Posted on October 22, 2021

As Some Black Staff Members Leave Congress, Those Who Remain Call for Change

Aishvarya Kavi, New York Times, October 17, 2021

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 on the Hill of more than a dozen people, there are no permanent Black staff members.


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. {snip}

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.


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.