Discover Internships: Center for Worker Justice

“I look forward to utilizing everything I learned in this position about service and advocacy in my future work with non-profits and the law.” Check out Shaffer’s narrative on her time as an intern for the Center for Worker Justice right here in Iowa City!

In the state of Iowa, there exists a group especially vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination, and mistreatment. That group is some 266,000 low wage working Iowans identified by the Iowa Policy Project (IPP). Ten years ago, in 2012, the IPP discovered that low-wage workers are frequent victims of wage theft. Working Iowans are robbed of fair pay for fair work completed, totaling $600 million a year in stolen wages. These workers are particularly ill-positioned to recover their stolen wages, as they lack the economic means to pursue litigation. Additionally, low-wage workers in Iowa are often undocumented migrants, who can be exploited due to their lack of status, connections, and/or language fluency. The Iowa state and local governments have struggled to implement actionable policies to address these wrongs done to our community’s workers.

This is where the Center for Worker Justice (CWJ) comes in. The CWJ is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with the mission of pursuing equity and advocating for worker and immigrant rights and access to resources in our community. CWJ works to organize Iowa City workers in support of vulnerable populations and to aid low-wage workers in need of assistance with a variety of matters.

In the summer of 2021, I had the opportunity to intern for this amazing organization! I spent three months with the CWJ, working 9 A.M. to 3. P.M. four days a week. Sometimes my work week involved some after-hours or weekend work for events. My role as an intern consisted of non-profit management work, including tasks in administration, social services, program support, advocacy, communications, and fundraising. As an intern, I first learned how to do all CWJ administrative tasks. I answered phones, responded to e-mails, organized client files, and managed financial and program spreadsheets.

Attendees of SILT Fest, a collaboration between SILT and CWJ, on a tour of Phoenix Farm on August 14, 2021.

I was responsible for social media and blog posts. I learned to create graphics on many different platforms, posting in both Spanish and English, and would reply to Facebook messages sent to the CWJ account. I also helped coordinate a partnered fundraiser, SILT Fest, with the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, a non-profit focused on maintaining the Iowa environment and cultivating independent agriculture in Iowa. I recruited CWJ members to be food vendors, marketed the event, and helped set up the day of, building relationships with SILT members along the way. SILT Fest was a beautiful day that succeeding in drawing attention to the causes of both SILT and the CWJ.

Finally, my internship involved fundraising and grant writing. I attended weekly grant meetings and worked on the large project of applying for American Rescue Plan funding distributed by the federal government to communities as response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the height of the pandemic, the CWJ received an influx of wage theft cases, as businesses were losing money and increasingly exploiting their workers to try and remain afloat. The aim of the CWJ grant proposal was to hire a full-time wage theft organizer, so the CWJ could respond properly to this growing problem. In helping with this proposal, I researched Iowa wage theft, collected letters of support, wrote summaries of CWJ success stories, and compiled all the documents together to send to the City Council.

Shaffer enjoying her last full day of work with the CWJ team on August 16, 2021. From left to right: Shaffer, Executive Director Mazahir Salih, then-Executive Assistant Elizabeth Folkers, and then-President Bijou Maliabo.

My experience with the CWJ helped me grow my professional identity and strengthened my belief that I belong in a service role. I discovered that having a direct impact on the lives of people in the Iowa City community, no matter how big or small that impact was, made my work feel meaningful and fulfilling. Through this internship, I also grew more confident as an advocate. CWJ Executive Director Mazahir Salih and then-president Bijou Maliabo demonstrated such passion for our work. I watched them make demands to employers, lead board meetings, and rally City Council for change, showing me how to be a true leader and community organizer. I look forward to utilizing everything I learned in this position about service and advocacy in my future work with non-profits and the law.

Shaffer Kirschenmann is a senior from Cedar Falls, Iowa. She graduated this spring with a B.A. in Ethics & Public Policy and International Studies. During her time at UI, Shaffer has dedicated her time to competing for the student org UI Mock Trial, serving successive terms as vice president and president. Shaffer currently interns at the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic at the UI College of Law, works as a peer educator at the UI Women’s Resource and Action Center, and serves and bartends at Mosley’s Barbecue in downtown Iowa City. She enjoys spending time outside, thrift shopping, and hanging out in coffee shops.

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