by Merci Mohagheghi, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group
Over the past two weeks, I have been responsible for 105 bill analyses on subjects that have been referred to the Texas House of Representatives’State Affairs ,Criminal Jurisprudence, and Natural Resources committees, mostly on topics that I had zero prior knowledge about before my internship began. This work has been accomplished through long days at work and what has felt like even longer nights working from home, easily adding up to 70+ hour weeks. With all of that being said, please, bear with me as I try to articulate my experience here and the little time I have had for self-reflection.
I have come to the conclusion that the real beauty of the Capitol is not that of the few and the privileged who work within its walls, but rather, it is the advocates, activists, and allies that show up and do the work to make their stances known around a certain cause or issue. Being assigned to analyze legislation considered by three very different committees, I have witnessed and interacted with many of these people. Advocacy work in and of itself is not just showing up and making your voice heard in a public platform. It is more than having a reasonable reason to push for policy. It is more than your single lived experience. It is through the work of organizing that advocacy efforts become codified into law. I was recently given a book to read that discusses the complexity of building movements for justice and it defines organizing as “a process of resistance and challenge, embodying an alternative vision of society and on-the-ground means of working toward it.”
I sat with that sentence thinking about the numerous testimonies I have listened to over the past five months and seeing the direct result of what a well-organized movement can look like.A particular state affairs hearing (Part 1 and Part 2) reminded me how the work done by those who show up can be beautiful, moving and empowering as hell. The group of bills that were being heard were all related to prohibiting political subdivisions (e.g., cities, counties) from adopting their own local ordinances related to providing employment leave, paid days off for holidays and sick days, compensating employees for overtime, and non-discrimination practices that apply to those with a criminal history record or those who identify as LGBTQ.
This particular committee hearing started at 8 AM and adjourned at 9:55 AM to take a break, because the full body of the House of Representatives was set to convene at 10 AM. Because of deliberations on the House floor, this committee meeting did not reconvene until 7:41 PM and then continued until 11:58 PM. Let me remind you, only four bills were being heard during this six hours of committee meeting time.
The reason it took so long? The total number of witnesses registered to testify was over 480. At 8:19 PM (I know the specific time only because I had taken a screenshot to send to my boss) there were 316 people still waiting to testify. Many people stayed throughout the day after the first adjournment, others left and came back, and yet others joined the hearing once they got off work to make their voices heard in front of the committee members who would be making the decision as to whether these bills got voted out or were left to die in committee. You can imagine the broad range of testimony, from how these bills will impact single-parent households, to the importance of reintegration of those who have a criminal history record, to discussion of those who will be impacted for simply being who they are. The organizing to make sure so many people testified and stayed through the day and night was the direct effort of Texas AFL-CIO, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Public Policy Priorities, Equality Texas, National Association of Social Workers, Workers Defense Action Fund, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Texas Impact, along with numerous city councils and other organizations. At the end of the hearing, only one of the four bills made it out of committee (SB 2486, related to overtime pay). This bill later died in the Calendars Committee, meaning it was never placed on House calendar to be heard by the full House of Representatives).
I think about that hearing a lot. I hold onto it, especially when I am questioning what the point is at times when it seems like the Representatives do what they want regardless of any analysis you give them. I hold onto that moment, amongst others, because it reminds me of my why I continue to do what I do: to practice moral courage. Moral courage is a concept that entails a willingness to challenge authority and, when necessary, to take on unpopular causes in the name of justice, despite the risk of consequences.
Organizing and advocating despite the fact that bad bills will still get passed, despite the fact that your organization’s efforts this session did not play out the way you wanted or just fell flat, despite the fact that it feels like no one is listening and nothing will change takes courage. Showing up, day after day, session after session, takes courage. It can be so difficult to keep pressing forward when you feel like you’re not moving or making a difference. But to witness moral courage on a daily basis this session has been a privilege and has only reaffirmed why I chose the path of social work, which was founded on social change and its commitment to social justice.