Black staffers urge Beacon Hill to look inward

Cites ‘hostile moments of thinly veiled (if not overt) racism’

THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE has touted the importance of racial equity as lawmakers passed bills related to police reform, maternal health disparities, demographic reporting on COVID-19, and commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legislative address.

But it may be time for Beacon Hill lawmakers to turn their focus inwards and examine the practices of their own offices.

An anonymous Twitter account Beacon BLOC (standing for Building Leaders of Color) popped up Wednesday describing itself as a collective of black staffers at the Massachusetts State House. The group published a four-page letter that they had sent to Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin (who oversees state lobbyists), demanding changes on Beacon Hill to improve conditions for black staff.

“We were never blind to the prevailing and historic whiteness of the Massachusetts Legislature when we proudly arrived to serve, yet we did not anticipate the multitude of ways it threatens to swallow,” they wrote. The group members said they have all faced “hostile moments of thinly veiled (if not overt) racism” and want the situation addressed so newly arrived staffers “are not met with the same barriers we came to understand as status quo.”

They asked the Legislature to create a central office on diversity, equity, and inclusion; to establish a standardized staff orientation process; to create a mechanism for reporting racial harassment and discrimination; and to suspend lobbying privileges for workplace misconduct. Today, they wrote, reporting racial incidents in an office can result in a range of responses, from mediation meetings set up without a staffer’s consent to the dismissal of someone’s experiences.

The group is calling for a paid internship program and for civic engagement programs that aim to recruit diverse staff. Today, they wrote, staff of color are such an anomaly that they are referred to as “The United Nations” by white peers.

Some of the demands go beyond workplace conditions. The group demanded lawmakers extend the legislative session – which the House did on Wednesday – to have time to address bills related to the pandemic, which disproportionately affects black residents. They ask for the state library and State House cultural displays to adequately represent black history. And they are asking for an Office of Policy Equity to review bills with an eye toward racial equity.

The State House News Service reported that there are about three dozen staffers actively involved in the effort. Mark Martinez, a policy and budget adviser for Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, told the News Service that racist interactions are not unusual in the building. “Micro and macro aggressions are happening to black staffers and staffers of color on an almost daily basis,” he said.

Martinez told MassLive that as the only black man doing the kind of work he does on Beacon Hill, he has no one with shared experiences to turn to as a mentor.

Maia Raynor, legislative director for Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain, told the State House News service that it is Chang-Diaz’s office that has been called “the United Nations” to mock its diverse staff.

An anonymous staffer told MassLive that inappropriate comments have been made by legislators and lobbyists about black women’s bodies.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker cited estimates that there are just 30 to 40 black staffers in the Legislature. Kyéra Sterling, who worked for an unnamed Berkshires state representative, told Walker that the atmosphere on Beacon Hill – whether due to insensitive comments or a lack of explanation of arcane legislative processes – makes black staffers “feel like you’re ill-equipped and not fit to be there.”

According to news reports, Spilka agreed to meet with the group, while DeLeo touted a new independent human resources official hired by the House and trained to address harassment issues. A source told CommonWealth that DeLeo also plans to meet with the group.

During the #metoo movement, after reports emerged of sexual harassment on Beacon Hill, both the House and Senate reformed their human resources policies to better address gender-based workplace complaints. Perhaps it is time for another reckoning, this time on race.