Reflections on the Experience of Co-Chairing the NASW Oregon Legislative Committee
Henry: I think for myself and my co-chairs, the major goal was to build a more robust committee, to create a sense of community and shared purpose. Maybe even to inspire one another. How have we gone about doing that?
Firstly, we have reached out to our communities, in particular the student social work community. We’ve striven to demystify the idea of legislative action. The reality is, you don’t need special skills or knowledge to influence the political process (we certainly don’t have any!). We’ve tried to show that political action is a process of sharing.
Second, we have made a stand against cynicism. Cynicism is the single most powerful force in modern American politics and it lurks everywhere. We have taught ourselves hope, humor, and empowerment. We have done this by sharing our senses of humor and gratitude. And by playfully refusing to be intimidated. The result is that we have added the voice of social work to many important causes and changes in the Oregon political landscape.
To have an impact on Oregon politics you do need to have a unique perspective and voice, and as people involved in social work, we have that in spades. Even more importantly, we have power of listening, of letting our views become informed by our clients’ outlooks. This is a crucial perspective, and it is valuable to legislators because it speaks from a place of hope, compassion, and integrity. It empowers legislators who care about marginalized populations, and it acts as a call of conscience to those who might otherwise ignore the needs of marginalized groups.
I think of us as being one part planners and one part improvisers. Some of the most fun and valuable work we have done has been the product of careful, long term efforts; for example some of the events we’ve created (such as Days of Action and discussion panels). However we’re also quick and mobile and we’ve been able to jump in to lend our voices to important bills on a moment’s notice. Having a playful, crafty, and heartful lobbyist in Caleb Hayes helps us to cut through the complexity of the political system.
What do I hope the next co-chairs bring to the role? That they’ll have good senses of humor, playfulness, and sharing. That they’ll be able to dig deep into the needs of oppressed and marginalized folk, and find ways to bring their voices to the ears of lawmakers and legislators. This includes increasing the diversity of our committee membership. I hope they’ll be able to continue to build the political social work community that we’ve been working toward.
Kelly: For me the experience of being co-chair has been incredibly rewarding and a form of self-care. For me, a large part of self-care is about finding ways that I feel connected to things greater than myself and the Legislative Committee has certainly provided me with that opportunity. Another incredible experience of being co-chair has been the process of continued learning. I continue to learn about different aspects of social work that I am not as familiar with, how to work collectively with co-chairs, committee members, service users, community members, and legislators, the importance of humility, about the legislative process as a whole, how to sit with uncertainty and remain hopeful, and the value of remaining flexible and open to many ways of knowing issues and how to create change.
One of the ongoing challenges for me of being co-chair has been my own feelings of inadequacy about not knowing enough about Oregon politics or the legislative process. I have found that there is a valuable lesson embedded in this challenge however, as it reminds me to stay curious and that it is not necessary to be an “expert” in order to contribute to positive social change. In this way being co-chair has taught me a great deal about humility, the importance of relationships, taking the long view, and that we are not ever doing this work alone – the process was started long before I arrived and will continue long after I am gone.
What has being co-chair required of me?
Henry: The idea of having several Committee chairs was new, and so we carved up responsibilities according to personal preference. The single biggest commitment for me has been preparing the agendas for our monthly or fortnightly meetings, and then chairing the meetings (which has meant also that I had to show up!).
Kelly: The main role that I took on in our co-chair division of duties has been to take minutes at our meetings and email them out to committee members.
Henry: Other responsibilities have been fielding email inquiries, talking to my co-chairs, thinking about issues that need work or seem important (for me these include housing, criminal justice, racial equity, and environmental justice), and planning events to promote what we do (e.g. to MSW students). Preparing written and spoken testimony, and event planning have also been activities I have done.
Kelly: In addition to what Henry shared above, we also keep a database with contact information for members or folks who are interested in joining the legislative committee. Another duty has been to reach out personally to people to tell them about the committee and invite them to join us. I created a little handout with our website, email, and Facebook page and distributed them in various places or gave them to potential interested new members.
Henry: I’ve also written a few political articles that have been published, canvassed for social worker political candidates, and spent a lot of time sharing good articles on our Facebook page. Finally, I have sent out reminder emails to committee members and other interested folk on a regular (monthly) basis.
Kelly: I too have canvassed for social worker political candidates and have at times contributed to our Facebook page. I have also collaborated with other committee members in writing letters to legislators asking for their support on certain bills.
Henry: As you can see, this is a very diverse range of activities, and reflects the fact that you get to make the role of co-chair your own. This is therefore an amazing opportunity for professional and personal growth.
How much time does it take up? I spend between 0 and 1 hour a week on the Legislative Committee at some times; at others I spend up to 10 hours on it in a week, usually because it’s during legislative session and I am involved in preparing events or testimony. But I have to say, I can be a workaholic at times, and tend to have a cycle of either very little activity or massive activity. You can create your own life balance. You have a lot of control over how much time and energy you give. That’s part of the beauty of having multiple Committee chairs.
And on that thought, consider this: being a part of the Legislative Committee is so empowering and nourishing and simply joyous that it truly is self-care. That doesn’t mean that it never feels like a burden, but more often it feels like a delight and a privilege. This is the best self care I can imagine, because it also makes Oregon a better place for people who are marginalized, isolated, or oppressed (and that includes, at times, the social work profession itself, because we try to support our own!).
Chances are that if you have read this far then you’re interested. If you’re passionate about politics, social justice, or just the well-being of people, then there is a place for you here. And in all likelihood you have something unique and powerful to contribute to the role of co-chair.