“Talent is equally distributed. Opportunity is not.”

Unpaid internships disproportionately favour affluent students who can afford to work for free. (Courtesy of Bhabna Banerjee)

I remember scrolling through my social media feed earlier this year as the Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the globe. Amidst all the distressing content, my eyes caught a particularly disheartening post — one that hit close to home. There it was, a chart on the diversity within the Toronto production companies, and while I scanned through the lines of zeros in columns relating to BIPOC creatives, I recognized what was partially yet significantly responsible for this stark disparity: unpaid internships. 

A semester into my freshman year at university, I had quite quickly come to the dispiriting conclusion that there were only two ways to infiltrate the film and television industry in Toronto — networking and internships. Being a solo immigrant meant that my network was more of a dot than a web, so for me, my options were naturally narrowed down to one. 

Unpaid internships in Toronto are common in my field of arts and media, but when I began to apply, I experienced the frustration of being qualified for internships but not being able to afford them. Even with most of my thirty-something-thousand-dollar tuition fee covered through my scholarship every year, these opportunities were still quite a reach. 

Eventually my family stepped in, because for me — a female minority artist — these internships were my only path to make it big. 

But for students who aren’t financially supported by their parents, the cost of rent in the GTA alone is too much to bear without an income. This leaves them at a strong disadvantage compared to the students with the resources to afford unpaid work, who finish the school year with a competitive edge that the rest likely don’t receive from a retail job. 

   In fields like journalism, fine arts, film, or advertising, this meant a lack of diversity within the news rooms, studios, sets, and writers rooms. Hence, a lack of representation — correct representation — in all the content we excessively consume. 

So, how does this system perpetuate a cycle of inequality? More so, does this cycle undermine diversity and inclusion in industries that so desperately need better representation?

Yes, it’s simple — an unpaid internship assumes the student prioritizes valuable experience over earning an income, therefore strengthening a century-old system of inequality and discrimination that disproportionately favour affluent white families.

I remember my own internships over the course of the last four years with immense gratitude — after all, they were the only ways I managed to hover over influential contacts in my industry to build a network. There was also no doubt that they would benefit long-term by helping me secure a job post-graduation. According to a survey by ProPublica, 60 per cent of employers preferred to hire applicants with internships on their resume.

This was it, my privilege to work for free gave me my only edge over equally talented students — particularly students of colour, who often could not afford that.

And in fields like journalism, fine arts, film, or advertising, this meant a lack of diversity within the news rooms, studios, sets, and writers rooms. Hence, a lack of representation — correct representation — in all the content we excessively consume. 

I did not have a solution for unpaid internships, but when one of Toronto’s leading advertising agencies, TAXI, launched their BLACK TAXI initiative in Toronto, it looked a lot like one. 

In a bold attempt to disrupt the system that “perpetuates inequality and creates barriers to entry within the advertising industry,” as TAXI’s recruiting team stated in their press release in August, the company scrapped their unpaid internships. 

    Unpaid internships do not attract the hardest workers, or the most deserving students — they just bring you the ones who can afford it.

Instead, a formalized program was introduced to attract Black student creatives who would be fairly compensated along with receiving the valuable experience. 

“I want TAXI to be the benchmark for other agencies,” says Stephanie Small, creative operations manager at TAXI Toronto who initiated the program. “We want to give opportunities to people who may not have had them before, and retain them anyway that we can.”

Yet, I saw TAXI’s incredible move be labelled as reverse racism by a small, yet intensely agitated group who yelled in comments about how this was an unfair attempt which disfavoured non-Black creatives. 

Yes, apparently even more unfair than chances of employment solely depending on the famous line of “it’s all about who you know.” 

Success was never a matter of equal-opportunity relationship building. We never talk about how a student might have the contacts they do, about the privilege that’s a prerequisite to having them. 

The only way to distribute opportunity the same way talent is equally distributed is to target minority students and let them know their voices are needed — that they are encouraged to enter industries they traditionally were never meant to fit into. 

So, a compensated program that strictly does the above, that accommodates certain groups keeping in mind their resources — even if, at the expense of offending the rest — is a pretty good start.  

Unpaid internships do not attract the hardest workers, or the most deserving students — they just bring you the ones who can afford it.

About the Author

By Bhabna Banerjee

Creative Director

production@excal.on.ca

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *