Lauren Reliford is the political director for Sojourners in Washington, DC. Her work is centered on applying social theory, spirituality, research, and practice to the political policy that guides our nation.
We talked about her political theory, her efforts to influence policy makers to legislate for the common good, and her inclination to care deeply.
“I care deeply. Sometimes it’s categorized as being overly emotional or dramatic, but I feel very deeply and I care very deeply and that’s why I probably cry very easily. I’ve gone through a lot in my own life that makes me feel compassionate and aware of the things that I’ve endured and that other people have gone through worse for much longer.
It’s one thing to go through your own suffering. It’s another to know that folks are suffering through the same, and I just cannot abide by that. What really matters to me is that I feel very deeply the weariness of the world and feel like, if I can’t necessarily heal myself, then how can I at least help people get unstuck from this darkness that can sort of choke you and take you under?
I don’t know how to describe it, but there is a core feeling of joy and satisfaction that I get, knowing that I have been able to bring a smile or a light to someone else’s face in part, because I think of all the times that I needed it. There are just things…basic human needs…that need for connection…that need to feel seen. And all the times in which that has happened to me, not wanting to be a source of anyone else’s suffering is what really drives me.
I talked to my therapist about this and I need to put some boundaries around this, but I really just want to show up in every interaction as the kind of human that person needs me to be at that moment, realizing that that is a very taxing journey. But I feel like it’s also incredibly important because it matters so much that people walk away from me feeling better than what they may have entered into the space and always wanting to be sort of a lifeboat, a safety blanket for someone else in a world which is always going to make you feel like you’re not enough, or you’re too much, or you’re invisible. I see you.
And so, I try to mitigate some of the suffering of others. I am a human being and I’m going to show you what you deserve so that in the next interaction, if I’m being mistreated or if someone is making me feel like I’m not a human, I have had this experience with this person who has reminded me of the beauty of my own humanity. And I hold onto that core memory as opposed to the lies and the darkness that surround me.
Something that I really struggle with is that I just thought that that’s how you’re always supposed to be. This is what I was taught. This is what I was modeled. It’s what we call in social work, your first circle of socialization. The first people who teach you what relationships are like.
So obviously that was my mom and my dad and my brother. And then that wider circle of my family…this is how you show up and show out for people. And I thought that that was what you do. And then that gets into my faith because that certainly is also the person that I understand and understood Jesus to be. The whole point of Jesus was to be that way.
And so, particularly with COVID, [I’ve been] feeling really challenged that maybe that’s not the general consensus of humanity. [I’ve been] feeling a little out of sorts and not of this world, because people will take your kindness for granted.
I always thought that that was a gift and it was something to be treasured. And so to just know that people will take advantage of that or not appreciate that, or use that against you has been very challenging for me to come to terms with.
I had this very rosy view of humanity, that we are inherently good in spite of original sin and all of these other things. And so maybe we aren’t inherently good. Maybe this kindness and this inability to endure suffering and this drive to mitigate it is not the norm. It’s an exception. And that’s very, very, very troubling and very hard for me to wrap my head around.”
“I am very blessed to be here with Sojourners, with some of the most amazing human beings that I’ve come across. And I am very blessed to be in a position where I can operate from a place of core morals, values, and ethics and pull on scripture as a justification for what I do.
I’m super nerdy, but I’m a mixed methods kind of gal. To have that qualitative and quantitative perspective on things is the most powerful argument because you’re combining the lived experience and telling stories, which back up the narrative of the numbers.
It’s not enough to say, for example, there’s 3.7 million children who were plunged back into poverty when Congress decided not to continue the expansion of the child tax credit. What, then, is poverty doing to these children? And why is it so harmful?
It’s giving meat on the bones of these concepts and these words that we throw around to get people to feel this experience, to understand that it’s not just a condition or it’s not just a term. It’s something that impacts you as a neurobiological, physiological, spiritual thing. And as a Christian, what I was taught was that Jesus doesn’t work like that. Jesus went out of his way to stop that. And so I’m really just trying to be the person that would make Jesus proud, if that makes any sense.
My job is unique in that normally you have folks that work on policy, so they’re the technical experts, and then the politics, so they’re the behavioral experts. My job is both of them. So it’s to craft policies and to really look at that rich data of life…like, what is life telling us is the problem? And, how do we theoretically create a solution?
And then finding the will and actually doing the work. It’s not just enough to say this is a problem, and this is a solution. Now we’re going to create it. And so it’s a very unique role because it involves—and I actually love this because I’m a huge nerd—watching C-SPAN and watching congressional hearings and listening to testimony and doing research and seeing that this legislation has passed, or this is a policy proposal. Looking to the communities that are most impacted [to see] how would this actually change their lives? And then going to the folks who have the power to decide whether that’s going to become a reality for folks and say, “This is what’s going on in your district, in your country. Can you please pass this?” And convincing them of the why.
And so on any given day, I would have a hill meeting and sit down with staff and hear what the political landscape is, what is going on. And then try to convince them that if you do this, this is a good thing. This is how you promote the common good.
We call this a policy windows theory. It’s this notion that anytime the problems, politics and policies line up, it creates this window of opportunity at a national level for things to get through. And so my job is to really look at when the stars align and say, “Okay, now it’s go time.” Those windows are very few and far between. You could literally sit on pieces of legislation for 5, 10, 15 years and wait for that window.
There’s a patience and a willingness to believe in the long game.
I just constantly remind myself that it matters. That if it doesn’t happen, someone is going to suffer. People are currently suffering because they don’t have the basic elements needed to not just live, but to thrive. And so if I don’t keep banging the drum, if I don’t keep muck raking, if I don’t keep doing it, if I am not pouring myself into this work, then who is going to do it for them?
I want to be very cautious of making it seem like I’m this champion of people. I just am very blessed and privileged to be able to be at these tables with folks. But I have a very Harriet Tubman mindset that like, once you let this loud mouth in the door—who’s gonna say certain things and bring a different perspective, a different lived experience—oh, we’re all coming.
Like, I’m not free unless all are free. And so my hope is that also I create spaces for folks to tell their story in front of people who decide. So that way they really understand that they are literally dealing in life and death in many matters. It’s not just hyperbole, this is real, and you need to take your job seriously because you swore an oath to protect and promote the common good. And if you’re gonna do that, you gotta look people in the face and say, I didn’t make this decision, or we didn’t move on this because…and you probably don’t have a really good reason because—to go back to the child tax credit—there’s no good reason for taking 3.7 million children out of poverty for a year, and then plunging them back in there.
You cannot say that you are a lover of humanity and that you care, if you would allow children to endure suffering like that. And poverty, it is a traumatic experience. And so I just don’t know how people sit with that and can go to sleep at night, knowing that there’s some kids suffering, and I could do something about that. That’s not what God wants us to do.
And I think the Bible scripture is very clear that you have to do more than just do words. You have to do action. And that’s a large part of why I came to Sojourners. These are Christians who are like, “all right, we’re gonna talk the talk, but we’re also gonna walk the walk.” And that is what matters the most. And that’s why I say I’m really blessed to be here, because I think it’s very unique in a time of thoughts and prayers for folks to say, “Okay, thoughts, prayers, and action.”
Faith in action for social justice. And that is apparently a radical notion, but for me, it’s very much what Jesus was. Who God is. God has always stood on the side of the oppressed.
I’ll tell you it’s a struggle. You know, Christianity is peace and nonviolence. But as a Black American, and a descendant of enslaved people, I don’t have the luxury of being peaceful. I have always had to fight in one way or another. I think part of that is just this fight in me that I’ve always had, but I think it also lies in the very genuine human connections that I’ve had and realizing that it does matter. And that if I give up, whatever God has assigned me to do is not going to get done.
Actually a lot of this is just what it means to be a Black woman. Like, we do not get to rest. And so I think some of this is like the Black woman trauma response—which is clearly not a healthy way of living—but I think it’s just also a culture and an identity that I’ve been born into. It’s a core part of me.
You know, rest is radical and I do try to get my rest. I see a therapist, I’m learning what it means to take care of myself. But I just know it matters so much and that always drives me. When I get weary, you gotta keep going.
And I think as a Black American, that also makes so much sense because of the way in which white supremacy and this idolatry of the idea of whiteness, and this need to be white-adjacent and white proximity, for me, has always created a space in which you either put down your weapons and you die by white supremacy, or you fight. And I know I am here because my ancestors certainly fought.
And this may be absolutely controversial, but on a hot swampy day in DC, I often think of myself like, “Okay, I’m hot, but I have air conditioning.”
I can’t imagine my ancestors being forced to labor through this. And so it’s this notion of, well, if my ancestors did it, I can do it. As a Black American, I don’t have an option. You either die or you survive, but I am also focused on creating a third option as thriving. Wanting that freedom for self and others to actually live is what always moves me.
I want to make note that I don’t do this alone. I am very remiss in not mentioning the importance and value of genuine, authentic, real, raw, vulnerable, human connection that I do have. And I think my view of the world is that it’s more communal versus individualistic. And I selfishly get life from being in the presence of other people. That is how I get energized. Being with my family every weekend and just being in their presence and soaking in their joy and feeling like I’m connected to something bigger than self. And I think that that really is what drives me, just this very communal core, of knowing that we are part of the vine and I don’t do it alone and I haven’t done that alone.”
“This is where I’m gonna get super technical. This is the nerd in me. You have to have that consistent feedback loop. That check in. Also, getting some clinical neurobiology…[you have to] apply this trauma informed lens to it.
How do you take the individual approach of healing, trauma, assessing, diagnosing, treating, and consistently reassessing trauma to make sure the treatment plan is effective? How do you scale that up for a nation and what does it mean to heal collective trauma? Because collective trauma is a thing. And so what are the elements? What is the treatment plan?
And so when I say I’m a macro level social worker, that’s what I mean. I’m taking these social work principles that I learned in theory, what I learned in trauma class, and how do I apply it?
I may not be treating trauma at the individual level, but I’m really focused on how do we take that treatment approach at the collective level and heal this trauma that we’re all enduring. I take social policy and try to apply it at a national level, because I think that there is a formula there. How do you take it, tinker with it, apply it and scale it up at a bigger level?
It gets into my overall political philosophy that everything should come from the bottom up. What we do at a national level should always be informed by what happens at the state and local level. Like Tip O’Neill said, all politics is local, because that’s where the flavor of life happens. That’s when you really see what’s going on in the communities. And so in social work we break it down into clinical. It’s individuals, families, mezzo level community, and then macro, which is organizations on the national scale. What I’m trying to do at a macro level is create this pipeline where we’re consistently informed by what is happening at the clinical level and then seeing how it then is scaled up or modeled at the community level.
Then how do we sustain that and fund that and nurture that at the national level? And that gets even into the way in which people look at governments. A lot of people look at government as a layer cake, with local, state and national. National is at the top. And it’s a very hierarchical top down approach, which is very oppressive. It’s very anti-federalist. Sorry, folks, I’m a federalist. I really see government more as a marble cake approach.
Now we’re going to get into some org systems theory where it’s a very open system where, certainly you have your own boundaries, but there’s parts where the marbles touch. The national, local and state levels kind of all converge together.
And so, there’s a little bit of osmosis and so the environments influence each other. And so I’m really fascinated at looking at those sort of intersections where the environment’s touch and where they’re influencing and where the resource flow is and what are the inputs and outputs?
And so that is where I sit. Where are those connections? True social work. How do we make the connections and what is the relationship between these different elements, whether it’s clinical, mezzo, macro level social work, whether it’s national, state, local governments and how do we ensure that those relationships are healthy?
I see things from a very relational perspective. And so I like fostering healthy relationships amongst seemingly disparate parts, because what is that common core? What is that connection piece and how do we start from there and create something amazing that just creates thriving amongst all different parties?”
“God creates us for something bigger and God creates us for each other. And so I sometimes sit in these rooms and realize you’re meant to do great things, but you also cannot always be attached to the outcome. God will put you where you need to be for a season and for a reason, and you just carry on your assignment and then you move on because God ultimately is gonna take care of things. He just needs you to do your part.
So say for example, I do work on voting rights. And unfortunately, an argument that you hear a lot is, voting is a state’s rights issue. And that’s part of what this tension is. It’s not new. There’s anti-federalists and federalists. This is the whole Federalist Papers. If you ever have had to read them, God bless you. I’m so sorry. We’re in the same bucket. But it’s this tension between individual states’ rights versus the national collective. And I see myself as sitting in this space. We’re trying to remind folks that it’s great [to have] individual states’ rights, but if you’re oppressing people, if you make LGBTQ+ children afraid to come out or seek care and you’re restricting someone’s ability to choose their elected official, if you are detaining children in cages because of your “state’s individual rights,” you are operating outside of the collective national good.
And that is where the national government comes in. That is your responsibility. So it’s always this constant reminder that, “Okay, I’ve heard you. You’re using a state’s rights argument—which by the way, was used to enslave my ancestors. So kudos to you for being able to say that to a Black person with a straight face and not realize what you have said to me and the damage that you have caused me by having to sit there and listen to something that has a very violent, oppressive, scary connotation to me.” But I also feel a privilege and a responsibility and duty to my ancestors, to the people who are suffering because of this individualism, to be like, “no, not on my watch.”
I would be remiss if I don’t speak up and speak out, because that is my assignment in that moment. And if that seed is not planted, if you don’t get the message, literally God help you. Because now you’re not operating from a shared faith perspective. You’re operating from this very individualistic point of view, and God’s got something to say about that.”
-Do you feel the weariness of the world?
-Are there things you do to mitigate the suffering of others?
-How do you balance the notion of compassion for others with your own self-care?
-Lauren talks about “the first circle of socialization.” What did your first circle impress upon you in how we treat other people?
-Are you more influenced by qualitative or quantitative arguments? Stories or data?
-Lauren talks about the patience required for a policy windows theory of politics. Can you recognize the rhythm she is talking about? Do you have that sort of patience?
-Do you see signs of national trauma that society has experienced through the pandemic? How do we heal that?
-Lauren says, “God will put you where you need to be for a season and for a reason.” What is your reason in this season?