By Stefanie Reeves, MA, CAE (Sr. Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer, Public Interest Government Relations Office)
Dr. King’s vision of a world where we are judged not the color of our skin but the content of our character rings true in government relations. Fifty years ago, there were 5 African American members of Congress. As far as the number of African American lobbyists at that time, I’m sure you could also count them on one hand.
This bit of information is important. Typically, African American members of Congress tend to have a more diverse staff. The traditional career path for a lobbyist is moving up the food chain in a congressional office on Capitol Hill which usually leads to a high-level lobbying position in DC.
Sounds simple, right? However, just as getting a lobbying job is a matter of “who you know”, so is getting a job on Capitol Hill. Those connections have served Caucasian males very well. So, if you’re already lacking the “who you know” part, it makes it very difficult to get your foot in the door in the first place.
My path was different, but no less challenging. I grew up in DC wanting to become an attorney. I didn’t learn about government relations until I was in college in the 90’s. I’ve spent my career working for different associations in DC, typically as either the first or only African American woman in my particular government relations position. I was also the only African American woman in my Master’s program.
At first, I was intimidated and worried that I was being judged as less than capable. You just don’t see African American women lobbyists. At some point I stopped seeing my situation as a challenge, but rather an opportunity to show my colleagues that I was just as capable as they were. Who cares if I was the only person of color in the room? The only thing that mattered was that I belonged. I can walk into any member of Congress’ office to advocate on behalf of APA. I can work in any association or corporation’s government relations office. I can even open my own government relations shop.
Despite the success we’ve had as lobbyists of color, we’re not where we’d like to be. We’re still too few and far in between. Who will make sure minority communities have their place at the legislative table? As we observe the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, African American lobbyists bear a special responsibility to continue the fight for equality while educating others on the need to be involved in advocacy.
We want to hear from you. Tell us in the comments:
- Does diversity matter in advocating for public policy?
- What kind of benefits do you see in a diversity of voices on Capitol Hill?
- What other underrepresented groups should have a place at the table?
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