In a state like Arizona, often portrayed as ultra-red or conservative, the light on progression can seem dim. The nation's eyes have been watchful since the passing of Immigration Law SB 1070 and many Arizonian's are feeling hopeless after our November election. The Democratic voice will be vastly outnumbered by a Republican majority. This is not to say Republicans do not value social justice and equality. However, their opposition to Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Trans (LGBT) rights, compassionate immigration reform, women's reproductive rights, and diversity in public education are not nearly as progressive as Democrats. So, where is the dim light shining in Central Phoenix this December?
It follows House Representative Kyrsten Sinema throughout District 15. Hope lies in her presence as Senator come January. Sinema has publicly spoken about the irrationality of Immigration Law SB 1070 and has defended our immigrant population by remaining rooted in fact when Governor Jan Brewer has portrayed undocumented immigrants solely as criminals. Sinema is aware of the sensitivity of this issue, as well the language surrounding it which is often ugly and decisive. To acknowledge and dissolve fears in the community she has conversations about the core issues and bridges the gaps between the differences we may have.
With a background in social work, criminal defense law and immigration law, Sinema is a strong voice on this issue and does not back down from the facts that often become lost in political language. She has been a social worker for immigrant and refugee children and was inspired to run for office originally because they were not being helped by the government, and she thought they should be. Sinema continues to remind us that deep-down, we all want the same thing: a community of just people. “That means we need to have a fair fight for people who are gay, people who are women, people who are children, people with disabilities, people who are poor, people of color, and the group that has been oppressed or marginalized I’m really going to work to get justice and equality for them.”
Sinema chaired the 2006 coalition Arizona Together, and succeeded in defeating a same-sex marriage ballot initiative, which has been the first and only defeat to occur in our country. This prop would have banned the recognition of same-sex marriage and civil unions in Arizona. Strategically, she focused on the heterosexual couples instead of adding hot coals to the homosexual debate. We needed this perspective because people were forgetting that the passing of Prop 107 drastically influenced families of all types, and our focus should be on that instead of sexual orientation.
She is the first openly out bisexual woman in the Arizona state legislature and offered me a glimmer of hope. “Arizona actually has the highest proportion of gay elected officials in the country. Out of the 90 members in the state legislature, five of them are openly out,” Sinema relayed. “While Arizona feels like a really conservative place, the truth is that the electorate makes pretty good choices about choosing individuals to represent Arizona regardless of their sexual orientation or identity.”
The more she spoke, the more I felt like Sinema was the lynchpin in the legislature, walking across aisles most stay on either side of, and refusing to be quiet about who she is. She has the ability to make other people drop their labels for a moment: Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, gay, straight– she is graced with the gift of bringing people together from different perspectives and forming coalitions that serve the community. “If you don’t make the first step toward that person who is different from you, the step will likely never be made by anyone,” Sinema says. Her experience forming coalitions led to writing her first book, published in 2009, Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win and Last.
What inspired me most about Sinema is her relentless ability to continue to move forward through education. Every time she has felt at a standstill questioning what to do next in life, she goes back to school. Now working on her PhD, Sinema already has a Masters in Social Work and a Juris Doctorate. She says that women should go to college, again and again! Access to higher education ranks high on her list of priorities for women. By providing them with access to the tools and training they need, she hopes women are empowered to see all of the opportunities and choices available to them, regardless of where they live or how old they are.
Sinema is involved in two leadership and training programs in Arizona: The Center for Progressive Leadership (CPL) and Emerge. Both organizations work to train the next generation of political leaders so they may progressively navigate their communities. Emerge is a 6-month training program working solely with women, preparing them to run for positions in office. Sinema is also a board member for non-profit organization, Girls for a Change, focusing on empowering girls to impact through social change. Sinema also uses social networking websites like Facebook to keep everyone joined in aware of what is currently happening in Arizona. She continues to be vocal about Jan Brewer wanting to deny Arizona residents with transplants, empathizes with families on unemployment that need state support, and urges congress to forward march ahead with repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
To balance so many commitments, to ease her voice after a day of speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, Sinema trains for a marathon, meditates, and makes time for small luxuries to maintain self-care. She is truly a bright light in Phoenix and an empowering woman leading us to be more progressive, vocal, and active, and starting with simple conversations to bridge the gaps between us.