Low pay, a high cost of living and an insulated culture make it hard for Black aides to build a career in Congress.
When Chanda Jefferson, a science teacher from Columbia, S.C., got the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill, she was thrilled to use her classroom experience to 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, there are no permanent Black staff members.
“It was shocking to see so few individuals that 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 career on Capitol Hill.
In a letter published on Friday, two congressional staff associations called for better pay and “a stronger college-to-Congress pipeline” to recruit Black graduates. They also urged voters to push lawmakers to diversify their staff. 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 a message to America. We come to 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.”
Diversity has always been a challenge on Capitol Hill. While the 117th Congress is the most diverse yet — the percentage of Black lawmakers in the House is nearly equal to that of Black Americans, according to the Pew Research Center — representation among congressional staff falls far short of reflecting the population 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, according to a 2020 report from the Joint Center, which counts chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors as top staff.
Currently, about 3 percent of those top staff members are Black, and only two are chiefs of staff, the highest staff position in a congressional office, which is also responsible for hiring. There are no Black staff directors of full Senate committees. While the House has almost 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 should 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 staff members can partly be attributed to turnover among all Capitol Hill staff with the start of a new administration, Ms. Brenson said. But she added that the positions were not necessarily being filled with candidates of color because of issues like low pay, the high cost of living in Washington and the insular culture of Capitol Hill.
Ms. Bonner added that these hurdles disproportionately affect Black professionals, who often come from communities with limited opportunities. “When we come to work for Congress, we don’t expect to have to go through those types of things here.”
The past year has also been challenging emotionally. The pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic Americans, and the Jan. 6 riot, when 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 fact 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 process 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.
“I honestly didn’t feel like the Hill was for me — there were 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 positive culture and rewarded staff with bonuses.
But after Ms. Pointer’s brother was killed in a home invasion in Chicago, she decided to “seek justice” for her community in a way that working in Congress did not allow. Ms. Pointer left Ms. Duckworth’s office in May to attend law school at Northwestern University. She plans to become a litigator.
“People have 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 looked like America,” Ms. Goins said. “That is something that I take into consideration during the hiring process.”
While congressional leadership has made some moves welcomed by many Black staff members, 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 do not 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 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 with no power over hiring practices.
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 necessarily hire diverse staff.
According to the Joint Center, although Black voters accounted for almost 40 percent of the 2016 Democratic turnout in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, the three states with the highest share of Black residents that are represented by two Democratic senators, there is currently only one top staff member who is Black in all six of those Senate offices.
“You can’t just say, I need you to turn out to 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 be responsible for 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 South Carolina, 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 the program 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 solution, 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 support them through an unpaid position, living in Washington, D.C., to follow their dreams.”