#52in52 Week 48: Rhiannon Petersen

Rhiannon and I met on a semi-hurried afternoon at Pho Cuong, a local pho place on the edge of Oklahoma City’s Asian District. We sat and ordered large bowls of noodle soup.  The server, a young girl with a half smile, brought us the accouterments – scallions, basil, sprouts, and the rest.

Rhiannon seemed tired.  I asked her how she was doing.  She admitted she was busy these days – busy working, busy being a mom.  She told me of her daughter who is working through a sometimes severe-presenting form of autism.  Rhiannon said she tries to avoid medicating her daughter, as the drugs they’ve tried in the past have only hindered her.

Rhiannon has become politically engaged since Trump’s election. She’s glued to the news most days, watching what she sees as the decline of our country. “I miss the days when I didn’t know what was going on,” she said.

She and I were had both been pushing for Representative Scott Inman in Democratic gubernatorial primary.  But when Scott suddenly dropped out of the race to focus on his family, Rhiannon and I both felt a sense of loss.

“Losing Scott was like going through a bad breakup,” she said.  I felt that, too.  It was like someone reached in and tore out my heart.  Scott had been the genesis of my political involvement in Oklahoma.  Just a few years after I had moved back from a brief stint residing in Arkansas, I heard Scott on a local NPR affiliate responding to statements made by Governor Fallin. For the first time since my return to the state I heard a Democrat with a backbone actually speaking up.  It was riveting, engaging. I found myself shouting praise and cheers at the radio.  Not only did Scott’s withdrawal reduce our choice in the race by 33%, but it also killed a lot of my buzz for the election.

Rhiannon and I talked for a while about all the other political races around the county and the targeted candidate recruitment that would need to be done to fill those seats.  Running a Democrat in Oklahoma is often a tough go.  Running a candidate in some of the more beet-red areas up for a vote in 2018 will be an uphill and thankless battle of uncertain outcome.

 

Our food arrived, and we dug in.  I wiped a smear of broth from my beard, noting that it sometimes acted as my filter for feeding and food storage. Rhiannon ribbed me for an old photo that I had shared on Facebook a couple of weeks prior.  It was from a time when I had grown a robust beard down to my mid-chest. Rhiannon said it was a good look, I should bring it back.  I didn’t think I could get away with it in my now white-collar job.

“It’s been a crazy year,” Rhiannon sighed.  State budget cuts had put a lot of mental health funding on the chopping block.  In her work for Northcare, Rhiannon served the very same population whose funding would be cut.  She told me that Oklahoma is one of only a handful of states that receives federal funding for mental health.  Our problem is just that bad. And for a time, she said, our mental health crisis put us at the top of a few lists we never want to be on top of.  It’s a sad state of affairs only made possible by the budget-cutting incompetence at our State’s Capitol.  Primarily, the gross production tax (GPT) on oil and gas has been slashed nearly into oblivion.  As a family friend said recently, “those are our resources – and we’re just giving them away!”

Rhiannon has long been a proponent of getting the GPT fixed.  In all the states around us, the GPT is substantially higher.  And their infrastructure is intact.  Their teachers are getting paid a living wage.  There is very little risk in matching that regional GPT average and more fully funding the necessary functions of our state government – but try getting a Republican legislator in our state to admit the failure of their party’s leadership on the issue.

Rhiannon and I had a relatively short lunch. But the food was divine.  I’ve returned to Pho Cuong many times since and have fallen in love with the place.  I’m so glad Rhiannon introduced me to it.

 

Rhiannon was headed to a double shift and wouldn’t be off work until 8AM the following day.  I mourned for her. I had been thinking about a post-meal nap, myself!  I wished her the best for what would be a very long evening.

 

Rhiannon is definitely an advocate.  She fights for the best for her daughter.  She speaks out for what she believes in regarding policy and legislation.  And she gives her voice to those with mental health needs who may not be able to speak up for themselves.

Stay in the fight, Rhiannon.  Don’t get discouraged.  Don’t disappear.  While sometimes it feels the whole world is trying to drag us down, it’s those who fight for justice and equality who are doing the real work.  It’s those who speak up for others, not over others, who will ultimately prevail.

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