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.