by Olivia Brochu, 15F
In Spring of 2018, I spent a semester interning in the Washington DC office of Senator Elizabeth Warren. This opportunity contributed to my ongoing studies of political science and women’s and immigration studies at Hampshire. At the beginning of the semester, I was hoping to gain knowledge about the U.S. Congress, experience working with both politicians and constituents from many different communities and backgrounds, and learn how to confront and constructively engage with those who have different political opinions. Although I did gain experience with this type of work, I also learned a lot about the inner workings of cutthroat political work, how to engage with coworkers who have different values than my own, and how to use storytelling as an approach to ethical and radical networking.
Before coming to DC, although I had heard a lot about the importance of networking in politics, I was still hoping that I could bypass this shallow and scary process. From the start, the whole idea of networking made me really uncomfortable. I did not like this idea of using people to climb some ladder. Several of the other interns were constantly cold-emailing people from other offices to see if they were interested in getting coffee. In DC there is a very interesting ‘coffee’ culture. This entails asking someone in a higher position than you to get coffee, and both parties know this means you are interested in networking and asking them about their career. (Oftentimes you don’t even actually get coffee!) Although this seemed shallow to me, everyone I spoke to insisted that getting coffee is ultimately what leads you to getting a job. This meant that although it made me anxious, I had to push myself out of my comfort zone and engage in this off-putting phenomenon.
After much stress, I decided to ask the health policy legislative correspondent at Senator Warren’s office to get coffee. This staffer had previously worked on several campaigns and at Senator Warren’s district office in Boston—two different career directions I have been thinking about, and I sincerely wanted to hear about her experiences. Although I felt so weird about it beforehand, we ended up having a wonderful conversation about our passions and it did not at all feel like weird structured networking. She ended up connecting me with a legislative correspondent from another office whom she thought had similar interests to me. At this point I became very excited about the possibility of chatting with more staffers who were in positions at the Senate that I dreamed of being in one day. This ended up being really helpful for me in thinking about my career goals and where I actually envision myself ending up. Rather than thinking about networking as adding another connection to LinkedIn, I became very interested in having meaningful conversations about what it is that I am most passionate about. Some of the people I met with shared the most beautiful stories about their work with community members and why it is they do what they do. It was very exciting to see how people in even very high up positions were willing to meet with an intern and share their stories.
HELP Committee Hearings
Something else that I got to learn a lot about during my internship was the committee process at Congress. Senator Warren is on the Health Education Labor and Pensions Senate Committee (HELP) and I was able to attend a hearing on The Opioid Crisis: Leadership and Innovation in the States, and follow one of the bills that came out of it to its markup hearing. It was incredibly exciting to get to witness policy getting formed right in front of my eyes!
At one of the hearings I attended I was able to see members vote and debate different amendments that had been proposed to the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018. Up until the votes it was very interesting to see an issue that brought both Democrats and Republicans together to seemingly try to find an answer. In their testimony, some Republican senators spoke to how the opioid crisis had impacted their own family and addressed personal stories from their communities. For me, this stirred many thoughts of what it would take to get Republicans to care about similar social issues in this way. After the votes on the amendments began, my intrigue with the Republicans ceased as their true colors came out. Senator Chris Murphy argued to pass an amendment that would increase funding for the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), a sector of AmeriCorps that helps to bring health care professionals to rural communities with no access to medical facilities. NHSC has been proven to be immensely helpful in addressing the opioid crisis, as many of those suffering most are in rural communities. This amendment failed to pass down party lines.
The next amendment to fail was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and sought to bring pharmaceutical manufacturers to Congress to testify under oath. Senator Sanders gave an impassioned speech about the thousands of people who have died, and how no one has been held accountable. Again, this measure failed to pass. Although this process was very exciting to get to witness, it was also incredibly disheartening. The Republican senators were willing to say that they are going to fight against the opioid crisis because it is devastating families within their constituencies, but when it comes to actually bringing about change they are uninterested. They refuse to increase any funding to social programs, and refuse to hold those at fault accountable. It’s hard to believe that even I was swayed by their speeches about loved ones suffering. If those in power are funded by the pharmaceutical lobby, how can we be fooled into thinking that they care about the opioid crisis?
By getting to sit in on the committee process, I was able to witness a very important element of our government that many of us don’t stay in touch with. Although some of what I saw felt hopeful, I believe it also brought me face-to-face with the corruption and evil of many members of Congress. This brings up some questions for me moving forward. What can actually be done about bipartisanship at Congress? What if disagreement is much more than bipartisanship and is actually something determined by outside actors? If an issue like the opioid crisis doesn’t call certain members of Congress to act, then what will? What can be done when members of Congress say they hold a value, but refuse to hold this value in their actions, and how can these members be held responsible? Is it possible to get constituencies to recognize that their representatives aren’t holding true to their word, how can this be done, and what does it look like?
One of my main duties at the office was to go through constituent voicemails and speak to constituents about policy on the phone. Although at times difficult, I believe this to be the most important part of a Congressional internship. Representatives are elected to office to amplify the voices of their constituents, and I believe that really listening to community members about their concerns is at the core of this work.
I had previous experience with these types of phone calls from my internship at Congressman Jim McGovern’s office, but I was still somewhat unprepared for what I was going to experience. Not only does Senator Warren have a very large constituency, she is also a national figure. This meant that she got thousands of calls every day from folks from inside and outside of the state. Because of this, there was a much larger variety of thoughts and opinions to be heard. As the person answering the phone, it was not our job to argue or disagree with the constituents, we were simply supposed to listen. Although many of the people that called us had opinions that differed from my own, I worked hard every day to listen to them. Oftentimes it did not matter what I said, the constituents just wanted to yell at someone, and nothing that I could have done would have pleased them. There were other times, that even if a phone call had started out very hostile, just the act of me saying something along the lines of, “I can hear how passionate you feel about this, I hear you” would change the phone call entirely. Even if I adamantly disagreed with their sentiments, it felt very special to me when a constituent would say sincerely, “Thank you for listening to me.”
Speaking with these types of people was also very impactful for me in how I move forward with my Division III. In our Hampshire bubble, it is sometimes very easy to block out Trump supporters and ignore this type of hate that exists in the world. At Senator Warren’s office I had to speak to Trump supporters every single day. In moving forward with my academic work, it is very important for me to stop thinking about Trump supporters as so distant, but really start recognizing how close they are to my own life and communities. For my Division III, I plan to interview white women who voted for Trump, and I believe that listening to these folks on the phone for five months has prepared me well to consider how to critically engage, without seeing messages of hate and intolerance as ethically neutral. If white women see voting for Trump as voting for their own self-interest, what is that self-interest really protecting? My research will allow me to ask the questions I wasn’t allowed to ask in my role as a congressional intern, questions I believe we must ask if we want to make politics relevant for the future we want to build beyond Trump.
Olivia Brochu is a fourth-year student studying political science and public policy with a focus in immigration and women’s studies. She is particularly interested in the legislative process and the use of storytelling in policy making, and strategies for constructively engaging with those whose political opinions reject one’s own values and core beliefs. She currently works as the policy intern at the Scholars Strategy Network in Cambridge, writes music, and is a lover of alpacas and pilates.