Chickasaw woman works her way up to win Oklahoma legislative seat
Dedication to serving others learned at home
September 11, 2020
The value of service was instilled into Chickasaw citizen Chelsey Branham at a young age. Her passion for helping others is evident in her life, from mission trips to graduate studies.
Her service now includes serving as an Oklahoma State Representative.
"One of my primary motivations is to figure out how to solve problems that many of us are facing and what causes those problems," Rep. Branham said. "That came from a familial atmosphere that taught me the value of service, working for others and coming outside of myself. So, living out those values, you can't really escape having that as a primary emotion as a young adult or adult I don't think. It's in my blood."
That worldview influenced the choices Rep. Branham made in her undergraduate and graduate studies. She earned a bachelor's degree in religious studies and psychology, and a master's degree in international economics and development. Her focus was Sub-Saharan Africa.
For her master's thesis, she conducted primary research in Zambia, and worked to improve the lives of orphaned children and to also improve the overall community health.
After returning to Oklahoma, she served as director of the social and economic justice department at the YWCA of Oklahoma City. The YWCA provides attorney general-certified domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and advocacy services.
For four years, she worked closely with employers and community groups to create opportunities for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, all while planning her campaign for state representative.
WINNING THE RACE
The amount of time Rep. Branham dedicated to her campaign helped contribute to the success that would follow.
"My schedule during the week was 40-50 hours at the YWCA," she said. "The remaining time was spent calling and raising money, and connecting with constituents. I personally knocked on over 15,000 doors over the course of the campaign. So a lot weeknights and weekends spent trying to hear people and see what concerns and issues the district was facing."
"So it was a really great space to figure out what the larger, metro-type communities in general were facing and needed."
The district Rep. Branham now represents, the House District 83, features mixed demographics, both racially and ethnically, as well as income. Oklahoma House District is located in northwest Oklahoma City.
Her dedication to bringing change was recognized by the residents in the district and she was elected during the 2018 election. She made history as being first woman, person of color and Democrat to hold the seat.
MAKING A CHANGE
The first bill that she worked on, HB 1885, passed during her first session. This legislation created more job opportunities for Oklahomans and more contracts for local businesses.
Much of her work has centered on improving the lives of foster children in the state, modernizing funding for public services, supporting mental health access, improving education funding and expanding access to health care.
She's currently advocating for the Connecting Futures Act. The Act works to bridge gaps for homeless youth in Oklahoma who don't have parents or guardians.
"These youth don't have access to anything that would require a parent or guardian's signature, so that's everything from a primary care visit with a doctor, to mental health services, to playing sports in school," Rep. Branham said. "This legislation will create a partnership between the youth services agencies and the state so the needs of those kids are met and some of the barriers are removed. The respective organizations can help get the kids on their feet and gain access to what they need."
Rep. Branham's background at the YWCA helped her lead the House in declaring April 24 "Denim Day." On Denim Day, allies wear denim in support of survivors. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the state of Oklahoma, as directed by House Resolution HR 1021.
"We wanted to make sure we are sending a very clear and strong statement to the public," she said. "To show that we do support survivors and that we have dedication to trying to improve the lives and laws around victim services."
When Rep. Branham was elected, she felt very fortunate to not only be the first women elected to her seat, but a part of a shift of women moving into the state legislature.
"I think people are really starting to see the value of women-led leadership," she said. "You can tell the palpable difference just from that number of women being at the capital.
"Business as usual has changed a little bit and I feel that's the importance of having those voices there," Rep. Branham said. "Because at the end of the day, society typically has us perform different roles which means that just by the basis of our experiences and the way that we move through the world, we're going to have different perspectives and we're going to see things from different angles It's very important to have that dichotomy there, so that we are really looking at things from a 360 view."
The achievement pushed Rep. Branham to advocate for women's voices to be represented more in lawmaking. She is a founding member and a co-chair of the bi-partisan and bi-cameral OK Women's Caucus.
"I thought it was very important to bring the women's caucus together," she said. "I wanted to help women to have those conversations, and elevate their perspectives that haven't really been a huge voting block or piece of the conversation at the capital from our perspective."
Rep. Branham intertwines her Chickasaw culture into her lawmaking strategies. The Chickasaw hatchet women and their valiant spirit, she said, resonate with her.
"For me it's really about bringing the kinship and tradition of our people to a broader space," she said. "I identify a lot with our hatchet women, being fearless and going and leading the fight for our people and trying to move in a way where I'm not necessarily detected, or seen as threatening, but still trying to get the job done and defend my people.
"A lot of what the work requires is moving in a way where you can have those conversations and elevate the needs of your people, and do it in a way where others can get on board with it," she said. "I hope that I can continue to bring our culture to the capital and be a good representative of the Chickasaw Nation."
She's also a member of the Native American Caucus and a proponent of indigenous representation in government, at all levels.
"I think we've come to understand the sheer importance of having our voices and our allies' voices represented in government," she said.
Ms. Branham encourages tribal citizens to be civically engaged and active to utilize those who are in the caucus at the capital.
"My door is always open and I am always happy to hear needs and to work on initiatives," she said. "That's one of the things that I'm really excited about is working on some of those projects to further that representation and get people interested in being a more active part, of not just our tribal governments, but also of our state government as well."
Rep. Branham explained that it's not too often that she gets to work on laws that pertain to Native American tribes. So, it was very special for her to carry Ida's Law HB3345, through the House of Representatives.
"I was really proud to work on was Ida's law," she said. "It established a local office that would work in conjunction with Operation Lady Justice from the federal side, to begin working on some of the cases of murdered and missing indigenous women and to help create a process for prosecution for people that are coming from outside of our tribes and perpetrating violence against our people."
All of the work Rep. Branham has done thus far has recently allowed for a new opportunity. She will be teaching and facilitating an indigenous policy course at Smith College in Boston, for the college's master's in social work program.
"I'll be the first indigenous person to actually teach the course ever, which is surprising, but good that we're moving in that direction," she said. "I love working with people, and I love helping them to grasp new perspectives and move forward."