Over the weekend, Speaker Paul Ryan shared via his Instagram what he called a record-setting selfie featuring the “most number of Capitol Hill interns.” If you saw the photo, you might have assumed that Ryan used the Homogeneity filter that washed out any immediately visible diversity. While most of us understand the value of a diverse workplace and the implications of the converse, Ryan’s image points to something even more unsettling.
In his New York Times op-ed on internships, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker writes: “I remember my own paid internships with fondness and gratitude, especially my formative experience working for the Texas Legislature. As a low-income kid from a small town who entered college without an extended network, my internships equipped me with the skills, confidence and relationships to channel my potential into a rewarding career.”
The life-trajectory changing potential of an internship is especially true on Capitol Hill, where interns have the opportunity to meet and build connections with leaders working behind-the-scenes and in front to shape policies that affect us all. Many complete their internships inspired to pursue a career on the Hill or in government and to become policy makers themselves.
While Ryan’s selfie garnered a lot of negative attention on social media for its lack of people of color (one might also assume that the number of LGBTQ people represented in the photo would be very low), it is actually not unusual. In December, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released a study showing a lack of diversity on the Hill. Their data shows that although people of color make up 36 percent of the U.S. public, they only account for 7 percent of senior level Hill staff. If you understand the power a Congressional staff member wields and their ability to shape policy, you will immediately get why it’s so problematic that Ryan’s photo and the most senior staff do not look like America.
Many college interns get to the Hill because of their parents’ connections and networks. But even for parents who are well-connected, a summer internship can cost a family about $6,000 when you take into account the high cost of rent in Washington, transportation and food. The reality is that for many young LGBTQ people or people of color, an internship on the Hill is out of their reach because they are not supported by their families or their families just can’t afford it.
As part of its recommendations to make the Hill more diverse, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies listed hiring interns and fellows from diverse programs as a way to build a pipeline of leaders that is more representative of the U.S. population. Programs like the Victory Institute’s Congressional Internship – which brings eight young people to Washington, DC for an eight-week internship in partnership with the LGBTQ Equality Caucus – are key to changing the face of the Hill. In our program, interns are selected based on their talent, not network or ability to afford a summer in Washington. They are provided a stipend, housing, travel to Washington and metro cards so that there is absolutely no financial barrier to participate.
The selection process for Victory interns was very competitive and we faced the tough decision of choosing between dozens of young people who had already accomplished so much on their campuses, in their hometowns and with their families. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know each of our interns this summer and even met a young woman from my hometown and high school! I am proud to share that Victory’s 2016 class of interns is one of our most diverse yet, and I know that they are enriching their offices because of their experience. Victory is building the next generation of LGBTQ leaders, and their voices are much needed on the Hill today and in the future. I hope that their experience with us this summer will inspire in them a life-long commitment to public service, and that they will understand the value of the network of LGBTQ leaders and others that they built this summer. I also must admit it makes me happy knowing our interns would fiercely stand out in any photo – especially amongst Speaker Ryan’s interns.
From left, Victory’s Director of Domestic Programs Sheila E. Isong, Brandon Studler, Charlotte Gliserman, Matthew Yeung, Victory President and CEO Aisha Moodie-Mills, Joshua Farris, Carina Arellano, Michael Woodson, Sam Yu and Tayler Butler.