On this episode of The Early Link Podcast, host Rafael Otto speaks with three guests about the latest legislative session in Oregon. They talk about highs and lows, what passed and did not in the interest of children and families, and what it was like to move through the session virtually.
Dana Hepper is the director of policy & advocacy at Children’s Institute, overseeing the organization’s legislative advocacy and community engagement work.
Anthony Castaneda works as the policy manager at Latino Network, a non-profit transforming the lives of Latino children, youth, and families in the Portland metro area.
Amanda Manjarrez brings creative leadership and a deep commitment to social justice to her work as director of public policy and government affairs at Foundations for a Better Oregon.
The guests agree that the general mood for early childhood advocates post-session is “hopeful and exhausted!” While there were challenges associated with the pivot to a virtual legislative session, it was largely more accessible to those who could not easily make the commute to Salem. Parents, providers, and community members from around the state were able to successfully advocate for legislation that will support Oregon children and families.
Rafael Otto: This is the Early Link Podcast. I’m Rafael Otto. Thanks for tuning in. You can catch us on the airwaves on 99.1 FM in Portland on Sunday at 4:30 PM or subscribe and listen wherever you find your podcasts.
Today, I’m speaking with three guests about the latest legislative session here in Oregon for 2021. We’ll be talking about highs and lows. What passed, what didn’t and in the interest of keeping it in the interest of children and families. We’ll also talk about what it was like to move through session virtually; hopefully the only time we’ll have to do it that way. I’ll be talking with Amanda Manjarrez from Foundations for a Better Oregon, Anthony Castaneda from Latino Network, and Dana Hepper from Children’s Institute.
Hi everyone. Thanks for joining me today on the podcast.
Anthony Castaneda: Hi there.
Dana Hepper: Thank you.
Amanda Manjarrez: Thank you.
Rafael Otto: First of all, let’s just kind of check in. Is there a sigh of relief now that the session has passed us? And that work is over and we’re just a little bit of a pause. What’s the mood?
Anthony, do you want to start?
Anthony Castaneda: Sure. I think, at least for me, the dust is still settling. I’m beginning to understand what really has happened. What are some of the changes, and what were some of the successes, and what were some of the failures for us.
Rafael Otto: Amanda, Dana, how’re you feeling?
Amanda Manjarrez: I think that captures it pretty well. There’s a lot of dust. I think a lot happened in the final week of the session, even for folks who were tracking it or have been tracking it pretty closely for the last five months. And so I would say in terms of how I’m feeling? Um, hopeful and exhausted.
Rafael Otto: Dana, what do you think?
Dana Hepper: Yeah, I would have to agree there. Exhausted is a great descriptor of what us, and including legislators, are all feeling right now. In fact, the speaker of the house kind of wrapped up the session saying, “Hey, I want you all to take a break in July. Don’t do any work.” So I think that all speaks to how we’re feeling.
We know what bills passed and didn’t pass but we’re still trying to uncover why.
Rafael Otto: I want to talk about some of the specific bills and talk about what those highlights are. But I know it was a strange session for advocates for a lot of reasons, because it was virtual. It just made the work of advocacy, I think, a lot more difficult.
Amanda, do you have thoughts on that? What was it like for you?
Amanda Manjarrez: Yeah. So it was an interesting session for many reasons. As you mentioned, it was all virtual because of the pandemic, but also, 2020 has been a little crazy. And so I think heading into session, while many of us are navigating the pandemic and trying to think about how we can continue to move Oregon forward, there was a lot of banding together to figure out how we could work collectively to advance some of the longstanding and complex educational challenges that we’re facing. So we actually worked closely with the coalition called the Oregon Partners for Education Justice. I think I’ve mentioned that previously in this podcast.
Rafael Otto: Yeah.
Amanda Manjarrez: Yeah. A cross-cultural network of dozens of community organizations, culturally specific groups, education advocates, etc., who are championing racially just policies. It was… I think, on the positive side, more accessible than it’s ever been. I would say I would give the legislative session a mixed bag because in terms of accessibility and inclusivity, we had communities from across Oregon who were actually able to engage in the way that they had never had before.
Folks didn’t have to travel to Salem to testify, especially for our partners out in Eastern Oregon. That’s a long journey. A better online platform emerged, I think by necessity. And to a certain extent, lobbyists and members of the public were actually navigating some of the same online information.
So it did level access in a way for folks who don’t spend their time in Salem. And so I know that many of our partners within the coalition, myself, others, spent countless hours tracking legislation online, meeting with policy makers virtually, wordsmithing, bill submitting, letters, etc. And you could actually see the growing influence of that community engagement, and culturally specific partners being able to show up and share their experience through the process.
That said, in terms of transparency, I do think, to Dana’s point, same old. Decisions are often made behind closed doors, and you know, it’s a little more challenging when you can’t go to a legislator’s office, talk to their staff, have a conversation about what’s going on with some of these budgets.
And oftentimes items are posted without much time for review. So you’ll get documents that, you know, a hundred-plus pages that are posted a few hours before a public hearing begins. And in some cases, especially towards the end, the public hearings go away. So I do think we have a lot of work to do in terms of transparency. But I do hope that there are parts of this virtual session that sustain moving forward, because I do think it made it accessible for folks who hadn’t been part of it in the past.
Rafael Otto: Dana, Anthony, do you have additions to that?
Dana Hepper: This is Dana. I just really agree. I think being able to meet with legislators from home or from work, being able to testify at hearings remotely, was really important for people from all across Oregon, to be able to participate in the process in that way. And I hope we hold on to that more inclusive approach even as the Capitol building reopens to the public. But yeah, Amanda rightly named a really big con, which was, if the only way to contact a legislator is to call them or email them or text them, and they don’t necessarily call you or email you or text you back, you’re just kind of stuck. Whereas when, you know, Amanda, Anthony, I, people who are professional advocates can be in the building, we can usually find someone within a day or so and try to get the answers that we need. Why is the bill being killed or what is the controversy? This time it was just so much harder to get that information, even for us who do this for a living. And that makes it harder for us to communicate that back to the communities across Oregon that we work with.
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