Student Internship Stories: Hafzat Akanni (CAS’20), Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)

By Hafzat Akanni (CAS’20)

CCD: Tell us about your experience. What were your responsibilities?

In the summer of 2018, I interned with EJI and was able to gain and exercise many skills throughout the summer. I was able to work on the Confederate Memorial Project, where the other interns and I were tasked with traveling across the deep south to take photographs of Confederate Memorials in public spaces. The photographs we took were used in the creation of the Segregation in America website, an interactive site that highlights the history of discrimination in the United States by showcasing the prominence of many Confederate Memorials in the deep south. In engaging with this project, I was able to enhance my photography skills and my geographical knowledge base of states, such as, Georgia and South Carolina.

In addition, I was able to work on the Memorial Retrieval Project, where I was tasked with engaging in research pertaining to the counties in which EJI had documented lynchings between the years of 1870 and 1950. I was tasked with finding information that would have been used in 2019 to distribute the duplicate markers EJI holds in Memorial Park. Memorial Park is a part of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and showcases 800 counties and 4400 names of lynching victims. It has duplicate pillars containing the same information. The hope is that the counties with histories of lynching, confront their past and place these pillars in public spaces, just like where many of the Confederate monuments that still stand today. In engaging with this project I was able to further develop my researching, a powerful skill that will not only help me as I move forward in college, but also as I move forward in my aspiring profession as a lawyer.

Some other things I did while at the EJI this summer included working at the Memorial and Museum every Thursday, working on the EJI Calendar sidebars, and writing an article for the EJI website.

CCD: How did you get the opportunity? What resources at BU or elsewhere did you use?

I choose to work with EJI this summer because of the encounter I had with the organization during my senior year of high school in 2016. During my trip to Montgomery, Alabama, I was able to not only learn about EJI, and the work that they do, but I also had the honor of meeting Mr. Anthony Hinton, a man who was wrongfully convicted for a crime he did not commit and placed on death row for 30 years. Hearing Mr. Hinton’s story, and learning about the work that EJI did to exonerate him, helped motivate me to pursue a career where I would be able to advocate for civil and human rights. Since then, I have been inspired by EJI.

I was further inspired during my freshman year of college when I met civil rights lawyer, scholar, and EJI Director Bryan Stevenson. I was asked to serve as the opening speaker for the Read Across Rhode Island event which commemorated Mr. Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. At this event, I was able to speak about my interactions with EJI and about my experiences reading Just Mercy. After my speech I was invited to meet Mr. Stevenson, who further encouraged me to continue with my desire to combat social injustice by applying for the Justice Internship. I was funded in part by EJI and also by the Boston University Yawkey Non-Profit Scholarship Program, a program that I heard about through an email and informational session the year I applied to intern with EJI.

CCD: What was the best thing about the experience? What was the worst?

The best thing about this experience was being able to fulfill my dream of interning with EJI. I feel so fortunate to have been able to engage with them during the summer of 2018. By taking my internship in Montgomery, living, and navigating the deep south for ten weeks, I was able to step out of my comfort zone and get proximate to many of the problems I hope to one day be able to help render.

By engaging in research, writing articles and pieces for the website, I was able to better my narration skills and learn how to be more effective in telling the world the often unforgotten stories that yearn so deeply to be told. And by surrounding myself with people who love the work that they do, and by regularly engaging with citizens who EJI has helped exonerate from prison, I have been able to remain hopeful, a trait I hope to carry with me constantly on my journey for justice. The worst thing about my internship was not being close to home. For example, being away from family and close friends.

CCD: What was the most memorable moment of your experience?

The most memorable moment of my experience was when I worked on the Oral History Interview Project, where I was tasked with assisting in interviewing the family members of lynching victims during the Reconstruction Era (1877-1950).

These interviews would later be used in places such as the EJI website and/or publications. The primary focus of this project was to help people understand how the legacy of lynching lives on. It serves to educate the world on the long-lasting damaging effects of segregation in America. In engaging with this project, I was able to enhance my interview skills, my public speaking skills, and my researching skills, all of which I will exercise as a lawyer, and a scholar.

CCD: What advice would you give to another student about making the most of an internship, job, or other career-related experience?

The advice I would give to another student about making the most of an internship experience, is to not be afraid to take risks. I have never lived in the deep south before and embarking on a 10 week internship program in Alabama… alone… seemed very daunting to me in the beginning.

However, if I could do it all over again, I would! I was able to experience so many life changing events during my internship. Don’t be afraid to take risks, say yes to the challenge, and walk into new opportunities with an open mind!

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