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How to help future staffers find Congress? Show them they belong

Sesha Joi Moon reflects on her new job as House diversity director

Sesha Joi Moon, seen here outside the Capitol in September, is the new director of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
Sesha Joi Moon, seen here outside the Capitol in September, is the new director of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Some researchers spend their careers in the academic sphere, analyzing data from the comfort of their university.

Sesha Joi Moon is not one of those researchers. Though she has a doctorate in public administration and policy, the new director of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion says that world wasn’t for her. 

“It’s great to understand theory, but theory only goes but so long if you don’t understand what it’s like to put it into practice,” she said. 

At the same time she was writing her dissertation on the intersectionality of talent mobility trends for women of color working in the federal government, she had an internship at the Department of Commerce. Watching some of President Barack Obama’s appointees, she saw her research come alive.

“I was seeing public policy and public administration in real life,” she said. “That let me know I absolutely wanted to be a practitioner.”

Over her years in Washington, Moon has studied how the federal government works — and how it could work better.   

At a meeting early in her career, she sat on the edge of the room in a chair reserved for junior staff. Looking into the center circle filled with higher-level officials, she could see there wasn’t a single person who looked like her.

“I remember taking a photo of the table, and making a commitment to myself that whenever I arrived at a place of impact and influence, [I would] make sure that other people felt seen and safe,” she said. “I did not want anybody to ever feel how I felt.” 

Most recently, Moon was chief diversity officer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Now she’s three months into her role as head of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a relatively new entity on the House side of the Capitol.  

Congress has long been criticized for narrow talent pipelines, low pay and long hours — major obstacles to hiring and retaining people of color, people with disabilities, people who come from low-income backgrounds and other underrepresented groups. 

House leaders have sought to boost salaries in recent years, but because lawmakers hire their own staff, the process is decentralized and recruiting is uneven at best.

That’s where the new office comes in. Created last Congress and made permanent at the beginning of this one, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is supposed to help lawmakers hire and retain a workforce that looks more like the country. 

Moon is the second director, after predecessor Kemba Hendrix departed last year to join the executive branch. The Senate does not have an equivalent office, but advocates have called on lawmakers to create one.

With the pandemic receding, Moon and her team have hit the road to spread the word about job opportunities in Congress. At a recent event hosted by the League of United Latin American Citizens in Puerto Rico, she heard from attendees who were surprised to see reflections of themselves in people who work on the Hill.

“I am a Black, queer woman from Richmond, Virginia, but on my team, we have people that have immigrated to this country, different religious affiliations on our team, different gender identities and sexual orientations,” she said. 

That includes Jeyben Castro, the office’s deputy director, who was born in Nicaragua and migrated to Miami when he was 10. He previously worked as an outreach director for the Senate Republican Task Force on Hispanic Affairs under Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. 

As for Moon herself, she lives in northern Virginia with her wife and their cockapoo. Growing up, Moon said she always felt supported by her dad, a social justice advocate, and her mom, who worked in victim and witness services. But it wasn’t always easy living in a “complicated place” like Richmond, a city with stark divisions and a Confederate past.  

“Bringing that lens to a congressional landscape, where you have to navigate partisan affiliations, I feel that’s what I bring to the table,” she said. 

Democrats were the ones to create the diversity office, including it in their rules package as they took control of the House. It’s not clear whether the office or its leadership would change if Republicans regain the chamber, but Moon says she’s not thinking about that scenario yet.

“I don’t want to get into that because we don’t know that for sure,” she said. 

And equity is a challenge that cuts across party lines, she added.

Dispelling assumptions is one goal Moon has for the office. “People think that to work at Congress, you have to be in policy or legislation. But the truth is, there are so many different careers that you can explore,” she said. “To see people understand that they can and do belong here has been monumental.”

Other efforts include maintaining resume banks for GOP and Democratic job openings, setting up mock interviews, and tracking numbers.

The office has conducted a pay and diversity study every other year since its creation, and new responsibilities may be coming soon. A pending House resolution that would codify 32 recommendations made by the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress includes several new roles for Moon and her staff. 

The resolution would instruct the office to help get House offices talent acquisition software. It would also task it with studying intern pay and assessing the feasibility of remote internships.

Those kinds of studies appeal to Moon. “I really believe in data-driven decision making. I think data shows a lot,” she said. “What you measure is what you manage.”

In her own research, Moon found that one obstacle for women of color to advance in the federal government was a shortage of mentors and career coaches.

The stakes are especially high on Capitol Hill, where staffers can theoretically change the course of history. 

“These are the rooms where people are making policy decisions that impact all of our lives, and you want a diverse level of perspectives,” she said. “You have to make sure that room includes a reflection of the American people.”

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