To the Place Where Hope Becomes Capacity

Note: Texas’ 86th Legislative Session – and the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work’s 2019 Austin Legislative Internship Program – concluded on Monday, May 27. Both will convene again in January 2021. This is our final concluding blog post from our interns, with Emily’s reflections on this session. 

by Emily Joslin, intern in the University of Houston Office of Governmental Relations

As the 86th Texas Legislative Session has come to a close, I have found myself reflecting more and more on all of the hard work that is done over the course of 140 days. The fact that two years of legislating is completed during this short time period, most of the time with no special sessions called in the interim, was awe-inspiring to me both before and after my first session when I had been an undergraduate intern. At that time, I honestly walked away feeling so proud of what those around me were capable of achieving. I was able to redefine the standards to which I held myself. Reaching “Sine Die” (indefinite adjournment, at the end of the legislative session) had been the cherry on top of that undergraduate experience, an achievement so sweet that it made all of the struggles of the previous 139 days worthwhile.

The amount of work those in and out of Capitol complete during the 140-day window is still something that I think is incredible. I do not think I will ever think differently. I do think that my feelings have changed now that I have completed my second session as a graduate student and a social work legislative intern through theUniversity of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, though. The rose-colored glasses have disappeared. The sweetness of Sine Die has taken on a more bittersweet, almost acrid taste. The shine of having made it through to the end has grown to be tarnished in my eyes, even as I know that I would like to come back to work at the legislature again and even as I acknowledge that I worked in incredible offices and had incredible experiences both times that I have worked here.

It is hard not to become cognizant of the bad that comes with working under the Pink Dome after being there for a while. It can be a space that encourages our worst impulses and tends to only give lip-service to self-care. For those 140 days, your needs are not the priority. In fact, they may not even be up for consideration. Individuals must learn how to cope with an incredible amount of stress, compassion fatigue, and unrealistic expectations that are often put in place by both supervisors and themselves, all while learning how to interpret policy and how to navigate the social complexities of “lege life” including the reality of sexual harassment and casual -isms (ex: racism, sexism, et cetera).

To make things even tougher, people have to learn these things in an environment where an unspoken belief is that if you are not suffering enough (whatever that even means), you are not doing session right. If you aren’t pulling all-nighters, if you aren’t working weekends, if you aren’t feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work on your plate, you are not getting the “most” out of your 140 days.

Often, excess is what seems to be the only viable source of comfort for many, and excess in the Capitol takes many forms. Those who have worked in the Texas lege for several years speak of the “Session 10,” otherwise known as the weight those working at the Capitol typically gain from being more sedentary than usual and eating more heavily processed foods. It is not uncommon to hear people talking about essentially living off of cookies, breakfast tacos, and either energy drinks or coffee. It is also not uncommon to encounter those working through a hangover from last night’s reception or from a late night at a bar or club. Knowledge is currency under the Pink Dome and alcohol loosens lips. Gossip can be rampant.

The picture I have painted of working a session is probably not very pretty. Maybe those of you reading this blog are wondering why I said I want to come back again, especially when I have pointed out numerous reasons why it can be a toxic work environment. To answer that question, I want you to think of a time when you truly felt seen. A time when you truly felt like you belong. For those of us who love policy, there is no better place to enact state-level changes than during a legislative session. It is incredible to be around people similarly passionate about legislation, policy, and the impacts laws can have on lives across the state. For those who love doing something different every day, there is something invigorating about the ebb and flow of each workday both in and out of the Capitol building. No day is the same. One can get lost in all that it takes to make a state as large and diverse as Texas run, but for those who seek to understand policy, there is plentiful information to gain in hearings and from agencies and stakeholders.

Most of all, for those who seek change, this is the place to find it. As new faces are elected and power moves from member to member, the culture of the building and office dynamics change. Behaviors that were once acceptable become unacceptable. Expectations shift. While slower than I would like, it is becoming a place where those who speak out are heard rather than silenced. A place where the quietest voices are being amplified. A place where I want to return.

Sessions sound daunting and they are. Capitol life sounds tough and it is. But I encourage all of those reading this to consider participating, especially those who are social workers or interested in social justice work. Cornel West said, “America—this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the NO into the YES, needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine and remake it.” The Pink Dome is no different.

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Making Change Happen

Note: Texas’ 86th Legislative Session – and the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work’s 2019 Austin Legislative Internship Program – concluded on Monday, May 27. Both will convene again in January 2021. Over the next few days, we will be posting concluding blog posts from several interns as they reflect back on their experiences this session. 

by Gracie Cuevas, intern in the office of Rep. Jessica Farrar

What is change? Change, a verb meaning to make or become different or a noun meaning the act or instance of making or becoming different is, first of all, subjective. What everyone wants to see change and what change looks like for everyone, is ultimately different.

I came into this University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work legislative internship eager to participate in the place where change happens, not knowing how naïve the expectation was. Change doesn’t come easily, as there are many other dynamics involved. Therefore, to see change happen in the Texas Legislature is much more complicated than I could’ve imagined.

Before starting this internship, a common expression I kept hearing from those that knew about the legislative process was, “the system is designed for failure,” but I didn’t really understand what that meant. Well, I understand now. And I’ll try to break it down as briefly as possible.

The legislative session in Texas last 140 days and is held every odd-numbered year. So, the next session after this will be in the year 2021. As Kayla has previously pointed out in her blog post, the bill process is one of hurdles and competition. If and once a bill makes it out of its House of Representatives committee, the bill goes into ANOTHER committee, the Calendars Committee. Calendars committee members are who decide when, and if, the bill makes it to the floor for all of the representatives to vote on. And, if the bill does make it to the floor, the members have to vote on it, not once, but two times, for 2ndand 3rdreading. If the bill (as you can see there are a lot of ifs involved) receives enough yesses on the 2ndand 3rdreading, then the bill can go to the other chamber.

Oh yes! There are TWO chambers in which a bill must make it through (so basically, bills have to go through this same process twice). And there’s more. If the Senate and House each make changes to a bill, they must then come to an agreement on the changes. If the Senate and House don’t initially agree, the bill goes to a “conference” committee comprised of House and Senate members, where agreements are worked out. If agreements are worked out, and if the agreements are made before the day session ends, then the bill can finally be sent to the Governor. BUT! Even if the Governor receives the bill, the Governor can either sign it, or veto it.

Keeping in mind that even though the legislative session is 140 days, members only meet for about four days a week during the first three months or so, so technically, bills have less than 140 days to make it through this entire process. Exhausting, long, and tiresome, right? Which is why I think in order for change to be attainable, somewhere, throughout the process of change, there has to be passion, perseverance, and predominance.

I think back to the Women’s suffrage era. The right of women to vote came after decades of activists advocating for change. Many who started the movement didn’t even get to see the end result, but activists persevered nonetheless. Not only is perseverance needed to keep going for so long, but there needs to be passion as well, the intense desire and enthusiasm to accomplish your end goal as the absence of passion would make persevering difficult to do. The third important factor that I believe needs to come into play, is predominance. The possession of power and/or being greater in number. For example, in the Texas House of Representatives, Republicans hold the majority (83 Republicans, 67 Democrats). Despite the many arguments from Democrats against bills like Senate Bill 22 and Senate Bill 1978, both bills still passed due to a majority vote from Republicans. Democratic members showed passion and perseverance when attempting to stop these bills from moving forward, but despite this, Democrats did not hold the predominance.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, yes, change is a hard and frustrating process, but having the passion and perseverance can help you hold on until the predominance is present. I see now why it’s important to not give up and to keep fighting for what you care for and what you want to see changed.

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What I’m Taking With Me

by Merci Mohagheghi, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Over the past two weeks, I have been responsible for 105 bill analyses on subjects that have been referred to the Texas House of Representatives’State Affairs ,Criminal Jurisprudence, and Natural Resources committees, mostly on topics that I had zero prior knowledge about before my internship began. This work has been accomplished through long days at work and what has felt like even longer nights working from home, easily adding up to 70+ hour weeks. With all of that being said, please, bear with me as I try to articulate my experience here and the little time I have had for self-reflection.

I have come to the conclusion that the real beauty of the Capitol is not that of the few and the privileged who work within its walls, but rather, it is the advocates, activists, and allies that show up and do the work to make their stances known around a certain cause or issue. Being assigned to analyze legislation considered by three very different committees, I have witnessed and interacted with many of these people. Advocacy work in and of itself is not just showing up and making your voice heard in a public platform. It is more than having a reasonable reason to push for policy. It is more than your single lived experience. It is through the work of organizing that advocacy efforts become codified into law. I was recently given a book to read that discusses the complexity of building movements for justice and it defines organizing as “a process of resistance and challenge, embodying an alternative vision of society and on-the-ground means of working toward it.”

I sat with that sentence thinking about the numerous testimonies I have listened to over the past five months and seeing the direct result of what a well-organized movement can look like.A particular state affairs hearing (Part 1 and Part 2) reminded me how the work done by those who show up can be beautiful, moving and empowering as hell. The group of bills that were being heard were all related to prohibiting political subdivisions (e.g., cities, counties) from adopting their own local ordinances related to providing employment leave, paid days off for holidays and sick days, compensating employees for overtime, and non-discrimination practices that apply to those with a criminal history record or those who identify as LGBTQ.

This particular committee hearing started at 8 AM and adjourned at 9:55 AM to take a break, because the full body of the House of Representatives was set to convene at 10 AM. Because of deliberations on the House floor, this committee meeting did not reconvene until 7:41 PM and then continued until 11:58 PM. Let me remind you, only four bills were being heard during this six hours of committee meeting time.

The reason it took so long? The total number of witnesses registered to testify was over 480. At 8:19 PM (I know the specific time only because I had taken a screenshot to send to my boss) there were 316 people still waiting to testify. Many people stayed throughout the day after the first adjournment, others left and came back, and yet others joined the hearing once they got off work to make their voices heard in front of the committee members who would be making the decision as to whether these bills got voted out or were left to die in committee. You can imagine the broad range of testimony, from how these bills will impact single-parent households, to the importance of reintegration of those who have a criminal history record, to discussion of those who will be impacted for simply being who they are. The organizing to make sure so many people testified and stayed through the day and night was the direct effort of Texas AFL-CIO, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Public Policy Priorities, Equality Texas, National Association of Social Workers, Workers Defense Action Fund, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Texas Impact, along with numerous city councils and other organizations. At the end of the hearing, only one of the four bills made it out of committee (SB 2486, related to overtime pay). This bill later died in the Calendars Committee, meaning it was never placed on House calendar to be heard by the full House of Representatives).

I think about that hearing a lot. I hold onto it, especially when I am questioning what the point is at times when it seems like the Representatives do what they want regardless of any analysis you give them. I hold onto that moment, amongst others, because it reminds me of my why I continue to do what I do: to practice moral courage. Moral courage is a concept that entails a willingness to challenge authority and, when necessary, to take on unpopular causes in the name of justice, despite the risk of consequences.

Organizing and advocating despite the fact that bad bills will still get passed, despite the fact that your organization’s efforts this session did not play out the way you wanted or just fell flat, despite the fact that it feels like no one is listening and nothing will change takes courage. Showing up, day after day, session after session, takes courage. It can be so difficult to keep pressing forward when you feel like you’re not moving or making a difference. But to witness moral courage on a daily basis this session has been a privilege and has only reaffirmed why I chose the path of social work, which was founded on social change and its commitment to social justice.

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The End Looms Near

by Eli Davis, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

This is my second of two blogs and I figured this one would prove easier to write than the first. There have been a whole lot of meetings, even more bills, almost as much coffee, and several all-nighters…in a row. There has also been just enough support, encouragement, jokes, pranks and memes to make my experience as an social work intern with the Texas Legislative Study Group (LSG) practicable.  I figured more time and experience here would automatically translate into valuable writing material. This is true with one important caveat: it is impossible to fully verbalize the experience that is the Texas legislative session.

This was also true of my approach to the beginning of session. Leading up to the start of the program, we sat through several orientation sessions and were put in contact with many alumni to gain a better understanding of what to expect. Having always prided myself on being prepared, I made every attempt to soak it all in, but without real-life context for the craziness that would become our daily lives, I was forced to accept the other piece of advice I heard over and over again…just wait. I now realize no amount of studying can prepare someone for the stress, the speed, the emotional rollercoaster or the disappointments that come with making policy in our great state. It all made sense when the first major bills hit the floor.

Within the course of a couple of weeks, major pieces of legislation dealing with the budget, school finance, and property tax reform made it clear. Analyzing the budget in late March was like our boot camp. By the time House Bill 3 (HB 3), the major school finance reform bill, rolled out a week later, I felt like I could actually call myself a policy analyst for the first time, and believe it. When House Bill 2 (HB 2) hit a week after that, the entire social work staff of the LSG had matured into a well-oiled policy machine. I’d be hard-pressed to recall a time in my life I was this proud of not only my personal capacity, but even more so of what a group of 10 almost strangers mere months ago could accomplish. Analyzing 180 amendments on property tax reform (some 120 pages long) in less than 24 hours was impressive enough, but it was the quality of our work and the strength of collaboration that made it unforgettable.

Well, that, and the ending of the story with property tax reform…

There have been disappointments, but these have been hardly limited to those policy matters of personal value. Yes, there have been both great and horrible bills that I have felt very strongly about which have suffered a different outcome than I would have desired. Yet, my biggest let down of the session has been the smaller, sometimes seemingly impenetrable, politics around the policy.

Long story short, the specific property tax reform bill we analyzed was never heard on the House floor. While it suffered a slightly different fate than the vast majority of the other few thousand bills that died an inglorious death somewhere along the convoluted legislative process, it felt like a ton of effort for naught. What happened instead is that the already-passed Senate version of the bill (similar, yet different) was substituted in place of the bill we had analyzed, as part of an agreement between the leadership of the House and Senate. Those 180 amendments, at least 240 hours of blood, sweat and yes, tears, went down the drain…and that’s just counting the work done by our team of analysts, not to mention that of others in and around the Capitol. Those often most disappointed are those with the most effort invested, namely the legislative staff and other proponents that urge bills along, over years if not decades, and often with little-to-no gratification or measurable progress.

Policy is not easy. Like I was told but couldn’t understand, our legislative process is designed to kill bills, not pass them. This is what many legislators, their staff, advocates, lobbyists, organizations and agencies are used to…a hard-fought, slow-moving war with quick outcomes and potential major implications.  In this case, the long-awaited property reform legislation prioritized by the Governor essentially got passed, but this is the exception, not the rule. What made this exception become reality was a perfectly-timed culmination of party power dynamics, a united strategy from leadership across the legislative body, and the opportunity presented by a large number of constituents activated, vocal and generally aligned on a highly-relevant issue.

This past Thursday was the last night for bills originating in the House to be heard, and just before the House “gaveled out” around midnight, we witnessed a major joint resolution (HJR 38), potentially hindering the state’s future revenue authority, pass with exactly the one hundred votes necessary for passage. We also witnessed a critical discrimination bill killed on a technical point-of-order. The moral of the story being, legislation often comes down to a single individual or single opportunity, and passage truly is a test of endurance. Most of those involved in this legislative process at any level, especially for any stretch of time, understand it’s a marathon, combined with a staring contest.

Strategy, pace, and opportunity are all crucial to success but perhaps the greatest determinate in passing legislation is perseverance…and whatever you do, don’t blink.

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Personal Privilege Speech

by Ali Schoon, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Mr. Speaker – Members,

We have entered the last month of the 86thLege! As a social work intern and policy analyst with the Legislative Study Group, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into these 119 days of session, and I only need enough energy to get through 21 more days until the legislative session ends. While the immense workload and severe lack of sleep has limited my ability to process this experience, I recognize the great privilege and responsibility I have in being part of a caucus which makes recommendations to legislators.

Below are a few things I have learned along the way:

  • Coffee is life.
  • Politics are not just party line or power. Compromise happens here on the daily, but as staff I am not always privy to that knowledge or reasoning. Members are playing a multi-level game of chess on the floor/in their offices, and this game starts before session even formally begins. But after being a spectator in this game, I can’t help but ask: At what point does compromise water meaningful policy change down to nothing?
  • Free food makes the Capitol go ‘round.
  • Relationships within the Capitol are used as trading capital and there are a rare few which are genuine. This culture of using others to better your own interest has caused me to be protective of my fellow LSG analysts and cherish the relationships we have built throughout session. The support and love I have received from them has been invaluable.
  • Laughter is the best medicine for a stressful day.
  • As I learned during Budget Week, as well as with House Bill (HB) 3 House Bill (HB) 2 amendments, I can work for upwards of 35 hours straight with no sleep. I hope to never experience that level of sleep deprivation ever again.
  • Perfection is the expectation at the Capitol. People are measured by what they produce and the power they have.

And here is the last bit of knowledge I have learned many times over the last 119 days: vulnerability is hard. After a particularly exhausting week (they’re all exhausting at this point, but this one seemed more so) my roommate and I decided to refill our social work cups with Brené Brown’s The Call to Courage on Netflix.

Brené spoke the difficult truth to us about vulnerability. Vulnerability is uncertainty and risk and emotional exposure. Opening myself up to true success and also failure in a setting with important people has brought forward anxieties I thought I’d previously mastered. As an ENFP and a people pleaser, I struggle with measuring my own self-worth by what others believe of me. Occupying a space which expects levels of perfection with no room for error makes it difficult to strive for success without being defined by a product.

Even though I know mistakes happen and that the willingness to be wrong leads to personal growth, I still get feelings of panic when I have developed bill analyses for bills that are being considered on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives. Brené reminded me that I need to trust my knowledge and perspective in this environment. I have a lot to offer, and I am passionate about the bills I analyze. I am showing up and working my butt off to provide quality policy analysis. I am looking vulnerability in the face every day, not just in my work but also in my personal interactions with my fellow LSGers.

The experience and knowledge I have gained through this internship have allowed me to grow as a whole and I will be forever grateful for the friendships built along the way.

And with that, I close. (This is how members present their bills on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives – just a little session humor!)


“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” – Theodore Roosevelt


 

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Caucus within a Caucus

by Santiago Cirnigliaro, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

As Easter came and went, I was able to go home and see my family and friends for the last time before session ends. Even at 4 months into this University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work internship with the Texas Legislative Study Group (a legislative caucus), and after explaining several times what it is that I’m doing here, none of my closest friends or family truly understand why I’m here. That’s why it’s hard to explain the relationships that are also formed through this legislative process. Everything within the legislature is fast tracked. In 6 months, legislators have to pass laws and a budget for the next 2 years. Which means they have to cram 2 years into 6 months. Consequently, over 6 months, most of our lives are crammed with the amount of new experiences and people which should technically occur over 2 years.

It’s hard to explain to someone who has not done this before what this could do to your mental health. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to not know anything about the Texas budget but yet have to become an expert in it and work for 60 continuous hours to analyze over 300 amendments collectively. It’s hard to explain to people that you may get called into work on a Sunday at noon and not know when the next time you will be off again will be. It’s hard to explain that we had to spend the night at the office and literally sleep on the floor because the workload was so heavy that we did not have time to go home and sleep. However, in my opinion, the hardest thing to explain to people is the relationships that are formed within the short 6 months that we are here.

Since January 7th, the beginning of the legislative session, all 10 Legislative Study Group Policy Analysts (all social work students) have been consistently stuck in a room barely bigger than a conference room, with no windows or direct sunlight coming into the room. For the past 4 and a half months, we have been consistently in this room other than when we go to committees. It’s hard to not form a bond with someone who you spend over 12 hours a day with every day of the week.

But what’s hard to explain to people outside of this realm is how fast a friendship can progress. From living with 3 fellow LSG members to creating a small caucus within a caucus with my “corner friends” (the 3 of us within the LSG who sit in the back half of the room). These friendships progress at a speed that is not normal. We are forced to establish a trust with each other because of the workload and the stress that comes with it. We rely on each other for support in our personal life as well as rely on each other for help in our work.

There have been times during this internship where I have entrusted confidential information to some of the LSG members that I would never share with anyone that is not a family member. But I was glad to. I was glad to because entrusting in my coworkers has given me a peace of mind that allows me to finish this internship. In the days that we do stay until midnight, one in the morning, or even overnight, I can’t call anyone to explain what is going on with me. Even if I could, they would not understand, and I don’t think they could really help. Relying on the people next to you in these situations and being completely honest with them has been what got me through those nights. It is what has forced me to become close friends with them and allow me to have someone in Austin with me that truly understands what is going on and the frustrations I feel.

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