By Moonyoung Ko, Membership Director
Breaking the Concrete Ceiling Behind the Scenes
From candidates like Ayanna Pressley to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, this year we have seen a historic number of people of color take the plunge and run for office landing historic wins, inspiring people of color across the nation to volunteer and join campaigns for the very first time. However, despite the encouraging gains we are seeing with more diverse candidates running and winning, there is still a glass ceiling for people of color who work behind the scenes in politics as a staffer. For instance, a new report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that only 13.7% of the top staff positions in the House were filled by people of color (POC), despite POC making up 38% of the U.S. population.(1)
The Joint Center’s congressional staff diversity aligns with our past research into racial diversity within the Democratic party at the state level, and the 2016 presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The numbers show that at the staff level, where policy is crafted and money is appropriated, people of color are still underrepresented in the position where strategic decisions that determine the direction of our country are made. One consequence of the lack of senior staffers of color is that young and mid-level POC working in politics often find that they do not have someone to turn to for career advice or support.
Launching a Virtual Mentorship Program
In my role as Inclusv’s Membership Director, I try to fill that gap, holding as many one-on-one conversations with Inclusv members, who are at the entry and mid-level point of their careers as I can, but the more I work with members, the more I realize that there are limitations to the advice that I can provide. Lately, the questions I receive are more specific such as, I’ve been working on the Hill for four years as a senior staffer and would like to transition to a Chief of Staff role. How do I do that? Or, I went through my entire network to find a contact who can help me land a political research position but haven’t had any luck. What do I do now?
Or even as one Inclusv member bluntly stated, I need a mentor. Where do I find one?
From that Inclusv member’s words came a realization and a mission: We needed to create a space where professionals of color can receive long-term support from mentors who look like them, understand their personal circumstances, and know their area of expertise so we can succeed, grow, and thrive together — leading us to launch the Inclusv Virtual Mentoring program.
Quite frankly, we had no idea if this program would garner interest or even work, so we did what any good political strategist would do: test the program. Since we did not have many virtual mentorship models to study from, we spoke with individuals who led in-person mentorship programs in the political space to learn what worked, what didn’t and drafted questions like How many mentors and mentees can we support across time zones? and goals such as Let’s replicate and scale this program. that we hoped to fulfill.
After conducting our research, mapping out a plan, and assembling resources from writing mentorship applications to creating a mentorship resources page, we began our outreach to prospective mentors. The initial outreach for mentors that I led resulted in less signups than I could count on one hand. Panicking, I could not help but wonder if this project would fail. But with a nudge from our amazing Inclusv Co-Founders, Alida Garcia and Greg Cendana, slowly the mentor applications began to roll in. Leaders of color of PACs, unions, campaigns, advocacy organizations, lobbying firms, and government all stepped up to share their wisdom and insights with our mentees who ranged from recent college graduates to mid-level professionals who were seeking advice on how to move into a senior-level role.
Initially we were hoping for 15-20 pairs but were overwhelmed and delighted by the high number of mentors and mentees who applied to participate. I am proud to say this past June we launched a three-month virtual-pilot mentorship program which paired 26 mentors and mentees from all across the United States. (yay!)
Since the program was a pilot run, we decided to send the mentee application to individuals who previously indicated interest in the program on our Inclusv Membership Survey rather than open up the program to our full membership. Additionally, from my previous conversations with others who led mentorship programs before, I learned that that the pairing of mentors and mentees played a huge role in setting up the program for success. So I decided to dedicate an entire week to the pairing process, which entailed of comparing the mentee’s and mentor’s respective applications, reviewing any past discussion or working relationship that I had with either individual, and scheduling calls and sending follow up questions to the prospective candidates. For a period of time, my ear was glued to my phone.
After we matched our pairs via email, over the course of the three months, mentors and mentees held conversations, primarily through phone and video chat, on the subjects of resume writing, networking, how to improve a job search, navigating the Hill, what to expect when relocating for a new job, and more. After our mentors and mentees filled out our midpoint survey, we sent over sample topics and articles meant to spark conversations as well. But in my subsequent conversations with mentees and mentors, I learned that many of these conversations were organic, leading them to discuss the less obvious barriers people of color face in the workplace such as working as an undocumented professional to questions around appearance. As one mentee remarked, her mentor’s unwavering beliefs, honesty and transparency, and determination to remain true to her values empowered and encouraged the mentee to be herself in the political space.
Mentors and mentees were asked to talk on a bi-weekly basis for a period of three months, totaling 2 hours of conversations per month. Despite being separated by time zones and physical locations, mentors and mentees tried their best to make the commitment work. From follow-up conversations, we learned that one mentor took up the opportunity to sponsor a mentee, while another mentor offered to meet the mentee in-person who was visiting the area for a trip. Though all of the conversations started in the virtual space, mentors and mentees have shared that they hoped to meet in-person one day and desired to continue the mentorship relationships beyond the program.
When we launched the virtual mentorship program three months ago, we had no idea how it would turn out, let alone know how much enthusiasm would be around it, but as we look at the new relationships that have been forged, we are certain that long-term investment in a mentorship space (and sponsorship) where people of color can converse, collaborate, and freely be authentic to themselves is what will bring forth the creative ideas that are needed to evolve and move our democracy forward.
What We Learned
Unparalleled Enthusiasm: Mentors and mentees of color were thrilled that program was created for them. Many of our mentors and mentees noted that they would like to participate again.
Time Commitment: Given the high-profile nature of this year’s midterm elections, many of our mentors (and some mentees) were shuffling around hectic travel schedules, work responsibilities, and personal commitments. For our second cycle, we intend to address this by asking more specific questions in the applications to see what is a realistic availability for participants.
Structure: Initially, we decided to opt out of a rigorous schedule to allow conversations to occur freely and openly. However we learned that mentors and mentees would like some general guidelines and discussion topics and sample questions to guide them throughout the program. During the next round of the program, we will offer materials such as sample topics, articles, and questions around resume and cover letter writing, networking, interviewing, among others. Mentors and mentees noted that these resources would serve as recommendations, because both found value in being able to have conversations that weren’t regimented.
More Willing Participants than Available Spaces: This is a tough one. We want to provide as many individuals the mentorship opportunity but want to be realistic of our time and resources. For the second cycle, we’re looking to having a smaller class of 10-15 pairs, while developing a separate action plan to support mentors and mentees who are not selected to participate.
Interpersonal Engagement: Our last challenge is making the virtual mentorship space seem less virtual and more personal, which we hope to address by creating groups via Slack, Google Groups, etc. to connect mentors (and mentees) to provide a space for everyone to bounce ideas off of and share resources with one another.
While there were many lessons learned on how to improve the program, the most important lesson, if not reminder, we were left with is, in the words of one of our mentors, “that there is a talented and diverse community in democratic politics willing to lift each other up.”
As we incorporate all of our lessons learned into the launch of our official mentorship program, which we plan to open in mid-October 2018, we remain grateful and thankful to all of our mentors and mentees who participated in the pilot program for sharing with us their time and wisdom to give our team the feedback we needed to improve the program to better support people of color in politics. With that, we strongly encourage more organizations to invest in staffers of color, especially at the senior level, through mentorship and sponsorship. It is only then will we have staffers of color present, represented and heard at every conversation taking place behinds the scenes were powerful decisions are made.
I’d like to invite you attend our special webinar on Thursday, September 27th at 4PM PT to get a sneak peek into our new Virtual Mentorship Program! We look forward to sharing the launch of the second cycle with you in the upcoming year.
Have questions about our new mentorship program or your career trajectory? Email [email protected] to set up a 1:1 phone call.
Words from Inclusv Mentee Pajouablai Monica Lee:
“Inclusv’s mentoring program came in at a time when I really needed guidance and advice on my next career steps. Although we never knew each other before, my mentor immediately provided me with honest, sound advice and reassured me that whatever career decisions I make, I would be headed in the right direction. He gave me the confidence I needed to start the next step of my career and carefully helped me think through my various options. I’m incredibly fortunate and lucky that Inclusv allowed me to participate and connected me with such a thoughtful and experienced mentor. I hope my mentorship continues beyond the end of the program.”