Feelings Schmeelings, Hand Me My Majority

by Elizabeth Churaman, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Have you ever done something that was expected of you, but that may not have aligned with what you really felt like doing? Welcome to how you might feel all the time if you ever choose a path in politics. It was said many times to me I must know myself before I was to come into the tumultuous world of the Capitol as a University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work legislative intern. That I needed to know my values and not lose myself in the ocean of opinion and influence.

As I’ve come into the fold so to speak, it’s become increasingly clear that it’s not necessarily you as an individual that is making any “difference” or “change” in the Capitol. You work for your boss, and you express your boss’s interests. Period.

Beyoncé said in her poem Denial, “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. Tried to be soft, prettier. Less… awake.”The first time I heard these lines, they resonated through me. As a woman, especially being a child of immigrants, there were certain things that were “expected” of a female child that were not explicitly expressed to boys. I find these expectations to be in the Capitol as well.

The air of an old boys’ club is alive and well, from chewing tobacco on the House floor to the not-so-hushed chatter as a young, female intern walks by a group of men. There is an expectation of subdued-ness by women, and a “yes man” complex that permeates the staff of the Capitol. I wouldn’t say it’s exclusive for female staffers, but most male staff seem to get away with much more.

Historically, women have been perceived as emotionally-driven creatures. You can see this in hearings, in particular – when there is some type of testimony which could warrant emotional reaction, there is a distinct hesitation on the part of the women representatives to comment or engage the witness. Even today, there is still some consensus that “emotions don’t belong in politics,” when in reality, most policy is made based on emotion. A good example of this in the Texas Legislature is the Born Alive bill being voted on in the House at this very moment. Advocates, religious proponents, even young children came from across the state to state their opinions and perspectives in the bill’s hearing before the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee. Testimony was meant to be emotional, raw, and absolutely dripping in persuasion. Who would be able to ignore a small child younger than ten pleading into a microphone that abortions are sad, and we need to save all the babies? Emotions are always at play in the legislature, no matter what may be said about unbiased or unmoved voting being a pillar of our state’s democracy. Not being taken seriously and being seen as overly emotional are things I can see people struggling with in the Capitol even today.

In the 2018 elections, it was pointed out by Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, that not only the country, but the state saw a “Pink Wave” in the ballot box; a slew of women coming to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. There has been a reborn sense of what it means to be a woman in policy, especially apparent in the Texas House. Twelve seats flipped from Republican to Democratic, eight of which were flipped by women, including three flipped by women of color. There are many new faces in the House, with many women in their thirties, a prime position for creating long and fruitful careers in Texas Lege. Women are no longer feeling alienated in the realm of policy but are coming to embrace the chaotic good that politics can be.

In the realm of everyday life, it’s an apparent subconscious belief that women are the “weaker” of the sexes, a softer, more delicate person in nature. It’s apparent in pink razors, lavender breeze body wash, and soft rose scented candles. The gendering of products reinforces the notion that women are the “weaker” of the sexes, something to be protected or preserved, something that needs to be shielded from the audacities of the world. The view that women can be influenced or must be “softer” in the sense of legislation is something that is rapidly changing in public view. On one hand, as more women create and pass legislation that is impactful and meaningful to the people of Texas, there will be momentum for more women to come into the world of policy in the Texas House. On the other hand, it seems like the House is unable currently to keep up with these changing times, with its air of the old boys’ club, big boots, and big egos in the capitol. With the changes on the forefront of ballot boxes, however, soon enough we may see some more heavy hitting changes here under the pink dome.

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But I’m “just a social work(er)” student

by Kayla Lail, intern in the office of Rep. Sarah Davis

In my two and a half months as a University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work legislative internat the Texas Capitol, I have learned a lot.  Some of what I’ve learned has changed how I view things, some of what I have learned has brought to light things I never ever knew should be considered.  But there’s one belief that has only been confirmed in my time at the Capitol: social workers belong in policy.  There are many reasons why this statement is true, but for the purposes of this post, I will focus on one important reason – social workers belong in policy because we’re good at it.

To any student or non-social worker reading this with a puzzled look on their face, let me run you through the work that goes into moving a bill forward during the Texas legislative session.  And as to not over-promise, I will discuss only what I have experienced so far at this stage in the session – getting a bill past the first hurdle of the legislative process, receiving a committee hearing.

When “staffing” a bill (becoming the legislative staffer tasked with shepherding a bill through the legislative process), you can be handed this bill in a variety of circumstances. The bill may address an issue that your office is well-versed in, meaning that you likely already have resources available to you through established relationships between your office and relevant stakeholders.  Or, you may be handed a bill that was brought to your Representative by a constituent, and your office has little prior knowledge or relationships surrounding this issue.  This is where you as a social worker shine.

First you need to figure out who this bill will affect; these are your stakeholders. Our social work academic training relies heavily on studying how systems affect populations and individuals, both in direct andindirect ways.  This focus on the indirect influences of our environment is the key to successfully identifying stakeholders.  Say you have a bill that on paper only involves a specific type of therapy – we’ll call it ABC therapy.  At first glance, you would want to speak with ABC therapists and their clients. However, a social worker brings to the legislature training in thinking outside of the immediately visible players – who else might this bill affect?  What about other types of therapies – will your bill affect the professionals that provide XYZ therapies?  What about the facilities in which ABC and XYZ therapies are provided? What populations are served by ABC therapies – how will they be affected?

Once you’ve exhausted these questions, you must reach out to your stakeholders. Sometimes, you reach out to stakeholders knowing that they will likely have concerns about your bill. Luckily, social workers are trained to objectively understand alternative perspectives and to effectively work with individuals with different values. Some stakeholders are harder to identify and contact than others.  The great news is that finding these stakeholders is just like the case work that is a staple in social work.  The same skills social workers use to connect clients to resources are the skills necessary to connect your office to stakeholders who will help you understand the scope of the issue your bill addresses and whether the current version of your bill would effectively address that problem.

Now that you’ve worked out your bill with stakeholders on all sides of an issue and have created an effective bill that all (or most) stakeholders can agree to, you must get other representatives and senators on board with your bill. This involves talking with offices that represent the many diverse areas of Texas.  Legislative members are responsible for working on behalf of the interests of their constituents.  This means you must have a firm grasp of the diversity of values, issues, and concerns of a member’s district.  When discussing your bill with other offices, you have to speak to their perspective – what social workers refer to as “meeting someone where they’re at.”

As many of my fellow interns’ previous blog posts have mentioned, there is far more collaboration in the Texas legislature than most would expect – something social workers are well-versed in.  Just because a member has different political positions than your representative doesn’t mean that you can’t speak to the concerns of that member’s district and help them become an advocate for your bill.

Congratulations! After weeks (or possibly months) of work, your bill is now being heard in committee. Once it passes that hurdle, you’ve only got about 8 more hurdles to go. But don’t worry, you’ve got about 8 more weeks to get your bill through and about 6,000 bills to compete against!

In conclusion, social workers need policy and policy needs social workers.

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The Three-Triangle Tango

by Sophie Creede, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Researching plastic waste for a class presentation last semester at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and watching “The Devil We Know” caused my existing passion for environmental change to hit rapid growth. Waste management, waste reduction, plastic production, water pollution, and air pollution began to have the spotlight in my world before I got to the Texas Capitol for my social work legislative internship. Adopting these causes has been both enthralling and distracting. I’m conveniently analyzing policy at The Texas State Capitol amidst my growing engagement with ‘green.’ Meanwhile, the evidence of environmental problems is everywhere I look. The animated tango between the lens of my growing passion for environmentalism, the reality of pollution, and my surrounding political environment is picking up speed.

All the toxins in our food, litter in the sea, and chemicals in the air are worth being concerned about. The plastic bag I threw into landfill garbage 5 years ago could be grazing the side of a whale’s back right now. Imagine the plastic straw I slurped Brown Bag Deli’s delicious lemonade out of 5 years ago being the same one wedged deep in this sea turtle’s nostril… Or, just think, it could have been yours. Depending on where our plastic garbage ends up, it can take anywhere from five years to thousands of years for the material to break down. Even when plastic does break down, it doesn’t fully engage with the environment like other materials but rather breaks down into smaller toxic pieces that have harmful health and environmental effects.

Ubiquitous, the evidence is. It’s everywhere. Delving into this information has consequences. I used to be able to grab barbeque at the restaurant down my street, but now all I can think about is the Styrofoam to-go plate and how it will never biodegrade. I went for a gyro the other day and the restaurant owner’s adorable toddler was playing with a stack of plastic cups in the corner. I was deprived of child cuteness because I was busy brooding over the 10 wads of plastic in her hands getting their single use with no blue rectangular receptacle in sight.

Luckily for me, I’m growing spirited about an arena that needs political attention while interning at the Texas State Capitol. I am learning what it looks like to pass state laws, but yet I feel powerless when it comes to my new passion. I can barely convince my friends and family to stop microwaving their food in Styrofoam, but more needs to be done. Real solutions are bigger picture – for example, cessation of Styrofoam production. Environmental change doesn’t seem high on the priority list at the Texas Capitol, but why does that surprise me? Today my coworker (bless him) gave me a plastic water bottle to recycle for him across the street. The Texas State Capitol does not have effective recycling, so I had to leave the building to put the plastic bottle into a reliable bin. The Capitol is a place where people tour to learn about our state, a place to provide examples and set norms. Yet, the lack of environmental effort in this political hub reflects ignorance of current global problems.

People are concerned with leaving empires for their children and going to the doctor on a regular basis for their wellbeing… but oftentimes don’t listen to information about the health effects coming our way due to environmental problems. I mean, people don’t even try to figure out the right trash can to put their waste in at a restaurant. With all that I am learning at the Capitol, I still don’t know how to make people listen to such an important issue. I am trying to learn, trying to grow, but as I look around, things still look the same. It feels like I can’t grow fast enough. I want a lifetime of knowledge, but can I have it 10 years ago?

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P.F. Chang’s and Mentors

by Marissa Gorena, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Today I am sitting in the Texas House of Representatives County Affairs Committee office eating a leftover P.F. Chang’s fortune cookie, reflecting on something my supervisor said that will stick with me so long as I am invested in changing policy. He said: “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good.”He was speaking about passing legislation; that the steps to get there won’t always be easy, but just because something is not perfect initially, does not mean the good intermediate steps it took to get there should be ignored. Policy won’t always be perfect. In order to be effective in the policy world, it takes a lot of small steps sometimes to achieve near perfection, and even that is not guaranteed. Reaching across the aisle is going to have to take place to get things done and to protect the people we love, but it won’t always be perfect initially.

These are some of the things that have been said by my supervisor, and he is now one of the best mentors I have ever had. I have learned a great deal of knowledge from him and people like him, and that has shaped the way I attempt to wrap my head around things I don’t understand in the Texas Legislature. As a social work student here, I tend to see certain policy changes as common-sense fixes, especially when it comes to issues related to basic human rights and the dignity and worth of a person. When things get tough and I hear people say vile things about people like me, or like the people in my life, I need to stay grounded. This is exactly where the words my mentors have said to me help.

I knew on February 19th, the day I first heard bills before the House Public Education Committee, what my job here was all about. After panicking and texting my supervisor, everything started to come together, and I knew exactly what to do when bills eventually were voted out of committee and onto the floor of the House of Representatives (where the full membership of the House deliberates and votes on bills).

I learn something new every day and I am learning new ways to think of effective advocacy, while simultaneously unlearning unhelpful tactics I learned through my involvement with community organizing during my undergraduate career. There is a lot to think about when engaging in advocacy and messaging because not all situations are black and white – there is a lot of gray area that needs to be accounted for. This all ties in with how to be effective at reaching across the aisle and finding something that is as important to the other side as it is important to us, and to tailor the arguments to our advocacy targets. I was taught in my undergrad advocacy experience to never interact with the other side, to yell instead of listen, and to let not-so-perfect get in the way of good. There is a culture of Quid, Pro, Quo here, and every day I wonder how to adjust to that culture without compromising my own values. Even though my position here as an intern with the Legislative Study Group is not to advocate but to analyze, I now think more critically about the people who are advocating and how the best ones meet their targets where they are at.

With all that being said, through the stress of it all, I recharge and take care of myself by playing 30 minutes of basketball at a court down the street from where I live and have enjoyed having board game nights with my cohort of fellow interns. Today I am sitting in on the Public Education Committee hearing on House Bill (HB) 3 by Representative Dan Huberty in preparation for my analyses of this bill. HB 3 is a major bill consisting of almost 200 pages relating to public school finance and public education. This is going to be my first extremely long day (and night) of many to come, but I am glad I have been taught ways to stay grounded and remain passionate because nothing in the world is accomplished without passion (P.F. Chang’s Fortune Cookie I found in County Affairs, 2019).

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What I’m Giving Up

by Merci Mohagheghi, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

As someone who knew very little about Texas politics and accepted a position as a policy analyst through the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work’s legislative internship program, I’m sure you can imagine the daily wrestling of feeling like a total fraud and that I don’t belong, especially as compared to a veteran of the Texas House of Representatives. I feel this even more so as a social worker because, as I’ve come to learn, a lot of people think we just work for CPS.

However, during my time here thus far, it has been incredible the amount of information I have somehow absorbed, something I honestly thought was not going to happen so quickly. I used to think you had to be someone with advanced knowledge in order to participate at this level of politics; that this wasn’t for someone like me who barely knew the players, let alone Robert’s Rules of Order (so how in the world was I going to follow anything??). What I have quickly come to learn here is that we have two ways of showing up in life: as a yesor as a no. What a yestakes is simple: showing up just as I am, being fully present and ready for anything.

I have also had to learn to give up a few things as well. The first being the idea of having to get things right. Operating from that point not only impedes my learning, but discourages engagement with my surroundings, making connections with the people around me and hindering any sort of personal growth. It is a killer of all possibility. Letting go of how things should be and instead embracing things as they are has given me permission to get messy with the process of acclimating to life under the Pink Dome. Rather than looking at “failures” as a mark against myself, I can choose to see the mess as an opportunity to lean and improve.

Second, I have had to give up partisan beliefs. If you are only willing to engage with people who are a part of your “tribe,” whose values you align with closely, then know you will accomplish very little. I have been most impressed, while sitting in on committee hearings, with Representatives who engage, respectfully and curiously, with ideas that I assumed they would have quickly dismissed. Giving up on partisan beliefs means giving up being right, which demands that I give up holding firmly onto ideas that I believe to be true.

Lastly, I have had to give up on the idea of radical change. As someone whose family legacy is largely around politics, and of involvement in a national revolution, I have been raised with ideas of social justice and equity from a young age. I have grown up with those ideas and with a vision of how we can challenge systemic problems. Ideas that are vast and sweeping, kinda like a revolution. But in the real world of U.S. politics, where the system of signing a bill into law is made more for the possibility of failure than for success, you have to be willing to celebrate the small wins (read: incremental change).

Giving up what I must has made room for me to show up as a yes. I have learned that this space is as much mine as it is for those who were elected into office. That progress is made through hope, not through fear. That change can happen if you simply show up, just as you are.

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AOC, POC, OMG

by Elizabeth Churaman, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Politics are a fickle thing, sometimes very predictable; other times, obtuse, or even down-right dirty. In a place far away from Texas, a woman named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) unseated a long-time Democratic incumbent in a New York Congressional district in 2018. Waves rippled across the nation as a young woman of color took a political arena by storm without taking funds from political action committees (PACs) and without compromising her voice and values.

As someone who could identify with AOC as a young woman going into a new political arena, it was inspiring to see such a dramatic vertical climb. Working as a legislative intern in the Texas Capitol has tested who I am as a young, progressive, woman of color, first-generation student, child of immigrants, many facets of what makes me, me. Things I had never thought about, I now have perspective on, and I have learned about nuances in other viewpoints that I would have never been exposed to if I had not been working in a politically supercharged arena.

Being able to more actively see from a perspective very different from my own has made me hyper-aware of what my own perception is of the minority or person of color experience in politics. A small example of this is ladies’ grooming I’ve witnessed around the Capitol. Most women I see wear their hair down and straight, slim or skimming skirts and dresses, a heel of some sort, and makeup maintained. Myself, as a woman of color, felt the most hindrance when it came to styling my hair.

Popular media shows that natural hair has somewhat been a point of controversy in the past. As a woman who wears natural hair, I was very aware of the “look” everyone had upon entering the Capitol. Many minority women I saw also conformed to the “down and straight” narrative. I can understand it in a way, as straight hair is easier to maintain and deal with when working days that last more than eight hours, but I felt as if my hair was a small part of me I could hold on to without compromising the facet of work I participate in. But having high quality work glided over by something so trivial as my hair being natural is extremely frustrating. This is even more frustrating because it feels as if working in politics, one would need to be more conscious or empathetic of other people’s perspectives or values, as you don’t always represent only your interests but also the interests of your constituents.

Being in the Capitol has taught me a lot about myself, what I want to stand for and what I value at my core, rather than the superficial influence of those around me. With many opinions swirling and information on a constant stream, it has taken intention and commitment for me to maintain an informed, sound perspective. While working in a bipartisan caucus means losing a bit of my voice and volume, it does not diminish my own values in any way. If anything, I believe it makes me hone in on my own thoughts more easily, as I must dive deeply into the many niches of policy on the subjects at hand.

Having exposure to many different types of policy and approaches is not without its own conflicts. Recently some information came across my desk that initially seemed to be something I would personally support. As I dove deeper into the background information on the topic, I could feel my initial outlook melt away, as my own personal values found conflict with the piece in front of me. To have personal value conflict with a work-related task, while not unique to the political realm, is something that can create a great deal of internal noise as one tries to navigate the weaving and even treacherous road that may lay ahead. Separating personal values from the realm of policy analysis is difficult, but not impossible. It is a constant balancing act that takes work and consciousness on a daily basis.

As a socially conscious individual, it has been difficult sometimes separating the emotions that may arise when thinking of the human toll policy can take on the public from the politics that run throughout policy itself. I believe a social work perspective can be helpful when looking at policy, as it can create a more three-dimensional view of policy; focusing our attention on people, the environment, and the governmental changes themselves. Being able to approach a subject from many perspectives, I believe, could help someone in policy to gain an idea of opposition or even shortcomings in their own policy proposal before it is presented to the appropriate governing bodies.

The daunting task of policy is sometimes seen as a place that isn’t for someone who would call themselves a ‘people person;’ in reality, someone who is a people person – one who cares about people and can consider other people’s perspectives – is someone who would flourish in politics. When AOC took office, she sent ripples across the nation. She proved it’s not only an elite class of privileged individuals that hold the cards in our political arena. With pure tenacity, dedication, and a little bit of luck, someone who looks and thinks just like an everyday person can make a large difference. It is inspiring seeing someone like AOC flourish in politics – someone who looks like you, may reflect some of your values, and who you can relate to on an everyday basis.

Working as an intern in the Texas Capitol as a woman of color while seeing many other women of color flood Congress creates a sense of comradery and hope: Hope that there are people in politics with the average voter’s interests at heart. This keeps me personally motivated to stay optimistic and true to my roots when it comes to working in policy in the future.

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