plans?” After she said that, the public started cheering for her, and I was also inspired by such enthusiasm. It was funny that the officer on the stage began looking at their phones. And some residents shouted “What are you doing? Put your phone down! Put your phone down”. It was my first time to see such dramatic scenes, I was quite shocked. I realize that the role served by community participation is completely different between China and the States. It offers a new perspective on public involvement in planning.

Jay:

I agree. I remembered that in our Planning Methods class, our group was asked to study a community in Brooklyn. The community sits next to an expressway proposed by Robert Mose, but it is outdated already. DOT proposed a lot of renovation ideas which look beautiful to me, yet it still met strong objection from the residents, due to the construction noise and closure of a green promenade.

Park Rally / Yining

Yining:

We have exactly the same issue here. The primary reason for residents’ rejection for the current East River Renovation plan is that the construction may take over three years, hence the park has to be shut down for three years. I remembered that during the hearing, a mom expressed her concern regarding the closure. She showed a photo of her son playing in the park and said: “My son plays in the park every day. Look how happy he is. If the park is closed, where should he go?” Then she turned to Gale Brewer (Borough president of Manhattan) and asked her: “Gale, there will be many children who lost their playground for a long time, just like my son.”

Jay:

That sounds interesting. On the other hand, do you think such level of participation drops obstacles in the way of our city development?

Yining:

I think the answer is ‘of course.’ However, it is the residents’ choice, and there are pros and cons to it. For broader visions, the government makes more efficient decisions. For many issues on city redevelopment, or daily operation of the government, public participation may be beneficial. We may wait for the results to make conclusions.

Jay:

The history of encouraging public participation in the States is very long. In my opinion, since I am from a different cultural background, at the very beginning, I consider it very inefficient. Now I found that American citizens know a sophisticated system to speak for themselves, and they enjoy such a process.

Yining:

The process could be struggling. I think the government faces enormous challenges as well. Some of the residents might be very aggressive in the hearing, and the government officers need to deal with these emotions. Like the hearing I attended, when there are some irreconcilable issues, they will just look at their phones.

Some of the residents may have questions like: “why don’t you guys fix whatever needs to be fixed? If your computer gets a virus, you will only clean up the virus instead of getting a new one. I don’t see why the same thing cannot happen to our park. Are you trying to hide something from us? “People are angry because there was a previous proposal passed all hearing and review process, but it was suddenly canceled. Such questions easily lead to people’s doubt about the transparency and initiatives of the whole project.

Jay:

In that case, do you think the residents and the NGO may hold a certain bias against the government?

Yining:

As NGO, we should not have any prejudice. We only act as a supervisory role. For instance, when the government closes the great lawn for any ticketed event, Central Park Conservancy, another NGO group, will ask how citizens feel about it. If the government claims that the fees will be used for maintenance and management of the park, Central Park Conservancy will urge the government to disclose the usage of this money. The NGO makes sure the money is put into actual use for the park, instead of being budget for other projects. As you can see, NGO is like a supervisor to watch how the government is doing, and actively communicating between the citizens and the government.

Moreover, I think the citizens know the government quite well. Although they may be naturally skeptical of the government, they have a clear judgment on what is good or bad. During the hearing, one resident expressed her thanks to Gale Brewer, since she stopped the project from going up for DCP review. Once the vote is done, the construction will start soon. Many people thank Brewer for earning them more time and her insistence on holding this hearing.

Zheng:

That was a great discussion. I didn’t know there were so many struggles. How about other cultural experience? Anything interesting?

Yining:

I found that being social and networking is essential. More than half of the people I know got their jobs through personal relationship or networking. The new intern in our office said that she got the job because she has a relationship with someone in the office.

Zheng:

My colleagues have very diverse backgrounds, and the gender ratio is quite balanced. My supervisor is from Nepal; one of the new colleagues is from Hong Kong; we also have Mexican and staff from other Asian countries.

City Hall Tour / Jay

Jay:

I have the same feeling. The government office may value diversity more. My colleagues are from different ethnic groups and interns have diverse backgrounds.

Does this internship shed some light on your future career path?

Yining:

As a Chinese student, I would like to work for a Chinese company in the States after I graduate. I have a very different way of thinking from my American peers. I would also like to work in an engineering company, which better fits my academic background.

Interviewer A:

That would be quite different from our current job. You may mainly follow orders from supervisors and do the work.

Interviewer B:

Yeah, especially if you work in data or design firm.

Yining:

These are not solid thoughts. Woking would be part of my life as there are many other concerns.

Jay:

How did you get your internship? Anything you would like to share with us?

Zheng:

I started searching for the internships from April, and I sent out about 20 applications. I received notice for an interview in early June and got the offer one week later. It was interesting that I started receiving notices for interviews after this offer. But I still decide to take this internship. How about you, Yining?

Yining:

I heard about this position on GSAPP’s career fair. I met one staff from the office on the round table, and he briefly introduced the job to me. Later I applied. The internship asks for three references, so I asked my professors. For this NGO, I think they value your enthusiasm more than your skill sets. They want to know if you genuinely care about public space in our city. How about you, Jay?

Jay:

I started sending out applications from May and had an interview in June. I received the offer one week later, then waited for another week to start working. It was already late and not many opportunities available. My only suggestion would be starting early.

Yining:

I agree. It is always better to start early. The career fair in March is also a great opportunity. If the internship is related to data analysis or design, you should also have your portfolio ready by then.

Zheng:

That’s true. But if you have to start a little bit late, that’s fine too. Usually, from late May to mid-June, there might some available opportunities released as the companies may need more help. Just be patient. Do not be too anxious.

Jay:

Yes. You will eventually find your ideal internship if you are determined enough.

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