Concerns About Diversity as Black Staff Members Leave Congress

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Low pay, a higher cost of living and an insulated culture allow it to be hard for Black aides to build a career in Congress.

When Chanda Jefferson, a science teacher from Columbia, S. C., got the ability to work on Capitol Hill, she was thrilled to utilize her classroom experience to simply help shape education policy. She also hoped that when her fellowship was over, she could expose her students at home to a different, exciting career path.

It wasn’t until she arrived that she realized how impervious the halls of Congress were to change. In her office of more than a dozen people, you will find no permanent Black workers.

“It was shocking to see so few people who look like me, ” Ms. Jefferson said. “In order for us to have legislation to represent everyone in the United States of America, we need to hear from diverse voices. ”

Now Black staff members are sounding the alarm on a “painful” two years, including the coronavirus pandemic and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, that they say have exacerbated the challenges they face in pursuing a vocation on Capitol Hill.

In a letter published on Friday, two congressional staff associations needed better pay and “a stronger college-to-Congress pipeline” to recruit Black graduates. In addition they urged voters to push lawmakers to diversify their workers. Published on behalf of more than 300 Black staff members who work in the House and the Senate, it offers a glimpse at the experiences of those who work behind the scenes drafting policy, interacting with constituents and advancing the agendas of members of Congress.

“Today, we are sending an email to America. We arrive at you as Black congressional staffers on Capitol Hill. We come as proud public servants, ” the letter published by the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus and the Congressional Black Associates said. “We believe that if the United States Congress wants to hold steadfast to its representative form of government, then congressional staffers hired to construct and inform legislation should be reflective of the United States’ population. ”

Sarahbeth Maney/The Nyc Times

Diversity has been a challenge on Capitol Hill . While the 117th Congress is the most diverse yet — the percentage of Black lawmakers in the House is almost equal to that of Black Americans, according to the Pew Research Center — representation among congressional staff falls far short of reflecting the populace of the United States.

LaShonda Brenson, the senior fellow of diversity and inclusion with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies , which tracks racial diversity in congressional offices, said she was seeing a trend of top Black staff leaving Capitol Hill, eroding their already scarce numbers. Only 11 percent of top Senate staff are people of color, compared with 40 percent of the country’s population, based on a 2020 report from the Joint Center, which counts chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors as top staff.

Currently, about 3 per cent of those top staff members are Black, and only two are chiefs of staff, the highest staff position in a congressional office, which will be also responsible for hiring. You can find no Black staff directors of full Senate committees. While the House has nearly 30 Black chiefs of staff, Ms. Brenson said they are “disproportionately concentrated” in the offices of Black members of Congress.

“We think that this is an issue that the American people ought to know about, ” said Jazmine Bonner, president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus. “At the end of the day, what happens in Congress affects you, directly or indirectly. ”

The recent departures of Black personnel can partly be caused by turnover among all Capitol Hill staff with the beginning of a new administration, Ms. Brenson said. But she added that the positions weren’t necessarily being filled with candidates of color because of problems like low pay, the high cost of residing in Washington and the insular culture of Capitol Hill.

Ms. Bonner added why these hurdles disproportionately affect Black professionals, who often result from communities with limited opportunities. “When we come to work with Congress, we don’t have a to go through those types of things here. ”

Yesteryear year has also been challenging emotionally. The pandemic, that has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic Americans , and the Jan. 6 riot , each time a mob carrying symbols of racism and white supremacy invaded the Capitol, have weighed on Black staff .

“I was learning and getting updates constantly that a lot of these Black staffers, they’re leaving, and they’re not necessarily being replaced by other Black staffers, ” said Herline Mathieu, president of the Congressional Black Associates. “With the truth that we’re already struggling with recruiting and keeping Black staffers, the fact that we’re experiencing this high turnover, it is a huge concern. ”

Black staff members say getting hired is a long means of networking, milking connections and scoping out which members of Congress will not flinch at a conversation about race, or will allow aides to wear their natural hair.

Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

“I honestly didn’t feel like the Hill was for me — there have been very few hues of Black and brown walking through the Senate, ” Kameelah Pointer said of her first internship in 2017. She said she stayed only because she was hired full-time as a legislative aide by Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, who led a diverse team, fostered a confident culture and rewarded staff with bonuses.

But after Ms. Pointer’s brother was killed in a home invasion in Chicago, she chose to “seek justice” for her community in a way that working in Congress didn’t allow. Ms. Pointer left Ms. Duckworth’s office in-may to attend law school at Northwestern University. She plans to become a litigator.

“People need to be set up for success, ” said Hope Goins, the staff director for Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee, who drafts policy on issues including intelligence and immigration. As a supervisor of a staff of 40, she has worked with the committee’s chairman, Representative Bennie G. Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, to ensure diverse voices are involved in developing legislation.

“He wanted a staff that appeared to be America, ” Ms. Goins said. “That is a thing that I take into consideration during the hiring process. ”

Sarahbeth Maney/The Nyc Times

While congressional leadership has made some moves welcomed by many Black workers, they have fallen short. In August, Speaker Nancy Pelosi increased the maximum annual pay for House staff members to nearly $200, 000. But that increase did not raise the income of average staff members, who make $30, 000 to $40, 000 a year; entry-level jobs can pay as little as $29, 000. Black Americans already don’t earn as much as their white counterparts — in 2019, the median income for Black households was more than $20, 000 less than that of the average American household .

Congress pays its interns, but a lot more than two-thirds were white in 2019, according to a report by Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit that advocates paid internships nationwide. But fellowships, which seek more experienced candidates than internships, are still sometimes unpaid. And while the House has created an Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Senate Democrats began a diversity initiative , each congressional office operates independently, with no overarching human resources department, leaving diversity offices without any power over hiring methods.

The report from the Joint Center also noted the disparity in hiring among political parties. Republicans tend to have less diverse staff overall, but Democrats, who rely heavily on turnout from people of color to win elections, do not fundamentally hire diverse staff.

Based on the Joint Center, although Black voters accounted for very nearly 40 percent of the 2016 Democratic turnout in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, the three states with the highest share of Black residents which can be represented by two Democratic senators, there is currently only 1 top staff member who is Black in all six of those Senate offices.

“You can’t just say, I need you to end up in vote, and not also reflect people of color in these key positions in advising members of Congress on legislation, ” Ms. Brenson said.

In their letter, the Black staff associations asked that Congress make “purposeful and fair hiring decisions. ” But Ms. Mathieu said that members of Congress alone could not result in promoting diversity. The associations are also pushing for more programs to give students from historically Black colleges and universities a path to a career on Capitol Hill.

Ms. Jefferson, the science teacher from Sc, noted that she was only able to work on Capitol Hill thanks to a yearlong fellowship that pays her more than $80, 000. But she said that this system itself, which is open to educators from all backgrounds, was still working to increase diversity within its ranks. And that program’s costs are covered by a federal agency — not by the member of Congress in whose office she works. The answer, she said, is to expand programs that create long-term investments in diversity.

“How can we create more paid internships where students of color can come in — and survive? ” said Ms. Jefferson, who teaches in a predominantly Black and low-income school district. “Many of my students would not have access to funding to aid them through an unpaid position, living in Washington, D. C., to follow their dreams. ”

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