I don’t know that I have ever been this glad to see a Kansas legislative session end.
And, given some of the sessions I’ve endured over the past 9 years, that’s saying a lot.
But this one was particularly rough.
Much of that is due to the November 2010 elections; the Kansas House, in particular, has many new faces, many of whom we’ve learned, the hard way, are not super interested in forging compromises in pursuit of good governance. Ahem.
And some of it is attributable to the budget, which is, by any account, pretty dreadful.
But what made this session particularly unsatisfying for me was that my time was ALL occupied with defense–trying to stop bad things from happening. That’s why I’m so exhausted. And why I was so glad that they went home.
Because, really, I got into policy advocacy because I wanted to make the world a better place. I get a kick out of working with dedicated elected officials, affected constituencies, and other allies to forge new public policy solutions that take us towards a vision of economic and social justice, not because I like throwing up roadblocks and exploiting procedural maneuvers to stall for time.
With the thought that perhaps many social work advocates had sessions that looked not unlike mine, I’ve done some reflecting about why this session (and these defensive tactics) were so hard for me, and how I can reconcile myself to this kind of advocacy as part of my quest for justice. I don’t have any magic secrets; in fact, I’d love to hear from others about what this session has looked like for you, and what you learned that has helped prepare you for next year, defensive or not. But I’ve found that sharing our disappointments and frustrations, and even our heartaches, makes these sessions (how can 4 months feel like an eternity?) more bearable. And, sometimes, sustaining ourselves to fight another day is an important part of our overall strategy. And, sometimes, it’s the best we can do.
Remember that stopping bad policy IS promoting social justice–the fewer steps we take backwards, the less we’ll have to walk. Sometimes I get really down about having to defend against bad policy because, as I said above, that’s not why I decided to become a policy advocate. It helps me, at least in a small way, to remember that sometimes standing still is progress, or at least the foundation of it. Holding the line can keep people’s lives from getting seriously worse.
Build a coalition in support of your vision, not just in opposition to someone else’s. It’s relatively easy to get people fired up about a horrible, immediate threat: we had more than 60 people show up at a meeting, called at the last minute, to oppose Kansas’ effort at passing an Arizona-style anti-immigrant bill. But we have to build that effort around principles that articulate WHY we oppose that bill, so that we can use those same principles to advance legislation that takes us forward.
Process always matters–sometimes, the how is more important than the what. There are always ways to kill things quietly–finding ways to run out the clock, getting a friendly committee chair to bottle up a bill, generating serious doubt about a fiscal note’s validity. And, this year, we needed to use all of those “tricks” in Kansas. But, if you can, it’s often better for your movement to kill things loudly and emphatically. Lining a bill up for a vocal chorus of “no”s does much more for your momentum, and your constituents’ sense of power, than a promise from the Senate President to make something go away (even though, we promise, we appreciate those promises, Mr. President). If your eyes are always on the goal of building a movement that can win affirmative victories, not just making the “bad guys” lose, then you’ll look for opportunities to salvage a bigger win by opting for a different process, even if the outcome is the same.
Celebrate those victories, and those allies, even in a losing battle. I received more heartfelt appreciation from the 50 representatives I personally thanked for standing with Kansas’ instate tuition policy for immigrant students than I ever did when we were on the winning side. Our elected official allies, or at least many of them, feel as bewildered and thwarted as we do, and they need us more than ever. I built some new relationships this year, including with people I’ve somewhat known for a long time, that I believe will serve us well in the future, especially when (is it 2012 yet?) they have more allies with whom to vote in the future.
Don’t write anyone off, but don’t be afraid to draw lines in the sand, either. We picked up support on immigrant rights issues from a couple of new legislators in western Kansas who others thought we’d never get. In part, it’s because these are folks who see the future in their communities and want to work with it, not cling to a racially-idealized past. I love that about western Kansas. And, in part, it’s because they are thoughtful people who appreciated not being taken for granted and responded well to our efforts to reach out. That taught me a lesson I should have never forgotten: there are potential allies everywhere. At the same time, when a new Kansas legislator said that she could tell someone was an illegal immigrant because of her “olive complexion”, it’s not the time to fear burning bridges. Uproar about the revelation of the obviously racist underpinnings of the attacks on immigrants helped to galvanize our allies, both within and outside the statehouse.
Today, I’m mourning some of what could have been this session, and I’m very worried about the implications of some of the budget cuts and other policy decisions from this year. I’m also very aware that it could have been much worse, and that our defensive work did make a difference. And I’m committed to campaigning for the senators who stood between us and destruction, because we can’t take for granted that they’ll still be there if we don’t.
Did you play defense this year? Did you win? What did you learn? And how will it feed your offensive goals for next year, and the years to come?