by Chelsea Dalton Pederson, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group
As an individual focused on drug policy and the justice-system in a highly conservative state, I thought rhetoric would not surprise me, but I was wrong. I have surrounded myself with social workers, harm reductionists, and like-minded advocates for almost five years. It was not until January 6th, 2021 that the reality of how drastically different my comfortable bubble is compared to the ideological positions held by some Texans at this point in time. With nearly a month invested into this internship, amid an increasing overdose crisis, a national movement reinforcing that Black Lives Matter, a global pandemic, and after an attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol, I would like to acknowledge the art of balancing.
Honestly, where do I begin? On a state level, the pandemic has brought to light a divide between individual autonomy and collective protections, as some publicly denounce mask-related mandates and precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19 amongst vulnerable Texans. The global experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably proven what many advocates have said for decades: Our health care system is broken and harmful to not only those who are most vulnerable, but single young adults as well. The State of Texas has experienced massive unemployment rates and taken direct hits to our economy, which has had a domino effect on our uninsured rates and resulted in 5% cuts to services across the board.
One of the many aspects that I adore about this great state is our inherent determination to create our own way of operating, tendency to denounce federal interference and commitment to ensuring a better Texas for future generations. One of our pre-session assignments entailed analyzing public policy organizations across political ideologies. Given that Texas is prone to denouncing federal oversight, assistance, and funding (unless absolutely necessary), I am struggling to find the balance when it comes to the issue of insurance. There is a fine line between promoting personal responsibility (often in the form of work requirements or substance use testing for eligibility) and liberally utilizing federal or state funding to rapidly expand health care access or lessen burdens for disenfranchised populations. With great hesitance, and as a result of this personal realization, I look forward to analyzing policies being considered by the Texas House Committee on Insurance on behalf of the Legislative Study Group (LSG), to discover common ground.
The second balance stems from personal feelings of hypocrisy as it relates to the justice system. In 2020, COVID-19 halted daily activities globally, and with stay-at-home orders in place, the world witnessed police violence in the 8-minute murder of George Floyd, who was raised in Houston. This death amplified those who died before [Sandra Bland Actauthored by Chairman Garnet Coleman] and after, spurring national and state legislative reform efforts. Although this state has unaddressed blood on its hands, I was proud to see not only the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW) in attendance, but also support from unlikely collaborators, as well as peaceful demonstrations throughout the Houston protests. Using an individual’s substance use or criminal history as a tool for justification, incarcerating protesters for peaceful assembly, any murder of Texans by law enforcement (apart from line of duty instances), and the militarization of law enforcement evokes a particular level of personal rage.
On the 6th day of 2021, as my student and legislative colleagues tried our best to keep focus in a Mexican American Legislative Leadership Foundation (MALLF) meeting, an insurrection occurred at the United States Capitol. For the second year, the world witnessed long-standing dichotomies that Americans are faced with: How “the land of the free” stands on the necks of Black Americans, while escorting predominantly white Americans out of the U.S. Capitol. What has happened in this Nation and across the great state of Texas has evoked a slew of conflicting thoughts:
- Although an unpopular statement amongst social workers, I have found benefit in Texas’ gun laws, but now I’m having second thoughts;
- I never thought that I would publicly support law enforcement’s militarized tactics against Americans or that I would secretly beg for Texas’ Department of Public Safety to increase their presence, not only on the Legislature’s Opening Day but throughout the legislative session;
- Doubt around the ability to continue as a political social worker, even though I have always had an undeniable personal commitment to protecting those impacted by the justice system and individuals that use substances;
- Given that the United States has forcefully spread democracy across the world, are the Nation and State’s public servants capable or willing to hold everyone accountable;
- Are we [GCSW’s Austin Legislative Internship Program 2021 cohort] going to be able to manage residual 2020 chaos while enduring what 2021 has in store.
With all of this said, the final challenge is balancing self-care. In social work, self-care is brought up often, but to be quite honest, we do not actually dive into what that truly means for each individual. Regarding the Austin Legislative Internship Program, it is almost a contradiction to say, “do not forget to manage self-care,” when the positions we hold directly impact our ability to do so. Thankfully, Dr. Suzanne Pritzker has created an assignment tied to the internship that enables us to discover, reflect, and prioritize our absolute “must-haves” in terms of self-care. I am grateful that LSG Executive Director Brittany Sharp continues to remind us of the basics we often neglect, “take naps when you can, eat vegetables, and drink water.” I am blessed that the 2021 cohort has made a seemingly unspoken but well-acknowledged commitment to checking-in on one another in what honestly feels to be an incomparable legislative session.