Anyone who has ever been on Capitol Hill knows it isn’t exactly a beacon for diversity.

Now, as first-ever director of the Black Talent Initiative at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Don Bell, 27, says his top priority is lobbying Hill lawmakers to hire more Black people in key staffing roles.

Don Bell is the first-ever director of the Black Talent Initiative at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. (Courtesy Photo)

Don Bell is the first-ever director of the Black Talent Initiative at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. (Courtesy Photo)

“Those are the positions the really influence a member of Congress,” said Bell, who worked on the Hill for three years and joined the center March 20. “My mission every day will be to try to help some other person achieve the dream that I once had, which was to work in the policy space on Capitol Hill.”

To that end, the initiative is launching a multi-pronged strategy to beef up diversity on the Hill.  Those plans include:

  • Pushing for paid internships and fellowships for people who don’t have the means to work on the Hill for free.
  • Deploying a talent bank that pairs resumes of promising Black candidates with jobs on Hill.
  • Supporting those candidates with mock interviews and professional development sessions.
  • Conducting research for a follow-up study on diversity among key Senate staff and for a new report on diversity among Senate legislative assistants.

Bell pushed diversity as president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, a position he left after he joined the center. At the end of November, the caucus released a report that showed just five percent of the Senate’s nearly 3,600 staffers are Black.

“We have a long way to go, and Don is someone who has proven that he won’t rest until we achieve true diversity in our federal workforce,” Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said in a statement.

The caucus study builds on a 2015 report the center compiled on diversity among Senate staff. It found that while people of color comprise 36 percent of the U.S. population just 7.1 percent of them hold top positions in the Senate. Bell is working on a report that analyzes diversity among top staffers working in the House.

The diversity disparity persists for several reasons. Financial barriers, for example, make it even more difficult to get to the Hill and stay long enough in a low-paying job there to move into a mid or senior-level position, he said.

Bell found a way around those financial issues by working at Wal-Mart and relying on his friends’ generosity.

He was born and raised in Connecticut to parents who worked as custodians.

His parents, Donald and Julie Bell, didn’t have much money, but they taught him the importance of education, being resourceful and paying it forward. Bell was the first in his family to graduate from college, and he did it in three years to save money. He also holds a law degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law.

“All that has taught me to work hard for other people,” Bell said.

He arrived in the District in 2012 as an unpaid legal fellow/intern for Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Bell realized his work was helping his home state and shaping judiciary and housing policy. During the first week of his four-month stint, he decided he wanted more.

“I just really enjoyed being heavily involved in the policy space and just thinking of ways to improve the lives of people,” Bell said.

He returned to the District the following year after graduating from law school. This time, he worked eight months as an unpaid legal fellow for Christopher Murphy, Connecticut’s junior senator. By day, Bell worked with Murphy’s counsel on juvenile justice and other important issues. But at night, Bell worked as a Wal-Mart cashier to make ends meet.  He was putting in 14-to-16 hour days during this period.

But thanks to friends who supported him and later, a stipend and paid positions on the Hill — most recently as counsel to the most recent ranking members on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs — Bell only spent two months working at Wal-Mart.

Yet he hasn’t forgotten what he learned there.

“As someone who wanted to be part of the policy-making space and have a seat at the table, it wasn’t just about me getting to that position,” Bell said. “It was about me getting to the policy-making position and affecting the people that got up every day, worked very hard, struggled deeply and felt they didn’t have a voice in D.C. or in our country.”