Vashti Hinton is working in a place that some folks said would never hire her: Capitol Hill.
“I had many people telling me that I wouldn’t be able to ever 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.”
Hinton, a North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University graduate, recently landed a job in the office of Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., the first full time hire from a unique three-year-old internship program created by Reps. Alma Adams, D-N.C., and Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., to help improve Congress’ poor showing when it comes to staff diversity
A 2015 study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on minority issues, 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.
The Adams-Walker program gives students from North Carolina’s historically black colleges and universities 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.
A lack of diversity among congressional officers is a problem, Adams and Walker say, because staffers — especially at the senior level — influence senators and House members and play pivotal roles in crafting legislation.
“You may not understand my community if you don’t live there or you don’t interact there,” Adams said. “The people who go through our program, they are able to teach us a few things, to share information about their schools, about their communities and about the needs.”
Diversity's progress in Congress remains slow.
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., whose special election victory in December in a deep red Southern state was powered by black votes, hired the Senate’s only African American Democratic chief of staff, Dana Gresham.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the Senate’s only African American Republican, also has a black chief of staff, Jennifer DeCasper.
Brennen Britton, who is black, is Sen. Jerry Moran’s chief of staff. Courtney Temple, an African American woman, is legislative director for Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. Darrell Jordan is communications director for Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
House Democrats and Republicans provided no data on minority hiring in their congressional offices. House Democrats are conducting a survey on minority hiring as part of a diversity initiative launched by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
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.
Burks hiring came nearly five months after Ryan posted a selfie with a room full of white Capitol Hill interns behind him.
That photo, along with a picture earlier this month a mostly-white class of spring 2018 White House interns, crystallizes the diversity issue in Washington, according to Don Bell, director of the Joint Center’s Black Talent Initiative.
“It speaks to the institutional problem that exists that senior staffers and elected officials themselves who are in charge of hiring and have the opportunity to create opportunities are not being thoughtful enough about how to make sure that they are recruiting qualified people of color from every walk of life,” said Bell, a former president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., separately launched Democratic initiatives in the House and the Senate to boost diversity.
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.
“Part of that is just the fundamental structure on Capitol Hill — every office is essentially its own business,” Bell said. “When you don’t have centralized policies, practices or procedures then you end up with a situation where some offices are much more diverse than others, and many just aren’t because they haven’t been thinking about diversity and inclusion.”
Meeks, a black caucus member, said Congress should “practice what it preaches” about diversity. He hired Hinton, 23, to be a legislative correspondent and staff assistant after learning about the Adams-Walker internship program.
“The program was important because it had individuals from HBCUs and it opened doors to Democrats and Republicans, which meant, for me, that there was a likelihood that they would have a well-rounded exposure to how this place works on both sides of the aisle,” Meeks said. “That was important because the position we hired her in, she is really the person who comes into contact first with many of the constituents and others who walk into my office.”
The internship helped Hinton escape a cycle that keeps many minority applicants from getting full time congressional staffing positions. Most offices require applicants to have prior experience through internships.
Many African American miss the internship experience because the positions rarely pay enough to allow them to save money and spend a summer in Washington. The Adams-Walker program does.
“The internship showed me that anything was possible…,” said Hinton, who earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from NC A&T last May. “Since most offices require you have some sort of internship experience, the internship provided me a foot in the door.”
Now that she’s on Capitol Hill, Hinton wants to stay and move up.
“I found that there is diversity on the Hill, especially in Democratic offices and the network of minority staffers has certainly helped me along the way,” she said. “Still, when it comes to diversity, Congress, like the rest of America has work to do.”