Inside the Cannon House, the oldest congressional office building on the stately federal campus in southeast Washington, DC, a reserved room came alive in late January with melodious chatter between more than 100 black women. With plates and cups in hand, the women fell into easy conversation about the work of the day, the news of the moment, and universal subject matter on which many black women can bond: haircare and fashion, food and travel, and weariness of Donald Trump’s manipulations of power.
Even among such a small segment of Capitol Hill’s thousands of staffers, many did not know each other, at least not outside of occasional email exchanges or passing name recognition. Still, there was a palpable love in the room.
Keenan Austin Reed, DC chief of staff to Congressman Donald McEachin from Virginia, co-organized the event with four friends and fellow staffers. They dubbed it “Hidden Figures on the Hill,” a play on the Oscar-nominated movie and an acknowledgement of the general anonymity that shrouds the work black women staffers do there every day. Even if these women and their contributions have gone chronically unappreciated in their offices, this was an intentionally carved-out space where they were not only visible, but extolled.
The event started with an email: "If we get a deal on the big four—the budget caps on defense and domestic spending, CHIP/health centers, the Dream Act, and disaster support for the storms in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands—we’ll have plenty to celebrate,” Reed recalled writing in her initial message. “Looking forward to meeting many of you! Feel free to share with other current staffers/fellows.”
More than 140 responses poured into her inbox, she said. Word of mouth is still magical, and the meeting attracted a montage of black women, a multi-generational representation of interests, backgrounds and experience levels, from senior staff to interns.
Ten years ago, Reed had no idea she might be working anywhere near Capitol Hill. “It’s one of those things: You end up doing what you’re intended to do, no matter what type of decisions you make for yourself,” she said. Her first job out of college was corporate buyer for Macy’s, followed by a successful stint as a pharmaceutical sales rep for GlaxoSmithKline. But she was enticed into politics in 2010 after helping her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida, win her seat. Reed got hooked on the feeling that she was helping to effect change. “There was nothing that inspired me like politics, especially working for a candidate I believed in,” she said.
Feel-good work is one thing, but personal income is another, and the move away from big pharma meant Reed took a mighty big pay cut. “You have to come from a place of inspiration, otherwise you’re looking at your bank account like…” At this she made a face, letting her sentence trail off before bursting into laughter.
The numbers tell the joke: The median Capitol Hill staffer salary is about $52,000 a year and, in Washington, DC, where the cost of living ranks among the highest of all US cities and the pay disparity for black women compared to white men is 53 cents for every dollar, the skills and talent that could ostensibly translate to higher earnings in other sectors are sacrificed to service. During the Obama administration, diversity increased at companies like Johnson & Johnson and PricewaterhouseCoopers. But in the federal government, where the historic significance of a black president was particularly monumental, Obama's presence seemed to serve as a token of a de-racialized system that doesn't exist.
Now as they focus largely on pushing back against Trump, his policies and his amen corner of self-serving cronies, black women staffers and the members they work for have been knuckling up for daily warfare to implement the good they believe in, protect what they know is right, and build a sister circle of support well-articulated for action.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many black women are currently working on Capitol Hill. Turnover is high and lateral career moves happen often. For perspective's sake, in 1974, there were 18 black women staffers in "top-drawer, prestigious" jobs in Congress, Ebony reported that June. Forty years later, there's been real progress, as the January event at Cannon House showed. But not nearly enough, according to Margaret Angela Franklin, legislative director for Congressman Al Lawson of Florida.
“I started off on the Senate in 2011, and there were not a lot of African-Americans—we were mostly staff assistants and legislative correspondents on the policy team,” she said. “More black staffers are being promoted, including women. Jennifer DeCasper is chief of staff for Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), and there are two African-American legislative directors now. There's always been a little bit more progression on the House side because you have more Congressional Black Caucus members who serve there and they tend to hire people of color.”
What the Hill really needs, she added, is more black and brown folks on the Senate side. It’s true: In 1974, there were just 15 African-American staffers, men and women, on that side of the aisle, according to Ebony—and a report released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies revealed that, in 2015, just 0.9 percent of top Senate staff was black.
The absence of diversity is even more alarming now that America is under the direction of a president who sympathizes with white supremacists and remains fixated on undoing Obama’s legacy. Representation has always been important, but under Trump’s uniquely toxic turn in the White House, it’s taken on a new urgency.
The problem is that the push for inclusion and diversity has been distracted by what feels like weekly outbreaks of White House-originated chaos, according to Izmira Aitch, legislative assistant to Wisconsin Congresswoman Gwen Moore.
“Things have become so much more unpredictable in terms of our course of direction,” she told me. “What that means for us as staffers is the inability to be proactive and creative in our projects and incapable of having a long-term game plan for the legislative calendar or direction because things are so in flux and abruptly changing.”
Aitch has been on the Hill for three years, and the constant reactionary state of things since 2016 affects her at work and her peace of mind in general as an informed and conscientious black woman.
“I’m supposed to be crafting long-term, future directional legislation and policy, but my job has sort of shifted to answering the phone and trying to aide very worrisome constituents—not just from our district but random districts around the nation—about their frustration and fears because of rumors coming out of the White House or media reports about what could be coming down the pike,” Aitch said.
As part of a bipartisan delegation in 2017, Aitch recalled, she traveled to Brussels with her colleagues, including another black woman and three white men. “It was a rare opportunity to mix, take off our official titles, and really have some candid discussion,” she explained. “Some of my fellow delegates were from Republican offices and they had been very isolated in their ideology—very hyper-conservative, very right wing.” As the evening went on and got more relaxed, she said, an older white man at the table felt comfortable unleashing very pointed questions. “He asked me why black people think the Confederate flag is racist, then we talked a little about why black people don't deserve reparatory justice but Jewish people do,” Aitch told me. "Internal Izmira turned into this raging black woman but, of course, I had to maintain my diplomacy, hide the pain of insult, educate these grown-ass white men—top-tier staffers—and turn it into a teachable moment.”
This is a suffocating but not isolated experience for black women in all sectors. It’s one reason why Reed conceptualized Hidden Figures on the Hill as a place for black women to re-energize in order to keep showing up, sometimes as the “only” in the room: the only African-American, only woman, only person of color, only graduate of a historically black college or university instead of a predominantly white school. There is affirmation in spaces when you don’t have to explain or apologize for yourself.
At the Hidden Figures on the Hill event, staffers clustered to capture their good time with a selfie. They held up small, colourful signs with sayings significant to black women: “coconut oil and policy,” “yasssss,” “reclaiming my time,” a statement knitted into pop culture by Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Elsewhere, a senior staffer offered a junior staffer a tip about a job opening, and one woman even confirmed an interview for a better position the next day as a result of a contact she made there.
The networking was just part of the support Reed and other black women—including the founders of African-American Women on the Hill, an organization established to connect staffers—created to keep each other empowered to continue the long hours of sometimes thankless work. They are not the recognizable names on a ballot but the cadre who, in true black woman fashion, see the work that needs to be done and do it. Their ability to shape policy might be limited as long as Republicans have a stranglehold on Congress, but they are determined to make working there worthwhile and meaningful all the same.
“I’m definitely not one who tries to assimilate and shrink into the background and not be seen,” Aitch told me. “That’s something the women of the Congressional Black Caucus reiterate to us all the time—don’t feel compelled to blend in with drab colours and straight hair. Feel confident to be your vibrant, beautiful, kinky, colourful self. I’m happy to do that.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.