If We Want Equitable Representation, We Need More Diverse Congressional Interns Like Me

It was always my dream to be a Congressional intern. Last summer, despite the pandemic, I was able to intern with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. The experience was eye opening, as I was one of the few Latinas in the program.

Breanna CadenaBreanna Cadena

As a Latinx student from San Antonio, TX, I know that I am now part of a small select group of minority students who have had opportunities like this. That’s why I was not surprised to see a report recently from the “Pay our Interns” Group that showed the majority of interns in Congress were white. If my generation is supposed to be the leaders of tomorrow, then we need to make sure opportunities in politics are open to all of us, and we need to make sure our leaders represent all of us, not just a select few.

The Pay Our Interns Report highlights several key statistics that demonstrate that whites are overrepresented among congressional interns, while Black, Latinx and Indigenous interns are significantly underrepresented. In fact, from April to September 2019, interns in Congress were 76.3 percent white, 6.7 percent Black, 7.9 percent Latino, 7.9 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and .03 percent American Indian/Alaskan Native. Unequal access to congressional internships, especially those that are paid, disproportionately hands white students an important employment credential. This sets them on a career path to become political elites who hold considerable influence in the creation of public policy, and perhaps become elected officials themselves.

I saw this firsthand during my internship last summer. When I attended meetings part of the Congressional Intern Lecture Series, many of the other interns who attended were white, while there were only a few other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in attendance. Additionally, the majority, if not all, of the members of Congress who spoke with us were white themselves. I learned a lot from my peers and the Congresspeople, but I could not see myself in their shoes. Being represented matters to citizens and interns like me. If we don’t get to be in the room where decisions are made, we cannot represent our needs and thus are not included in the policies that affect our lives.

I am grateful for the opportunity I had to intern at Sen. Whitehouse’s office, where they welcomed me with warmth, and I learned so much about the inner workings of government. Reflecting on my experience as a whole, I’ve seen the truth behind the saying “it is not what you know, it is who you know.” Not only were many of the other interns white at other offices, but they oftentimes were Ivy League students who had uncles or fathers who were mayors, governors, or even esteemed members of Congress. I don’t have the same type of familial connections, and because of this, the door to elite politics on the Hill is not easily opened for me. If it wasn’t for KIPP’s Federal Policy Fellowship program, I am not sure I would have gotten in on my own. KIPP helped me with my cover letter, resume and interview skills. I know KIPP and organizations like College to Congress are doing their best to diversify the intern pool in Congress, but we need to ensure that hiring practices are more equitable. For example, Congressional offices could search for candidates at Historically Black College and Universities or at largely Latino institutions, or commit to interview and hire a more diverse group by being more focused in their recruiting efforts.

For the upcoming summer, I am applying to intern in congressional offices on my own, and I hope they will take my previous experience into consideration. I want to be a leader in education policy so I can influence our systems to be more equitable. My goal is that one day, I will no longer be the exception, but the standard, in our nation’s halls of power.

Breanna Cadena is a rising senior at Brown University.