Oregon’s vulnerable citizens’ voices must be heard in Salem

By Henry Lauer of Portland, Oregon. Henry is writing on behalf of the Legislative Committee of the National Association of Social Workers, Oregon Chapter.

Oregon’s politicians wield great power to impact the lives of those who bravely contend with existence at the margins—people who are experiencing addiction, illness, neglect, violence, or discrimination. Their experiences of both hardship and heroic resilience are essential to the public discourse.

Part of NASW’s mission is to enhance the effective functioning and well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its work and through its advocacy. In other words, to elevate the voices of those who are so frequently not heard at the highest levels.

These families and individuals – our clients – have few chances to talk to legislators. They are bogged down just trying to survive. Yet, their lives unfold on a stage shaped by political decisions.

Our task is to help our clients be heard in the halls of power. We know legislators can make better, more informed decisions when they realize the urgent challenges that vulnerable members of society face every day.

We feel lucky to have legislators such as Representative Joe Gallegos and Senator Chip Shields, who are trained as social workers, and who understand the critical need for all Oregonians to be able to earn a minimum wage they can live on, have access to paid time off in cases of ill health and family responsibility, have access to affordable housing and health care, and feel secure in their rights to justice and equity.

Yet, there are other legislators for whom the process of negotiation and politicking during session reduces these issues to abstraction. How can social workers explain these lawmakers to our clients, who struggle to support themselves and their families? During legislative gridlock, our clients sense their voices have been dismissed, and we all feel discouraged and confused. We must not let more people slip through the cracks because of political gridlock or a lack of powerful lobbyists on their side.

Social workers want to be able to honestly tell clients that their legislators are working for them – that genuine, creative and dedicated attempts are being made by decision-makers to help people with the least power to re-vision and recreate their lives. That every legislator, regardless of political affiliation, understands, as Jane Addams did, that “[t]he good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all.”

We challenge our legislators to take action this session. Grasp the real life effects of your decisions and act with a fitting level of urgency. With so many promising bills and so many dedicated leaders in the Oregon legislature, this legislative session could have a historic impact on our state.

Pass legislation that promotes equity and prosperity in Oregon. Forgo the temptation to water down, to compromise, to dither. Vote for bills that help all Oregonians improve ourselves and support our families. We challenge our legislators to embrace that potential, to heed the call to remember the responsibility that comes with power. That way, when social workers find themselves talking politics with the people they serve, they can speak optimistically without sacrificing or stretching honesty. And deepen the conversation so that those who have been silenced can begin to be heard by those who most need to hear.

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