Intentionally Discriminatory, Again.

by Erin Eriksen, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Therefore, this Court holds, again, that SB 14 was passed with a discriminatory purpose in violation of Section 2, of the Voting Rights Act”(Ramos, 2017).

I was sitting in on the House Elections Committee hearing today (April 10) prepared to hear HB 2481, the House’s version of the Voter ID Bill SB 5, when it started to flutter around the room that a U.S. District Court (again) made a ruling that the Voter ID Law (SB 14) passed in 2011 by the Texas Legislature was found to have intentionally discriminated against minority voters. My first thought after, thank you Judge Ramos, was oh my gosh we’re in Inception. But instead of a world that included that cool, fold-in-on-itself, bendy thing in the movie, the court reminded Texas yet again that our voter ID law, from its inception, is intentionally discriminatory and that SB 5/HB 2481 as it stands would not sufficiently rectify the issues created in 2011.

I trained as a poll watcher before the 2016 Election and became familiar with the court-ordered remedies put in place to alleviate this harsh Voter ID law. There were seven acceptable forms of ID voters could present, but if one could not present any form of ID at the time of voting, a voter could bring a supporting form of ID (such as a utility bill or a bank statement) and declare a Reasonable Impediment. Stemming from an earlier court order, multiple options were allowed under the Reasonable Impediment Declaration, ranging from lack of transportation or a loss of ID, to an option to add “other.”

To comply with the prior court’s decision, Texas lawmakers unveiled this year’s SB 5 seeking to codify such procedures put in place before the 2016 General Election, with some notable changes. One of the most glaring changes that SB5 would enshrine is that filing a false Reasonable Impediment Declaration under SB 5 would be considered a 3rd Degree Felony, punishable by anywhere between 2 and 10 years in prison. Several people testified in the House Elections Committee this evening that the severity of this punishment itself would be a form of voter intimidation. Election laws are complicated and we saw during this past election, that not only were the voters confused by the initial court-ordered remedies, but so were poll workers and Precinct Judges.

Voting Rights advocates during both hearings in the House and Senate offered up amendments to SB 5/HB 2481 that would seek to better enfranchise voters, while still allowing for ID regulations. HB 2481 was not passed out of committee tonight and it will be interesting to see what form it finally takes when it does hit the House Floor. I would encourage all of those reading to check out the video of the from the April 10 House Elections Committee meeting because it showcases some pretty amazing members of the House of Representatives advocating for voting rights, using some spot-on analogies to boot.

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The Duality of Navigating Political Arenas as a Social Worker

by Katherine Kirages, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Now, over halfway through the legislative session, I have had some time to reflect on the stark difference in conversations that I now have about this internship with family and friends, compared to my earlier conversations with them. Recently, interested parties inquire about my experiences as a social worker in the political arena, the actual impact this experience has on the communities and clients we serve as social workers, and any future plans I might have following this internship. Last night, I had a conversation with one of these people. The question that stood out the most to me regarded the clients we serve: Have I met someone directly impacted by the work I do at the Legislative Study Group?

It caught me off guard – it felt as though I hadn’t shifted my focus from daily life at the Capitol to the real outcomes following Sine Die. Day in and out under the “pink dome,” it is extremely easy to get caught up in a nearsighted routine as you move from one committee hearing to the next, interspersed with legislative briefings, networking, and lobbyist meetings. While we center our clients’ needs and interests at the forefront of every bill analysis we write, our opportunities to interact with vulnerable populations are limited when we are surrounded by elected officials and staffers.

However, my conversation last night illustrates the importance and impact of civic engagement. I quickly realized that I see people affected by these policies every day. From people traveling from the far-reaching corners of Texas to testify on a bill that can have devastating consequences to them, their families, and communities to those who testify on behalf of an agency that also serves clients for or against legislation that has the potential to impact their effectiveness and delivery of services.

As a policy analyst working for an official House caucus, the duality of our perspective as semi-integrated in the Texas Legislature, while connected to our clients, is not lost. In fact, we happen to be at an advantage. Social workers are among the most qualified and capable to engage with clients directly affected by these policies; likewise, we have the skills and experience of navigating the political system. Sharing these political strategies with communities is an integral piece of stimulating civic engagement and empowerment, in order to be an effective change agent who gives clients a role in advocacy.

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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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The Perseverance of Policymakers

by Tiffany Teate-Williams, intern in the House Committee on County Affairs

As our nation’s administration was in a state of transition, I was revving up for a boxing match and the state legislature was my ring. “Let me at ‘em!” my social work heart exclaimed, as I watched women and immigrants be casually slandered by the new president.  I thought before this legislative session started, that there was no better time in our country to be a fighter for social justice and a voice of hope for marginalized groups. I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn about the political process, and that there are generations of people before me that have been fighting this fight for decades – without boxing gloves.  Since the start of the 85th Texas Legislative Session, I have noticed how worked up I become when a bill that I think is an obvious solution or step forward for Texas dies in a committee hearing. It could be that the members who could tip the scales in favor of the bill simply weren’t there to vote – maybe they had another meeting, or perhaps they went out on a smoke break. A staff member in my office will casually say, “Oh don’t worry, they carry that bill every session – they will try again next time.” I am amazed at the perseverance of some of these members and the staff who choose to show up session after session and advocate for an issue even after they have been knocked down. I am realizing that if you come in swinging – you will get very tired very quickly.

I am learning that in order to move along policy that protects vulnerable populations or provides support systems for the forgotten, slow persistence often wins over moderate members. An example of this is a bill (this year, in the form of HB 1848) that has been filed seven times by Chairman Garnet Coleman. Since 2005, he has been attempting to change statutory language for sexual education (the Texas Health and Safety Code), as well as in the Penal Code, that is discriminatory and that criminalizes homosexuality. The following is the primary language that Chairman Coleman would like to strikethrough:  [state that homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense under Section 21.06, Penal Code].  It should be obvious to most that this language is offensive and should not be in our state Code (laws of the state); however, 12 years later, it is still there. This may be another session that the bill does not move through the process, but I have no doubt that Chairman Coleman is willing to file it seven more times.

When I hear the debates on the floor and discussions in committees regarding highly controversial issues such as sanctuary cities, healthcare, CPS reform, and others, I watch as if it is the World Series. I am on the edge of my seat, sometimes even shaking; I have cried through heartbreaking testimonies, cursed, thrown food, and clapped. I am realizing that to the members and policy makers, this is not even the playoffs. For some, they know full well they won’t pass their legislation this session. Their strategy, however, is to start the conversation. A debate on the floor of the legislature means there are 150+ witnesses to a bill’s proposed ideas, thoughts, and perspectives. Legislators are willing to return to the game each season until they get a win. I see this strategy play out on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle, and I am in awe each time I hear about a member continuously carrying bills, session after session, even when the bills do not receive support from other members.

I think this is a characteristic of the legislature that I try to hold onto, because there are ugly strategies too. Sometimes members will simply vote against another member’s bill because they are seeking revenge, or posturing, even when they think the bill is a good idea. I try not to focus on this part of the game. I do not think the state legislature can afford another person who has lost heart. The holistic perspective and critical thinking skills that social workers are taught act as valuable tools when seeking solutions to complex issues.  After observing the game from the sidelines, I am ever more convinced that there is no better time in our country for social workers to be knee-deep in the political process.

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Social-working in the Capitol

by Melissa Davila, intern in the office of Representative Jessica Farrar

At the beginning of this internship, I had a lot of questions and concerns. I was afraid of the environment I was stepping into, the people I was going to meet, and most importantly, the office I was going to be placed in. One thing I was certain of was that I wanted to be a part of the 85th Legislative Session for many reasons, but primarily I wanted to help alleviate some of the fears and stress my community has been facing.

I was placed in Representative Jessica Farrar’s office. I did my research before heading to Austin, and I knew that I was going to be in a great environment. Rep. Farrar is very loved by my community and has a lot of experience at the Capitol.

My first few weeks were hard. It felt like my head was spinning during my first day at the Capitol. I was so nervous that I forgot all of the amazing things I had read about Representative Farrar. I have always considered myself very brave and outgoing, but on that day I was shaking, I was afraid, and I was three hours away from my loved ones.

On that first day, we had our first official staff meeting. We all introduced ourselves, and to my surprise, everyone had previous policy experience except for me. I was so intimidated. While I have a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and am currently pursuing my Master’s in Social Work, I was the only one without any policy experience. On top of that I am the oldest one there – I am not your typical student – I am 34 years old.

I have learned a lot in Rep. Farrar’s office. Everyone in the office has been a legislative intern, aide, or director, which means that I am surrounded by intelligent people. My coworkers also happen to have beautiful souls. Each one of them in their particular way has empowered me and pushed me to learn a lot about different issues that I had never even considered.

I have been assigned many different responsibilities, but the one that has impacted me the most is the constituent calls that come in to the office seeking the Representative’s support. I have cried, not only once or twice, but numerous times. What can you do when you are unable to offer any more advice? What can you do when you fail to alleviate the fears and problems people face? Often, I have exhausted all of the resources available and there is absolutely nothing else I can say that can make the constituent or myself feel better. In those moments, all I can say is “I am sorry, I do not know exactly how you feel, but I am feeling your pain, and I am here for you. I am sorry you are going through this.”

In two short months, my life has changed drastically. My views and priorities have changed. I know that I am unable to change certain things, at least for now; however, I also know that I was placed here for a reason. I will continue to learn and help my community understand what their rights are and how they can advocate for improvement to their rights and on behalf of the many other important issues that we are currently facing.

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A Systematically Oppressed Way of Life

by Elsa Mendoza, intern in the office of Senator Sylvia Garcia

I thought I understood the definition of systematic oppression well enough to know that I was being affected by it due to my gender or race. Yet, I did not realize the extent of its involvement in my life. I did not realize that it had a hand in making my life exactly what it has been the entire time. This is not to say that I do not take responsibility for the choices I have made, but at least now I realize that I was given very specific choices to choose from.

This realization hit me as I watched news coverage of a distant family member of mine who had just been shot to death in a robbery. The headlines described him as a teenage boy who had been shot dead for a few dollars by another teenager, while trying to protect his mother. A friend of this family member described the unfortunate incident as a way of life; something that just happens in our neighborhoods in Houston. His mother described it as the worst thing a parent could ever go through. However, I view it as a consequence of an oppressive system that probably forced the ripple of unfortunate events that occurred that day.

Maybe it was the fact that I had just finished analyzing SB 11, a bill that is supposed to be a new beginning for our foster care system. The discussion surrounding SB 11 shows that many people agree that children in foster care need more protection. This bill is an attempt to design a system that will provide these kids community-based resources to increase their likelihood of lifelong stability and success. Analyzing this bill led me to think about how much legislation is also responsible for what happened that day my family member was shot.

As I watched the surveillance video showing these young boys robbing places that day I wondered what led them to make that choice. Was it a failing education system with a restricted curriculum that did not allow them to explore their talents? Was it involvement with a juvenile correctional system that hindered their access to a decent paying job? Was it exposure to a family system that forced them to have constant interaction with violence, drugs, or crime? Was it exposure to a broken foster care system that did not make them feel safe or stable that led them to run away to whatever other life they could create?

As I watched a family member cry about her loss, I wondered if anyone was crying for the teenager who killed the boy. I then thought about all the kids that go through these broken systems that our state legislation imposes on our lives – the kids that end up physically, mentally and spiritually drained, or even dead, because of these systems. I wondered, who cries for them?

Do the teachers that oppress some children’s minds by repeatedly telling them they will be nothing in life, do they cry for them? Do the judges that punish these kids with unreasonable sentences in facilities that give them little emotional or mental help, do they cry for them? Do the family members that refuse to break old habits and give up on their ability to care for the kids’ well-being, do they cry for them? Do the caseworkers that lack the time and resources to invest enough interest in making sure kids are in a stable environment, do they cry for them? Do the legislators who create, change and support laws that keep these kids from being able to know what it feels like to be empowered, do they cry for them?

If these are the only individuals a kid is exposed to for his or her entire life, and if these individuals do not cry for them and show them that they care, how will these kids ever learn to cry for others? How are we going to expect someone who has never been valued and cared about to do the same for another human being?

I do not know what made that teen pull the trigger. I do not know what he was thinking about as he took a life. All I know is that as I read SB 11, I could only hope that this was the right step at protecting more children. All I could do is hope that we have found a way to dissolve one of the many oppressive systems in our state that is likely producing more kids that do not value life.



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Navigating a New World

by Fabeain Barkwell, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

As I look back over the time I have spent here in Austin, it seems like it was just yesterday that I was driving down I-35 with a car full of my belongings extremely eager about the new journey I was beginning. Who would have thought that two months could go by this fast? Who would have thought that the enthusiasm I felt when I first got here would multiply into so many other emotions: from anger to excitement, sadness to frustration, but most importantly resilience. It’s no mystery that you have to possess a certain type of tenacity in order to be a social worker. The work we do calls for strong ethical values, competence, firmness in stressful situations, and calmness when dealing with crises. Collectively, my past experiences have been in more clinically-applied settings that required me to call on these ideals daily. Surprisingly though, the same skillset I developed in the clinical sector has been transferable. I have been able to utilize skills like critical thinking, clarifying, being respectful of cultural diversity, formulating plans, and above all, advocating just as much here in the Capitol.

The first few weeks here it felt like I was drinking from a water hydrant. So much information was being given, and I was just trying to absorb as much as possible. I knew coming into this internship that I was testing different waters I had never been in before. What I didn’t recognize was how complex this environment would be. There is no book or video that can prepare you for the uniqueness, good or bad, of working at the Capitol. Only a first-hand experience can do that. It is amazing to be at the center of the state, in a place where life-changing decisions are being made, and getting to play a role in that. To walk the same halls as elected officials who are bringing law into life is truly an honor.  As a policy analyst in the Legislative Study Group, I am responsible for examining legislation from the perspective of working Texas families, and then writing brief analyses of those bills. Being on this side of policy-making is so rewarding and challenging at the same time. I have had the opportunity to lock arms in solidarity to protect the Muslim community fighting against prejudice, walk side by side in a march against fear mongering of immigrants, and be at press conferences that speak of police reform, supporting those with mental illness, and ending racial profiling.

I think as a social worker the ability to comprehend the impact that legislation can have on Texas families comes as second nature. However, what can sometimes be disheartening is realizing that other people seem to not understand those impacts and instead seemingly utilize policy for their own agendas. While this is a challenge, I would say one of the most valuable lessons I have learned while being here is understanding that those who may disagree with something that I support must have a reason to be just as passionate about their belief, and that is OK. Nevertheless, cooperation and respect are always needed in order to help those on whose behalf we are representing and advocating. Reflecting on the time I’ve been here, and the three months left, I am still thrilled about the difference that I will be making. I’m looking forward to the work I will be doing in my committees, and will continue to be steadfast in the job that I have come here to do!


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