I had my first disturbing experience of what the process of lawmaking in Louisiana looks like in the earlier days of the 2017 state legislative session.
It was May 10. I was in Baton Rouge at the capitol to support two proposed house bills,
HB 112 and 222, that would create an easier pathway to closing the wage gap between men and women in the state. To advance, the bills had to pass through the house labor committee, so the day the committee met to discuss them, I showed up in my red top – red is the equal pay advocacy color – to sit in on the hearing and show my support.
It was clear the room filled with red-clothed constituents was mostly in favor of pushing this legislation forward. Testimonies provided by supporters were powerful. Women shared personal stories about being underpaid and overqualified. Other house representatives spoke to committee members about positive business impacts equal pay can have.
Some people in the audience cheered for speakers, despite being told they weren’t allowed to, and of course, I joined in.
But there was a darker side to this hearing. As I hung on to every word the supporters offered in testimony, I noticed committee members seemed mentally absent. Some only took their eyes off their phones to ask antagonizing questions to speakers. Some would have informal conversations with each other in the middle of an intense moment and start to laugh.
It seemed as if very few legislators on this committee cared to hear the different dynamics and arguments concerning this bill. Truth is, their minds had been made up days before.
Of this red-filled room, few offered testimony in opposition to the bill. Of the committee members, the black men were the ones listening intently to the words of each constituent.
When both equal-pay bills were killed in a 9-5 vote, the black legislators were the only champions for equal pay in Louisiana, along with the author of HB 222, Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans.
There is a dynamic in the capitol we as constituents must strive to expose. On May 16, the house voted to push forward HB 71, a bill halting the takedown of historic monuments – white supremacist statues – in New Orleans until a vote is taken among citizens.
This bill is a blatant attempt to throw a curveball at the efforts of racial justice activists. It is rare that a state legislature messes with city procedure, but our state representatives decided to draw the line at monuments holding within them a history of oppression and racism.
Do you know what happened when the house voted to push the bill forward after one woman said people of color need to “get over” slavery?
Members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus (LLBC) walked off the floor in protest.
We all know about the resistance in D.C. Some of us often support national efforts to fight misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc.
But do you know where we can start creating tangible change in politics? Baton Rouge.
I invite you to email members of the LLBC to thank them for their efforts. Tell them that you stand with them.
I invite you to learn about state government, find out who represents you in Baton Rouge and get to know them. Here in Natchitoches, Rep. Kenny Cox is a strong advocate for equal pay for women and minorities. I invite you to call him, thank him and learn more about advocating for your causes in the capitol with your representatives.
Nothing in Baton Rouge will change if we don’t pay attention. Our allies need our support, and our opponents must be held accountable.
Visit legis.la.gov to watch live streams of the session, find out who represents you and follow bills relating to causes close to you. The session ends June 8. Please get involved before then. If you don’t, you have to wait another year before you can begin to influence what laws exist in the state of Louisiana.