A call for diversity on Capitol Hill

A call for diversity on Capitol Hill
© Greg Nash

As we celebrated diversity during the 47th Annual Legislative Conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, we were reminded that Capitol Hill diversity still falls short. Very short. The gathering, also known as CBC week, is a premier political and policy event, as individuals from around the country descend on Washington to learn from one another, discuss the state of black America, and build and activate grassroots coalitions.

The week also reminded us all of the value of diversity. It is a reflection of how powerful and necessary it is to have people of many backgrounds and experiences fill policymaking forums. The week’s celebration and discourse left me inspired, but also torn. I am inspired because just one year ago, congressional staff diversity was barely a topic of conversation.

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Our efforts to bring change has made this an important issue. Unfortunately, a few blocks away, the most powerful policymaking body in our country, Congress, remains mired in fundamental challenges as it relates to diversity. Despite the many meaningful changes that have come and are coming to Capitol Hill, we are not seeing the level of urgency necessary to address the unacceptable state of affairs in both parties and in both chambers of our Congress.

Diversity allows us to make policy that better encompasses the values and perspectives of more Americans. It connects elected representatives with the communities they serve. The failure to embrace diversity is dangerous. You see that failure in our communities, both rural or urban, where too many Americans feel disenfranchised and unrepresented. You see it in our workplaces. And you see in our Congress, manifested by partisan gridlock and lopsided bad policy that is anything but representative.

Thankfully, Senate Democrats stepped up in June and for the first time, released data on the makeup of their staffs. Senate Democrats have also led in making other important changes and deserve to be applauded. However, the lack of diversity on Senate committees in particular, reminds us that there is much more work to be done. According to the data, there were no black staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Armed Services Committee or Senate Agriculture Committee.

Diversity is almost as bad on other powerful committees. Importantly, the number of staffers is not all that matters. What positions the staffers hold are equally, if not more, important. With the breakdown provided, we do not even know what positions people of color held on these committees, though we know that more often than not it isn’t a top staff position.

While the Senate Democrats have led the way in releasing figures on staff makeup, both of the two black chiefs of staff in the entire Senate are Republican. Not enough members of Congress and senior Hill staffers, on both sides of the aisle, have fully embraced the value of searching for and hiring qualified people of diverse backgrounds. That’s still an uncomfortable truth.

Diversity cannot be an empty word or idea that you throw around in a meeting yet do nothing to cultivate when it matters. You cannot merely hire an individual or conveniently identify a junior staffer of color in an office to speak about diversity and think that a problem has been solved.

Later this year, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies will release a report which will likely confirm that the diversity problem is just as bad in the House of Representatives. Regardless of your race, religion, creed or political affiliation, you, as an American, deserve to be heard in a government of the people. It cannot happen if the staffs of your elected members are not diverse.

This impacts all of us. Congressional staffers help guide decisions around our country’s multitrillion-dollar budget that impacts funding our children’s schools, our access to quality health care, our criminal justice system, our defense policy, our right to vote and so much more. We cannot allow CBC week to pass without a renewed commitment to be relentless in our push for diversifying Capitol Hill.

Don Bell is director of the black talent initiative at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an organization that conducts research and designs policy solutions to improve life in communities of color. He is the former president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus.