The George Floyd Act: Texans’ Stories of Police Brutality

By Cassidy Kenyon, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

On March 25, the George Floyd Act (House Bill 88) was heard in the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. The legislation is authored by Chairwoman Senfronia Thompson, Chairman Harold Dutton, Vice Chairwoman Yvonne Davis, Chairman Garnet Coleman, and Chairwoman Nicole Collier.

The George Floyd Act addresses qualified immunity by creating a cause of action for deprivation of rights; requires corroboration for the testimony of undercover police officers; adds a duty to intervene and to render aid; prohibits chokeholds and limits lethal force to imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death. It also ends arrests for many non-jailable fine-only violations and mandates creation of a progressive disciplinary matrix establishing different disciplinary actions for policy violations and violations of law by police. The law would call for these actions to be developed through a statewide process with stakeholders using evidence-based practices.

Chairwoman Thompson, who holds the 2nd longest tenure in the Texas House of Representatives with over 40 years of service, laid out the bill before the committee, emphasizing that the George Floyd Act is not about defunding the police, but about the sanctity of human life. Then George Floyd’s brother, Travis Cains, came to the witness stand and described to the committee what it was like to watch his little brother publicly lynched by the police in 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

His story was one of over a hundred shared with the committee that day. Dozens of witnesses followed, many described the violence inflicted on their families by the police. As Celeste Brown, family member of Darrel Zemault Sr. stated, “families who are victims of police brutality should not have to stand up here and re-hash our trauma to get you guys to see us as human beings. But we must and we will.” 

Barbara Coats and Ali Amron were there on behalf of their son, Jamail Amron. According to articles recording the event, he was out one night and had taken cocaine and then called 911 for help. When the police came, they injected him with a sedative. Jamail fell onto the ground. An officer then put his foot on Jamail’s face and neck for several minutes. Jamail vomited and suffocated.

Maria Cordero and Romona Casas told the story of Jorge Gonzales. During his arrest for a class C misdemeanor, an arrest that would not occur under the George Floyd Act, his neck was broken. He was not given medical treatment or taken to the hospital. Police had to hold his head up for his mugshot and then placed him in the “drunk tank” for 21 hours.

Bernice Roundtree told the story of San Antonio police department officers walking into her house, saying “what’s up,” without identifying themselves or their reason for being there, and then shooting her teenage son Charles Roundtree. The officers left him on the floor to bleed to death while forcing the other children out of the house. If the police officers had rendered aid, her son would still be alive today

The family of Alex Gonzales stood before the committee only a few months after his death at the hands of the Austin Police Department. While Angel Gonzales and her mother showed unmatchable strength speaking out against the injustice in the face of unfathomable loss, the cops who shot him are still walking free.

Brenda Ramos told the story of her son Mike Ramos, who was shot by Austin Police Department multiple times after it was known he didn’t have a gun: “I just don’t understand why they kept screaming at him when he said he was scared. I just don’t understand why they couldn’t talk to him like he was a human being. Like he mattered at all.”

Many witnesses described their children being shot in the back while trying to leave:

Marian Tolan was slammed against a garage door by police officers as they accused her son Robbie Tolan of stealing his own car. He was shot by the police as she was restrained.

Pamela Barnes’s son Adrian Barnes was leaving a party at the home of an off-duty police officer when the officer shot her son in the back as he drove away from the party.

Deborah Bush’s son Marquise Jones was shot 9 times in the back after walking away from a fight that broke out in a drive-thru. As Ms. Bush eloquently stated, “Families will never be able to heal because we turn on the TV and see another one. Another one. Another one.”

Family after family stood and told similar stories about police violence. Across these stories, no officers stepped in to help. Few of the officers were permanently terminated. Most civil cases were dismissed using qualified immunity or were fought in the courts until the family couldn’t afford to fight any more.

The most intensely symbolic moment came when Trina Miller testified about the death of her son Tre’Shun Miller, who was brutalized by Arlington Police Department. He was beaten to death by Robert Coleman, who was then put in charge of the subsequent investigation. As she ran past the two minute mark telling the story of her son’s death, Chairman James White attempted to cut her off, but she continued her story. She described Tre’Shun bleeding out while many first responders refused to render aid to her son; the officer who refused to render aid later received a reward. While staff attempted to remove her and Texas Department of Public Safety officers came to the room, people stood in front of her. The Sergeant-at-Arms stopped DPS from intervening and allowed the family to finish giving testimony on the murder of their son.

The room was filled with suffocating pain and anger and gut-wrenching stories from people who lost their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, and friends. While representatives on the committee and those watching were brought face-to-face with this pain for 6 or 7 hours, it is these people who must spend the rest of their lives missing their loved ones. Family members robbed from them at the hands of state sanctioned violence, each death entirely preventable. The George Floyd Act is not about politics, it is about the stories of people who are deeply suffering a pain they will never heal from.

Through the George Floyd Act, we were able to hear some atrocities of what Texans have suffered as a result of police brutality empowered by qualified immunity. Many witnesses who were victims of police violence or whose family members were victims were kept from justice by qualified immunity. Several civil rights attorneys, including Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas NAACP, described the failings of qualified immunity. For example, cases against police officers fail if there hasn’t been a similar case in the past. The rights violation in both cases has to be almost identical; differences that have led to case failure include things like the victim sitting up instead of lying down. When no case can be established in which it wasn’t used, qualified immunity is used de facto. 

Many police officer representatives testified against ending qualified immunity, reasoning that it punishes good police officers for the actions of bad police officers. They also tried to say that ending qualified immunity would lead to recruitment issues. However, as Vice Chairwoman Bowers pointed out, “good cops have nothing to worry about from this bill.”

The truth is that many police officers who may conduct themselves ethically on the line of duty are complicit in the system that produces and protects bad cops. We heard stories of a police officer shooting a child, then the police department putting this same officer in charge of his own subsequent investigation. In this case, the entire department is complicit with enabling a bad cop. Multiple officers stood by while an officer had his foot on the mouth and nose of Jamail Amron while he was unconscious due to drugs injected by the police, and he died as a result. Every officer on the scene and all those who came after corroborating different testimony than the bystanders are complicit with enabling a bad cop. Families taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court and winning because the conservative fifth circuit court dismissed appeals. It is not just the actions of bad police officers that enable state-sanctioned violence. It is police chiefs, city courts, county courts, the fifth circuit, and many more who propagate and continue the vicious cycle of white supremacy in policing. These entities must be held accountable if good police officers are to stop being punished for the actions of bad cops.

Nothing will ever help the families of loved ones lost through the completely preventable deaths created by state sanctioned violence. Ending qualified immunity will not bring back these human beings sacrificed to the regime of white supremacy. But the George Floyd Act is a start to making sure more lives are not unjustly robbed, and honestly, it’s the very least we can do to bring any semblance of justice for these families who have suffered so much.

Throughout the hearing, I frequently thought of protests over the summer after George Floyd’s death, especially the chants of “silence is violence.” In that committee room on March 25th, I saw firsthand just how much silence truly is violence. The silence of police officers complicit in the deaths of Black and Brown people, the silence of the courts refusing to bring about justice, the silence of government doing nothing to fix qualified immunity, and the silence of 8 minutes and 46 seconds are all the cause and product of state-sanctioned police violence enabled by white supremacy. Families of victims stood in front of state representatives, many not even shedding a single tear despite all their pain, and boldly sent the message that they will not be silenced and they will not go away. It was truly a privilege to witness their testimony, I will never forget the stories and pain from the George Floyd Act. 

72% of Texans support this criminal justice reform legislation. On the Federal level, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 was voted through the U.S. House of Representatives and is soon to be heard by the U.S. Senate. I hope the passing of federal legislation can spur legislators in Texas to make much needed changes ending qualified immunity and starting the process of holding our state government accountable for crimes committed by police officers. Until then, silence is violence and without justice there will be no peace.

The George Floyd Act was presented on March 25, 2021 in the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. The recording of the hearing can be found at the following link:
https://tlchouse.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=46&clip_id=19883

The recording time in which the bill and testimony was heard is 1:47:21 to 8:01:25.

Tre’Shun Miller. Patrick Warren Sr. Jorge Gonzalez. Jamail Amron. Marquis Jones. Michael Brown. Charles Roundtree. Alex Gonzales. Botham Jean. Sandra Bland. Stephon Clark. Michelle Cusseaux. Atatiana Jefferson. Jordan Edwards. Aura Rosser. Botham Jean. Freddie Grey. Gabriella Nevarez.  Tanisha Anderson. Akai Gurley. Daniel Prude. Rayshard Brooks. Jonathan Price. Michael Ramos. Javier Ambler. Yvette Smith. Jordan Baker. Larry Jackson Jr. Michael Brown. Timothy Russell. Alesia Thomas. Clinton Allen. Shelley Frey. Raymond Allen Jr. Jason Sierra. Jose Roman Rodriquez. Jose Pena. Christopher Reyes. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Kenneth Chamberlain. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. Vinny Belmonte. Elijah McClain. Gregory Edwards. Samuel DuBose. Brendon Glenn. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. And many more.

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Taking Up Space

By Maddox Hilgers, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

I am a born and raised Austinite, a rare breed nowadays. Due to proximity, I have been roaming around the Texas Capitol building since before I could properly walk. Drinking Slurpees on the front steps, playing tag in the lower annex, and racing my brother from one of the chambers to the grounds below, where we would climb the magnolia tree on the southwest corner of the grounds. Whenever my family would step inside I would run to the main rotunda, lay down on the star in the middle and look up. As I got older, my visits inside the capitol grew less and less frequent. The necessity of going through security just took too long in my mind to require going inside. 

I first heard about the Austin Legislative Internship Program during my undergrad studies at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. A past student of one of my professors had come to speak with my class about their experience in community practice, which led me to interview her for a separate class assignment. During this interview, she asked me about my own career aspirations, and I told her I was interested in doing political LGBTQIA+ advocacy but had no idea how to go about getting involved in that realm. Luckily for me, she had participated in the Austin Legislative Internship Program through the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. I was ecstatic! A program designed to give social work students not only experience in politics, but also an opportunity to figure out if this is the line of work they want to continue in.

After the assignment, I met with my professor to let her know what my new goal was. I liked her a lot. She was one of the best educators I ever learned under and was always understanding of any accommodations I might have needed. However, when I told her I wanted to work in politics, not run, but be an advocate for change, she told me I didn’t look or act like the people who work in politics. That I should maybe look at more grassroots forms of advocacy. I know she didn’t mean it in a harsh way, that she was speaking from experience, but it still hurt regardless.

I am a queer, transgender non-binary person. I use they/them and he/him pronouns, depending on the day. I dress in masculine-styled clothes and have a short haircut. In Texas, being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community comes with increased risks. Texas is known to be a hostile state for members of the queer and transgender community and lacks any statewide non-discrimination protections. The state constitution still outlaws homosexual conduct and outlaws same-sex unions despite the Supreme Court ruling that makes this ban unconstitutional. The Human Rights Campaign in their 2020 Equality Index highlighted Texas as “High priority to achieve basic equality.” Texas does not prohibit discrimination for sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment, public accommodations, or education. Texas does not address harassment and/or bullying that students in public schools may face for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Texas does not address hate crimes committed against individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In Texas, most activists focus on protections at the local level, in municipal governments, because we have never seen a pro-LGBTQIA+ bill make it past the Texas House’s Calendars Committee.

During this internship, I had the privilege to write a paper addressing Texas’s long history of anti-LGBTQIA+ politics and identifying the different areas that bills are targeting this session. In Texas state politics, advocates for the LGBTQIA+ community almost always are playing defense against harmful, anti-LGBTQIA+ bills. This year is no different. Attacks on transgender youth rights, creating religious exemption laws, and circumventing municipal non-discrimination ordinances seem to be the heavy hitters of this session. Despite strong opposition from conservatives in both the House and Senate, allies of the community come back year after year proposing legislation that would establish equal rights and protections for LGBTQIA+ Texans.

Working in the Capitol building is a dream come true for my younger self, but now living out as my true self in this environment creates unique work challenges. Specifically, access to restrooms. The City of Austin is progressive enough that in most public establishments and businesses there might be a gender-neutral bathroom, or if that is not an option, no one will question why I am using a certain bathroom. The Capitol is not like these other parts of Austin, however. There are no gender-neutral bathrooms that I have access to, only family restrooms found on the ground floor. People from all over the state flock to the building for tours, meetings, and providing testimonies at hearings. These are people from various backgrounds; different beliefs, cultures, and regions mix within these halls. Which is amazing! But it also creates an environment where a simple trip to the bathroom for me can turn into a confrontation. I was assigned female at birth (AFAB) and with all the drama that went down in 2017 over the “bathroom bill,” I use the women’s room to try and reduce any chance of legal consequences.

Let me be clear, I would rather use a gender-neutral or single-person bathroom whenever I am out in public. I have no interest in using the men’s room any more than I have an interest in using the women’s room. I use the women’s room because in the event that something does go down, I can provide my ID to show that yes, in fact, I can be using the women’s room. I have only been working in person in the Capitol building for a little over two weeks, having moved back to Austin once legislative committee hearings started three weeks ago. Already the direct aggressions and indirect microaggressions have started. The bold will step up and ask me directly why I am in the women’s room. The meek will stare and whisper about it to their companions. Both are exhausting, but that is just another part of reality I have to work around.

The Legislature is also not used to having transgender persons working within its walls. The majority of interns, staff, and representatives are cisgender, white males, which is not an accurate representation of the overall state population. After so many years of learning and working in diverse schools with strong women and queer folx being the majority, it is a huge culture shock. I feel this weird tension around me when walking through the Capitol, talking with other staffers outside of my office, or sitting in committee. “I’m only a man at a glance,” to quote Hannah Gadsby. But once someone really looks at me, they realize I am not, but I am also not female normal. This makes conversing with members, staffers, and lobbyists ten times more stressful, because they are not used to a person like me in this environment. I guess in that way that makes me powerful because I am breaking up the status quo. Maybe I am forcing them to reconsider how they view transgender and queer folx by taking up this space in the Legislature.

Despite all these microaggressions and awkward moments, I could not have been placed in a better office. My fellow interns, colleagues, and supervisors have made it a point to make sure I am comfortable, that they are using the right pronouns, and that if anything happens, I know I have support from them. My work ID has my name on it. Not my legal name, because I have not taken that step yet, but the name that represents me. I was not sure if I would be able to have that piece of me in the Legislature due to legal constraints. But I do. It is on my ID, it is on my email, it is attached to the analyses that get sent out to our representatives. In the Capitol I am only known as Maddox, and that is a big freaking deal.

So yeah, I do not look or act like the other people in the Legislature. But I take up space and am not only showing staffers or representatives that a queer transgender non-binary person can work in the Texas State Capitol. I am also proving to all the queer and transgender kids that run through the halls of this building that it is possible. We will get there one day.

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“Work hard in silence. Let success be your noise.”

by Jax Gheorghe, intern with Rep. Penny Morales-Shaw

While training for my internship at the Texas Capitol, I often heard that regardless of how extensively I prepared, it would not equip me for what was ahead. After two months, I still consistently come across new situations no one can help me get through with clear guidance. Almost every suggestion has started with, “You’re not going to like this,” or ended with, “I know that doesn’t make you feel better.”

To say my experience has been tumultuous is quite the understatement. Even though working at the Capitol is a privilege, at times, I felt as though I was being stifled. I struggled with being told that work I was interested in was out of the scope of my role. I found myself unsure of when I was receiving accurate information and felt excluded from some common legislative interactions.

As I continued to struggle with these experiences and encountered challenges navigating legislative chains of command, I turned to others for confidential help and advice. Fortunately, I have a wide and supportive network comprised of loved ones, colleagues, classmates, my cohort from the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Houston, our Associate Dean Dr. Pritzker, and my social work Field Instructor, to name a few. Even with a wide net of support, I had to learn how to sift through varying advice and critically consider what pieces could be used at what time. I learned that every interaction and person at the legislature requires a different approach, and sometimes a combination of approaches.

Suddenly, everything changed...

After two months at the legislature, I was no longer on the bottom of the totem pole. I became the point of contact for many things in my office and, even though I finally felt like I had purpose and my abilities were being recognized, I also had to be aware of evolving tensions.

Through this experience, I have learned the political value of silence. Sometimes a long pause in conversation expresses more than a rambling paragraph. Speaking diplomatically and vaguely, while also strategically choosing words, allows others to read between the lines and keeps me from speaking out of turn. I have gained knowledge that would help others succeed and had to get creative in how to discuss it, without stepping on the toes of my superiors.

It seems as though my natural inclination to live outside of conventional boxes is working in my favor this session, as I juggle the expectations of multiple people and the responsibilities of various titles, while still being considered “just an intern” by many. What keeps me centered and grounded is my passion for serving communities in need. Working at the Capitol is not about me feeling accomplished, proud, or better than any other person for being in a position of power. My entire focus is to work my hardest in making the life of every person better. Social justice and sustainable, equitable systemic change envelopes every decision I make during session. I regularly remind myself that facilitating healthy interactions at the legislature will create more opportunities for us to serve our communities.

Although my experience working at the Capitol has been more taxing than I could have imagined, I also have learned invaluable skills along the way. I have learned to network in unconventional ways and create opportunities for people to remember me. I wear bright colors, mixed patterns, loud shoes, and noticeable hats. Obviously, not all at the same time. This has led to more people remembering my outfits than people remembering my name or masked-up face. I deliberately choose to dress in a more eccentric manner on days other members and staffers will see me. After only one week of committee hearings, I had already gotten to the point where lobbyists recognized my shoes and handed me their card.

I am currently working on how to tactfully leverage knowledge and connections in a way that can benefit my whole office, especially the State Representative I work for. The knowledge I am learning to consider includes:

  • When to ask questions
  • When to take notes
  • When to stand my ground
  • When to keep my head down
  • When to socialize
  • When to relax
  • Who do I look to for answers
  • Which notes are the most important
  • Who can use this against me
  • Who has the power
  • Who I spend time with
  • Where do I relax

These are all critical skill sets in this environment. In the GCSW, these topics come up as forms of self-care or advocacy. I am in a unique position, in that I am required to develop these skills as professional tactics. How do I ensure a rewarding career trajectory, while focusing on my boss’ success, and protecting the integrity of my workplace, in an environment where backroom deals are vast and trust is fickle?

When in doubt, shut my mouth!

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Spirituality and the 87th Legislative Session

By: Phuong Nguyen, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

I have said on more than one occasion that working as a social work intern at the 87th Legislative session is a spiritual experience for me. This might sound like a juxtaposition when one of the ideals that our government was created on is “the separation of church and state.”

I have been on a spiritual journey for a very long time, a life-time you might say, because I believe my true purpose on this earth is to understand and connect with how I can serve the universe. I was born a Buddhist and when I immigrated to the United States, the church was where I first encountered people of service. It was through the Christian Church that my family gained access to this country during the Vietnam War. It was also through the church that we were given support in a new world.

From a very young age, I belonged to many different denominations of Christianity, and for a short time period in all my teenage rage I was an atheist, and when I married I converted to Judaism. After a lot more living, wisdom, and maturity, I came to discover my religion, or rather my spirituality, is a simple quote from his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet: “My religion is simple, my religion is kindness.” Being an intern with the Texas Legislative Study Group is another step on my spiritual journey, another step closer to discovering my humanity.

“I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion–and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.” Ram Dass

Working at the Texas Capitol and for the Texas Legislative Study Group,I see all the differences and sameness of Texans come together and diverge. This is where the intersectionality of all our issues, ideologies, values, and beliefs comes together. The task of recognizing our differences is the easy part. It is the coming together that can be a source of great comfort or great suffering depending on the values you hold dear. Where it becomes a spiritual practice is when we look for the likeness in others that we see in ourselves. I would even hasten to say we see ourselves in what we dislike the most in others.

In my early and on-going conversations with Dr. Suzanne Pritzker, director of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work’s Austin Legislative internship Program, I was told that the work at “the Lege”(Legislative Session) is more bipartisan than it appears. This, I was excited to see. I actively looked for this in my daily observations in committee meetings. I felt that if I could see that bipartisanship, it would allow me to make peace with what I feel are the injustices of our country. So in beginning my work at the Lege over the past few months, I have met incredibly intelligent, inspiring, and passionate people that are working on incredible issues that need to be addressed in this country. As I continue to work over time, my like-mindedness with these groups pushed me further away from seeking this bipartisanship. The more alike I saw myself with these groups, the easier it was to see the differences in the counter groups.

“Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.” Rumi

Again Dr. Pritzker urged me to continue to observe the processes at the Lege and encouraged me to observe the work that lies in that space of Bipartisanship. In reflection I realized that the work in that space of bipartisanship, no matter how small it seems, exists, and within that space is where change happens. So in turning towards my spirituality, I practice daily to see the sameness in people of opposing views.

“As we grow in our consciousness, there will be more compassion and more love, and then the barriers between people, between religions, between nations will begin to fall. Yes, we have to beat down the separateness.”
Ram Dass

I have noticed that the deeper the divide in ideologies, the harder it is to create change. The caveat to this is that it is also easier to see differences than it is to see the sameness. Change takes willingness to set aside differences and to see another person as just like yourself. A son, a daughter, a mother, a father, a family member, and a friend, we are all those things. It is in these small spaces that true work can be done.

As the pandemic continues to keep us at a distance, Texas last month faced an unprecedented winter storm that left us again turning towards our legislators for answers. More often than not our government bodies move slowly towards an answer. While the debate of “who is to blame” will always be visible, there was some agreement that this was preventable and that change must occur to ensure the safety of all Texans. It was unfortunate that a tragic effect had to happen for us, rich or poor, Black or white, to see that we all have the same basic needs. Moving forward I would like to argue that if we could always make this part of us visible, “our sameness,” then we can move towards meaningful legislation that reveals the best part of us, our humanness.

“The warrior of the light knows that no one is stupid and that life teaches everyone – however long that may take.” Paulo Coehlo

The week following the winter storm, committee schedules were released. At the Legislative Study Group, our committee responsibilities for the remainder of the legislative session were assigned. There began a growing urgency around the work that must be done among our state representatives and their staff. In our office this has brought a sense of excitement as well as dread for the weeks to come.

Reflecting on my own experience, it is my hope that I will continue to stay conscious of my oneness with each and every person I have had the honor to cross paths with. Truly without this I don’t believe that I would be able to do this kind of work.

I believe that we all possess a light within ourselves and it is our duty to share that light. And at the Lege, I believe this is what every representative, regardless of party, race, or gender knows and that is why they have chosen to do this kind of work. While this may seem naive of me to believe so, if this belief moves us towards positive change then I am willing to remain naive.

“A human being is a part of the whole universe called by the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” ― Albert Einstein

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At What Cost?

by Tsion Amare, intern with Rep. Rafael Anchia

My experience in this legislative session so far has only fueled the deep-rooted rage and frustration within me that has persisted since the start of my social work education.

For many of us, social work is not simply a career choice. It is a part of who we are; it’s part of our character, our passion, and what we firmly stand for. For me, social work is a profession that identifies the deep wounds in our vulnerable and marginalized populations. It’s a profession that seeks to be a voice for the voiceless. However, these same reasons why I am deeply passionate about social work have engulfed a storm of confusion and frustration within me. How do we make people, often people in power, care about vulnerable people? How do we make others empathize with the pain that the populations we serve feel with every passing day?

In my time at the Texas Capitol, I have been exposed to the deep flaws in our state and national politics. We are surrounded by politicians and leaders that constantly choose profit over human life; politicians that solely care about the depth of their pockets over the life of their neighbor standing on the side of the street.

I understand partisan issues. I understand some arguments that polarize our society. What I don’t understand is why human life is a debatable topic, why the well-being and human-hood of the adults and children around us is a partisan issue.

This has become more evident during the past weeks as Texas experienced a deadly and disastrous winter storm. Millions of Texans experienced power outages and 14 million Texans did not have access to clean water in their homes. This is a direct result of our state leaders actively choosing profit more than the well-being of over 20 million people. What happened during this time could have been avoided, if only our state leaders chose to invest in green infrastructure and take energy efficiency measures years back. Instead, this act of negligence resulted in the horrific deaths of people across the state; deaths that will forever be in the hands of our state leaders. 

This stark negligence is only one of the many examples of profit and money being valued more than human life. Texas is amongst the worst-performing states for children’s well-being. But students are told to pledge allegiance to a state that doesn’t value or invest in them. Texas has the most uninsured people in the nation. Yet, people are expected to jeopardize their well-being by working multiple jobs and earning below living wages to merely survive.

My point is, there is a large disconnect between the rich and the poor; between state leaders and most of their constituents. Texas elects leaders that fly out to lay on the beach while a child froze to death in his own home due to the direct choices these leaders made. We elect leaders that want to put homeless people out of sight for the sake of beautifying a city but fail to address the very first reason why those people are homeless. We elect leaders that deliberately put the lives of Texans at stake for the sake of political gain while over 44,000 Texans have died of a deadly pandemic.

It’s difficult being in a profession that we’re so passionate about. Caring about others and valuing human life seems like the normal and right thing to do. It is somewhat staggering to see how very few people share this same value. I believe part of being human is the ability to empathize with your neighbor in the midst of pain and suffering. Somewhere along the line, there lies a disconnect. For many, the large gap between the rich and the poor clouds that humanness.

I want to know how many politicians that oppose progressive values have been at the center of hurt and hardships. I want to know how many of them have served at homeless shelters and took the time to actively hear people’s stories. How many of these politicians have seen or experienced what it feels like to not know where their next meal is going to come from; how you have to choose between your health or paying rent next month? How many politicians really have seen, heard, or experienced these hardships that they continue to turn a blind eye to?

Social work is a profession that aims to be a voice for the voiceless. Through my education and legislative internship, I have been given an opportunity to be that voice while also helping others gain their voice. It is easy to feel hopeless in a world where human life is seen as meaningless compared to profit. As we embark on national Social Work Month, it is essential to highlight the integral aspect of the social work profession in politics and in human lives across our nation. It is because of the work social workers do and because of our deep-rooted passions for advocacy and policy that we are able to change the culture of our state. It might not happen tomorrow or next year, but small steps always lead to greater things.

We are in the midst of structural changes. Within the past year, our nation has been shaken and challenged. We have seen the neglect and irresponsibility of our government and state leaders. We have also seen the changes that can arise when people come together. Grassroots organizations and advocacy groups all around our state have been doing this critical job of elevating the voices of marginalized and vulnerable people for years. We need more social workers and other service-led professionals in power. We need more legislators like Rep. Anchia, that are continuously advocating for progressive values that amplify the voices of vulnerable and marginalized groups of our communities. We need those that have seen injustices first-hand to be a part of making decisions. We need to value humans and their well-being more than we value our gain and opulence.

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A Journey of Unknown

By Victoria McDonough, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

On January 12, 2021 the Texas Legislature kicked off the 87th Legislative Session. Long before the start of the session, myself and 13 others from the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW), began preparing for session with the help of Dr. Suzanne Pritzker. This preparation began over our Christmas break and consisted of assignments, readings, and online classes leading up to the start of session. Like anyone about to embark on a new journey, we had a lot of questions and concerns.

While Dr. Pritzker did her absolute best to answer our persistent questions, many of these questions couldn’t be answered due to the uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic placed around the upcoming session. A response we often got to our questions was “this session is going to be different.” Due to all of the unknowns, it was hard for any of us to prepare for what was to come.

Having a Type-A personality, I like to prepare and plan for everything imaginable and have control over what could happen. Not knowing what to expect for the upcoming session, I knew I would have to learn to adopt to my new normal. The session is now a month in and there are still a lot of unknowns about what to expect in the coming months. Myself and 9 other interns were placed with the Legislative Study Group (LSG), where we are managed by GCSW alum and previous LSG intern Brittany Sharp. Brittany is doing a phenomenal job at preparing us for our role in the session as policy analysts.

At the start of the session, I had a lot of doubt in myself, the knowledge I had about politics, policy, legislation, my ability to fulfill the role that I had been assigned to, and uncertainty in where I belong. I was and still am, up against even more of a learning curve being a native Alabamian. I have only been in Texas for 5 short months. A large barrier that I face is not knowing background information about the true issues that Texans are dealing with. In order to compensate for this obstacle, I took it upon myself to listen to any podcast that pertains the Texas politics that I could find. Some of the most helpful ones I’ve found are:

By listening to these podcasts, I have learned a great deal about the culture of Texas politics, how the Texas House and Senate run, who the major players are, etc. One thing that is very evident is how much pride Texas politicians take in not running the same way that D.C. is ran. While listening to all of these podcasts has been helpful, I know there is still a great deal to learn.

One of the main things that had been preached to us is the fact that we are social workers entering the political world. Dr. Pritzker talked about how many people in politics often do not understand how and where social workers fit into politics and the political arena. As social workers we have 6 core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of a person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. As a social worker, I hold myself accountable on an everyday basis to uphold these values. What I have come to learn about politics is that sometimes you have to make deals with the devil, in order to get legislation passed. This is where I have begun asking myself if I would be capable of doing something like that, if I would be able to compromise my morals and values? I find that often times the ends do not justify the means and that sometimes the risk is not worth the reward. I will admit that I do not know what goes on beyond closed doors, but through this process so far, I know that I will have to stay strong to who I am and what I stand for.

Dr. Pritzker also talked with us about the importance of being a good example of a social worker in the political environment because there are so few. We represent not only ourselves, but Dr. Pritzker, the GCSW, University of Houston, social workers, and especially Chairman Garnet Coleman. A piece of advice I received at the beginning of session is to stay true to the social worker that I want to be. This has resonated with me and has helped guide me every day since session has begun. Coming into this session I tried to prepare myself mentally for the journey that was to come. I have a huge heart, and this can sometimes get the best of me. I have a hard time saying no, I lead with my feelings, and I am very empathetic. All things that make being in the dog-eat-dog political world, even more difficult. However, these are things that make me who I am, that make me a good friend, daughter, student, colleague, and social worker. As Brené Brown says, vulnerability is strength, and this session I want to use these characteristics to my advantage to conquer the Texas Capitol.

While trying to maintain true to myself and the person I strive to be, I also am trying to find my place in the Texas Capitol. I have heard from many people that through this process, you figure out where and how you want to fit into the world of policy work. For example, one thing that Dr. Pritzker told us is that some people immediately feel that they have found their home and know that the Texas Capitol is where they want to be. However, some people know that the Capitol isn’t where they are supposed to stay forever in their journey. This is something I am on a journey to finding out.

Since I am working remotely this session from Houston, it makes it much more difficult see where I would truly fit in. When I think about if I would fit in at the Texas Capitol, I think back to what I have seen and experienced so far, and also by hearing about other individuals’ experiences. One way that I was able to learn about other individuals’ experiences in person at the capitol was reading blog posts by other interns from the GCSW, when they completed this same internship. One of the blog posts that stood out to me the most was written by GCSW alumni Santiago Cirnigliaro, who is currently a public policy analyst with the Texas Alliance for Child and Family Services. In his blog post he wrote, “I want to be seen as an example. But not as the “examples” we have seen so far.”

This simple statement has summed up everything I have witnessed on the Texas House floor so far this session. Insight into the kinds of actions that have been displayed can be summed up with one interaction. There was a moment on the second day of session when House rules were being adopted when one representative did not yield for questions. Another representative, on the opposite side of the aisle responded with chicken noises. Coming from someone who usually has a lot to say, this left even me speechless. On the one hand, I expected better from elected officials who hold such high positions, though I do recognize that I may not have understood the banter and relationship that these two representatives have. I had been told that usually both parties tend to “play nice” the first few weeks of session, but moments like this seem as if this session might be different.

On the contrary to this, there are inspiring moments that have happened in the past and I know we too will have inspiring moments this session. For example, in 2013, on the last day of a special session Senator Wendy Davis performed a 13-hour filibuster to try to defeat a bill restricting abortion. The attention that this brought was nationwide. Hundreds of people showed up to the Texas Capitol to witness this profound moment and were the saving grace of the entire night. It is these beautiful moments that I want to be a part of and be witness of while at the Texas Capitol. I want to be a part of something special, be inspired, and set examples for others. By being a part of Chairman Coleman’s team, I know I will be able to witness and achieve all of these things.

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The Importance of Representation: #LatinasInPolitics

by Lyssette Galvan, intern with Rep. Mary González

My experience graduating from the University of Michigan in 2010 made me realize the importance of representation. The lack of diversity at my university pushed me to go into education. I wanted to be a familiar face to other students of color. I wanted students who were walking in similar shoes to know that they could come from a low-income family and graduate from a prestigious university too. Little did I know the push representation would have on my career change in less than a decade.

My journey in politics began a few years before coming to the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. I remember walking into my classroom as a teacher at 7:40 am the morning after the 2016 Presidential Election was called for former President Donald J. Trump. A beautiful, curly-haired, brown-eyed girl had her hand raised to ask, “Señorita Galvan, what do we do now that the new president Donald doesn’t like Mexicans?” I had to gather myself, as my feelings were still being processed with our new reality.

What I did not know then was how that moment in time would lead me to want more. Not only for myself but for them too. I felt confined in the walls of my classroom to be a true advocate for my students. When I left after being with them for 4 years, I felt guilt knowing it could look like I took the easy route. At the end of the day, however, I knew they would now be seeing one of their Latina teachers drop everything and go back to school to pursue a career in politics. A new place they can now see themselves in too. Latinas in Politics should become a new hashtag, as the growing number of women with some type of Latinx descent are rising to the occasion. I am beyond honored to say that my internship has now given me #LatinasInPolitics to look up to, as I was placed in the office of Representative Mary E. González, Texas House District 75. I am placed with Rep. González through a partnership between the GCSW and Mexican-American Legislative Caucus (MALC) and the Moreno-Rangel Legislative Leadership Fellowship. Through my experiences in my office, Caucus and this Fellowship, I have been able to network virtually with many Latinx public officials in Texas and nationally.  

I remember just a year ago I was in the process to interview for GCSW’s Austin Legislative Internship Program with Dr. Pritzker and a few alumni from the program. The pandemic was just inches away from turning our world a whole 180 degrees. As the reality of the pandemic emerged, I questioned if my hard work, determination, and dedication to this program would go in vain, because how could any of us picture ourselves being able to come to the 87th Legislature during a pandemic? The variety of questions my fellow interns and I had…Is it going to happen? Will it all be virtual? What if things get worse?

Well, here we are. Those questions are easy to answer now: it is all happening. Things have gotten worse as our country continues to lose many lives daily and controlling the virus seems so far from our reality. This pandemic has shown the inequities of the lives of people in low-income communities, and mainly communities of color. The effects that this pandemic has had on our students of color and in rural areas grow the academic gap as broadband and technology are not as easily accessible.

The mix of these experiences has started to transcend into my internship. It has shown me the validity of my beliefs around how and why representation matters. Recently, my Representative entrusted me to be a part of a virtual panel event with the Texas Nurses Association alongside Senator César Blanco and Representatives Art Fierro, Joe Moody, Lina Ortega, and Claudia Ordaz-Perez. This event was highly focused on the disparities that have come forth from the pandemic. All of the Members spoke about the need to increase funding and access to health care for their communities. In my own remarks, I echoed what they said and talked about how as a graduate student in social work I have worked with similar communities in Houston. I described how I have firsthand seen the high need for rental and utility help and the food insecurity many families face. It felt different to be surrounded at this event by people who look like me and speak Spanish too. They were all advocating for their constituents and our frontline workers. I experience this with Representative González daily in her work on behalf of all students and constituents.  

To create change we must exert ourselves to be heard. I advocate more than ever now how imperative it is to reach out to State Representatives to everyone I know. The more we elect officials who have our best interests at hand, it will develop our power to be seen and heard in our communities. It will help alleviate the generational traumas that many have suffered due to the lack of representation in our government. As I read and hear the issues from constituents, the work that we do reflects on their needs.

Just this past week I have been working on the content for a bilingual infographic to help non-English speaker constituents have equitable access to information that will help them with challenges navigating the Texas Workforce Commission. This is our solution to problems we have been hearing from our constituents recently. In another example, Rep. González, along with a few other Texas Democratic Representatives just held a press conference to call on the Governor and the Texas Education Agency to cancel the in-person STAAR test, an annual standardized test administered to Texas students in 3rd-12th grade that is being required by TEA this year despite the pandemic. An administered test that will cost $7.3 million. Money that could be used to give direct help to our students and families.

These State Representatives are leading our state in a way that excites me. It gives me hope that change is coming. I know that by creating a network of like-minded people that ethically carry themselves to high standards for their constituents, we can give our future generations goals to strive for. They fight for what is right, not for themselves, but for others. Their representation matters through the work that they do day in and out. I hope one day I can inspire others the way they inspire me. They are the epitome of “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

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Surviving a Crisis

By: Devan Daniel, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group 

Before I even started my legislative internship, the 87th legislative session was foreseen as a challenge, due to balancing the fulfillment of the democratic process while adhering to COVID-19 precautions. I spent the early weeks of my internship preparing by meeting with a myriad of groups remotely, reading prior analyses of bills, as well as watching archived committee meetings. Along the way, the process of getting started has been prolonged and extended until the highly anticipated start of the first TX House of Representatives committee meeting of the legislative session, an Appropriations committee meeting that was to be held on February 16th.  

Well, the hits just keep coming. As a result of the inclement winter weather from a highly unusual winter storm impacting Texas this past week, millions of Texans were left without access to electricity and water earlier in the week. Even now, there are still Texans that do not have access to water. Additionally, this crisis resulted in lives lost.

The Texas Legislature had to limit meeting due to this winter storm on top of the precautions already in place for COVID-19. The Legislative Study Group (LSG), the caucus I am assigned to for my internship, also was impacted due to my colleagues and I losing access to power and water. I was fortunate to be able to shelter in my home while many had to turn to their cars or had no shelter at all until warming centers were operational. Texas was unified in a traumatic event that will impact how we move forward, as it should.  

The events that transpired during this past week could have been mitigated and should have been. While maintaining the understanding that Texas typically has a warmer climate and therefore typically puts fewer resources into winterization than other states, the warning signs were there. As early as February 5th, signs of a significant winter storm were on the radars. Additionally, Texas’ current infrastructure is not prepared for cold weather. Among other elements, the culmination of glaring gaps left the residents of Texas to face the consequences.  

Now, how do we respond to the situation? 

Well, the immediate response is to provide aid to those that are still without vital resources. Recently, Beto O’Rourke provided aid for senior Texans connecting them with needed resources to ensure their safety and security. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) was able to raise 4 million dollars to be donated for the purposes of providing food, water, etc. for Texans in need.  

After addressing these immediate needs, however, we need to discuss the long-term changes that need to be considered by the legislature. In addition to the five ‘emergency’ items he had already identified for the 87th legislature to address, Governor Greg Abbott called for power system winterization and emergency funding to be a new emergency, priority item for the legislature. House Speaker Dade Phelan announced that there will be joint committee meetings to review the factors that led to the crisis situation.  

This situation is all I can think about. I think about the families that had to keep their children warm and safe. I think about the long lines of people that were trying to get food before the ice storm hit and the long lines doing so again in the days since the storm. I think of my neighbors that came to me when I was without power for two days to offer me a hot bowl of soup. As I write this post, I am still trying to process the events that afflicted our state. It is a shock to my system.  

However, I do not want to close this post on a gloomy note. Instead, I want to extend my heart out to those that are still without power and water, now over a week since the storm first hit our state. In terms of immediate needs, here is a list of food resources for those that live around UT Austin. I want to urge people that can, whether in Texas or beyond, to reach out to others in need and help. If you are reading this and not in Texas, then donate if possible or reach out to people you know that live here. Trust me, nothing felt better than getting a text or a call from my friends to allow me to forget even if only for an hour.  

Lastly, I want to highlight the importance of applying public pressure to our legislators to instill lasting, long-term change. My internship as well as my engagement in political activism has demonstrated to me that being vocal is an essential element to creating meaningful change. If you are a resident of Texas, then leave a public comment and let our public officials know your experience. Together, we will make it, and work towards ensuring something like this will not happen again.  

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Legislative Poetry

by Hannah Hall, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

We have been repeatedly told that this experience interning at the Texas Capitol will be fast paced, to say the least. We will be stressed out and overworked in ways that few people can understand. We have made individual self-care plans to help us get through this internship as whole as possible, though one month in, it still feels as though these are plans for the distant future.

I wanted to participate in this internship to grow as both a professional and an individual. I have for much of my life hoped that growth would just happen as I aged, as I finished school, as I started working. Intellectually, this may be enough, but I have come to learn that real growth, the kind that shapes the direction of your life and makes you you, requires work. It requires processing events, reflecting on your actions, and remembering what kind of person you are and want to be.

I have found that creative outlets can simultaneously work as tools for self-care and growth. Poetry, especially forms with clear guidelines such as the haiku and the limerick, can help us process our feelings and memories without the sometimes intimidating openness of prose or free verse. Like we have seen over the last several years, accepting flexible guidelines that anchor us in a shared reality can be comforting and is arguably necessary for a functioning society.

Here are a few memories and thoughts about my first month as a legislative intern that I wanted to make tangible, accessible to my future self (the competent, confident person I am becoming every day). Please enjoy.

Session Begins
Waiting in the air
Spring today, winter again
One month in, what’s next?

Speaker Phelan
The role of House Speaker is clear
To manage his members, so dear
When they won’t stop babbling
Then he gets to gaveling
And pleads, “Have some decorum here!”

Amendment No. 14
The rules of the House being writ,
An amendment proposed went like this:
“No member shall dress
In jeans, please vote yes,”
Unsuccessful, the stylish Rep spli
t

Advocacy
In Texas, things move
Often in the wrong way, so
Always work to do

I complete this post on the day of the long-awaited announcement of House committee assignments, signaling the start of the real work in the Texas Legislature and the LSG (sure, Zoom meetings count as work, if you call introducing yourself to strangers online several times a day “work” – and I certainly do). I feel a muted sense of anticipation and excitement, muted because I am unsure of what is to come – what committees I will cover, which members I will learn to recognize and worry over, what obscure policy details will dominate my every waking thought for the next few months and likely beyond. Things are about to change in a big way, and when they do, my combination self-care/personal growth/poetry journal is sure to hear about it in poetic verse.

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