A New Age for the Black Caucus

A new young staff, helmed by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, hopes to give it fresh relevance.

Angela T. Rye; Latrice Powell; E. Brandon Garrett; Stephanie L. Young (Courtesy of CBC)
Angela T. Rye; Latrice Powell; E. Brandon Garrett; Stephanie L. Young (Courtesy of CBC)

In January the newly assembled staff of the Congressional Black Caucus — executive director and general counsel Angela T. Rye, policy director E. Brandon Garrett, communications director Stephanie L. Young and executive assistant Latrice Powell — drove to Howard University to peruse the CBC archives. They wanted to research the 40-year-old organization they were now charged with representing, one founded long before any of them were born.

“We saw leaders who were instrumental in the anti-apartheid movement and imposing the trade embargo against South Africa,” Rye, 31, told The Root of the collection, which houses, among hundreds of other artifacts, a 1971 report on African-American issues prepared for the caucus by President Nixon and groovy-font copies of the For the People newsletter detailing their 1970s legislative agenda.

Rye continued: “We saw folks like Parren J. Mitchell, who brought 500 entrepreneurs up to the Hill to talk about black economic empowerment, and members who worked to ensure that there were black people on every influential committee in Congress.”

With 21 of the CBC’s 43 members having served in the House for at least 15 years, today Rye, who considers herself the executive team’s visionary, is now working on behalf of many of those same people. Two of the founding members — John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) — are still in office and active in the caucus.

The lengthy terms are often cited by critics who, amid perennially high black unemployment and poverty rates, question the organization’s relevance and effectiveness. “What does the CBC do, exactly?” goes a familiar question. “Where is it headed?”

“The CBC story has not been told,” maintained Young, the 27-year-old communications director. “I also think a lot of people don’t even understand what people in Congress do and how legislation works.”

When the young, behind-the-scenes staff took office this year, they vowed to help the caucus change what they see as a disconnect between its legislative priorities and the public. By establishing an updated, savvier communications operation, setting a laser focus on jobs, strengthening relationships within government and pushing their work outside the “D.C. bubble,” they’ve spent the past nine months confronting the challenge of making sure that the CBC’s presence is felt — and matters.

One Focus: Jobs

In a speech at the CBC’s January swearing-in ceremony, its new chair, Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, put forward his vision. “As we enter into our 40th year of existence, it has become evident that we are the guards. Guarding the change we have fought for means protecting the people and the progress we have made,” he said, emphasizing much-needed work to address the black jobs crisis while also navigating the bitterly divided legislature the caucus was entering. “Congress at its worst demands a Congressional Black Caucus at its best.”