work it, girl! Denise breaks the D.C. bubble

Name: Denise*

Age: 22

Pronouns: They/Them

Position: Special Assistant

Company: One of the leading progressive think tanks in D.C.

*name has been changed for anonymity

It takes a lot for one to break out of their bubble, that is- their comfort zone, their network of friends, and the place that they call home. It’s a lot harder to break into a different bubble, especially when it comes to laying down roots in the competitive job market that is Washington D.C.

Denise, 22, made their way back to D.C. with a position at a think tank after gaining some experience, connections, and mentorship from a study away program during the last semester of college. The non-partisan think tank works on researching quantitative analyses, as well as advising legislators through draft bills that may be adopted by lawmakers. In addition to these studies, the organization also holds discussions on policies and current events.

Although they’ve been working in the non-profit sector for some time, Denise says that this might not be for them, but that every non-profit can’t be ruled out.  A think tank is not an end goal; “This organization is a corporate hierarchal system which values products over the knowledge and employee input, which I see as a contradiction to the values they try to preach to governments and in reports.” Nevertheless, this position serves as a starting point for their career as they’re interested in policy and its mechanisms. Denise plans to go to law school, practice civil rights litigation, and perhaps become a professor.

work it girl!

Cultural Chameleon: Could you describe your majors and how they helped you in your career thus far?

Denise: I have a degree in Social Relations and Policy, as well as Comparative Cultures & Politics. The former was focused on U.S. public policy, like immigration policy to the relationships between marginalized identities and socioeconomic groups in the U.S. The latter was globally focused and gave me a good foundation for connecting issues in the U.S. to global social movements.

It’s funny because everyone was like, “what the hell are you going to do with those degrees” and now I do something directly related to both. The think tank doesn’t do a ton of thinking because a lot of people are experts in certain policies in comparison to being an expert in people. While I’m no expert, I definitely bring a people-focused conceptual lens to my teams. At work, I focus on highlighting people’s stories, rather than the policies at work in an oppressive state.

How did you find this job and were you already situated in D.C. when you applied?

I participated in a study away program at the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights during my last semester of college. A lot of people told me to just graduate and not spend the money, but I’d probably still be unemployed had I not went and made the connections.

It was a coalition of civil rights organizations that advocate legislation and judicial nominations affecting people, with partners at the local and state levels with tools to advocate on behalf of their constituents. The professional development professor whipped my resume and cover letter into shape. I wouldn’t have been able to navigate D.C. application culture without him.

That internship ended and I moved back home, I went through real bad post-grad depression paired with my regular, chronic depression.

How long was the interview and hiring process?

I flew out to D.C. at least 5 times during the summer for interviews that I never got a call back from afterward. I applied and interviewed over the phone twice within 2 weeks and when I hadn’t heard anything back, I applied for paid internships. I got offered two and then I was contacted by my current job so I held on hope and turned down the internships. By the end of that week, I had an offer.

D.C. hiring culture is brutal. People complain about the D.C. bubble but do nothing to break it. There’s a lot of recommending friends and mutual friends that tend to have similar experiences and privilege, excluding people most impacted by the policies made here.

There’s a lot of outdated traditions, we have all this technology but most organizations demand in-person interviews. They offer a low ball offer even though the pay in this field is already low and D.C. is very expensive. It’s all about connections.

Could you describe your organization and its management?

 The institution is set up with emphasis on top-down hierarchal management. This translates into a lot of junior level staff being burdened with the brunt of the leg work, whether that is research, memo writing, or scheduling while the team leads are the ones at the table debating the issues. Teams are also very much siloed based on who team managers have good relationships with, instead of interacting with an intersectional lens. I work for two different teams- Criminal Justice and Race and Ethnicity; I’m expected to split my 40 hours evenly between the two.


Take us through your day-to-day.

My responsibilities vary from team to team. For one team, a good portion of my time is administrative work since my manager is much more hands-off with her schedule. I try to keep scheduling down to an hour a day but I’m often looped in last minute on time-sensitive work so it’s more like 2.5 hours. I’m responsible for both of my team’s social media, so at least 2 hours of my day are spent scheduling out content on Twitter, mostly outside articles or reports. Time spent on this varies depending on whether I’m participating in a Twitter chat, which usually requires background research on policies or whatever the topic is and can go from 2 to 4 hours. I spend about 30 mins every day going through and sorting news clips where my team’s products have been cited or sourced. I also work on a monthly email newsletter for each team, which will chew up at least 6-8 hours the week it’s due.

The Criminal Justice team hosts an annual conference that I devote at least 4 hours a week for organizing logistics. That can include everything from working with the in-house art team on invitations to finding and negotiating hotel contracts, brainstorming keynotes and possible panelists. The conference is in September and I will likely spend an increasing amount of hours per week on this as the date comes up.

The rest of where I spend my time varies depending on what project each team it’s working on. We tend to hold an event each month where I’m responsible for helping coordinate logistics like booking rooms, managing guest lists and travel, and social media promotion. Substantive research is very hard to fit in but I try not to turn down those opportunities but it usually results in me staying late to do research.

Did you know at the beginning that you’d cover 2 teams with your responsibilities?

In some respects, yes- I knew I would be in charge of social media for both times and a lot of administrative tasks. But, I was also told I could do research and write my own content yet both of my managers have been reluctant to give me space to do that. I also wasn’t told I’d be in charge of this huge conference or that my bosses don’t communicate so it feels like two separate jobs rather than a joint position I applied to.

What do you love most about your job?

The junior staff is young and super inspiring. Every now and then, I’ll have a good “think tank-y” conversation with my managers. Every day, the junior staff are writing and talking about what really matters and how people are affected by bringing their own experiences to the table in an unabashed way that’s inspired me to do the same.


What do you wish didn’t come along with your job?

I’m underappreciated for the title I hold. I’m in an entry level position that carries a lot of responsibilities and I do them twice for both teams. Yet I constantly have to prove myself “worthy” to talk on an issue or be present in a space. As someone that has been personally affected by many of these issues, it’s disheartening to be excluded from conversations because I’m the assistant or I only have a Bachelor’s. It sends the message that impacted people are genuinely at the center of the conversation and that junior staff can’t be equal to their managers.

I also hate that I’m constantly stretched thin and no one cares. In order to get to the next position, I have to put in more energy to juggle all my responsibilities, plus I have to do more substantive work with little to no acknowledgment of what I do.

That really sticks out to me- ‘I’m stretched thin and no one cares’. Do you feel like there’s a lack of empathy or camaraderie at your workplace? If so, what do you think is at the root of that?

I think I’m mostly referring to my managers who should care the most. I honestly wouldn’t be here if the junior staff weren’t so amazing and open. This organization has the reputation it has for all the work the junior staff puts in.

Experts can be experts anywhere but they can’t be as consistent without the people backing social media, fact-checking, crunching the numbers, talking to coalition members and activists, or just dealing with all the in-house processes that get shit done.

There seems to be a stark difference between people in entry-level roles and upper management at your workplace. Do managers have their master’s degrees, or what do you think sets them apart to be the more authoritative voices at your work?

 I want to say money, but it’s how the organization is set up. Each team has control over what they do and that all depends on what the manager wants. Any projects or reports that are put out need to be approved by the manager.

The managers are self-motivated since a lot of them came from high-level government positions from the Obama administration. There’s a few that are executive level and literally just have a Bachelor’s but did the government climb through the first two terms and landed at this think tank. I must say that the organization’s current president is a kick-ass woman of color.

Are you financially independent?

Yeah, sometimes things pop up and I have to ask my mom for money which is difficult since she goes to school full-time while working and taking care of kids. D.C. is an expensive hell hole…

How do you measure your own personal success?

I need to get better at this, to be honest, because I used to measure mine against others which isn’t healthy. I think doing what brings me happiness without compromising my core values is my success. I’m not compromising my values that much at my current job but I definitely feel undervalued and there’s a bit of evaluating on my behalf on what my next step should be so that I’m not draining myself.

“We are determined…to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” -Martin Luther King Jr. (1955)