by Elizabeth Churaman, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group
Politics are a fickle thing, sometimes very predictable; other times, obtuse, or even down-right dirty. In a place far away from Texas, a woman named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) unseated a long-time Democratic incumbent in a New York Congressional district in 2018. Waves rippled across the nation as a young woman of color took a political arena by storm without taking funds from political action committees (PACs) and without compromising her voice and values.
As someone who could identify with AOC as a young woman going into a new political arena, it was inspiring to see such a dramatic vertical climb. Working as a legislative intern in the Texas Capitol has tested who I am as a young, progressive, woman of color, first-generation student, child of immigrants, many facets of what makes me, me. Things I had never thought about, I now have perspective on, and I have learned about nuances in other viewpoints that I would have never been exposed to if I had not been working in a politically supercharged arena.
Being able to more actively see from a perspective very different from my own has made me hyper-aware of what my own perception is of the minority or person of color experience in politics. A small example of this is ladies’ grooming I’ve witnessed around the Capitol. Most women I see wear their hair down and straight, slim or skimming skirts and dresses, a heel of some sort, and makeup maintained. Myself, as a woman of color, felt the most hindrance when it came to styling my hair.
Popular media shows that natural hair has somewhat been a point of controversy in the past. As a woman who wears natural hair, I was very aware of the “look” everyone had upon entering the Capitol. Many minority women I saw also conformed to the “down and straight” narrative. I can understand it in a way, as straight hair is easier to maintain and deal with when working days that last more than eight hours, but I felt as if my hair was a small part of me I could hold on to without compromising the facet of work I participate in. But having high quality work glided over by something so trivial as my hair being natural is extremely frustrating. This is even more frustrating because it feels as if working in politics, one would need to be more conscious or empathetic of other people’s perspectives or values, as you don’t always represent only your interests but also the interests of your constituents.
Being in the Capitol has taught me a lot about myself, what I want to stand for and what I value at my core, rather than the superficial influence of those around me. With many opinions swirling and information on a constant stream, it has taken intention and commitment for me to maintain an informed, sound perspective. While working in a bipartisan caucus means losing a bit of my voice and volume, it does not diminish my own values in any way. If anything, I believe it makes me hone in on my own thoughts more easily, as I must dive deeply into the many niches of policy on the subjects at hand.
Having exposure to many different types of policy and approaches is not without its own conflicts. Recently some information came across my desk that initially seemed to be something I would personally support. As I dove deeper into the background information on the topic, I could feel my initial outlook melt away, as my own personal values found conflict with the piece in front of me. To have personal value conflict with a work-related task, while not unique to the political realm, is something that can create a great deal of internal noise as one tries to navigate the weaving and even treacherous road that may lay ahead. Separating personal values from the realm of policy analysis is difficult, but not impossible. It is a constant balancing act that takes work and consciousness on a daily basis.
As a socially conscious individual, it has been difficult sometimes separating the emotions that may arise when thinking of the human toll policy can take on the public from the politics that run throughout policy itself. I believe a social work perspective can be helpful when looking at policy, as it can create a more three-dimensional view of policy; focusing our attention on people, the environment, and the governmental changes themselves. Being able to approach a subject from many perspectives, I believe, could help someone in policy to gain an idea of opposition or even shortcomings in their own policy proposal before it is presented to the appropriate governing bodies.
The daunting task of policy is sometimes seen as a place that isn’t for someone who would call themselves a ‘people person;’ in reality, someone who is a people person – one who cares about people and can consider other people’s perspectives – is someone who would flourish in politics. When AOC took office, she sent ripples across the nation. She proved it’s not only an elite class of privileged individuals that hold the cards in our political arena. With pure tenacity, dedication, and a little bit of luck, someone who looks and thinks just like an everyday person can make a large difference. It is inspiring seeing someone like AOC flourish in politics – someone who looks like you, may reflect some of your values, and who you can relate to on an everyday basis.
Working as an intern in the Texas Capitol as a woman of color while seeing many other women of color flood Congress creates a sense of comradery and hope: Hope that there are people in politics with the average voter’s interests at heart. This keeps me personally motivated to stay optimistic and true to my roots when it comes to working in policy in the future.