By Tatyana Hopkins
Congressional staffers are not as diverse as the nation they serve, according to Quardricos Driskell, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and legislative and political affairs manager at the American Urological Association.
“Only about 14 percent of higher-ranking senior staff in the House were…people of color,” he said, “and it was only 11 percent in the Senate.”
Mr. Driskell, Cert. ’09, M.P.S. ’12, said the problem usually begins at the intern level.
“While interns rarely have any impact on lawmaking, they often go on to more important positions that can actually affect legislation,” he said.
However, he noted that despite efforts to pay interns and help them overcome obstacles such as being able to afford to live in Washington, D.C., for the duration of their internship, an overwhelming number of interns on Capitol Hill are white.
Although white students made up 52 percent of the national undergraduate student population, they made up 76 percent of paid congressional interns in 2019.
Latino and Black students, however, accounted for 7.9 percent and 6.7 percent of paid congressional interns despite representing 20 percent and 15 percent of the undergraduate student population, respectively. Asian and Pacific Islander students made up 7.9 percent of paid interns while Native American students made up only 0.03 percent.
Mr. Driskell, who is also a pastor at the Beulah Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., shared his thoughts as he moderated a virtual panel of GSPM alumni about representation in democratic politics and the role that leaders play in ensuring diversity, inclusion and a sense of belonging within public institutions.
The panel also included Sherri Dickerson, senior vice president and chief human capital officer at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA); J Francis, senior director of community affairs for Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.); and Jenae Holloway, associate director of editorial special events at Vogue.
The discussion was hosted as part of this year’s Paul O’Dwyer Endowed Forum for Political Ethics, an endowed event series made possible by the generosity of GW alumnus and donor, Brian O'Dwyer, B.A. '66, J.D. '76, in honor of his father, Paul O'Dwyer, that focusses on ensuring students and the GW community continue to emphasize the role of ethics in politics.
The forum also served as a launch for GSPM’s new Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) initiative, which aims to increase outreach to HBCUs and other organizations focused on diversifying the public and private sectors to create a more diverse student body.
Over the past year Mr. Francis, M.P.S. ’16, an African American congressional staffer, said he has had a number of opportunities to talk about racial inequalities in this country and how implicit bias and lack of diversity on the Hill impacts the legislative agenda in his office and others.
“As we talk about systemic inequalities in the Black Lives Matter movement, we had an instance on Jan. 6 that put on display the contrast of white privilege and the Black experience,” he said. “We saw us advocating for the loss of Black lives and being met with droves of military forces, and then on Jan. 6 we see our counterparts...enter and have their way, rummaging through the United States Congress.”
Mr. Francis said members of Congress must be intentional in opening their doors to diverse job candidates by investing beyond obvious diversity pipelines, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, to support education and opportunity access.
However, Ms. Holloway, M.A. ’14, who began her career interning at the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and White House before transitioning to media, said while representation is important, workers of color need to have their contributions valued.
“Coming from the Obama White House, we felt like we were a very inclusive environment and always focused on bringing in different voices and the importance of diversity of thought, and then I went straight to Glamour,” she said.
However, Ms. Holloway said while the well-established magazine, which she worked at from 2015 to 2018, focused on women’s experiences, it rarely touched on Black women’s experiences or explored intersectionality when talking about matters such as reproductive rights, sexual assault, wage gaps and other women-centered issues.
“It took a lot of consistent conversations with my editor in chief, and I wrote a few pieces and she was extremely supportive of me whenever I wrote,” she said. “But every time I would start clicking the keys, my hands would be shaking, and that would tell me just how much of a risk I knew I was taking writing things like this that were, I wouldn't call them disparaging, but highlighting that even Glamour has not paid enough attention to the intersectional issues that women of color might face.”
Ms. Dickerson, M.P.S. ’14, said while diversity matters, inclusion is key, and employers in both the public and privates sectors need to be deliberate in attracting and maintaining diverse work candidates.
Likening diversity to being invited to a party and inclusion to being asked to dance, she said employers who do not have a plan to welcome diverse hires into the fold will just “be cycling people through” before an eventual breakdown in diversity efforts altogether.
“No one wants to work anywhere where they don’t feel like they have a place at the table,” Ms. Dickerson said. “As long as [employers are] not changing the culture so that [they] can create a more inviting and welcoming environment, then they won’t get to inclusion.”