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Interview with Sara Gelser, Oregon Senator

Sara Gelser

Prior to being elected to Oregon’s legislature, Senator Sara Gelser joined the Corvallis School Board and was the children with disabilities and family support coordinator for the Oregon Department of Human Services, as well as an instructor at Linn-Benton Community College and a regional coordinator for the Oregon Parent Training and Information Center. She also was the president of the Arc of Benton County, a Corvallis Junior First Citizen, and has served on countless boards and associations.

Sen. Gelser is the chair of the Senate Human Services Committee and was the chair of the House Education Committee for six years. She also serves as co-chair of the Education Public Policy Committee for the Council of State Governments and the Oregon Women’s Health and Wellness Alliance, as well as a founding member of the Senior and Disability Caucus; notably, President Barack Obama nominated her to the National Council on Disability, where she was confirmed with a unanimous U.S. Senate vote.

Sen. Gelser is a renowned activist in promoting the #MeToo movement and was a TIME “Person of the Year” for breaking the silence on sexual harassment in the capital. She is also widely admired for her work in tightening Oregon’s child abuse reporting and investigations (Karly’s Law), strengthening rape statutes, and protecting people with disabilities and seniors, among many other legislative achievements.

Please note that this interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview Questions

[] You moved to Oregon, went to OSU, got your master’s degree, and started working with the Department of Human Affairs. Why did you decide to run for the House in 2004?

[Senator Sara Gelser] I had been serving on the Corvallis School Board for several years before that. The reason that I ran for the school board was that my oldest child has a significant disability and he was very young. I found myself spending a lot of time advocating for children with disabilities and their families. I came here and was asking people to do things, and I eventually decided I wanted the chance to do it myself. I lost, but eventually, I got here.

[] You’ve already had an incredible career as a progressive champion for so many different causes, especially protections for vulnerable populations: disabled veterans, the LGBTQ community, and others. What are your top three legislative priorities right now?

[Senator Sara Gelser] The first is really improving and strengthening our services to kids in the child welfare system, which includes foster care—whether that’s helping kids and their parents be successful and safe in their home or making sure that when kids can’t be home with their parents, we aren’t just finding beds for them. We’re finding homes with loving parents to support them and help them reach their full potential.

The second is a package of workplace harassment bills for both general employers and public employers to make sure that people have the tools that they need to make a complaint if they don’t feel safe in their work. This is also for workplaces to become more responsive, so we better understand that it’s not the responsibility of the harassed person to create a safe place; it is the employer’s job to do that.

And third, there’s a package of bills around people in the criminal justice system that really struggle. One bill works to give access to flu shots. Another would reduce the cost of making telephone calls outside of prison. It’s really important when you’re in jail to be able to talk to your family. Right now, there are these for-profit companies and they provide kickbacks to these institutions and it’s unaffordable for people to stay in touch with their loved ones. And another bill I’m working on would prevent the use of dogs to discipline people, which is just inhumane.

[] I didn’t even know that was a thing.

[Senator Sara Gelser] It is a thing, unfortunately. Also, there’s another bill that increases reimbursement for jurors. It’s very difficult for jurors to get to the courthouse and participate in the criminal justice system. All of our systems work better when everyone can participate.

[] As you likely know, Oregon is one of four states that has at least 40 percent women among its legislators, which is awesome. Why do you think women and people of color are still relatively underrepresented in government leadership across the country?

[Senator Sara Gelser] There are a lot of reasons. One: all of the socioeconomic inequity really makes it very difficult. People running for national offices really need to start in local offices, which often either aren’t paid or pay very little. And it really is a privilege to be able to take a position like that and do that work. For a lot of people who need to be here—those whose voices really should be shaping public policy—they can’t because they need to pay the rent; they need to take care of the kids; and there isn’t that extra capacity financially to be able to do that.

I think for women, there continues to be the issue of parenting. Women are much less likely to step up and run when they have young kids at home. Men, typically, do not hesitate to do that. And we still see those questions get asked of people. Barack Obama, when he became president of the United States, had two kids in elementary school.

[] He never was asked about his family-work balance.

[Senator Sara Gelser] No, he wasn’t. I was at a forum a couple months ago and I hung this [question] up on my refrigerator: “When you’re at work and advocating for kids, do you ever worry about who’s taking care of your own?” I know that the intent was good, but still: nobody’s asking men those questions.

So when somebody asks, “Who is looking after your children?” or “How do your children feel about this?” I think, why doesn’t anybody care about the men’s children? Their children are children, too. That’s an issue women face in any workplace, but this a very visible one, and I think many women are very sensitive about mothering and the criticism that comes with that in a very public way.

The only thing that fixes that is having more women with young children running because if they can see it, then they know that they can do it. The same is true for people of color. Despite good intentions—everybody has good intentions—so many of our social systems and our community service organizations have hidden barriers to meaningful participation and leadership by people of color. And that makes it harder for people to step up. It makes it harder for people to be in social networks where they are recruited to run. I think that it is necessary to step back and make more space and to make institutions responsive to different ways of looking at things.

In this capital, we’ve talked a lot about issues of sexual harassment, but I know from talking to several of my colleagues of color that there is also very significant and racial harassment in the building. There’s just a lack of understanding and not a good way to speak up about it. And I really would like us to see it and take more accountability.

[] Do you think that Oregon’s government runs differently due to its higher share of women compared to overwhelmingly male legislatures?

[Senator Sara Gelser] I think on an individual basis, it is different to work with a large group of women than being a solitary woman in a large group of men.

I’ve been here for 15 years. Our ranks have grown. It used to be that all the women could fit in one House office, and House offices are little. When we look at barriers to participation—whether it’s for women or people of color—it’s a mistake to think that all of that is put in place by white men. Institutions are built on cultural and gender assumptions; women can reinforce and be the gatekeepers for sexist assumptions and barriers that keep other women out or keep them quiet. People of color in positions of power also can participate in those same systems.

I don’t think that we have done the work here in Oregon to say that we are necessarily “culturally different” because of the way that we look. I think that we’ve got a lot of great people and we see policies introduced that are different, but this is still a very traditional power structure. Clearly, we’ve not been immune to the sexual harassment issues despite lots of women in leadership positions.

[] You’re my first interviewee that I didn’t need to ask my follow-up question, which would be, “Have you experienced discrimination or sexual harassment in government?” You’ve already been vocal about your experience. You were a TIME Person of the Year for breaking the silence and I really admire your courage. I have a question about your decision to speak out: similar to Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, it’s clear that you have suffered a vicious backlash. Would you have done anything differently? And what advice would you give to people who are now being abused by others in power?

[Senator Sara Gelser] If I could do something different, candidly, I would have done something earlier. I feel a great deal of responsibility for the experiences in this building of some interns and lobbyists that really weren’t in the position to speak up. I wish that I had done something sooner and I recognize that by not doing so, I was part of that problem.

What I would offer to others is that all of us—whether we’re experiencing discrimination or not—should be supporting people. It’s incredibly important to tell people that you believe them; I think that’s the most important thing: for people to feel seen, because people question themselves. Did I really experience that? Was it really that bad? And it’s just helpful to say, I believe you and you deserve to be safe.

For people who are experiencing abuse, I would ask them to tell themselves that it is a small thing to ask to be safe in your workplace; to be safe in your body; to have control over who touches you or how you are seen. It’s not a big ask.

And in terms of the backlash, it’s true—in large part it’s because that’s how we’ve all been trained to respond in these situations. I have been surprised by the responses of some people. And how do I know I wouldn’t have responded in the same way?

It’s our job to keep working together, unlearn that behavior, and demonstrate a model workplace. For me, what was really lucky is because I was so visible, I’ve had so much support from staff in the building, lobbyists, and members of the community. And I couldn’t get fired. Most women or men that speak up about harassment don’t have any of those benefits. They aren’t seen; they don’t have people writing them or calling them and supporting them and backing them up; they’re feeling much more lonely.

[] They’re forced to sign non-arbitration clauses…

[Senator Sara Gelser] Exactly, all of it. They can’t do anything and they’re worried about whether or not they can pay their rent or buy their groceries because of the economic consequences of speaking out. For people who have a lot at stake, I know that it’s a really big risk and I just hope that people tell themselves that they deserve to be safe at work.

[] Absolutely. Another thing that you’ve been working on is the task force on how to approach sexual harassment allegations in the workplace. You have pointed out that one of the biggest difficulties is the cultural change. There’s a structural and systemic power that’s difficult to unearth. What exactly needs to happen?

[Senator Sara Gelser] Recognizing how power works and how we all use our own power is important. I think there are cases of harassment where individuals don’t understand the power that they carry.

Going through this experience has made me re-question the way that I engage with everybody that I encounter—whether it’s staff, other [legislative] members, people in an agency, or those on the street: what is it that I’m doing regardless of intention and how does that impact somebody else? Because my intention matters a whole lot less than impact.

What you experience is what you experience, and I want you to be okay. So we don’t have good ways to address that here or in many other workplaces. It’s those power imbalances.

In the capital, all of that power is confusing. I think members and lobbyists could have a debate about who has more power, but I think that staff in the building get caught up [in that power]—where staff may be harassed or be on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior. It can be difficult to talk to your boss because you don’t want to distract them. You’re here because you’re really committed to a cause, or maybe you don’t want to say something to your boss about that lobbyist who’s bothering you because you know that person is important for your boss’s bill and you don’t want to get in the way.

The most important thing is your people; if your people aren’t well, none of the work gets done. This session, we have a big agenda. We have a lot of things that need to get done and I’m excited about it.

There are still some people who say that this culture of harassment is something we should talk about later—that it distracts from the bigger purpose. I don’t think that we should have to choose. I think we’re all more successful when we treat each other with respect and when we own our mistakes. We just have to find a better way to have those honest conversations with each other.

[] Absolutely. So what advice would you give to women who are interested in running for office?

[Senator Sara Gelser] Run. Don’t second-guess yourself. Know that everyone has a place here and we need every voice—whether it’s in a capital or a city council or a county commission. There is not a minimum qualification.

I think women tend to second-guess themselves more than men do when it comes to running for office; they wait for someone’s permission. I would tell women, “You’re the boss yourself and you can give yourself permission. And you can have a big family and a big job. You don’t have to choose. You can have a two-year-old and be a governor. All of those things can happen at the same time.”

Second thing: get used to asking for what you need. Asking for campaign volunteers, asking for campaign contributions…that’s something that a lot of people find difficult. But you as the candidate are doing the work. Those are ways people can step up and help you. I always like to think about it as a team project. We have this vision; we have this goal; we have these shared values…how do we move it forward? We all have ways of doing it.

[] You’re still young in your career. So what is the signature accomplishment or piece of legislation that you would like to be known for? Is there something that keeps you up at night that you’d really like to do?

[Senator Sara Gelser] I think it’d be better to say that there are things I’d like to participate in. I think that’s a myth. Legislators don’t do things; legislators work with other people to get stuff done. And in this building, you have legislators, a governor, and statewide officials. The stuff that gets done is by all the people here working. Legislators get the credit but they’re not doing all the work.

What I would love to be able to point to are a couple of things: one would be reframing the way that we think about people with disabilities. This includes people with mental illnesses, foster kids, and all of those we define as “difficult” or “hard”—the people we justify bad things happening to on the basis of their “high needs.”

It’s important to reframe how we look at those populations to give them more power and more of a voice—a strengths-based approach. I hope that by the time that I leave here, I will have the opportunity to be part of a successful effort to create the best child welfare system in the state that really focuses on kids being healthy and whole.

There are a lot of ways that we can build and support families to continue to be together. People always need to know where they come from and they have the right to be safe. Also, you can’t have that if you don’t have a really strong substance abuse treatment system that recognizes the challenges that addiction brings—that it’s an illness, not a moral failing. The real moral failing around substance abuse is our inability to address it and to judge people instead of helping them.

And our mental health system…if really we could address the inadequacy and stigma of addictions and mental health, we would solve so many of our problems.

I don’t even know how to name those policy initiatives, but those are the things I’m thinking about at night. It’s how all those systems connect and how we respond to those people. And hopefully, by the time I’m done, things will be a little bit better.

[] Finally, are there any policies in Oregon that you’ve worked on that you think should be adopted on a national level?

[Senator Sara Gelser] Yeah. I am really proud that we have the nation’s first LGBTQ-focused veteran outreach coordinator. I think every state needs someone like that.

I am also very proud of the work that we’ve done in youth suicide prevention with a statewide suicide intervention coordinator.

During my first session, I worked on two things that I’m really proud of: one is Karly’s Law. She was killed before her third birthday. We changed the way we do child abuse investigations in the state to make sure a child’s injuries are photographed and they’re taken to a doctor that’s trained in child abuse assessment. Because little kids can’t say what happens to them, their bodies tell the story. We’ve saved kids’ lives, and I’m really proud of that.

Also that year, I drafted legislation that made Oregon the first state to have standards for modified and extended diplomas. It used to be that if you were a kid with a disability, your district would decide whether to give you a piece of paper or not. They might let you walk with your class for graduation, but that really undersold these kids.

Everything about school is about moving towards that terminal goal, so we have modified and extended diplomas which have helped kids with intellectual disabilities be included in social studies and biology classes. It’s helped more of these kids go on into postsecondary opportunities. I love it when somebody shows me their extended or modified diploma because that feels good.

But again, those were other people’s ideas; I just got to come and try to convince people to agree with them.