Under Those Capitol Domes
Twenty years ago I was spending most days under the gold dome of the state capitol in Atlanta. The dome is literally gold, mined in Dahlonega, Georgia, site of the first major gold rush in this country in 1839. Every morning I would don my dress for success—or at least gravitas—suit, my black pumps, my conservative jewelry purchased at a major department store counter. Took the rapid transit to a station directly across from the imposing building.
In 1996, those of us who worked as advocates for women and children, especially low income families, were facing aggressive efforts to “reform” the federal welfare system, by which they meant the small cash grants (and food stamp vouchers) given to single women with minor children. In this case, we not only had to battle attempts by fiscal and social conservatives but also President Bill Clinton, who was determined to fulfill his campaign promise in 1992 to “end welfare as we know it,” by creating the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Under this new system, there was—and still is—a work requirement for all recipients, regardless of the age of their children, their education and training, the availability of childcare, and other factors that make the job of providing for poor families so much more difficult.
The specter of the long-term aftermath of this—at best uninformed and at worst callous—action began to haunt me even when I wasn’t working as a grassroots legislative advocate. I did not have a crystal ball to project out ten years to see the full impact of this policy shift, but my head and heart told me that this was deeply cruel and wrong.
This policy was embraced by the legislators I came in contact with on the state level as they predictably introduced legislation each session that would, on one hand, limit access to safe, legal abortion and sound sex education—and at the same time create budgets that slashed funds for foster care, childcare, and other services for vulnerable children.
My despair mounted as I climbed those steps to the capitol, knowing that not only could I never count on the usual foes to do what I thought was the morally right thing, but I was also witnessing pragmatic resignation by representatives I had reason to believe knew what needed to happen, and fellow “lobbyists” who were, seemingly, more interested in “sitting at the table” and being close to the center of power, no matter what.
At that time I had completed the training and been installed as a lay minister in my UU congregation, creating an increasingly painful contrast between a kind of born again embrace of our purposes and principles—values like inherent worth and dignity and right of conscience and the interdependent web of existence—and the bankruptcy of secular social justice work.
More often than not, I would leave sessions at that State Capitol or meetings with fellow advocates with the constant ringing question: “Where are we coming from?” I did not mean logistically or intellectually. I meant what was the ultimate significance of what we were doing, ostensibly on behalf of marginalized people? What was I ultimately committed to in the midst of all my frenetic activism, with all the time, energy, and emotional and moral demands it made on me. These questions went unanswered as the daily efforts spun on.
So I began my journey toward UU ministry, to experience its full breadth and depth, hoping this would enable me to eventually work for change from a more grounded and sustainable place.
And I left the capitol, only returning occasionally to, as I said then, “pray in my fashion.” I have attended interfaith vigils, Moral Monday gatherings, and a couple of years back had the honor of delivering the invocation on Clergy Day at the capitol for the State Senate.
Two weeks ago, I decided to return on Wednesdays to participate in “Women Walk the Halls,” organized by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. Now is the time to see what has changed.
Next time: A look at state focused advocacy by UUs.