The first time I went to the Texas Capitol I was ten years old.
I marveled at the pink granite walls and massive rotunda that defines the building. Walking through the halls, seeing portraits and busts of past legislators I felt as though I was walking through history. These powerful persons defined the present that I was living in and many of their defining moments occurred in these very chambers.
The feeling I had returning to the Capitol twelve years later was different.
Splashing water on my face at 6 am to wake myself up for the day ahead, I contemplated over and over the perfect combination of words I might use to urge elected officials and their staff to support our legislative priorities– of the importance and urgency of taking action. I imagined shaking hands with staffers and how they might receive my pitch, and if any of the words I said might linger with them. I wondered if I would be taken seriously when I spoke- if I was too young, or underdressed.
I was honored to participate in the 2023 Greater Houston Legislative Day supported by Air Alliance Houston, BakerRipley, CEER (Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience), HPCC (Healthy Port Communities Coalition), and Public Citizen. Representatives from each organization came together with community members to pack two charter buses from Houston to make our case to legislative officials and their staff. Donuts and kolaches were passed around on the bus in an effort to lift our spirits, while the thought of a long day at the Capitol weighed on the back of our minds. My thoughts raced as fast as our bus down 290, and I eventually dozed off to sleep.
When we arrived in Austin we hit the ground running. As we entered the Capitol grounds, the anticipation in our group was palpable. The diversity and the resiliency of the greater Houston community was reflected throughout our group. Community leaders of all ages and walks of life, here to make their stories heard in the pursuit of true change. In my chest, the feeling of nervousness was subdued by a feeling of gratitude to be surrounded by good company.
After grabbing a quick lunch, and more importantly coffee, we headed to our first meeting. From our reserved meeting room, I led our small group through the twists and turns of the Capitol building. The walk to the first office was a departure from the guided tour I went on as a kid; frantically shuffling between three maps of the different Capitol buildings, and almost out of breath from two flights of stairs when we arrived and met the chief of staff. I found myself searching for words and after a few initial stumbles I explained the importance of taking action on issues including,
- greater protections for children’s health relating to air quality
- making the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality(TCEQ) work for people- not industry
- placing greater restrictions on permitting for concrete batch plants
I walked out of the office visibly shaking. But my nerves calmed as I paused to reassess and recenter myself in the reason that everyone was here. We were important and making change regardless of the imperfect words that fell out of our mouths in frustration- we had our values, our principles and our stories.
Each meeting got a little easier. We met with Democrats and Republicans, people on both sides of our cause. With every hand I shook and business card I took, the words became clearer in my mind. A cordial reception was given in every office I visited regardless of party affiliation or philosophy. At times I felt my concerns were quickly written off in a staffer’s anticipation of a next meeting, while at others I felt the stories of our community made a lasting impression as a staffer attentively responded, asked questions, and affirmed their commitment to advocating for the bills we brought to their attention.
Several community members on the ride back lamented about how they felt brushed off or unheard, and that no action would result from the conversations they had- and understandably so; after a long day of pleading the same case to person after person it was easy to feel as if you hit a wall. I too at times felt like I was saying all the right things- but unsure of whether all those right things were truly listened to. After hearing their feelings of discouragement, I was contemplative. I understood why they felt so defeated- but my feelings of defeat were squashed by an overwhelming feeling of contentment with our work today- even if our work was intangible.
In the dark of the bus ride I recognized I was no longer a child in awe of a marble building, but a person making my own history. History did not belong to those who occupied the offices we visited- it belongs to those of us who come and demand their elected officials work for them. We who take time off of work on a Monday to participate in the legislative process. We who patiently wait in the halls of the Capitol for a moment to make our stories heard. We who year after year demand more action on often the same issues of community health.
Legislators are supposed to work for us. And by having these conversations we hold them accountable to make our communities safer and healthier, because everyone has a right to breathe clean air.