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Capitol staff diversity ‘can’t just start at the bottom,’ panel told

Sustained effort, cultural shifts needed, witnesses tell Modernization Committee

Kemba Hendrix, director of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, speaks with Roll Call in the Longworth House Office Building on May 9, 2018.
Kemba Hendrix, director of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, speaks with Roll Call in the Longworth House Office Building on May 9, 2018. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Narrow talent pipelines, pigeonholing of portfolio issues and casual microaggressions from colleagues and bosses are some of the issues hampering efforts to recruit and retain House staffers that represent the diversity of the nation and districts they represent, witnesses told the House Modernization of Congress Committee on Thursday.

The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, or ODI, is now a permanent resource for the chamber, and there is funding to pay interns. But those alone are not enough to change entrenched hiring and management practices that exclude or push out people of color, people with disabilities and other underrepresented groups, these witnesses said.

“It is not enough to hire a diverse candidate; we must make sure that the environment is ready to integrate them fully into the work of the office,” said Keenan Austin Reed, a former chief of staff for Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., and co-founder of the Black Women’s Congressional Alliance.

Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., asked if managerial training could be impactful, and Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., asked if training or educational boot camps might help to open doors for junior staff to advance. All the panelists expressed support for training and talent development to cultivate staff from underrepresented groups. But the larger workplace also needs to put in effort, they said.

“We should also recognize that an environment that has had a homogeneous staff for the majority of its history will need to make some cultural adjustments,” said Reed.

Lawmakers also heard suggestions for a certification program that would give staff who commit to professional development an acknowledged credential and to make sure that training doesn’t seem punitive.

House ODI Director Kemba Hendrix and other panelists pushed lawmakers to think beyond internship selection and recruitment from college as the primary ways to diversify their offices, citing the lack of diversity in senior staff roles on Capitol Hill.

“It can’t just start at the bottom, thinking that an internship pipeline is going to increase the level of senior leaders who are going to be able to affect policy decisions and be able to grow and develop future leaders,” Hendrix told lawmakers.

It could take a decade or more for an entry-level staffer to rise to be a manager who has the influence to shift office culture or mine their own network for potential hires. And many staff simply don’t stay that long. She encouraged an “internship and” approach, where serious effort is put into professional development at every level and cultivating subject matter expertise and other key skills that grow junior aides into essential senior staff.

Reed and Maria Robles Meier, former director of the Senate Democratic diversity initiative, said there also needs to be a more robust pipeline for internships and entry-level positions, like recruiting at historically Black colleges and universities or Hispanic-serving institutions and encouraged members to do that.

A recent effort to diversify interns did not have the intended outcome, which has the Modernization Committee and others thinking about other ways to make working on Capitol Hill more accessible. When Congress appropriated millions specifically to pay interns a few years ago, the expectation was that it would help level the playing field for students of color, who may not have the generational wealth of their white peers.

But a recent study from Pay Our Interns found that the students getting paid internships were still overwhelmingly white and disproportionately more likely to attend private universities. Just half went to public schools, compared with 75 percent of all U.S. undergraduates.

Illinois Republican Rodney Davis asked how Republican offices specifically can better recruit and retain diverse staff and what the ODI data said about how GOP and Democratic offices compare.

Hendrix said the ODI data is not broken down by party, which was partly intentional to encourage survey participants to speak more freely about their experiences.

Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter said he’ll be looking into organizations and resources in Colorado to help him hire a more diverse team for his campaigns because he likes to hire trusted campaign staff in his district office and in Washington.

“Staffers of color are as resilient as they are brilliant,” Gregg Orton, former chief of staff for Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, told the panel. “To choose to work in a space, surrounded by everyday reminders that ‘you don’t belong,’ and to then use those reminders as motivation to work harder is precisely why Congress should be doing everything it can to promote greater diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Meier and Orton emphasized the importance of staff associations for building community, confidence and professional development for staff once they arrive on Capitol Hill, especially with a lack of diversity among senior staff.

“When staff is here, do they see people who look like them? Do they have supportive networks?” asked Meier. “These congressional staff associations are so important to provide the staff with a sense of welcoming and a place to go when they’re struggling with professional issues or personal issues.”

Orton credited the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association with helping him build relationships and grow in his career on Capitol Hill and urged the committee to explore additional funding for staff associations.

“They create vital environments for staffers to thrive. I know that I wouldn’t have made it for as long as I did without the support of colleagues and friends,” said Orton. “Simply because community spaces clearly will create themselves on the Hill doesn’t mean that, institutionally, Congress shouldn’t support them.”

The Modernization Committee has already held multiple hearings this year on staff issues, including retention, professional development, intern experience and now empowering and retaining a diverse staff, which signals that further recommendations on staff support could be a priority for the panel in the coming year. The panel plans to put out recommendations on a rolling basis.

Jim Saksa contributed to this report.

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