by Lauren Cooper:
Long before COVID-19 gripped Florida as its global epicenter, I was an aide to Florida House Representative Anna V. Eskamani. Our team was doing our best to fight in progressive arenas to expand Medicaid, to amplify worker’s rights, and to amend our state’s regressive tax structure that relies on sales tax to survive. For years, resistance was an intimate and constant presence in the workplace. However, it was a resistance of love in an effort to shake up the status quo and inject energy into a tired policy process that left many disconnected and disenfranchised.
This pandemic has highlighted the disparities in our state, notably in our unemployment benefits system, which has been systematically neglected for many decades. However, it has also underlined the service gaps in our bureaucracies and reinforced frustrations that already existed among the general population. When furloughs took place in waves and the Florida Department of Opportunity was gridlocked with broken benefits portals, outsourced call centers, and recurring excuses, people turned to representatives in the Legislative Branch to be a lifeline, or at least a life vest, while the waters kept rising.
Our team of three has been navigating over 30,000 inquiries since March from struggling families, desperate parents, and suicidal Floridians from the Panhandle to The Keys at the end of their rope — and that intensity came without warning or resources on where to turn or how to find answers. Many I spoke with mentioned their respective lawmakers did not return their calls or respond to their messages, requesting help in the darkest season of their lives. They wrote letters, sent direct messages, made videos on social media, rallied at protests, and captured attention of the media across the nation, but still were gaslighted by those in power. Some told me it was their first time contacting a lawmaker at all.
In the eye of the COVID hurricane, it remains impossible to completely unpack the flaws in our system and would be premature to point fingers, but there remains a critical lesson before us — if people cannot rely on state agencies and officials in moments of trauma, then how will they respond with trust on the other side of this moment? It’s just not fair to expect them to give us the benefit of the doubt, when the majority of doors they approached were closed under lock and key.
Public Service Motivation is a fascinating topic, but alone it’s not enough to produce the change we need. We have to also be critical and educate ourselves on operations, finances, governance, and big, clunky ideas that do not inspire us if we want to propel the causes that do. I have already begun to draw connections from my MPA coursework directly back to my career, including the notion of punctuated equilibrium theory before us now maybe the urgency of this moment will create a better, brighter future through a surge of education, advocacy, and legislative reform but we cannot lose momentum.Moving forward, we have to not only elect transparent and effective lawmakers across our agencies, but we need to set the bar higher from within to undo damage and repair relationships. Maybe we cannot be perfect, but we can always strive to improve and to rebuild with intention. Together, we have to demonstrate that our bureaucracies are reliable, nonpartisan, and committed to service, even reimagining it for ourselves, if that’s what it takes.
Right now, the road towards recovery remains uncertain, but I do know the public deserves better than lip service between campaign calls. After all, we public servants work for the people.
About the author:
Lauren Cooper is a Master of Public Administration and Masters of Nonprofit Management student at University of Central Florida. She currently serves in the Florida House of Representatives as an aide to state lawmaker Representative Anna V. Eskamani, pushing to make the legislature more accessible, transparent, and effective through intersectional policy and grassroots advocacy. She attended Rollins College for her undergraduate degree in Communications with a Minor in Sustainable Development. Her emergence as a public servant has driven her to pursue a secondary degree to be able to take lessons from the classroom and apply them within her workplace and across the State of Florida. As a first-generation Seychellois American, she is committed to seeing communities big and small being incorporated into the greater political dialogue to mobilize change.