I wasn’t sure how I’d ended up at Amnesty. Summers typically followed a set formula: I’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning watching television, and would fall asleep right before sunrise. By the time I woke up, it was already mid-afternoon. After eating, I would browse the internet or occasionally hang out with friends. Evenings were spent studying chess in preparation for weekly tournaments at the Atlanta Chess Center. But as the school year drew to a close, my parents suggested I prepare for college applications by applying for internships.
I started an Amnesty chapter at my school a few months earlier. Sahil had liked his internship at Amnesty, so it seemed logical to apply there. The internship application was geared toward college students, and I’d made no backup plan. I applied anyway.
The application process occurred in three stages: I would first email the application, complete the take-home interview, and then do a phone interview. But a week after emailing my application I received an email saying nothing more than, “You are accepted! We’ll see you May 24th.”
I’d never ridden MARTA, Atlanta’s pitiful public transportation system, or been to downtown Atlanta by myself. But now, three days a week, my mother would drop me off at the MARTA station and I’d ride the train to midtown Atlanta, carrying only a plastic bowl of fruit and a granola bar for lunch.
The Amnesty International Southern Regional Office was located next to a LGBT advocacy group on the tenth floor. I turned the door handle, but it was rigid, stuck in place. A woman in her early thirties saw me through a glass window and opened the door a sliver.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m, uh . . . here for the internship. My name is Gautam Narula.”
“Narula? Let me check on that.” She disappeared for a few minutes while I stood outside the door. I surveyed the hallway, but there wasn’t anything more than gray carpet, a few doors, and an elevator.
I peered through the window and saw a large poster of a Cambodian woman, subtitled ‘Maternal Rights Are Human Rights’. But I couldn’t see anyone else inside.
I was dressed—at my parents’ insistence—in khakis, my nicest shoes, and a button-down shirt. While several steps up from my usual baggy t-shirt and jeans, I wondered if I was still under-dressed.
I had no idea what kind of work I would do or if I would even be able to do it. I was only sixteen, and this was an internship for college students. I had no work experience, no real resumé.
Would they look at me like I was some sort of impostor?
Would they think they’d made a mistake in hiring me?
No, I belonged here. I had my connection with Troy. That was real.
Finally, the woman returned and opened the door, this time opening it wide. “Ah, yes, Narula. How did you say your name was pronounced again?”
“It’s pronounced ‘Gotham’, like the city in Batman.”
“But there’s no ‘h’ in Gautam!”
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I chuckled.
“Anyway, sorry you were locked out. Amnesty International isn’t exactly the most popular organization in this part of the country, and for our own safety we have to keep the door locked. In the past few years, several angry individuals have barged through our doors and threatened us.”
I expected the other interns to be from metro Atlanta, college students from UGA and Georgia Tech and Emory. But only half of them were even from America; the rest were from all over the world, born in Japan, Nepal, Cameroon, and Colombia. The staff was an eclectic mix as well, some born in other countries like Venezuela and Iran, others from America but with equally varied backgrounds. It was a strange and dynamic mix. For the first time, being a minority put me in the majority. Although Amnesty’s staff and official culture were more subdued, the organization, heavily reliant on voluntary member leadership, had a culture of zealous, youth-powered activism.
As the summer wore on, I began to guess at the motivations of my fellow interns. Were they like me, galvanized by one particular cause, or were they motivated by the lofty ideal of all human rights for all people? One intern posted vitriolic, anti-Israeli Facebook statuses, argued the merits of eco-terrorism, and genuinely believed minorities inherently couldn’t be racist—for him, it was ingrained, thinly-veiled anger inflamed by the ethnic prejudice he and his family members had faced. For others, the idea of social justice seemed tied to a sense of religious duty. Some had witnessed poverty and violence in their home countries and saw a link between human rights abuses and social and economic justice. And there were a few I couldn’t decipher—were they aimlessly trying to find meaning in something, or perhaps just a way to pass the time? Or were they like me, only recently having found a cause to fight for and seeing if this was the next step?