July 16, 2014

From Behind The Desk

by Maahika Srinivasan

Maahika Srinivasan '15 is interning at the Providence Talks Office in City Hall this summer through the iProv Summer Internship Program.

I was freaking out. I was torso-deep into my closet, flinging shirt after skirt onto my bed, until a pile roughly resembling a baby hippo was starting to take shape. “I don’t have any clothes!” I shrieked at my housemate, who was standing both perplexed and alarmed at my doorway. He raised his eyebrows, cocked his head, and eyed the tangle of sleeves and pant legs on my bed.

So fine, maybe his eyebrows were right - I was hyperbolizing. As always. I had plenty of clothes. But none that fit the description of “business casual.” I snatched up my phone and scrolled aggressively through my email, locating the latest exchange from my future boss in the Providence Talks Office in City Hall. “In terms of work attire, I usually like dress up and look nice, but wear whatever you’re comfortable in,” she had written, as a part of my introductory info email.

Confession: I applied to this internship because I was intrigued by the idea (heck, the possibility) of city government administering an innovative intervention to address linguistic underdevelopment in children in low-income households. I’ve worked with NGOs/community service providers on education campaigns before and was eager to see how government, with all its resources, connections, and frankly, power, could possibility design and administer a far more comprehensive and effective educational service. But when applying I didn’t ever consider the implications of being a “city government employee.” For instance, on a surface level, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d have to don anything other than old cotton hand-me-down t-shirts and ratty shorts.

Eventually, after some generous donations from infinitely more stylish friends and a rather excruciating mall excursion, I found myself with the sparsest business casual wardrobe and just a little less shrieking to do. One morning, probably about week two on the job, I was doing what I considered routine at this point - standing in front of my mirror at what seemed like the crack of dawn tugging at my blazer to somehow get it to look less ridiculous.

At some point in the now-typical cursing and re-clothing process, I registered that something was still nagging at me: “This isn’t the uniform of social change,” I muttered to myself. It was a uniform, alright. But, I’d always seen the blazer as a symbol of self-serving lapels like sheaths of armor required in the corporate line of duty. This ballooned, idealized image I had in my mind of a education crusader did not match my boxy mirror reflection.

Lodged in my doubts over wide-legged pants was a larger, more ambiguous questioning of the effectiveness of cubicles, offices, meetings, computers, lunch appointments, and everything associated with “office culture” in impacting any kind social change.  Are my furiously-typed emails and carefully engineered excel spreadsheets really helping boost a Providence three-year-old’s kindergarten readiness? Would I be better off serving that Olneyville family I met at the last Kennedy Plaza Farmers Market? 

I can question my appearance and my slightly uncomfortable desk chair all I want, but the fact of the matter is simple: someone has to do it. Someone has to coordinate home visitors to deliver parts of a curriculum on literacy to families. Someone has to balance a budget to be able to fund the word pedometers that measure the number of words our parents speak to their kids. Someone has to send emails to community service providers to make them both aware and enthused to recruit families to Providence Talks.

This summer, that someone is me.

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