Amid calls for an increase in diversity among Capitol Hill members, the Walmart Foundation is providing $2 million in grants aimed at boosting the diversity of congressional interns, 90 percent of whom are unpaid.
The grant money, to be split evenly between the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, is intended to create career pathways for students and young professionals among groups that are underrepresented on Capitol Hill. The grants will go to cover the living costs and other expenses for black and Latino students, smoothing the way for them to serve as interns regardless of socioeconomic status.
“A lot of our young and promising talent really don’t come, perhaps, from backgrounds that could afford to send them to D.C.,” said Anne-Marie Burton, vice president of programs at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which picked 50 interns for this year’s summer cohort out of about 500 applicants. “So we use [grant] money to pay for their housing. We give them a biweekly stipend, we also provide professional-development training for an entire week.”
In a statement during Tuesday’s announcement, Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, said the grant will support the institute’s mission “to address underrepresentation of Latinos on Capitol Hill by providing transformative experiences and the critical skills needed to embark on careers in public service.”
In addition to their internship opportunities, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute also offers an opportunity for high school students to travel to Washington and learn about government, public policy, and leadership.
Organizations such as Pay Our Interns and UpCongress advocate for giving students from all socioeconomic backgrounds the chance to intern. And there is a lack of diversity across all congressional positions, with only 7.1 percent of people of color in senior Senate positions, for example. The demographic makeup of interns has also been a concern, as seen most recently in the 2016 controversy that sparked the viral twitter hashtag #internssowhite.
“Whiter than the Oscars.”
— AJ+ (@ajplus) July 19, 2016
The attention has sparked debate and research about not only the racial diversity of interns (since Congress is not required to record such data), but also how many senators and representatives are offering paid internships, and the numbers are striking.
Eight percent of Republican House members pay their interns, and 3.6 percent of Democratic members pay theirs, according to a report by PayOurInterns. In the Senate, 51 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Democrats offer paid internships. Congressional members have the ability to choose whether or not they want to pay interns, but there is a catch for House members: they can only have 18 permanent paid employees, often blocking them from employing paid interns. The lack of paid internship opportunities can inhibit qualified students from participating due to the financial burden.
To receive money to intern on the Hill through the CBCF and CHCI programs, students will need to be in college or have graduated from high school.
However, high school college advisers can begin to prepare their students to apply for these opportunities as soon as possible.
“Tell them to, especially if they are minorities or African American ... to consider applying to the opportunities available at the foundation,” Burton said. She went on to explain that the CBCF is “one of the very few organizations that not only provides internships, but we go through a very rigorous training process, [and] we provide professional development.”
Burton has plans to begin outreach to high school students by partnering with YearUp, a group that works to place young, unemployed, African-American students in organizations in order to help them gain life and career skills.
“It’s a skill-based opportunity for [students] ... and the goal ... is to start speaking with high school students about the opportunities we have at the foundation,” said Burton.
Her advice for high school students who might be thinking of a congressional internship at some point is to take part in leadership opportunities, be civically engaged, and sharpen their communication skills.
“Being able to acquire those skills early, I think, is a step towards having successful career opportunity on Capitol Hill, or even as an intern. Writing is a core skill. Being able to tell your story is a core skill. These are things they need to learn before they get on Capitol Hill,” she said.