by Gracie Cuevas, intern in the office of Rep. Jessica Farrar
Part of the preparation for this University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work legislative internship consists of, what I like to think of as, Legislature Boot Camp for Social Workers. We learn about Political Social Work, advocacy, political empowerment, and all things related, within a couple of weeks before session begins. Most importantly, though, we learn about what to expect in the Texas legislative environment. We get warned about the long work hours; previous social work students that participated in this internship come and tell us about their experience; we’re filled in on the unwritten do’s and don’ts. It all sounds intense and scary, but since you’re not going through it yet, you don’t fully understand. Well…I’m starting to understand now. My days are getting longer. My tasks are piling up. My brain feels it, and my body feels it. It’s all starting to click.
I have been placed in State Representative Jessica Farrar’s office as a Legislative Intern. I’ve never worked in policy before and knew very little about politics before this. It wasn’t until my Intro to Policy course in my MSW program that I learned about Political Social Work. When I heard about this internship opportunity, I would’ve typically run the opposite direction, as this was very unfamiliar territory. Nonetheless, something told me to do it. Something sparked my curiosity just enough and I wanted to learn more about what a “macro” and/or Political Social Worker can do (I blame our Director, Dr. Pritzker, for this—her knowledge and passion for Political Social Work is infectious).
The Texas Capitol is a beautiful building; it consists of beautiful architecture and so much history. There’s antique furniture galore. When you stand in the center of the Rotunda and look up, you see a beautiful star with the letters spelling out ‘Texas’ surrounding it. Even the door hinges are engraved with the words ‘Texas Capitol’ on them. At first sight, the Capitol is like this shiny object.
To me, however, it turns out the object is not so shiny after all. During the first month or so of the 140-day legislative session, organizations and stakeholders come to talk to staff and legislators about their priorities—policies they’d like to see happen, policies they’d like members to support, and policies they’d like to see fixed or changed. With these briefings, though, comes a shining light on many challenges and problems Texans face: lack of health insurance coverage, lack of mental health services, lack of affordable child care, lack of humanity in immigration detention centers, lack of school funding, lack of affordable housing. The list goes on and on. It became overwhelming going to these briefings and listening to all the problems that are in need of change.
As someone who has once been told I am passionately analytical, I couldn’t help but wonder why? Why isn’t this all being fixed? Why isn’t this important to everyone? Isn’t it common sense that policymakers would want all of these problems fixed? These are human lives at stake. One bill affects thousands, if not millions, at a time. But, I eventually learned that it is not common sense that moves the needle here at the legislature. It’s values. Not everyone follows the same social work values provided by our National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics. The night before I wrote this post, when the state budget was being debated on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives, a member proposed increasing funding for Child Care Services, in place of funding Alternative to Abortions services as one Republican member had proposed. Despite the efforts of many Democrats arguing for this child care funding and despite the reasonably sound points they made, the amendment didn’t get the votes to pass.
To me, all issues are important, but, unfortunately, not all issues receive the same attention. Therefore, fixing all issues is not a single SMART goal. Instead, we have to celebrate smaller accomplishments; otherwise you will become discouraged and consumed with feelings of powerlessness. I say this as I continue my work on House Bill 239, not the only bill I’m assigned to, but probably the one I’m most passionate about. HB 239 seeks to clarify what social work services mean within a school setting by adding the definition to the Education Code. The bill seems simple, adding a definition for services already being provided. But it has not come without its challenges. There has been confusion and lack of awareness about what social workers do, leading certain groups of people to believe that social work services can violate parental rights. At times, it feels like I’m fighting a battle already lost. But as one very experienced member of the legislature told me, if you don’t do it, who will?
I often wonder what legislation would look like if the legislature were run by social workers—kind of a like a Utopia, I think. I realize our profession helps all people, in many ways, which is why, through this experience, I’ve never felt prouder about my profession as I do now. More social workers are needed in legislation. And that’s not just my opinion, it’s in writing:
“Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.”
-NASW Code of Ethics
(Photo Source: Texas State Preservation Board)