UCDC Spring 2024: Dear First-Generation Girl: Get Out of Your Head

April 10, 2024

The Work 

My time in Washington, D.C. has been interesting thus far. I've had a varied range of  experiences and emotions working as an intern with the House of Representatives Committee  on Rules in the Capitol Building. The Committee controls which proposals advance to the House  Floor, the guidelines that will govern how bills are presented, and the conditions under which the  debate will proceed.  

For our ranking member, U.S. Representative Jim McGovern, the House Rules Committee office  acts as a communication channel. We create and write policy memos, bill summaries, and  articles for debates and hearings for our ranking members. Currently, throughout our internship,  we are working on individualized research topics that we have picked ourselves, which will be  presented at the end of the internship.  

I am conducting research on the understudied limitations of HUD programs, which focuses on  the relationship between homelessness and application difficulties such as verification of current  address, including illiteracy, application reach, federal documents, work status, and employer  contact, among others. With my research, I wish to increase awareness of the real-life  challenges faced by the homeless and how government initiatives, like HUD, are sometimes  beset by a lack of expertise on the subject, making them seem like unattainable opportunities to  many people who struggle in poverty.  

The Stares 

It is undoubtedly not an environment I am used to, as I am a first-generation student. When  choosing my workwear, I make a conscious effort to coordinate my lip color, jewelry, and skirt. I  wear leg warmers, sometimes sneakers, tiny hoop earrings, and a plethora of gold jewelry,  especially rings. I wear bows in my hair for fun, and I sport duck nails. I have two nose piercings,  and several tattoos, and lately, I have been loving colorful eyeshadow. I wear my natural hair,  and when I am feeling brave, I style it in a fro. I have always been interested in fashion, so I  figured I would adjust to the D.C. scene. Having said that, I still adhere to my work dress code,  but I dress unlike anyone else inside this building. 

I could feel them watching me. Not specifically anyone I work with, but the folks outside of my  office. They are always male, and when they are not, they are white. I am always followed by  looks when I am outside my office. Putting on lip liner in the women's restroom, sitting in the  cafeteria during lunch, and showing my ID to congressional officers. You can always tell when  someone is not comfortable with who you are, and that was the feeling I had every day for the  first month. Although I dress in a blazer, pencil skirt, stockings, and even my identification  badge, still, they mistake me for the kitchen staff. After only two days here, I understood that I  did not belong anywhere near the Capitol Building.

The Hypocrisies  

Every day, I would show up with the preconceived sense that everyone was judging me— everyone. There I was, in the office, assuming my supervisor hired me out of "pity" and that my  peer must have thought I was at least a little bit stupid. My imposter syndrome became so  severe that I was worried I would be fired if they discovered the "real me". My "real" self, which is  to say, I am not very good at writing but act as though I am, which is entirely illogical. The "real"  me, which means I usually sound slightly different, but it does not matter, everyone uses a work  voice. And the real me—that is, they learn that I take a nap right after work and then watch  YouTube video essays before bed—but why would they even care about my productivity when I  am not on the clock? 

When I started having knots in my stomach before going to work, I realized I was putting it all on  myself. How on earth could they have made me feel like this before I had even entered the  building? My doubts, these feelings, had to come from me. Perhaps I was the one who  perceived myself as an outsider, rather than my peer, who simply expressed genuine interest by  complimenting my manicure. Perhaps it was I who perceived myself as stupid, not my  supervisor, who just commended my writing and hired me based on stringent criteria. And  maybe it was me, who saw myself as an outsider, and those people staring at me have done so  because no one else in the building dressed like such. I stare too when unfamiliar.  

The Inspiration 

I began my internship with a pessimistic mindset. Indeed, I was thrilled about the countless  possibilities and the fact that little old me is even granted access to this building is still so  unbelievable. I did not, however, recognize that my own subconscious self-beliefs were  preventing me from moving forward until February.  

Sure, there are many bad actors; in fact, it's safe to say that the majority of these people aren't  staring curiously, but rather with confusion and possibly even disgust. I am conscious of how my  Blackness offends people in professional settings, especially in places like the United States  Capitol. I do have eyes.  

However, it is humanly impossible to read their thoughts. It is unjust to myself to internalize my  assumed judgment from passing strangers and then project those judgments onto my coworkers  at work. My office is a genuine safe-space. I mean, I needed to adjust my perspective if I wanted to work in environments like this in the long run. It was necessary to let go of this resentment  and self-doubt; and rather than attempting to adapt or change myself, I began to examine my  surroundings to better understand the social work at play.

I started making regular trips to the African American History Museum in an effort to dispel my  naive beliefs and discover the inspiration I needed to genuinely feel as if I belonged here.  Seeing our historical Black figures appear with certainty is what truly motivated me. Despite the  fact that they did not "fit in," I witnessed mothers, athletes, priests, photographers, musicians,  civil rights leaders, servicemembers, dancers, and photographers giving their all to their  surroundings. 

That first month, I was so preoccupied with my positionality that I genuinely lost out on a lot of  learning opportunities. I began to walk into work with the intention to learn about the  environment and the individuals who surrounded me. It took me more than a month to say  "Good morning" to the important congressman with whom I work and see practically every day.  In response, he grinned and replied, "Good morning." It was that simple. 

Thus, if you are a first-generation student reading this and planning to intern on Capitol Hill,  please know that you are welcome and have a place there. Furthermore, consider why it even  matters, when you are surrounded by people who do not think, act, or look like you. Ask yourself  why that unfamiliar environment comes with such resentment. Ask yourself: why can't I be the  first? Most importantly, you should consider whether it is you, not they, who is passing judgment  upon yourself.