Becoming a woman who never took politics seriously, to becoming a Texas Volunteer Deputy Voter Registrar, deputized to register voters in each of 5 counties. Then being accepted to the Austin Legislative Internship Program, and now being a Policy Analyst for the Legislative Study Group under Rep. Garnet Coleman. When I was young I thought I had it all figured out, I was totally off balance.
During my time here at the Capitol I have been nervous, excited, inspired, and disappointed. While the first three emotions are normal at the beginning, I was not expecting disappointment so soon. I was able to watch the House members in session on the floor discussing the Texas House Rules that will guide the procedures of the 86thlegislature, including newly added internal sexual harassment rules. I read these sexual harassment rules before attending and automatically wanted to amend the entire thing. At first, I was shocked that it took 86 sessions before this was put in policy. Then, I was even more stunned when I saw that no women (or men) made substantive amendments to these rules, nor did they point out how this protects the abuser rather than the victim. There was just one amendment, but it focused on ensuring that a third party could only investigate, but not prosecute the suspect, and nearly everyone approved the amendment.
To think that was enough, as part of these rules, we had to take a sexual harassment training, first instituted for legislators and their staff in the House one year ago (and criticized at the time by some for being insufficient). This training further proved the protection of the harasser and built fine lines on what sexual harassment is. It included a list of consequences for violence, but none were listed for sexual harassment. I then asked my colleagues: At what point is it OK to stand up for the rights of victims? Even if representatives have never been victims of assault, I am sure that staffers may have.
I often hear that sexual harassment is just part of the legislative culture, but at what point is it ok to stand up for women? Is the silence necessary? Do we have to settle for something is better than nothing? At that moment, I felt as though what I once was inspired by (seeing women in the Capitol), made me feel as though women were still invisible. This was not because of us not having a seat at the table, but how the culture and reputation outweighs the value and protection of victims in the Capitol.
To get my mind off of this, I decided to go to a Texas Public Policy Foundation dinner. As soon as I left the office for the day, I went straight to the venue and was the first person to arrive. As I sat and waited for people to arrive, I decided to be in the front so I could start networking. My plans were changed when eight people walked through the room, and only two of them acknowledged my presence. I felt so invisible and disappointed at the fact that in 2019 an African-American woman is still invisible.
I could have left, which is what my mind first told me to do, but instead I pulled from the strength within me and began to network as I had planned. I refused to be invisible. I went to the event for a purpose, and I am a person just as they are and I will not be treated as invisible. I will stand up, I will be heard, I will be noticed. This woman will not be invisible and subject herself to the culture that has become the norm.
I am here for an experience and to learn the process, but when I return I will stand for the rights of all people including women.
by Donisha Cotlone, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group
Article was originally posted on University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, Austin Legislative Internship Program and has been re-published with permission by all parties
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