“Let’s support our sister Shalanda Young today,” one read.
“Sorors please watch and support our very own Soror Shalanda,” another read, using a term to refer to a fellow member of a sorority; Young, who recently gave birth to a baby girl, is a member of the historic Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority created at Howard University in 1908.
Described as the nerve center of the US government, many Americans are unfamiliar with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, but the agency is extraordinarily consequential. Beyond preparing the President’s budget, OMB oversees a myriad of agency programs and can tell agencies when they can spend funds.
As acting director, Young serves as a senior adviser to the President. The Louisiana native helped work with Congress to secure key emergency funding for disaster relief and Afghan resettlement efforts as part of the September continuing resolution, per a White House official. She regularly spoke with members of Congress to walk them through budget impacts of different proposals during negotiations over the bipartisan infrastructure law.
“I will continue to find common ground to be responsive and to rebuild the career staff at OMB who plays a central role in ensuring our government works for all Americans,” she said at a confirmation hearing this week.
Young’s ascension from presidential management fellow with the National Institutes of Health two decades ago to the President’s Cabinet has been especially resonant for Black staffers on the Hill who are well versed in the low pay, grueling hours and supreme discipline required to rise through the ranks in Washington. In interviews, they described the longtime former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee as sharp, steadfast and always prepared.
“She is a generational talent. … I think she was more than qualified for it from the beginning. I’m ecstatic,” said Brandon Casey, staff director of the House Ways and Means Committee.
‘Her rise shows you what is possible’
Just 3% of top Senate staffers are Black, according to the report.
Young’s rise is particularly remarkable given the barriers to entry for marginalized groups, staffers say. Mia Keeys, chief of staff for Rep. Robin Kelly, Democrat of Illinois, got her first role on the Hill through the Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholars Program run by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a now discontinued initiative.
“Since I’ve been on the Hill, she’s certainly been someone I’ve looked up to, in terms of watching her walk. And really being galvanized by her integrity, her character, her practice of bipartisanship, particularly in highly partisan seasons,” Keeys said.
“She’s got a graceful edge about her. She doesn’t play,” added Keeys.
Hill staffers are often bound by the struggles many of them find in the early years of their careers in the Capitol — not just on a professional level but also a financial one.
“I’ve been in situations where I was working on the Hill in my earlier days, and dinner was whatever I got at a reception,” said Keeys as she stressed the significance of having people in leadership roles who move beyond “the performance of diversity” and instead champion “the purpose of equity.”
“Many of us don’t come to even find out about careers in Washington and be in political staff until far later. The easiest entry point to being a congressional staffer is to intern, but to intern is to be able to live in a super expensive city, and be paid very little or, in previous years, nothing,” said Keenan Austin Reed, a lobbyist who formally served as chief of staff to Rep. Donald McEachin, a Virginia Democrat.
Reed co-founded the Black Women’s Congressional Alliance (BWCA) in 2018 as a support network for Black female Hill staffers. Young addressed the group in an off-the-record event in 2020. The BWCA, the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus and the Congressional Black Associates are among groups focused on increasing diversity on the Hill and working to recruit and retain more staff of color.
“It’s very hard to find people, to keep them in the roles long enough to accomplish, what Shalanda has accomplished. Twenty years is an investment in yourself and an investment in your career,” said Reed.
A significant amount of the Black staff directors in the House of Representatives work for members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), according to research conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. According to the center’s data, CBC Members account for four of the five Black staff directors of full committees in the House. There are currently no Black Senate committee staff directors.
Last March, the group organized a letter signed by 30 Black organizations calling for Biden to nominate Young for director.
“I think when we are given the opportunity to, we will succeed — but we have to be given the opportunity,” said Casey.
The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies also points to data from Legistorm that should set off alarm bells.
In 2020, LegiStorm compared the projected salary of the average White congressional staffer — $55,348 — to the average Black staffer –$50,694. That consists of a 9.2% disparity. The center notes it is the highest salary disparity since LegiStorm began collecting salary data in 2000.
“For some folks … when you’re made these offers off of the Hill, it’s the most money your family has ever seen someone make. And that’s very hard to turn down,” said Reed.
“Her rise shows you what is possible,” Reed said of Young.
Mike McQuerry, communications director for Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, Democrat of the Virgin Islands, has worked on and off the Hill for more than 20 years and also describes a revolving door atmosphere.
“We don’t have a lot of institutional knowledge. A lot of us don’t stay. We come for a couple of years and then we leave … so you don’t have a lot of people that remember how things happened 15, 20 years ago,” said McQuerry.
Shuwanza Goff, the deputy director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, worked her way up with Young on the Hill. Goff, also a trailblazer, became the first Black woman to serve as floor director under House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in 2019.
“There’s a large group of senior African American staffers on Capitol Hill and I hope that Shalanda’s ascension is something that these staffers and even some of the junior staffers can look to and see as something that they can strive for, and they can achieve as well,” said Goff.
Bipartisan respect from lawmakers
A key player in Democratic negotiations on the 2019 government shutdown, Young is praised by both Democrats and Republicans for her granular understanding of government and the budget and appropriations process.
During a March hearing she was characterized by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, as a “tough but fair negotiator.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, told CNN that Young is a “strategic thinker” who “has helped to shape many of the solutions to some of the most pressing problems … and dealing in what in the past has been a man’s world.”
Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota praised her “respect for the institution” at her confirmation hearing this week for the director role, as he thanked her for her help advancing major water infrastructure projects and decoding manufacturing regulations in his state.