It has been said over and over again in the media and in the halls of the Texas Capitol that the 87th Texas Legislative Session was the most aggressive in not only pushing but passing very conservative and controversial priorities in people’s recognition. It is emotionally exhausting working, and really living, every day in an environment where the social work values and ethics I embrace as personal ones are assaulted by policies. They are assaulted by policies framed as “protecting young girls” that are really just transphobic agendas meant to dehumanize people. And where cries of support for the heartbeat bill really serve to invalidate people’s (including my own) “fitness” to exercise their decision making skills over their own body, and criminalize anyone who assists in that process of deciding what is personally right for someone.
Finding a light at the end of the tunnel, or even along the way to keep going, is not always easy. Reflecting on my experience working in the Texas legislature, as a part of the Texas Legislative Study Group Caucus (LSG), emotional intelligence has been a key aspect in how I got through a rough session, have grown personally and professionally, and sustained my mental health throughout these past 140 days.
As social workers, we are taught to be aware of how we move in the world. Developing self-awareness is about doing the work regularly, especially in the rough spots, to understand how the world is impacting us as we move through the world. Jumping headfirst into legislative work where you are eating, sleeping, and breathing policies that impact social, racial, and environmental justice takes a toll. It is not always easy to process emotions while working long hours under tight deadlines due to the Texas Legislature operating under a biennial system. Knowing that I am a perfectionist in my work, often holding myself to unreasonable standards, makes this work essential. I was hard for me to admit I could not take on learning, understanding, and analyzing the Texas budget (the policy area I asked for), with a GDP now ranking over entire countries at 9th in the world, on my own.
I didn’t want to let down my supervisors and cohort who I admire by “pushing off” my work onto them. I didn’t want to let down the LSG and the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. I didn’t want to let down all the people in Texas who the budget impacts. It didn’t matter to me that my cohort had been prepped on how budget week is a team effort. I felt shame and struggled processing my emotions in response. While the work was done, I didn’t feel good about it and even more about myself. I was hard on myself and that could be seen by anyone around me. Dr. Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame really summed up where I was in those moments and how I moved forward.
Once I allowed myself to be vulnerable and share how I had been feeling, things got better. I was reminded being assigned to the budget has historically led other students to experience their own breakdowns. Not only was I no longer feeling alone, but I was better prepared to begin the process of reflecting on my own to move forward.
One of the ways I did this was by practicing humility. I reached out to show gratitude and acknowledge how my reactions could have impacted those around me, my cohort. I acknowledged where my not asking for help could have harmed them. I thanked them for the grace, love, and care they showed me in words, deeds, and actions. I acknowledged the shame and self-doubt that I allowed to encompass me was not who I am, it would not define me or our work, and through this experience I identified positive ways to move forward.
Motivation & empathy
Social workers belong in political work. I truly believe we belong working on budgets that impact individuals, families, communities, organizations, and more. We are uniquely qualified to be in this space because we not just understand how systems interact, but look for these interactions as well. In the hope of preventing the person who takes on this role after me from experiencing the emotions I felt, I am working on guides, spreadsheets, and templates to provide them with to remove some of the areas that caused unnecessary additional stress.
Just because things have always been hard doesn’t mean it needs to keep being as hard. I chose to turn my problem and dark moment into something good for those who come after me. I also used this experience to inform how my cohort may be feeling during rough spots and recognize when it wasn’t the right time to ask them for feedback because they may not have the space. Often this was my cue to listen and help them process and recognize where I may be able to adjust to help them.
I also made a point to pay attention to how I said things. When looking for feedback because I was unsure or noticed I wasn’t feeling good about something, I would preface statements with “The Story in my head”. It is important to me that while I address how I am feeling that I am not hurting anyone. One of the other ways I worked on being purposeful with my words was in affirmation statements. One my colleagues came up with the idea of affirmation bags for the LSG staff. Knowing how much being given affirmations adds value to my self-esteem I made a point to take time to think of how each person adds value to the world. This experience and cohort helped me to grow, and I wanted to be sure to this was expressed to them. When I asked for their feedback or expertise in a policy area, I made a point to implement this. I wanted to be sure my actions showed I heard them and valued their opinions and feedback.
This experience was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. My personal growth and skills I learned will help me in all aspects of my life and already have. Following the Texas Senate and House meeting in conference over the budget, I had roughly 24 hours to complete another analysis on the Texas budget. This time the process was smoother, the finished product was easier to read, and I was proud of what was accomplished. The biggest difference wasn’t the additional time learning the budget, it was that I asked for help right away and used the templates I had already started working on to give the next cohort.
I may have stayed up all night, but I didn’t experience waves of self-doubt, inadequacy, or shame. Being a perfectionist with my work can and has served me well in a lot of ways but being vulnerable and letting go of unrealistic expectations has done so much more. This is how I will be able to continue working towards good policy and advocating for change, regardless of how harmful a situation may be. Thank you to my Austin Legislative Internship Program cohort and program director Dr. Suzanne Pritzker, LSG executive director Brittany Sharp, and field supervisor Monica Faulkner for everything this session.
by Audrey Erwin, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group
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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