Black staffers urge Beacon Hill to look inward

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.

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.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG


FROM COMMONWEALTH

The House extends formal sessions beyond Friday and the Senate is expected to follow suit.

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House climate change bill calls for a roadmap to net zero emissions in 2050.

Congressional hearing explores divided oversight of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement seeks appellate court OK to resume courthouse arrests.

Black State House staffers raise their voices to address racism on Beacon Hill.

Opinion: Chelsea officials to Baker: Give us help….Bob Durand on the state’s next plunge — going big on offshore wind.


FROM AROUND THE WEB

BEACON HILL

The Massachusetts Senate approves legislation creating a commission to review the state seal and motto. (Associated Press)

The Senate passes its version of a $455 million economic development bill, which does not include legalizing sports betting. (MassLive)

The House passes its version of a health care bill, which regulates payments for telehealth, among other changes. (State House News Service)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

At an emergency meeting this week, the Amherst Board of Health requires that face masks be worn in the downtown area at all times. (Daily Hampshire Gazette) Cape Cod health departments struggle with enforcing local and state COVID-19 regulations (Cape Cod Times)

Quincy officials are reminding residents to wear masks, maintain social distance, and stay home at any sign of illness as coronavirus cases start to rise once again in the area. (Patriot Ledger)

New Bedford police chief Joseph C. Cordeiro and local NAACP head LaSella Hall are at odds over police in schools. (Standard-Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The US House establishes a mandate requiring mask-wearing on the House floor and in House office buildings, after US Rep. Louis Gohmert, a conservative Republican who vocally opposed wearing masks, tests positive for COVID-19. (Associated Press)

Democrats and Republicans deliver a political tongue lashing to nation’s tech leaders. (Washington Post)

ELECTIONS

Campaign finance records show very different fundraising styles of US Rep. Richard Neal and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who are Democratic primary opponents. (Daily Hampshire Gazette) The two candidates are facing off in a debate August 17. (Berkshire Eagle)

Communities are seeking younger poll workers as the usual group of older volunteers opts out for health reasons. (Eagle-Tribune)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Boston City Council passed a home rule petition that would overhaul the zoning board, changing its makeup and requiring regular reports from the troubled body. (Boston Herald)

EDUCATION

Boston Public School staff rally against reopening schools, saying it cannot be done safely without massive investments in new HVAC systems, personal protective equipment, more staff, and rapid coronavirus testing. (Boston Globe)

The head of the American Federation of Teachers told members that the union’s leadership would support “safety strikes” if health precautions are not met amid calls for schools to reopen as coronavirus cases surge. (NPR)

ARTS/CULTURE

The Topsfield Fair, America’s oldest county fair, is cancelled due to the coronavirus. (The Salem News)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Meet Rishi Reddi, the state’s director of environmental justice. (WBUR)

A new study finds the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has boosted the health of children across the region. (WBUR)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Amid heightened scrutiny, the state’s biggest police departments are all using, or starting to use, body cameras. (Boston Globe)

In response to COVID-19, the New Jersey legislature is taking up legislation to free roughly 3,000 prisoners who are within a year of their release. (New York Times)

MEDIA

An editorial in the Boston Business Journal supports legislation that would create a commission to study the state’s local news deficit and offer suggestions on what to do about it.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette puts its building up for sale but intends to remain in Amherst. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)