By: Kate Shlepr (she/they),
2022 Knauss Legislative Fellow,
House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation
Change invites uncertainty and therefore risk. I feel the weight and exhilaration of this reality as I sit to reflect on events from the past six months, both in my personal life and in our world. For one, it strikes me that I am (now) an openly queer person writing from my desk in a Congressional office two generations after the Stonewall riots; if those aren’t evidence of change, what is? My first day as a Knauss Fellow, I stepped into (read: got lost in) the Rayburn House Office Building only to discover a hallway of Representatives’ offices that displayed full-sized rainbow flags alongside American flags. Every day this week I’ve passed the Progressive Pride flag that waves in front of the U.S. Department of Health, a turnaround in the span of my lifetime as it wasn’t until 1987 that the American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality from its classification as a mental disorder. These modern symbols of allyship with the LGBTQ+ community are palpable and powerful on the Hill and have played a meaningful role in the way I am choosing to express myself while building a life in my newest hometown, Washington, D.C.
At its very best, Congress gets to be a changemaker, an engine of institutional and (by tangent) cultural progress – the very kind of progress that led to the support I’ve felt as an LGBTQ+ staffer. Ooh, but here’s where I twitch! “Progress” is a loaded word because it implies movement in a good direction. What is “good” can be hard to determine when the decision is a personal one, but it’s harder still when the good of the people—plural—is at stake. I am the type of person who flourishes in the murky gray zone of most issues: that place where “neither side is right” and “both sides have merit” and “who said there are only two sides anyway?” So I understand when people, when cultures, are slow to change. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.
My tiny slice of the pie as a Knauss Fellow is working for a Congressional subcommittee, Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation (CGMT), that focuses on regulations pertaining to the U.S. Coast Guard and the commercial maritime industry. One neat aspect of the policy world is that it demands that issues be approached from many angles. In this case, maritime shipping isn’t just about efficient supply chains and a prosperous economy, but also national defense, environmental protection, technical training and innovation, vessel safety, and more. Mariner culture is perhaps an unexpected connection, yet it has been one issue at front and center of my office for the better part of a year.
Work conditions in the maritime environment are unique in that crew members share tight quarters 24/7, with workers cycling on and off the vessel over weeks or months depending on their credentials and expertise. The U.S. maritime industry is predominantly white and male, and while state and federal training academies have begun efforts to recruit and retain a more demographically diverse student body, it is not uncommon for minority individuals to have singular representation on commercial vessels. This at least partly explains why elevated levels of discrimination and harassment have been detected in the maritime workspace.
In addition to pushing the federal training academies on diversity, equity, and inclusion, CGMT has locked arms with the Department of Transportation, maritime labor unions, and advocacy groups to stamp out sexual assault and sexual harassment from the maritime industry, as well as the culture of fear that’s helped fuel these flames. Our Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (OR-4), Subcommittee Chair Salud Carbajal (CA-24), and 11 other Representatives from both Parties co-sponsored the Safer Seas Act, legislation produced by CGMT to enhance the U.S. Coast Guard’s authority to deny licenses to mariners who have been convicted of sexual assault or sexual harassment, strengthen transparency of company policies, mandate incident reporting while protecting victims and witnesses from discrimination, and other related measures.
The Safer Seas Act has made its way successfully through the House, but if you remember the Schoolhouse Rock jingle, you’ll know that the Senate will have to pass the bill before the President can sign it into law. CGMT has faced plenty of opposition in drafting this language. Sometimes stakeholders who take an opposing position are simply misinformed and are moved by open discourse. More often, stakeholders take an opposing position and draw attention to a proposal’s shortcomings, which may ultimately improve the final product as alternatives are sought. And other times yet, opposing stakeholders prove immovable throughout the process because their focus is on protecting a competing aspect of the status quo. In this case, writing new sexual assault prevention policies delayed mariner education programs and will force new costs on companies that own seagoing vessels. Safer Seas fights for a cause that all stakeholders support (creating safer working conditions for mariners at sea), so immovable opposition has certainly made CGMT pause and reevaluate, sometimes to the end of changing our minds, and sometimes to the end of strengthening our certainty in our original position.
I will wrap this up with a thought from Bill Drury, the mentor of my college mentor:
“When…you begin to feel uncomfortable because of a contradiction you’ve detected that is threatening your current model of the world…pay attention. You are about to learn something.”
–William H. Drury, human ecologist
I think Bill was right. Living brings about new knowledge and experiences which challenge us to reassess what we think we know and to respond with action when it would be easier to duck our heads and pretend we got it right the first time. Let us all find the curiosity, compassion, courage, and patience to do good. To make progress.