PHILADELPHIA— Democrats have pushed speakers of color into prime broadcast slots during the opening days of their convention in Philadelphia, something the party has repeatedly highlighted as a contrast to last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Off-stage in Philadelphia, Democratic groups that have been pushing the party to diversify its consulting base are also using the convention setting as an opportunity to move that conversation forward. Earlier this week, Democratic GAIN and Inclusv partnered for a discussion on staffing diversity, which included two Hillary Clinton campaign staffers.
The key to pushing Democratic campaigns forward on this issue, according to Bernard Coleman, the chief diversity and human resources officer at Hillary for America, is moving hiring managers out of their comfort zones.
“I think a lot of people say they get it, but you have to help them understand it,” said Coleman. “You need to remind people that we have to be deliberate in our actions and deliberate in our hiring practices.”
The tendency among many campaigns is to just open up their rolodex and look at their own close personal contacts when it comes to hiring.
“It’s always really easy to talk about our opposition, but it’s really hard to call out your friends,” said Jessica Byrd, founder of Three Point Strategies who underscored the need to “have some really hard discussions about who’s missing and why they’re missing” on Democratic campaign staffs.
A coalition of consultants have been trying to hold the progressive industry accountable through the Democracy in Color Campaign, which recently released a series of report cards grading top Democratic Senate campaigns on how they’re engaging voters of color. Inclusv, Democratic Gain and Power PAC+ are also pressuring the DSCC, DCCC and Democratic National Committee to be accountable in their hiring of staffers of color.
By getting those staffers in place at the committees, it could ultimately diversify their rosters of consultants. Those on the outside looking in have expressed frustration at the bidding process for committee consulting contracts.
“As a new political consultant myself, I know that so many of those deals happen at those happy hours,” said Byrd. “These are multi-million dollar contracts that are being decided.”
Getting a piece of those contracts almost always requires a recommendation, but consultants of color say they’re often one or two degrees removed from the people making those connections.
“We don’t know the networking game that exists,” said Sarah Audelo, youth vote director for Hillary for America. “As someone [who] mentors a lot [of] people of color, the ones who have hit me up first aren’t young people of color, they’re young white staffers. This is how everyone else functions.”
Bernard Coleman said it’s also up to hiring managers to actively seek out diverse candidates.
“You just can’t expect to put your fishing pole in the water and the fish will jump on your hook,” Coleman said during a Tuesday event in Philadelphia hosted by Bully Pulpit Interactive.
Hillary for America has already had success attracting talent from beyond the existing pool of experienced operatives. In fact, of the some 600 staffers working at the campaign’s headquarters, only 30 percent had been paid by a campaign before, although 55 percent have worked in government, according to Nathaniel Koloc, director of talent acquisition and development at HFA. Moreover, 35 percent had only applied cold directly to the organization while 42 percent were actively recruited.
It’s incumbent on those doing that active recruiting to look beyond their existing LinkedIn networks, said Ann Marie Habershaw, COO of BPI. “If you don’t have an open mind while you’re hiring talent, then you’re not going to get the best people.”
Alvina Yeh, of America’s Opportunity Fund, agreed. “We need to think about who’s not applying and why they aren’t applying,” she said.
One of the reasons professionals of color aren’t applying is that it’s difficult to envision a career in the industry, let alone a job past Election Day. Coleman said that’s part of the reason why HFA is developing a first-person blog that allows staffers to tell the story of why they’re working for the Clinton campaign. “[Potential applicants] can go read it to arrive at why they want to come join us,” Coleman said.
But improving diversity longer term might require a more fundamental change in the industry — doing away with the unpaid internship. There’s often a progression from intern to campaign staffer to committee staffer to consultant, but many people of color don’t make that first step, according to Maria Meier, who for years has pushed for staff diversity on Capitol Hill through the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative.
“Now that’s pretty much required, but people can’t afford to [take an unpaid internship],” she said. “I know it’s financial.”