How am I doing? This blog post is over two-weeks late and this is the fifth time I have attempted to sit down and write. What started as an eloquent condensed comparison of problematic occurrences in the Legislature and Social Work has turned into somewhat of a long-winded, process journal.
I have witnessed the realities of toggling between over-criminalization and medicalization throughout my life, and both hold significant consequences. I have come across many individuals that continue to be beaten into shame over their humanity, driving honest expressions and personal truths to become secrets that get buried beneath the masks worn to ensure others are comfortable. Over a decade ago, I lost my soulmate to the consequences of prohibition. Every year since then, I have either lost someone I loved or witnessed someone I adore lose their will and self-determination because of incarceration or involuntary commitment.
Although I am not my diagnosis, I am a woman with attention deficit disorder that closely mimics traits of autism; that continues to battle through depressive episodes; who self-medicates; and despite familial history, runs from the reality of a bipolar diagnosis. Regardless of attempts to camouflage or mask this, I have never fit the mold of what is expected in my family, relationships, academia, or workplaces.
Since 1991, I have challenged every authority I encounter with inherent disdain. I cannot begin to count the number of peers I have angered by pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in social work theories and the Code of Ethics. I have always known that my nature to protect is triggered when those who intend to help cause unintentional harm or if someone intentionally causes harm or discriminates against those I love.
Observations and Commonalities
Throughout this session, I have come to realize that any time I hear ignorant comments that allude to “Texans are getting [evil policies enacted] what they deserve [electeds]” – I get into protection mode. Honestly, the audacity. These folx have zero idea of how gerrymandered the State is or the level of voter suppression residents are subjected to, now with enhanced stakes of misdemeanors and third-degree felonies for participating in civic duties.
I have the natural tendency to disrupt and challenge. Although each of us was warned about political games that ensue before the session started, at this point, I inherently cannot comprehend the purpose of playing. Due to the legislation that survived both chambers, I foresee my greatest fears unfolding before my eyes, laying the groundwork for heightened emotional silos and justification for secession over future federal intrusion. Given that I am on the brink of burnout, disappointed, frustrated, and angry – I have had enough of mindless games. Personally, in order to feel truly safe in this State, I need total abolition and overhaul of every fascist piece of legislation codified.
Over the last 2 months, I have been pondering what the Legislature would look like if the culture acknowledged and supported neurodiversity. This thought led me to realize the existence of these inherent problems within the social work profession itself. What would these cultures look like if practitioners and representatives truly acted as if they respected, listened to, and amended ‘rules’ and policies to reflect neurodiversity? What would occur if we genuinely took the time to understand our intention and treated others as humans before intruding into their lives and assuming we know best?
It might be depression, but the ability to utilize neurodiversity and lived experience to genuinely create change both within social work and the legislature is often negatively compounded by unequal power dynamics that prohibit true transparency or accountability, and by normalization of toxic environments or dehumanizing behaviors that often lead to reactivation of trauma responses.
Throughout the session, I have become a true fan of Representative Crockett, to the point I read and tracked every bill she proposed. I was bewildered to witness bureaucracy kill many of her bills, regardless of how well written and the positive impacts that could have occurred with passage. For instance, a few no-knock bills were introduced this session, and I cannot fathom why the bill that would produce actual change was sidelined. I noticed how instead of prepping future staff and Representatives alike with knowledge and passage of the legislative torch, many seem to hold on to their power with no intention of setting others up for success. I wish there were no reelection fears because I feel that many of the Freshman and Sophomore Representatives would have met these terrible bills with full force in Committee and on the House floor. Why are we playing games that uphold the power of fascists?
Transparency and Accountability.
Is the purpose of the Legislative body to propose and implement good policy or play games with the lives of Texans? Given that Democrats do not have the numbers to truly fight the Legislature’s nature of party-line voting on the floor (the irony), it was disheartening to witness power dynamics transition to bills escaping from Democratic-chaired committees. I can hear you all now, “Oh, they have to move some of these bills forward if they want to become the Chair next session” – NO! If that is the case, pass the least harmful ones to Texans, C’MON! I cannot fathom how someone could disagree with an amendment that would make a bill less-soulless simply because of the political party they represent. The amount of spite witnessed throughout this political game, and perpetual grudges contradict serving and meeting the needs of Texans.
I am tired of seeing ‘progressive’ bills without actual substance – it feels like fraudulent claims of progress. It would be beneficial to have absolute transparency because I have a hunch that many bills were created solely for reelection and a good headline rather than implementing good policies. On the accountability front, given that some Legislative officials participated in the 2021 insurrection, I want to know what accountability looks like for those who attempt to dismantle democracy, and I hope it is reflected in 2022 election outcomes. I want more action and less talk – for both social work and the Legislature to be about what they claim. The last thing Texans need is clout chasing social workers and officials. Each of these groups is supposed to set their emotions aside and self-correct so others may learn, yet, time and time again, ample opportunities are provided to do better, and we fail.
Normalization of Toxic Environments.
Anyone and everyone who engages in the Legislature is forewarned about the culture of harassment – which came to light as allegations of a lobbyist using substances to facilitate sexual assault arose. Regardless of the ‘outcomes,’ this toxic culture and the inability for those without power to come forward and report harassment or misconduct due to career-related repercussions is a longstanding issue. For instance, since 1973, Representative Senfronia Thompson has led the fight to speak out against harassment and was repeatedly warned and socially ostracized for giving a speech on personal privilege. I feel that these common issues only received the attention they deserved this session because, for the first time, those who work within and adjacent to the Legislature could not go out to public bars in droves and had to remain in the Capitol. There must be a culture shift to automatically believe and support those who disrupt toxic behaviors or environments and set everyone on course to what we demand.
Once dehumanization begins, no matter how minuscule an instance, it will flow into many other areas of life and practice as abuse. Since January, when dehumanizing language is included in bills and introduced in Committee hearings, it becomes interwoven into multitudes of policies that harm all Texans.
Given the neurological diversity of this state, I cannot comprehend the intentional containment of environments and systems that do not allow for or provide ample support and time to process. How is anyone expected to recharge, operate, and continue working while some Texan’s humanity is being debated on Legislative floors? From harmful and outright fictitious testimony to overt attacks – the emotional toll of the Legislature is amplified for those with emotional, behavioral, or mental health differences.
Socialized and Structural White Supremacy
Every system in place, including those intended to serve, help, or reduce harm, is rooted in white supremacy – which must be considered in every circumstance where intervention or change is sought. Even though each of us was warned about the Legislature and realize the historical harms, I expected better than:
- Hyper-focus on individual freedoms, regardless of how they endanger others;
- Option rather than requirement of virtual testimony;
- The assumption that constituents can take off work, travel, afford a hotel to participate in the legislative process;
- The fact that there is no predetermined order of when bills will be heard in committee;
- Lack of notification or alert systems for when it is your turn to testify, coupled with a lack of interpreters to timely respond as needed;
- Sitting through hours of testimony in packed Committee rooms that do not allow water and snacks or have adaptable podiums or furniture;
- The ability to revise 3-day posting rules or even forfeit Committee hearings on bills;
- Circumventing the public’s ability to view new legislative language in bill substitutes before a hearing;
- Political silos that impact voting on the House floor, and even when your own ‘party’ holds you back; and
- The normalization of ‘small incremental wins;’ taking 6 years (or three sessions) to pass legislation; there being nearly 500 ways to kill a bill and only one way for passage; norms that often gut important intentions, causing folx in this exclusive highly environment to wait for another 2 years to add amendments.
Within the Legislature and social work, professionalism and savior complexes are painfully apparent. The assumption that a social worker or representative could possibly “speak for those without a voice” better than they could themselves if given the proper opportunity is socialized white supremacy. Throughout this experience, I have noticed cultures that give in to ego, notoriety, covert and overt narcissism, and privilege. Regarding the lived experience of generational racism, within the Legislature and social work, there is this inability of white folx to keep quiet and admit ignorance that creates tension when crucial questions are asked – causing avoidance and adoption of assumptions over asking clarifying questions.
There is an overwhelming need to end ties with the perpetual illusion of helping without genuine introspection of one’s intentions. At this point, it is not enough to do better – we have no choice but to act and be better. To me, this means ending the tethering to carceral systems because how can a social worker or representative be trusted and effective if they continue to associate with systems that cause inherent harms?
How can we pass open-carry legislation while we still have not come to a head with our racist upbringing and continuation of racist policies? I fear Texas is moving towards statewide stand your ground laws that could justify blatant racist shootings… and end up in outright civil war.
How to Manage
I am thankful that I entered this internship with three humans that I love and could remain grounded alongside, despite my personal tantrums. Before the session began, I self-reflected with my eclectic accountability team to reaffirm where I need growth, which helped alleviate some of my bullheaded nature. Also, I took every precaution to ensure my mental health remained intact for as long as possible by being remote, in nature, and with my dog.
During the chaos, there were common themes around trust, connection, and neurodiversity: Trusting my gut (in all regards), specifically trusting that I know what I need, and not guilting myself for recovering. This work is mentally and emotionally draining – at any moment, the limited amount of time allowed for basic needs to be met could be immediately interrupted, and your feet are then held to the fire with unrealistic tasks and deadlines. For what felt like an eternity, Criminal Jurisprudence and Insurance bombarded the House’s floor calendar – resulting in my total mental breakdown. It was interesting to witness that once stress alleviated a bit, how quickly depression set in. Let me make this clear; it is not that neurodiverse folx cannot handle working within the Legislature (I biasedly feel we are an unparalleled asset) — no one should be unnecessarily subjected to toxic nonsense that could be easily resolved or mediated.
- After being quarantined for a year, it took preparation for me to be around others – and I got out of going in by being virtual most of the session, to be completely honest.
- Connecting with offices and stakeholders (via email, phone, zoom, or in-person) on bills I love was restorative – the reminder that there are like-minded folx in the Legislature staying true to disrupting, challenging, and fighting.
- Not having stemming stuff or my dog and being forced into stiff, uncomfortable “professional” clothing caused me to essentially move into our building (recreating my safe, comfy space) towards the end of the session when I was not fully remote.
- It was astonishing how well the intern team at the LSG worked together. Part of that was recognizing what the other(s) needed and adopting roles to keep the machine rolling (floor reports, our capacity to continue working, etc.). It was essential to acknowledge and give space when we all started operating out of survival mode. For instance, before the budget week began, the LSG disclosed what we need from others when we are at our worst.
- Watching nonsensical television or specific shows helped me tap into my emotions to self-regulate, meaning I did not necessarily have to bottle everything up. Having something to disassociate with dramatically helped my introverted nature – like bawling alone to ‘This is Us’ and ‘Good Doctor’ on Hulu. Without this, I would have taken on my peers’ emotions and the ship would have truly sunk for anyone I interacted with regularly.
- Managing through the last few weeks of session looked like: truly being secure within myself; realizing that I am not my degree, career, or job title – I am a human; refusals to subject myself to toxic environments or people; enjoying the simple things; and being in nature.
I can say that working in an environment that forces you to operate on the bare minimum and burns you out helps you refocus on what you truly need and reimagine any and every possibility (career and life). Since January I have discovered that my tendency to disrupt occurs when I am forced into toxic environments that normalize trauma bonding or when I hear, “it has always been done this way.” Regardless of how minuscule or dire the circumstances may be, I have realized that this intrinsic nature to challenge is unapologetic, and usually unintentional activism.
This experience at the legislature I have discovered:
- The need to educate the legislature and social work about harm reduction and remind others to see the humanity in everyone and every moment before jumping to preconceived notions or career titles (human first, social worker second).
- Personal commitments of: refusing to continue negative cycles, disrupting problematic systems and challenging normalized or overlooked behaviors – to scream about transparency and accountability until it is actualized in every aspect of policy and social work.
- I am not the one to work within a system and adhere to nonsensical rules – I am an activist to the core regardless of the masks I try to wear.
- The indescribable benefits of surrounding oneself with those that challenge, disrupt, and force me to hold myself and others to a higher standard.
- To remain firm in non-negotiable boundaries, flexible enough to compromise on what is up for grabs, and grounded enough to double down and fight when policies infringe upon the right to pursue happiness.
- That I am more bold and unapologetic than I could have ever fathomed.
- My capacity, even in the worst of times.
- That I am the exact person I present to the world, even amid chaos.
- There are no consequences to standing alone, however uncomfortable it may be in the moment.
- I know what I need, and what I will never tolerate ever again (in my relationships and work).
- The freedom to truly be myself is not risky; it is the safest I have felt and my authentic display of humanity is exactly what is needed in this society.
- What others perceive as faults or successes are merely representations of my continual evolution in growth. I am a combination of every decision made and human that I ever loved… and I am… or we are.. absolutely fucking perfect.
Last week I kept receiving “happy graduation” texts, and to be honest… my first thought was, “GET ME OUT OF HERE!” I could include some cliche quote about “not being able to connect the dots until you are far enough away to look back” – but let us get real… I have zero intention to look back (goodbye, past) and intend to run with what I have experienced and learned full throttle into whatever this new life unveils.
by Chelsea Dalton Pederson, 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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