Uma Nagarajan-Swenson ’22 Interns at the Intersection of Scholarship and Activism

Uma Nagarajan-Swenson ’22 is a politics and history major with a passion for grassroots social movements. When she’s not in class, she can be found at her job as a barista and manager at the Motley Coffeehouse and organizing for Nobody Fails at Scripps and the student Mutual Aid Fund. This summer, she is serving as an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies’ Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project, thanks to a summer internship grant from Scripps’ Career Planning and Resources (CP&R). Nagarajan-Swenson discussed with Scripps’ Office of Marketing and Communications what it’s like to intern remotely, a day in the life of intersectional justice work, and how Scripps has helped inspire her worldview.

Marketing and Communications: What drew you to an internship at the Institute for Policy Studies?

Uma Nagarajan-Swenson: The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) was founded on the values of public scholarship for grassroots activism, independence from government and corporate influence, and engagement at the local, national, and global levels. The mission of IPS as a progressive think tank is to build a more equitable, ecologically sustainable, and peaceful society by using public scholarship in partnership with grassroots movements, which really resonated with me. I’ve always struggled to reconcile the inherently exclusive, elitist worlds of academia and research with grassroots social movements, and IPS is helping to bridge that gap

I was also drawn to their incredibly robust internship program. I’m in a cohort with nine other college interns. Part of the internship is attending weekly workshops given by various staff members on topics of their expertise including movement building, restorative justice, and US imperialism abroad. In addition, I’m learning so much from my fellow interns, all of whom are working on different IPS projects such as climate policy, economic inequality, internationalism, and more.

MC: And you are working on a special project as well, the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project. Tell us about that.

UNS: According to their website, “The criminalization of poor people happens at the intersectional oppressions of race, class, gender, and gender identity. The criminalization of children is especially inhumane and disproportionality affects low-income Latinx and Black children, LGBTQ+ children and children with disabilities.” This project, specifically, ties in really well with my interest in prison abolition and experiences with restorative and transformative justice. Even before this internship began, I was regularly volunteering with the JusticeLA Coalition, an organization working to reduce incarceration in LA County.

MC: What’s a “day in the life” like working on these projects, especially in a remote capacity?

UNS: Depending on the day, interns either have a morning check-in or a workshop. There are also weekly staff meetings, domestic policy calls, and international policy calls in which the entire staff and all the interns meet to discuss what’s going on within their projects and work. Meetings are usually completed by noon, and I spend the rest of the afternoon on my specific tasks. For the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project, work consists of mostly research, which I love doing. We put together a fact sheet on getting cops out of schools, and we’re currently working on a report about reimagining school safety and a toolkit for school districts to follow in the footsteps of places like Oakland, Minneapolis, and Portland, which all voted to remove police officers from schools. In addition to project-specific work, I’m currently working on an op-ed about police abolition to be published by IPS, and the interns put together a workshop focused on transnational solidarity and building a global abolitionist future for the IPS staff. The days are busy, but I’m learning so much.

Though I do wish I could experience the IPS office in person (the staff constantly mentions what a warm space it is), I feel so lucky to be having such a fulfilling, rich experience right now that the morning commute from my bed to my desk feels like a huge blessing. As soon as I’m done with work for the day, I like to go on a walk just to try and establish some separation between work and home, which is by far the toughest part of doing an internship remotely. I’m lucky that my time is relatively structured between meetings, and the work is so engaging that it doesn’t matter too much where I’m doing it—I just wish I could be around the fantastic people I get to work with.

MC: How has Scripps and the Office of Career Planning and Resources contributed to your outlook and goals?

UNS: I’m not sure what I want to do with my career, but I want my life work to be centered on grassroots social movements. I believe that lasting change comes from grassroots movements and direct action, and I want all my work to contribute to this. I love doing research and constantly learning, so I honestly hope that I’ll be able to work at a place like IPS in the future. CP&R funding has enabled my personal growth and my career development in a huge way this summer. I would need to work to secure an income this summer, and since my internship is full-time, I wouldn’t be able to do it without this funding and would need to work somewhere else. In addition, because both of my parents are at-risk for COVID-19, I’m unable to work outside of my home during the pandemic, making the CP&R internship grant so much more valuable and necessary.

As for Scripps, I’m so grateful for the education I’ve received from my incredible professors and awe-inspiring members of the student body. I remember reading Are Prisons Obsolete? my freshman year, and that book as my first introduction to prison abolition changed my life. I’m so grateful to be able to learn from professors like Nancy Neiman and Piya Chatterjee—incredibly kind, intelligent professors who have taught me so much about the world and organizing both inside and out of the classroom. I’ve also learned so much from being a part of student activism that occurs on and off campus.

This school has some incredible organizers and movement builders, and I’m grateful every day that I get to learn and grow from this community.