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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Economic Justice: Why Social Workers Should Pay Attention to Pensions

by Elizabeth Hann, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Walking up to the Capitol steps in the morning just never gets old. It feels strange being at the Texas Capitol surrounded by lawyers, aides, clerks, lobbyists, and other important staff, but this just solidifies the need to have social workers as part of the legislative process. Our perspective is so necessary when it comes to creating policy. A lot of times people forget that the laws passed really do affect people; our entire lives are surrounded and shaped by public policy. This legislative session, there are many policy debates that social workers will be interested in, such as foster care, LGBTQ issues, immigration reform, and women’s health. However, I would like to focus here on another policy area that may seem less stimulating, but that has critical social welfare implications – pensions.

Issues of economic justice often seem left behind in social work. While we focus our practice on tending to abuse, exploitation, and other horrific realities – we sometimes forget about how the economic system and the oppression that comes along with it contribute to these challenges our clients face. Right now many cities in Texas, such as Dallas and Houston, are facing a crisis. Hard-working people are getting closer and closer to losing their pensions and retirement savings. Pension funds are hemorrhaging and are in need of intervention due to a variety of reasons, including bad pension fund investments, unrealistic assumed rate of returns on earnings in pension funds, and the mismanagement of pension funds. Texas workers who have paid into a pension system for their entire career with the promise of public pension benefits are about to lose it all. We have let this volcano simmer for years and it’s about to burst.

So why is this a social work issue? The preamble to the NASW Code of Ethics reminds us that the “primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable.” In Texas, public workers are vulnerable. If workers are unable to collect the benefits they have worked for throughout their careers and expected to receive upon retirement, many will be forced to live in poverty and may need to utilize social programs to survive. Some public employees are particularly hard hit by this, because, by law, 30% of employees of state and local governments do not pay into or earn Social Security. People who are not social work clients now may be very soon as they head into retirement with limited or no financial support.

There are many things that social workers do to help others and there are many problems that require our attention. We need to make sure that in our efforts to aid our clients and fix broken systems that we don’t leave anyone behind. You don’t need to be an economist or an accountant to see that there is a problem in Texas with the way we handle money. The Texas Retirement System has an unfunded accrued liability of $60 billion. Without proper reform now, our pensions will not be able to stay afloat and will cost the taxpayer billions of dollars. Many times, our spending priorities don’t make sense but we have to continue to fight for the vulnerable even if it means getting out of our comfort zone. I hope that I am able to continue to understand these struggles and am able to fight for economic justice here in the Texas Legislature this session.

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Means of Resistance

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

Texas Muslim Capitol Day is an annual event in Austin where Muslim communities across the state gather to experience state government and engage in the political process. Many attendees are young students learning about civic advocacy. This year, Texas Muslim Capitol Day happened to fall on the week after President Trump released his executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and halting refugee settlements. Xenophobes were emboldened, and social workers were cringing. As frustrating as the current political climate is, it has given us opportunities to act in both mundane and monumental ways. I don’t think anything illustrates those opportunities better than Texas Muslim Capitol Day.

As a policy analyst at the legislature, it is my job to figure out how legislation will actually impact the lives of working Texas families. The travel ban is an example of a policy that collides with social work values that stand on inclusivity, social justice, and individual worth. I think the most exhilarating part of working at the Capitol during session is being able to act on the theories and tactics of community development that I learned about in the classroom. I have the opportunity to identify the strategies used by grassroots organizations and see what works and what doesn’t. I am faced with injustice, and yet I get to be a part of the fight for equality.

That’s why I was moved and motivated by the organizers who decided to stand up and protect the attendees at Texas Muslim Capitol Day. During the 2015,legislative session, there were roughly two dozen people who decided to show up to this event to disrupt the speakers and cause a distraction. This year, they were not going to let that happen. So with just uniform t-shirts and a bull horn, they mobilized a group of 1000 people to form a human perimeter around the attendees. The organizers were originally hoping to form one line around the entire event with no gaps—instead, we were three lines deep.

tiffany-statue-picI stood arm and arm with two women who had been involved in peaceful protests since the 1970’s. I come from a conservative, southern upbringing—women in my family don’t do this—so I was empowered by their stories, and wise words.  We all faced a statue of a soldier on a horse that read: “I always feel safe when the [Texas] Rangers are in front” by General Hardee. But today, we did not have badges or uniforms. We were very ordinary people who agreed that social justice was worth the fight. All of my anger, frustration, and heartbreak over the recent executive orders turned into tears of relief when the human perimeter erupted in applause in response to the Muslim men, women, and children entering the grounds. It was their faces: they were touched and I knew they felt safe.  As a Christian, it is my belief that all are inherently loved by their Creator, and as a social worker, that all people have dignity and worth. Everyone deserves to be seen and respected. Today I got to act on those beliefs.

As the House Committee on County Affairs Clerk, I do not get to attend every march or protest that exemplifies my values. I spend a lot of my time prepping the committee chair, Representative Garnet Coleman, on his hearings, writing press releases and short speeches, and tracking bills. These tasks are not glamorous or tear worthy but I do believe they make small contributions to social justice by pushing good policy. Activities like this are still good ways to live out our social work values. It’s not just monumental marches, but through everyday interactions and activities, that the world changes. We can enact change when we help an elected official push policy, but also through the way we talk to a cleaning attendant in the bathroom.tiffany-pic

I do not think in order to be an effective social worker or advocate in this political season you must have an office in the Capitol. I do think we need to be acting on what we are learning in the classroom by investing our social work skills in our communities. We can be holding our local businesses accountable to ethical practices, voting in local elections, or advocating for our clients’ needs. Many clients of ours are feeling like they do not belong, are not wanted, or are not worthy of love. We all have the opportunity to fight for social justice and act in our everyday lives. Let’s not wait until for the next promotion, protest, or position of power to begin working to make a difference.

 

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On the Need to Take Back Our Power

by Trang-Thu (Mimi) Duong interning in the office of Representative Gene Wu

Here, at the Capitol, I’m experiencing what the depths of power look like. Every day I walk into an elevator that takes me underground, two floors beneath the massive 308-foot pink dome that holds up the Texas Goddess of Liberty. The elevator opens up to a maze of hallways and arches. I walk out among the thousands of people running inside and underneath the Capitol that will keep the place running for the next 97 days. We only have 97 days (including weekends) before the end of the 85th Texas Legislative Session. The power to pull off that combined effort is an awesome thing to be in. Awesome in the sense of inspiring extreme admiration and awesome in the sense of invoking total and complete fear. I’ve never been this close to it before.

State Representatives and Senators (collectively called Members) think of an idea ideally brought up by people who live in their hometowns around Texas. They come up with these ideas in different ways, some as simple as the phone ringing and a constituent saying, “Hello?? We need to be doing better for those foster care kids!” Someone like the Member I work for, Representative Gene Wu of Southwest Houston, will then talk to experts like judges, attorneys, CPS case workers, child welfare advocates, etc. to flesh out what can and should be done to meet that concern. Rep. Wu, who is a practicing lawyer for CPS and youth in the juvenile justice system, works with his power-grinding staff and a group of lawyers called the Texas Legislative Council. On a daily basis, they work together to draft up bills that could become laws. They write the next RULES OF TEXAS. Our Texas! They get to decide how we learn in school, what air we breathe, who gets to live in our state, who goes to jail for what, what pipelines go where… and I’m sitting here watching them come up with rules on how we live.

I’m helping them, too. I’m pushing bills that address the root causes of social problems. This means that I’m a part of meetings with experts and professionals that discuss unintended consequences and who work to move these bills forward. I track our bills through the legislative process. And, really, I get to try to do better for our kids. To work as a health and human services policy analyst for a progressive and well-informed member, a Southeast Asian immigrant member who represents a district made up of people of color, immigrants, and refugees is humbling, especially because it’s the neighborhood I grew up in. It’s like watching someone you love open a present that you know they REALLY wanted; it’s heartbreaking and beautiful to be a part of the happiness that you contributed to. You know for a brief moment in time that someone’s life was better. And that’s an awesome feeling.

But then there’s the total and complete fear side of awe. The side that makes your skin jump away from your bones and leaves you feeling naked. The fear when you look around and realize a Member seems to have no idea what deporting real Texans will do for our state or has never met a transgender person. The fear when you look around and recognize the same personalities and egos you met in high school when you were a teenager. I see the awkward science club kids who meet at school on a Friday night, the loners, rich popular cliques, and teachers’ pets. I see the bullies. I see people who say what women choose to do with their bodies is wrong, that they know better. Because they think they’re awesome.

My Chief of Staff says that the Texas Legislative process is meant to kill more bills than to pass them into law, and that every day I’m not pushing my bills means that they are dying. So, I know that many of the bills that make me feel sad are dying too. However, maybe we can also get one step closer to doing better for our kids. Just maybe, if more science club kids were involved in this process, our lives could be safer. Social workers need to be here. Attorneys for children need to be here. People who believe Black Lives Matter need to be here, and immigrants who don’t believe in the Muslim ban do too. People who don’t think it’s weird to have equal rights for all people should be pushing bills. We all need to know the depths of awesome power these Members have over our lives. We need to know how to tap into that power, and we need to work together to make sure it doesn’t consume us. Because absolute power corrupts absolutely, and we need good representatives to make sure power stays among the people.
I may not be able to press a button and vote on the House or Senate floor saying, “yes, my will to become law,” but I had no idea how much power I have to make sure me, my family, my neighborhoods, and my friends who don’t have it as good as me get to live awesome, safe, and happy lives.

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