Heard on the Hill

Black Women Movers and Shakers on Capitol Hill

Nine senior staffers talk about the challenges they met to get where they are

Jennifer DeCasper is chief of staff to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

To celebrate Black History Month, nine black women in senior positions on Capitol Hill shared how they got to where they are.

Some careers started because they were in the right place at the right time. One woman packed her car and moved to D.C. to find work, and another simply worked her “butt off.”

They talk about what got them to the Hill and the challenges they still face every day:

Foot in the door

Jennifer DeCasper, 39, Sen. Tim Scott’s chief of staff: “I started as an intern, and God bless the fact that it was a paid internship, which is why I believe in paid internships so strongly because if I was not offered a paid internship, I would not be here today.”

Rhonda Foxx, 34, Rep. Alma Adams’ chief of staff: “Washington is so serendipitous. I go to this EMILY’s List event [and make] my one-minute elevator pitch [to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand]. The senator hands me her business card and writes her actual email on the back and says, ‘Email me your resume.’ I did it that night. At 6 a.m., the chief of staff emails me. … It takes sisters supporting sisters.”

Christina Henderson, 31, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s legislative assistant: “I met [former North Carolina Sen. Kay] Hagan in a bar the night she was sworn into Congress. I didn’t know she was going to be there. … We bumped into each other. We started talking, and at the end of our conversation, she was like, ‘Oh, wait — you’re from North Carolina, you’re in D.C. Do you have a job?’ And I was like, ‘Nope, I don’t.’”

Courtney Temple, 34, Sen. Thom Tillis’ legislative director: “I just moved to D.C. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a place to live, I just packed everything up in my Honda and drove down here. I ended up living in a house with all Hill staffers.” 

Ashley Etienne, 40, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s communications director: “I started as a staff assistant and quickly realized that I enjoyed communications — worked my butt off.” 

Ayshia Connors, 25, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s senior policy adviser: “[Rep. Mia Love] gave me a chance. She’s an African-American woman. … I look up to her a lot.” 

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 21: Rhonda Foxx, chief of staff for Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., is pictured outside of Longworth Building on February 21, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rhonda Foxx is chief of staff for Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Daily challenges

DeCasper: “Do I get challenged by jerks? Yes. Are they jerks because I’m a woman? Because of my race? Because I’m a Republican? Because I have a lot of tattoos? Maybe. Or are they jerks because they had a bad day? Or don’t have joy in their life? More likely it’s something like that.”

Henderson: “I tried to come back to the Hill after grad school, was unable to do so just in terms of getting my foot back in the door. This place is kind of like a fraternity sometimes.”

Shalanda Young, 40, House Appropriations minority staff director: “It wasn’t as though [I said], ‘I want to be staff director.’ To have your career focused on that one thing is asking for disappointment. I look different than a lot of the other staff who are on the committee.”

Etienne: “People always assume they’re a lot of young people on the hill, which there are, but there are folks like me who are trying to manage and grow and build a family, and it can run interference on your work.”

Shuwanza Goff, 33, director of legislative operations for House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer: “When I [got my job], one of the greatest challenges I had to face was the pressure of being the first black woman in this role. Over the years, that pressure has subsided some, but it is certainly something that I’m still cognizant of.” 

Connors: “There aren’t enough of me on the Hill. One thing that I’ve done personally is try to mentor a few other young black women who are passionate about policy.”

Clockwise from top left, Courtney Temple, legislative director for Sen. Thom Tillis; Christina Henderson, legislative assistant for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer; Ayshia Connors, senior policy adviser for Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick; Shalanda Young, House Appropriations minority staff director; Tamia Booker, deputy chief of staff for Sen. Cory Booker; and Ashley Etienne, communications director for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

More diversity

Tamia Booker, 34, Sen. Cory Booker’s deputy chief of staff: “This is something we talk about all the time. It’s a couple of things. One, it’s paying attention to your networks and expanding them. [For example] working with organizations that either work a lot with women of color…or just working with diverse groups…I think it’s really about expanding and being strategic in figuring out ways to meet new people.” 

DeCasper: “The fact that I have somebody that lets me be aggressive in making sure our office looks like heaven, is what we call it, is a blessing. I try to make my office as diverse as possible and I don’t just mean in race … in women versus men. … I have a lot of vets. One of my amazing staffers is autistic. Our pool of diversity is far smaller than the Democrats’ pool, so if I can do it, anybody can do it.”

Foxx: “One of the things that I’m really focused on now is looking at what the private sector is doing and figuring out what we can do to take that here in Congress. ... I dream of a world where [our diversity hiring initiatives] will bring chiefs and members together to say let’s talk about diversity and inclusion.”

Henderson: “I think offices just have to get really serious and intentional about going outside of their comfort zone … oftentimes when there’s a job opening, we send it to the group of friends that we know, so you get a very homogeneous population who are applying back.”

Young: “We should strive for a diverse committee staff … because they’re the ones writing legislation. It really does matter that we’re representing the entire country.”

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