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Staff Up Congress Aims to Tackle Diversity From the Top

Noel Perez says congressional staff should more resemble constituents

Noel Perez, a leader of Staff Up Congress, worked for former California Rep. Xavier Becerra, now the state’s attorney general. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)
Noel Perez, a leader of Staff Up Congress, worked for former California Rep. Xavier Becerra, now the state’s attorney general. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)

What’s one way to increase diversity on the Hill? Start at the senior-staffer level. 

That’s according to the group Staff Up Congress, a joint campaign between the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, which focuses on opportunities for Latinos, and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on opportunities for African-Americans.

Noel Perez, the NALEO lead of Staff Up Congress, said the campaign’s goal is “to increase the talented and qualified staffers of color that desire to put their skills to work in the halls of Congress.”

He and Don Bell of the Joint Center want to see more diverse hires for the roles of chief of staff, legislative director and communications director. The joint campaign works with people already on the Hill looking for promotions and with people off the Hill who have the skills to be in senior staff roles.

[Success Stories: Creating a More Diverse Capitol Hill]

Perez knows the Hill from his nine years working for former Rep. Xavier Becerra, who left last year to become California attorney general.

A San Francisco native, Perez was most recently member outreach adviser for Becerra when he chaired the House Democratic Caucus. He also worked on a diversity initiative, which the caucus launched in 2016. 

Democrats have since developed the House Democratic Diversity Initiative, coordinated through the Administration Committee. 

Perez first got to the Hill through the Panetta Institute’s congressional internship program, which selects students from the California State University system and other universities to intern in the Hill office of a California lawmaker. The program covers their travel expenses and costs of living in D.C. Perez interned for Becerra and was later hired full time.

“My resources, when it comes to my family, I didn’t have those resources to fly out here. I didn’t know anyone when I came here. Because of the opportunity, I was able to get my start,” he said.

And that’s what fuels his efforts now.

“My parents came from Mexico and obviously, they’re impacted greatly by the government, by the decisions that are made on Capitol Hill. And I realized that if we don’t have diverse staffers that resemble constituents around the country, we’re not going to be able to create these policies to address concerns of all communities,” Perez said.

There are three components to Staff Up Congress’s goal of increasing senior-level diversity.

The first is creating a résumé bank. “That way, we can identify these individuals that are currently on the Hill or those that are off the Hill and [inform] the Hill managers,” Perez said.

The group is also planning training sessions — launching this summer or in the early fall — to help staffers excel either in the legislative track, the communications track or becoming a chief of staff.

[Congress Doesn’t Report Diversity Because It Doesn’t Have to]

Additionally, the group is seeking Hill staff demographics data so it can push for changes.

“We don’t know the gender, the race, the ethnicities,” Perez said. “Overall, what we’re looking for is systematic, yearly, congressional data on staff demographics that’s accessible to the public, and we currently don’t have that.”

Congressional offices don’t have to compile this data and that’s something Staff Up Congress wants to change.

“If we see that there is this big gap in communications directors, we should then aim our resources for creating a pipeline for communications directors, but we don’t necessarily have that unless we have that data,” Perez said.

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