Congress pays its interns, but more than two-thirds were white in 2019, according to a report by Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit that advocates paid internships nationwide. But fellowships, which seek more experienced candidates than internships, are still sometimes unpaid. And while the House has created an Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Senate Democrats began a diversity initiative, each congressional office operates independently, with no overarching human resources department, leaving diversity offices with no power over hiring practices.
The report from the Joint Center also noted the disparity in hiring among political parties. While Republicans tend to have less diverse staff overall, Democrats who rely heavily on turnout from people of color to win elections do not necessarily hire diverse staff.
According to the Joint Center, although Black voters accounted for almost 40 percent of the 2016 Democratic turnout in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, the three states with the highest share of Black residents that are represented by two Democratic senators, there is currently only one top staff member who is Black in all six of those Senate offices.
“You can’t just say, I need you to turn out to vote, and not also reflect people of color in these key positions in advising members of Congress on legislation,” Ms. Brenson said.
In their letter, the Black staff associations asked that Congress make “purposeful and fair hiring decisions.” But Ms. Mathieu said that members of Congress alone could not be responsible for promoting diversity. The associations are also pushing for more programs to give students from historically Black colleges and universities a path to a career on Capitol Hill.
Ms. Jefferson, the science teacher from South Carolina, noted that she was only able to work on Capitol Hill thanks to a yearlong fellowship that pays her more than $80,000. But she said that the program itself, which is open to educators from all backgrounds, was still working to increase diversity within its ranks. And that program’s costs are covered by a federal agency — not by the member of Congress in whose office she works. The solution, she said, is to expand programs that create long-term investments in diversity.
“How can we create more paid internships where students of color can come in — and survive?” said Ms. Jefferson, who teaches in a predominantly Black and low-income school district. “Many of my students would not have access to funding to support them through an unpaid position, living in Washington, D.C., to follow their dreams.”