OPED: Want to build a more diverse Capitol Hill? Start with the staff

Noel Perez
Cq-Roll Call
FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2018, file photo, the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Congress is set to pass a crucial spending bill that averts a government shutdown, but there’s one potential obstacle: President Donald Trump. Neither party wants the government to close ahead of the midterm elections that will determine control of Congress, but Trump has made clear his frustration at the lack of money for his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He says it is “ridiculous” the wall has yet to be fully funded. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON – Diversity is a driving force behind a changing America: People of color now represent almost 40 percent of the U.S. population. Yet somehow, a new Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies report shows that they make up merely 13.7 percent of senior staffers in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That means our elected officials’ legislative directors, communications directors, and chiefs of staff are overwhelmingly white, even in offices representing states with large Latino and African-American populations.

I had a front-row view of this problem over the nine years I spent working for Rep. Xavier Becerra. I took a role on the House Democratic Caucus Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, which the Democratic Caucus launched in 2016 — and the dire need for greater staff diversity on the Hill could not have been more clear.

While working to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, I found many staffers had a hard time understanding the provisions around support needed for students who were English language learners, confounding those needs with the immigration conversation. Without diverse staffers who understand the issues facing our nation’s underrepresented populations, I realized, we can’t possibly create policies that address Americans’ concerns.

True — elected officials must sign off on final decisions. But it is their senior staffers who are responsible for shaping priorities, writing legislation, hiring employees, managing offices and more.

If the House and Senate intend to address the concerns of all Americans, then they need to create more space for staffers of color, particularly when it comes to senior roles. These staffers also bring a wealth of expertise and experience that will help members of Congress govern and represent their constituents effectively.

This problem is not a partisan one. In fact, congressional staff diversity is extremely lacking across both the Democratic and Republican parties. There is room for both sides of the aisle to improve.

Creating a pipeline of talented candidates of color for jobs on Capitol Hill is challenging, because people of color often face unique barriers such as limited professional networks and minimal access to managerial skills training.

After graduating California State University, East Bay, I knew I wanted to work in public service — but I didn’t quite know how to get started. I certainly didn’t have the resources or connections to fly out to D.C. and look for jobs in politics.

It was thanks to the Panetta Institute’s congressional internship program that I was able to take the first step in my own career journey. The program covered my travel expenses and costs of living in D.C., ultimately getting me through the door of Becerra’s office.

I know from experience that if we’re going to grow the pool of diverse candidates, we have to start by directly addressing the barriers that young people of color might face.

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At the NALEO Educational Fund, we’re working with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies on Staff Up Congress, an initiative that aims to build a more representative congressional workforce. Recently, Staff Up announced the participants of our inaugural Legislative Academy, the first of three professional development tracks we’ll be offering to help aspiring Hill staffers get to the next level.

Over four sessions, the Legislative Academy provides 20 selected participants across both Democratic and Republican Hill offices with the skills development and networking opportunities they’ll need to become legislative directors. We address managing the appropriations process, understanding media and communications, operating the committee framework and working across the aisle.

Planned for early next year are a Communications Academy and Senior Management Academy to prepare junior staffers of color for future jobs as communications directors and chiefs of staff.

As a new wave of lawmakers prepares to enter Congress in 2019, we are ramping up our efforts to promote the hiring of diverse staffers – and we urge Capitol Hill leadership to follow our lead. The next generation of decisionmakers on the Hill must look more like the communities they serve.

Only by hiring and promoting diverse candidates can we create economic opportunity for people of color, bring a wealth of talent to top Congressional positions, and truly address the needs of all Americans.

— Noel Perez is the policy and program manager at NALEO Educational Fund, who leads the Staff Up Congress national initiative.