As the end of my internship at the Texas State Capitol hurdles towards me, I am taking time to sit back and reflect on my experience. With only a couple of weeks left, I have caught myself wondering why I have not come across the ethical dilemmas I was prepared to face.
The reality is, I steamrolled though various types of dilemmas on any given day. I simply did not have the capacity to recognize what was happening in the moment and process in the manner I am used to. The demanding and fast-paced nature of working under the pink dome often leaves me too drained to evaluate the intersectionalities of my day-to-day life.
With pursuing a Master of Social Work degree at the UH Graduate College of Social Work comes adherence to six core values set by the National Association of Social Workers. These core values are meant to guide social workers’ decisions to help us serve our clients with their best interests in mind.
Let’s start with: SERVICE
Social workers are trained to put their own interests and opinions aside in order to help others overcome social problems. In the Capitol, the more prominent ways this can be seen are by finding solutions for constituents in need, filing or supporting bills that can make a positive impact on Texans, or blocking legislation that can harm Texans.
The aftermath of Winter Storm Uri provides innumerable examples of service. Many Capitol employees provided resources to those impacted, distributing water, working on legislation to prevent a wide scale electric fail from happening again, and working with constituents who received exorbitant energy bills. Elected officials’ job is to serve the people they represent; however, how everyone interprets service can leave room for prioritizing one’s own desires over the needs of a community.
Next is: DIGNITY AND WORTH OF THE PERSON
Social workers are held accountable to respect the inherent dignity and worth of every person. Think Namaste. We learn how to treat each individual respectfully, with consideration of internal and external stressors and motivations, while also allowing each person to determine what is best for them without judgement or stigmatization.
To be honest, this value appears in small, broken bits, adhering to antiquated hierarchies and acceptance of a status quo that serves those in power. Even though every staffer, intern, and elected official is in a position of high privilege, we all face how racism, sexism, ableism, and every other ism were the building blocks of our current social landscape. Those with the most “worth,” are also those with the most power, leaving the interests of all minority groups left to hitchhike to the finish line.
Any deviation from the accepted structure results in some form of backlash. For example, when members structure their offices in non-conventional ways, staff and other members are quick to exclaim why it will not work compared to the traditional hierarchy. When freshman members opt not to sit on the sidelines all session, others retaliate to show them their place. Dignity and worth come with an invitation-only disclaimer.
Now we discuss: IMPORTANCE OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS
Social workers understand that relationships are instrumental in creating change. One of the biggest downsides of relationships at the Capitol, however, is never really knowing which relationships are genuine and which are strategic. Strategic relationships are beneficial because they can provide avenues of support for controversial bills, but result in guarded behavior.
Strategic relationships are developed between members, lobbyists, activists, community members, and staffers. Having good relationships with lobbyists can mean an avalanche of information, steady support, and donations. Bonds between members could help pass or block bills in various ways. Staffer relationships could mean receiving an inside scoop, getting a bill farther along, food on a never-ending day, invitations to events you would not otherwise know of, and having a wealth of others’ wisdom and knowledge at your fingertips. Constituents and community partners give insight into what is important to Texans, painting a real picture of what needs to be changed.
Time for: COMPETENCE
Within social work, we work within our areas of expertise and continuously strive to increase our professional knowledge. In the Capitol, competence is often associated with title, regardless of someone’s performance or expertise. Representatives often lay out bills outside their scope of professional practice and attempt to repudiate those who have spent a lifetime becoming true experts on the topics. Regardless of background, interns and junior staffers are often not considered equipped or capable of handling policy work, discussions with stakeholders, or understanding the dynamics surrounding them. Again, competence is seen as a quality bestowed upon those in power.
Second to last we discuss: SOCIAL JUSTICE
Social workers are expected to challenge social injustice and pursue change with vulnerable populations in mind. Being aware and informing others of oppression and valuing diversity is at the core of facilitating systemic change, since every fabric of our communal quilt was threaded with past lives that did not value justice for all.
Social justice can be seen as a motivating factor for many at the Capitol, in every category of profession or life that walks through the halls. Social injustice is also seen in the same fashion. We have seen voter suppression bills, anti-abortion bills, bills leaving individuals vulnerable to losing access to fair trials, bills compromising children’s best interests, anti-trans bills, bill criminalizing vulnerable populations, and many, many other bills that put the interests of a few above the right to life of many.
Throughout the 87th Legislative Session, it has been difficult to watch committee hearings where people fight tirelessly for their rights. Discussions and votes on the floor of the House of Representatives have made me go numb, as I watch my rights, and the rights of every other Texan, being voted against. It is a long, uphill battle. Even so, I have heard a chorus of voices strengthened and invigorated to keep on fighting for a Texas with inclusion and justice for all.
Finally … Wait for it … INTEGRITY
Social workers must behave honestly, responsibly, and in line with our ethical standards. Integrity is tricky to define within a politically-charged profession. Many face the dilemma of having to choose between sticking to their values and ethics or bending them in the hopes of passing more bills that can help Texans. It is so easy to get caught up in the game that we can forget to check in and re-evaluate if we really intend to be making the decisions we are making. At what point is bending our values wrong? What if I have years’ worth of alliances built with people, but they decide to kill a bill advancing social justice, or bring back up a harmful bill simply because someone offended them? How does that make me look?
At first glance, it may appear as though I would be aligning with someone who will only hurt others. However, forming a relationship with someone who supports opposite viewpoints could keep one of my good bills from being killed. Their support of a bill of mine could result in more members voting for the bill to pass. The Capitol is full of reciprocated favors, we just never know when someone is blowing smoke or may change their minds.
It seems as though everything in the world of politics is fair game when it comes to others’ lives. I have heard a good number of people say that working in politics is not like House of Cards or West Wing. Although I have yet to witness someone being intentionally thrown in front of a subway train to prevent exposing a scandal, I have seen behavior that puts a pit in my stomach and leaves me wondering how so many people incapable of managing their emotions are elected into positions that will impact millions of people.
My last point: ADVOCACY
Advocacy works y’all! Be loud and proud of the values you believe in and the changes you want to see happen. Let your local, state, and federal elected officials know how these bills impact your life. Learn who the stakeholders are and get them involved. Politics has taught me that if the people in power have the last say, then it is my job to find out who those in power listen to. This is where my natural inclination to include statistics and speak eloquently with proof does not get the job done. Creating change from within requires personal stories that tug at people’s hearts. Finding financial benefits to the changes we want to see can help.
It would seem as though having stories, proving financial benefit, and even sharing statistics that prove success would be enough to get our message across. But in the challenges it poses for our social work values, politics is not governed by logic or common sense. Politics is governed by using our collective voice in our local elections, complaining to every office we can call, informing others of the power they carry as constituents, learning about how to shake things ups, and demanding equitable representation and changes in policies through strikes and protests. As many paved the way for us to experience the freedoms of today, we must continue to take the path less travelled to create an even brighter future for those watching us with admiration and hopeful hearts for the freedom to fully live without fear of discrimination, assault, poverty, incarceration, and death for simply being born.
It is always the right time to be the change we want to see in the world.
by Jax Gheorghe, intern with Rep. Penny Morales-Shaw
Originally posted from University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work’s Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. This post was syndicated with permission from its authors.
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