The value of diversity in Congress must include that of top congressional staff
© Greg Nash

Diversity in the workplace is an idea that transcends our observable characteristics. It deals with the nuances and complexities that make up the mosaics of our personal stories, which help define who we are. In addition to our visible differences, diversity of thought, tastes, socioeconomic backgrounds and walks of life are all a part of those lived experiences we carry into the workplace, which can be highly beneficial in many professional settings.

Diversity can mean different things to different people. In government, it is often viewed as the means with which our representatives serve as an embodied portrait of the American electorate. When the 116th Congress was sworn in, it made history as the most diverse congressional class our nation has ever seen. With a record number of women, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, and religious minorities, this new class of legislators more accurately reflected the changing composition of the American population—and that is a good thing.

Despite this historic moment in our country’s history, there are still gaps in representation behind the scenes of Congress. As recently as 2015, people of color represented only 7.1 percent of top Senate staffers despite making up more than 36 percent of the U.S. population and more than 28 percent of the citizen voting-age population. This shortfall reflects a fundamental problem our government has with ensuring that the full spectrum of America’s backgrounds and experiences is represented by congressional staff. These discrepancies are particularly troublesome in the wake of an increasing number of elections that continue to produce a diverse congressional makeup.

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As these realities highlight blind spots in the inner workings of our system of government, they also yield opportunities for change. In conjunction with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, NALEO Educational Fund has taken action on this front through the launch of Staff Up Congress, a nonpartisan, national initiative for a representative congressional workforce. Human resources experts have long known that inclusive hiring models for businesses lead to higher profits, and research has shown this idea to hold in government settings by revealing how legislative staff prioritize constituent issues with which they personally identify. Employing staffers who come from different walks of life would only enhance the ability of members of Congress to make sound policy decisions.

Staff Up Congress’s mission is to increase the number of qualified and talented staffers of color who desire to put their skills to work on behalf of the American people in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. NALEO Educational Fund’s work on this issue aims to polish capable individuals for these roles through professional development. These efforts are modeled after the organization’s NALEO Policy Institute program that utilizes innovative approaches to enhance participants’ skills and effectiveness in government. Staff Up Congress is made up of three academies: a Communications Academy, Legislative Academy and Senior Management Academy, which respectively strengthen the ability of staffers of color to effectively pursue positions as communications director, legislative director and chief of staff.

Given the significance of these positions, it is crucial that candidates of color are fairly represented in applicant pools. This is why Staff Up Congress is dedicated to an integrated and cohesive approach that builds on professional development by expanding candidates’ networks while persuading congressional offices to utilize inclusive staffing practices when actively considering, recruiting and hiring candidates. Through this model, the program helps refine participants so that they are in the best positions to succeed when entering the market for these key roles.

The value of diversity in Congress must include that of congressional staff. By incorporating more people of color in top staff roles, members of Congress would be strengthening their offices with staffers who carry a wide-ranging array of personal experiences and lenses through which to view the world. The implications of this can only make government better. What good is a diverse legislature if the makeup of principal staff members is irreflective of the multifaceted composition of the American people? Members of Congress looking like their constituents is only one part of realizing the full effect of diversity on Capitol Hill. Hiring a diverse workforce is the other part, and one of the most actionable ways a member can value inclusion. It is vital for government and nonprofits to prioritize these kinds of initiatives. That is why NALEO Educational Fund is dedicated to utilizing its abilities to take part in this work, with Staff Up Congress as the programmatic vehicle through which these efforts take place.

Arturo Vargas is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, a national nonprofit organization that strengthens American democracy by promoting the full participation of Latinos in civic life.  He also serves as the Chief Executive Officer of NALEO, a national membership organization of Latino policymakers and their supporters.