Black staffers on the Hill push for racial justice, using their own voices, not their bosses’

‘I feel a responsibility to speak out,’ says one House aide

People march in Washington on June 6 to protest the killing of George Floyd. As demonstrators have gathered outside the Capitol throughout the summer, some congressional staffers who work there have been planning their own push for racial justice.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
People march in Washington on June 6 to protest the killing of George Floyd. As demonstrators have gathered outside the Capitol throughout the summer, some congressional staffers who work there have been planning their own push for racial justice. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 27, 2020 at 1:40pm, Updated at 5:18pm

Clarified, 5:18 p.m. | It look LaVontae Brooks a whole week before he could bring himself to watch the video. When he finally did, he was disturbed by what he saw, an African American man slowly dying, gasping for breath and calling for his mother while a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

“It is difficult for me to see Black people abused by anyone, especially by law enforcement,” he said. The video “sickened me to my stomach and I cried a bit. I cried because although I am not George Floyd, I saw myself in him.”

Like many Americans, Brooks watched an apprehended George Floyd die at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman as other officers looked on. The killing sparked outrage and protests in large cities, suburbs and small towns across the country.

But unlike most Americans, Brooks is a staffer on Capitol Hill, where his proximity to powerful lawmakers gives him a greater opportunity to channel that sense of loss into action through the legislative process. 

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He’s one of several staffers who have formed a new task force convened by the Congressional Black Associates and the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, two long-standing professional networks on the Hill. The new group wants congressional leadership to focus on a set of policy areas that it says will “begin to address systems of injustice in America.”

To outline its concerns, the Joint Congressional Staff Task Force on Racial Justice and Reform sent a preliminary report to House and Senate leaders on Thursday. “While we help write the laws that govern the United States, we still live in a society that treats us and our families as second-class citizens,” the group said in a letter addressed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. 

Working in Washington at the Capitol complex offers daily reminders, including office buildings “named after self-avowed racists,” the letter says, alluding to a building that bears the name of the late Sen. Richard B. Russell, who helped filibuster civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

“The duality of our lived experiences as Black Americans and participants in the federal policy making process forces us to reconcile our nation’s past and present on a daily basis,” the letter says.

The idea behind the task force is for staffers to break with tradition and use their own voices — not their bosses’ — to advocate for legislation proposed during the current Congress. But they have to walk a fine line between shedding light and pushing for specific bills. Because of its bylaws, CBA does not take a public stance on legislation, and over its four decades in existence, the staff association has focused instead on helping Black aides climb the career ladder on the Hill through networking and mentorship. 

“We understand that traditionally Hill staff have not done something like this before,” the letter says, before citing the advice of the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis for people to answer the calling of their hearts and stand up for their beliefs.

That’s why task force director Julian Purdy is careful to stress that the new group will work semi-independently of CBA or SBLSC, the existing staff associations. “While the Congressional Black Associates provided the infrastructure for staffers to organize, the task force itself [has] its own leadership and structure,” said CBA spokesperson Maya Valentine.

So far the task force is sticking to broad generalities, asking Congress to work to close the racial wealth gap; address election security; and expand access to education, transportation and technology like broadband internet. More specific recommendations will come later, leaders say.

Still, one of the task force’s goals is to simply let Black constituents know there are Black staffers on Capitol Hill trying to serve as their voice.

“I feel a responsibility to speak out through the task force because I cannot go to a protest and feel the energy of my people right now,” said Taylor Ware, a House staffer who serves as the group’s director of education policy and member engagement. “My father is immunocompromised and keeping him alive is my number one priority. I sat for several days in my room, now a home office, crying, feeling torn between risking my father’s health by going out to protest or risking my own mental health by staying home and not having an outlet for any of the sadness or pain that I was coping with.” 

The group plans to release a larger platform next month and a full report on “legitimized, codified, and systemic racial injustice,” Purdy said.

While CBA’s membership is made up of staffers from Republican and Democratic offices, there are no Republicans on the task force, according to Purdy, who works for a House committee.

The preliminary report from the task force comes amid new protests in Kenosha, Wis., following the shooting of Jacob Blake, which prompted the NBA to postpone its playoff games in solidarity with protesters.

“Not only did I have to watch George Floyd’s last eight minutes and 46 seconds of life, but just last night I watched Jacob Blake being shot seven times in front of his kids,” said House staffer Gabrielle Howard. “As I am speaking, yet another Black life could have been taken.”

While the task force has not “directly reached out to members of Congress” about its platform, according to Purdy, some staffers have told their bosses they are participating.

Clarification: This report was updated to reflect what CBA members say they have told lawmakers about the work of the task force.