Interns find they can make a difference in nonprofit CDCs
Emily Nordquist describes her work as "a found interest." She didn't start her internship at East Liberty Development Inc. burning to be a neighborhood organizer.
Dustin Stiver expected "to get a job in corporate America" after school, he said, but a series of internships turned his head, including one with Neighbors in the Strip.
The Strip District and East Liberty nonprofit groups are community development corporations, or CDCs, a genre that, traditionally, has not inspired people in their 20s. In most neighborhoods, many residents still don't know what CDCs do, if they even know they exist.
But an increasing number of high school and college students know, and they care.
"We're seeing some passionate young people who want to get into the CDC industry," said Steve Shivak, executive director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group -- an umbrella for 21 CDCs in the city. "It's a generation that has considered what's important, decides community is important and wants to make a difference."
Academia's interest in nonprofit management and a return of investment to city neighborhoods have made Pittsburgh's organizations attractive training grounds, and grantors are investing in projects in which the students participate.
Intern compensation ranges from no more than college credit to $5, $8 or $10 an hour.
Mr. Shivak said interns have been valuable to his agency because of its limited staffing budget and the passion they bring to the work.
Andrew Macurak, a University of Pittsburgh urban studies major, is such a good intern, said Mr. Shivak, that he got a title -- program coordinator. The junior from Beaver County has done everything from writing grant proposals to planning events to scheduling training for CDC staffs.
Mr. Macurak staffed affordable-housing and smart-growth conferences in the city last week.
"I usually don't go to many conferences," he wrote in an e-mail, trying to arrange time for an interview. "It just so happens that two good ones landed on the same week!"
He said he thinks young people are attracted to neighborhood work because of the variety.
"There's a business part, a writing part, a little IT [information technology] and a social justice-idealist aspect," he said. "A CDC is a structured support for citizen democracy, people taking their neighborhood into their own hands. When a range of skills and an attractive cause are combined, I think it is" a draw for young people.
Mr. Stiver, a little older at 26, graduated from Pitt in communications. His first good experience at a nonprofit organization led to graduate work, a community development fellowship and a degree in nonprofit studies.
"I got to work with the Department of City Planning, the Union Project and the Social Innovation Accelerator and had a fantastic experience," he said, "and that is the network I built to get a job at the Sprout Fund," where now he is program coordinator.
"When I went to college, I did not anticipate this or even understand this world" of nonprofit community development. "Once you get into it, it's pretty fascinating, and particularly in Pittsburgh, there are a lot of opportunities for young people to get a lot of responsibility at a young age."
Nathan Wildfire, three years out of graduate school, segued from intern to leading East Liberty Development's initiative to make the neighborhood the greenest streetscape in the city.
He started college wanting to be a journalist.
"I had an environmental science concentration, which inspired me to focus on the intersection of the environment and peoples' lives," Mr. Wildfire said.
A Pittsburgh native and graduate in public policy management and urban redevelopment from Carnegie Mellon University, he said he "begged ELDI to let me be an intern" three years ago.
"My first task was to build a comprehensive green vision, and we are wrapping that up this summer."
The plan is a $140,000 directive for storm water management, street trees, the redesign of five small parks, the city's next designated bike lanes and a portion of housing to be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. State and foundation money subsidized the plan and two interns from the Student Conservation Association.
Ms. Nordquist was an intern under Mr. Wildfire's supervision last year, when she graduated in public relations from Kent State University. She lined up her career options early.
"I could either go with government, corporate or nonprofit, and nonprofit felt like the best fit for me and the most satisfying work," she said.
"I grew up by the Shakespeare [Street] Giant Eagle and attended East Liberty Presbyterian, so I can't help but take this job personally," she said. "I lucked out in getting to work in my own community, and when I saw what ELDI did, it was incredible. I was getting in at a time of excitement."
One of her jobs is to help Amy Enrico, the owner of Enrico's Tazza d'Oro coffeehouse in Highland Park, build a network and directory for small business owners.
"When I came back [from college], I realized I had missed Pittsburgh, and I see a very interesting future," said Ms. Nordquist. "I think I will always want to work in community building."
David Blenk, executive director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corp., said he has seen a recent jump in queries for internships. His CDC's two interns "definitely help me stay under my budget cap and still have professional staff that can process and think through solutions," he said.
"I've always had interns coming in with the idea they could change the world," said Mr. Blenk. "But community development is increasingly recognized as a field of study."
Carnegie Mellon's Urban Lab architecture students have worked with CDCs for decades, but two years ago, Urban Lab joined the newly created Remaking Cities Institute to accommodate students in other disciplines.
Luis Rico-Gutierrez, director of the institute, said many students in other fields "had asked to work with us [in the Urban Lab] because we are hands-on and spend a lot of contact time in neighborhoods. I find that students are becoming more participatory as citizens."
The Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development, one of many entities that support intern work at CDCs and also hires its own interns, has seen a spike in interest, said Ellen Kight, executive director of the partnership.
"This generation seems to be more interested in civic engagement, politics and community," she said. "There is much greater interest this year even than last year. I'm not sure why, but it is a trend in a cycle we haven't seen since the late '60s."
First Published May 19, 2008 12:00 am