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Toward a More Perfect Union: Inclusion in Congressional Offices

This is the first in a series of blogs by Mark Sobol that focus on how diversity and inclusion leads to a more effective Congress and shares principles that can help offices put these practices into action.

America is at an inflection point. The state of our nation is becoming more divided than at any time since the Civil War. In the wake of the thwarted attempt to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, experts warn of further violent action by extremist groups across our nation.

Our divisive politics and polarization come at precisely the time when we are being visited by multiple crises of relative rarity and severe impact. From Covid-19 to the state of our economy, to our streets, and the effects of changes in our climate, the consequences to our way of life are likely to be unprecedented and long-lasting. In Congress, hyper-partisanship, a zero-sum culture of political wins and losses, weakened relationships, and other factors have led to a breakdown in members’ ability to work together, magnifying institutional dysfunction.

The danger we face is not only what appears on the surface as hyper-polarity, but the degradation of those we treat as you, them, or other – where people and communities are more easily dehumanized, labeled, held, and treated as “IT.” We must acknowledge this lack of inclusion as another source of the dividedness in our country and on Capitol Hill. How will we move from: us/them, us/others, you/me, to “WE?”

In this moment, the embrace of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) offers a path toward collaborative and meaningful action. Together, we can apply our collective creativity, perspectives, insights, and wisdom to face down and resolve the sheer number of momentous and seemingly intractable challenges before us. As public servants in a legislative chamber dedicated to the ideals of a representative democracy, members of Congress and their staff must lead the way.

The 116th Congress holds the distinction as the most racial and ethnically diverse in our history. Increased representation is a good first step for the people we elect to represent us and the people they hire to inform their policymaking – but we must go beyond diversity. As we open the door to include new entrants in the room, we must loosen the grip on our own internal needs and beliefs to bring greater openness and acceptance of others who may have different experiences, cultures, perspectives, ideologies, or values. 

So, what does the path from “THEM” to “WE” look like? How do we create an environment of respect, trust, and collaboration so that offices are more effective, and Congress maintains its rightful place as a symbol of democracy and legislative solutions for all Americans?

The greatest hope, the greatest possibility we have is to work together in ways that bring the full power of everyone in this institution to the frontline rather than be sidelined. If we are willing to be curious, we question the strengths and limits of our own system of beliefs and become better able to recognize what others hold as important. If we can extend respect and trust, we unlock the enormous knowledge within all of us and together create a wealth of insights that hold the potential of greater possibilities for progress that build better public solutions. This is leadership in public service, and it begins at the top with the member of Congress to the chief of staff to every other staff member working to serve the people of their district.

As a first step, I propose a Framework for Inclusive Action for Congress that includes the following four elements:

  1. Mission-centered. This is an opportunity to reflect on the original vision of public service that compelled members to run for Congress in the first place. When successfully communicated to office staff, it can be a source of inspiration and unity. Through collaboration, greater efforts can be made to ensure all staff contribute to creating a mission-centered environment and its subsequent success.

  2. Leadership Excellence. Members of Congress must set the tone for a leadership culture in their office that recognizes the full potential of all staff. Chiefs of staff and other senior staff execute this vision, which may include the availability of training opportunities and coaching, as well as comprehensive assessments that recognize the broad array of talent among staff. Making this an office priority conveys an understanding that your employees are the heart and soul of your work. This should align with your vision of public service and the desire to hire people who look like the people you serve.

  3. Effective Operations. Members and their staff must develop detailed plans of action that help anticipate and overcome the issues and barriers that challenge their mission while emphasizing the value of working together. Take steps to improve and align staff operations that make this vision of public service a reality. Assess how your current approach helps achieve those objectives and what barriers stand in the way. Through these steps, your office will turn mission into action.

  4. Congressional Community. Cultivating a deep sense of congressional community is critical to building better relationships and greater opportunities for working together, regardless of differing beliefs, parties, and perspectives. Members should seek various opportunities to work with their colleagues. At the staff level, offices should be intentional in their collaboration with counterparts, including visiting neighboring districts. In our report, Congress at a Crossroads, departing members of Congress identified their priorities to include serving their communities, building healthy working relationships, and getting things done. They believe that the system can and must be better at amplifying and strengthening the beliefs and experiences they hold in common.

This Framework for Inclusive Action for Congress is designed to reveal new learnings, insights, and possibilities that will help you build a culture of collaboration and respect, regardless of where your office may be on its DEIB journey. As you apply this approach, you may be surprised to gain a deeper appreciation of where you share commonly held beliefs, understandings, and interdependencies.

In this moment of great division in our country, Congress can create a more inclusive environment of respect, trust, and collaboration that will greatly benefit its ability to legislate and function as a representative institution. More importantly, it holds the promise of rebuilding bridges between people and ideas in the quest toward a more perfect union. Taking this powerful step toward meaningful inclusion holds the promise of a better tomorrow for America beyond today’s polarization.

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