Finding empathy in politics

by Kylie McNaught, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Before we came to the Capitol, we were told, more than once, that we might feel lonely as social work students in a world of political scientists and law students. I thought that this meant that every now and then my opinion would be questioned and my ego hurt. I planned to maintain the tough exterior that I’d grown over the years to prove to myself that I can hang with the bulldogs. I’d worked in corporate America, I could handle budget pushers and “good old boys”. I thought that I was tough enough to endure the criticism and the ideas some people have about social workers being bleeding hearts. Sometimes that may be true, but it still requires courage. Caring is brave. When facing issues like school finance, foster care redesign, campus sexual assault, immigration, and criminal justice reform, it would be easy to cower away and pretend that there are bigger things to worry about. With everything going on in our state, there’s a passion project for each of us who came here. Though sometimes it doesn’t seem that we get the credit for being the courageous, intelligence, caring people we are.

What turned out to be the loneliest feeling of all, however, is the notion that while there are those like us in the building who are there for policy, there are those who are there for the politics. It’s easy to get swept up in politicking. The gossip and the shock value alone can begin to build a smoke-screen between you and what the real problems are. Then the moment hit me, as I was reading an article from the Texas Tribune about how legislators are still not addressing the population of young people who are sex trafficked after having been through the Texas foster care system. I realized that I was becoming increasingly upset about the politics of lawmaking.

We discuss incremental change, and the concept is not lost on me. I can’t truly be irrational enough to believe that social justice can be met overnight, especially in a time with such scarce resources. It is my belief that to have a passion for social work, I also have to have tinge of idealism. But when I entered into this world with so few people I’m told I can trust, it shook me.

I was assigned to track and analyze legislation before the top three committees I wanted, committees that focus on fields I’ve already worked in for years. In the Human Services Committee, we hear many stories; with my years of case management experience, I can take stories. My inner empath began to feel that surely these lawmakers will want to make radical change. Some of them do I’m sure.

As soon as I walked in to a committee meeting this Monday morning, with the cynicism that has slowly started to grow in me, I found myself looking up. A bill presented to the Human Services Committee, HB 2335, by Representative Rick Miller would advance the Trauma-Informed Care and Trust-Based Relational Intervention training for CPS case workers. It seems such an obvious idea, but it was during all 16 supportive testimonies by advocates and social workers that I remembered what I had come here for. While sometimes our Code of Ethics, empathetic tendencies, and voracity for justice can feel isolating, it’s also brave. It takes courage to step in front of people who may not always take your profession seriously and say, I care, and my goal is to make you care too.

The point of this is not to be negative, but the truth is that this job comes with a thick layer of negativity. Texas feels like Humpty Dumpty, and everyone is trying their best to piece it together, with half of the pieces missing. Everyone is working with what they have. At this point, legislation and the budget are one big risk analysis – deciding who is more important: the children or the elderly, students or veterans. As a social worker, those decisions can hurt to the core, but where there aren’t many of us, idealism has to be set aside. There can be value in having so many people who think they know best; however, we as social work students can incorporate our unique perspectives and affect change one legislator at a time.

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About GCSW Legislative Interns

This blog is brought to you courtesy of The Graduate College of Social Work's Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. Student interns work as full-time staffers in the Legislature, either as policy analysts with the Legislative Study Group, a Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, or in legislators’ offices. Here, they will share their unique experiences!
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