Heard on the Hill

Success Stories: Creating a More Diverse Capitol Hill

Jennifer DeCasper and Hope Goins on how they have done it

Hope Goins says half of her staff are women of color. (Bian Elkhatib/ CQ Roll Call)

Some offices on Capitol Hill make an extra effort to reflect the diversity of America. And while the lawmakers they serve might get the credit, the office directors in charge of hiring are the ones who make it happen.

“It’s been a huge priority of our office, just because our boss is obviously a diverse candidate, we come from a diverse state, and so our office needs to represent our state,” said Jennifer DeCasper, chief of staff for Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. “Diversity means that it includes everything of value to your constituency. Our constituency is not homogeneous, and so my office should not be homogeneous.”

Hope Goins, staff director for Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee, said she hears compliments on the makeup of her staff.

“It’s not a secret on the Hill that the staff is diverse — there are plenty of other staffers who come up to me and say, ‘Oh, we all know that you have a diverse staff, we respect that, plenty of members love the way that the staff looks like America.’”

“We’re the committee that is designed to write the laws that protect the United States, so we have to reflect the diversity of this country. And we definitely do.”

As two African-American women themselves, working for two black lawmakers — Goins reports to ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi on Homeland Security — both find that diversity takes different shapes.

Watch: Hire Many Interns and More Tips for Making the Capitol More Inclusive

“My staff is extremely diverse. I have over 50 percent of my staff are women of color,” Goins said. “There has to be diversity of thought, there has to be diversity among the staff and the staff ranks, because we should be trusted as staff to tell the stories of the constituents.”

DeCasper said while a lot of people think of diversity as a number, “it’s not numbers to us — it’s experiences, values. We have people with certain disabilities. I have a gentleman in a wheelchair. I have a young man who is on the far end of the autistic scale. I have a blind woman who works from home, and she’s one of my directors.”

She added, “If we’re going to have diversity of thought, we have to have diversity in faith, people’s beliefs, viewpoints, education, socioeconomic status, disabilities — we have military veterans — and all of that brings a load of wealth to the table.”

Jennifer DeCaspter says her staff includes people with disabilities and veterans. (Bian Elkhatib/ CQ Roll Call)
Jennifer DeCasper says her diverse staff includes people with disabilities and veterans. (Bian Elkhatib/ CQ Roll Call)

Each manager has a different approach to creating and maintaining diversity.

Goins looks to diversity organizations, like the Congressional Black Associates, to find candidates. She also explores places off the Hill, such as fellowship programs or executive branch agencies.

She has been working for the committee for more than 10 years and said it has always had a diverse staff. It’s easier to continue with it “once you start making diversity a priority and highlighting success stories like this committee,” Goins said.

[Black Women Movers and Shakers on Capitol Hill]

DeCasper approaches diversity from the internship level, which is where she started herself. While Senate offices may have about three interns, she has 50 coming every summer to work for Scott.

“We have Democrats, we have Republicans, we have ‘I don’t know what I am.’ We have black people, we have brown people,” she said. “We bring them all in and we expose them all and they expose themselves to us. A lot of times people think that we’re just creating an environment for the interns to learn, but it also helps my staff learn more about the people they’re representing by bringing in diverse interns.”

She can then hire from that pool of interns and encourages other offices to do the same.

[Top Diversity Associations on Capitol Hill Run by Women]

“I think 50 is probably overwhelming. Start slow — at any moment they might form a coup,” she joked.

While Goins and DeCasper are happy to share their success stories, they also hope to clear up misconceptions.

“The Hill sometimes seems very hush-hush, and sometimes things can be a little bit misleading. I think it’s important for me to tell my story and to tell the story of this office because it’s a success story. And it’s a story that shows that diversity can be achieved on the Hill,” Goins said.

“I am in no way shape or form saying that non-diverse staffs are incapable of representing diverse communities, because they can,” DeCasper said. “I’m also not saying that proportional representation of diversity in an office is going to solve all of the world’s problems, because it won’t. But what I am saying is that we would be wildly mistaken in thinking that there is no value in diversity.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.