Hinton (Photo Via McClatchy)
By Susan Johnes
The congregational staff workforce at Capitol Hill is mostly white. But a Black college student is breaking the racial barrier in the department; working in a place that some folks are unlikely to hire people like her.
The North Carolina A&T State University grad Vashti Hinton, 23, landed a full-time job in the Washington office of Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., after participating in an internship program for HBCUs students created by Rep. Alma Adams and Mark Walker, to help persuade minority students to pursue careers on Capitol Hill.
“Many people told me that I wouldn’t be able ever to get a job here and it would be impossible because I wanted to wear my hair natural, I went to an HBCU, and I am a Black woman,” she said.
Multiple surveys show that the Congress scores poorly when it comes to staff diversity. For instance, a 2015 study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that African Americans make up less than one percent of top Senate staff despite minorities representing 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Since the Joint Center study’s release, the number of African American senior Senate staffers has grown from three to seven.
And with the Adams-Walker program, students from North Carolina’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) get exposure to both political parties by having them split time working for Adams, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Adams and Walker said that the lack of diversity among congressional officers is a problem because staffers especially at the senior level influence senators and House members and play pivotal roles in crafting legislation.
In December 2016, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., hired Capitol Hill veteran Jonathan Burks as his chief of staff, making him the first African American to hold the position.
However, Burks was hired nearly five months after Ryan posted a selfie with a room full of white Capitol Hill interns behind him.
Additionally, earlier this month, White House posted a photo containing a mostly-white class of spring 2018 White House interns which questions the diversity issue.
But Congress isn’t subject to some of anti-discrimination and labor laws it has imposed upon the private sector, and there’s little urgency on Capitol Hill for that to change.
The Joint Center study report on Racial Diversity Among Top Senate Staff also found that although African Americans, AAPIs, Latinos, and Native Americans make up 36% of the U.S. population, they only make up 7% of top Senate staff.
Luckily for Hinton, the internship is likely to make her escape a cycle that keeps many minority applicants from getting full-time congressional staffing positions because most offices require applicants to have prior experience through internships.
Besides that, many African American misses the internship experience because the positions rarely pay enough to allow them to save money and spend a summer in Washington, but the Adams-Walker program does.
Now that she’s on Capitol Hill, Hinton said she wants to stay after finding out that there is diversity on the Hill, especially in Democratic offices and the network of minority staffers which has undoubtedly helped her along the way.
But she still feels that when it comes to diversity, Congress, like the rest of America has a lot of work to do.