BOSTON (State House News Service) — Pointing to racism they have faced during their work on Beacon Hill, a coalition of Black state legislative employees urged Democratic leaders to reform hiring practices, increase workplace supports for people of color, and prioritize the racial justice impacts of bills under consideration.
Black staffers with the Beacon BLOC group on Wednesday published a letter they wrote to the State House's top leaders, bringing into public view their efforts to address racism and individual acts of abuse within the building.
"After the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and so many, a few of us are coming together to see what we can do to meet this moment," said Maia Raynor, legislative director for Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz. "It first started with: how can we make sure we're pushing for things within our own offices?"
The coalition, which leaders say has about three dozen staffers actively involved, outlined eight specific demands from legislative leaders, ranging from creation of a centralized office for diversity and inclusion, new tools for employees to report racially-motivated aggressions, and development of a pipeline for people of color to work in state government through paid internships and other strategies.
Their top demand was for legislative leaders to extend the lawmaking session beyond its Friday expiration into October. Both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka had previously hinted at the possibility of drawing out the session, and the House on Wednesday approved an extension until the end of 2020.
In an interview with the News Service, Raynor and Mark Martinez, a policy and budget adviser for Sen. Patricia Jehlen, said more time to wrap up key bills would avoid a disproportionate impact on communities of color, who already feel more acute effects of police violence and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another major part of their request is for legislative leaders to establish an independent Office of Policy Equity that would be tasked with studying and reporting how every piece of legislation affects racial justice.
"So many bills go forward without accountability, transparency and meaningful engagement of communities of color," Raynor said. "That's really what we're looking at as a problem for a lot of legislation that has moved forward, not only recently but in the past."
Both Raynor and Martinez described themselves and other Black staffers being frequently subjected to both overt and veiled racist interactions.
"I don't think these things are isolated incidents," Martinez said. "Micro and macro aggressions are happening to Black staffers and staffers of color on an almost daily basis."
Raynor said Chang-Diaz's office -- the only one currently held by a woman of color in the Senate -- has been called "the United Nations" to mock its diverse staff, and she also said she has been mistaken for other Black staffers frequently.
The group asked legislative leaders to create a new process for reporting instances of abuse and harassment, including outlets for discipline and mediation.
They also asked the secretary of state's office to work with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus on a system to suspend lobbyists "for recurring incidents of verbal and non-verbal workplace abuse."
Galvin's office, which oversees lobbying in Massachusetts, said that his authority to discipline lobbyists or block their registration is limited by the parameters of existing state law.
"Any process by which lobbyists could be disciplined or suspended would require a statutory change by the Legislature," Galvin said in a statement to the News Service. "I am planning to meet with the Black and Latino Caucus on a number of issues soon, and surely this issue will be one of the matters discussed."
A key factor in the climate staffers identified is the disproportionate makeup of the State House. Raynor roughly estimated that about 34 employees in House, Senate or General Court offices are Black, a fraction of the total staff spread across the building.
That disparity reflects a larger trend in the Massachusetts Legislature itself. About 19 percent of the state's residents identify as either Black, Hispanic or both, according to Census data, but the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus counted only 13 members in its ranks -- or 6.5 percent of the 200 seats in the House and Senate -- at the start of this two-year session.
Raynor and Martinez said the group sent its letter to DeLeo, Spilka and Galvin on July 19. Only Spilka responded, they said, and the two parties are working to schedule a meeting.
In a statement, DeLeo's office pointed to rule changes the House approved in 2018 to create an independent equal employment opportunity officer and an employee engagement director. Those positions are part of an effort to ensure a safe workplace free of sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination, the speaker's office said.
"From an initial read, there may be overlap between some of the group's requests and the House's expanded HR functions," DeLeo's office said. "We look forward to learning more about the details of the requests and how we can work with our partners in state government on enhancing best practices."
By Chris Lisinski, State House News Service
(Photo: Mario Jarjour/WBZ NewsRadio)