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."
Despite being in a House of Representatives with an overwhelming Republican majority, the mostly Democratic caucus (the exception being Florida Rep. Allen West) has remained determined to press its agenda. "Our focus for this Congress is job creation and economic development," Garrett, 33, the CBC's first-ever policy director — charged with producing a steady arsenal of policy papers, recommendations and strategies — told The Root. "We started the year out with a budget commission, in which we had 10 of the top African-American economists advise on a budget that would cut federal spending while, at the same time, protecting the vulnerable population."
Garrett, who previously served as the legislative director for Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, said that the caucus has taken a multifaceted approach to the economy. This year the CBC introduced 40 pieces of jobs legislation between its members. They pushed those ideas in two meetings with President Barack Obama (compared with just one sit-down with him during his first two years in office), in addition to a session with White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Cleaver's one-on-one with Vice President Joe Biden.
The caucus made headlines this summer when it embarked on a five-city For the People Jobs Initiative, hosting job fairs with more than 200 hiring companies, as well as town hall meetings that challenged the Obama administration to do more about black unemployment.
"The fact that 30,000 people showed up blew everyone's minds," said Young, a former deputy press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Nobody was talking about African-American unemployment before that, except to say that African Americans are lazy and don't want to work. The Congressional Black Caucus went into the community and showed America thousands of people lined up with their children, drinking water to keep from passing out in the heat, wanting to do what was necessary to provide for their families."
After the jobs tour, for which the CBC set a goal of hiring 10,000 people (it said that it is currently working with participating companies to compile the exact number), it released a report of policy recommendations (pdf) for the president — many of which were included in the $447 billion jobs bill that he unveiled this month.
"If you look at every page of the president's American Jobs Act, you will see that we have a consistent imprint throughout that bill," said Rye, who previously worked as senior adviser and counsel to the House Committee on Homeland Security. "From the infrastructure bank to summer jobs for youth, and targeted provisions for low-income people and the chronically unemployed, our recommendations are there."
Telling the CBC Story
Another major push for the CBC staff has been getting their message out, a tactic that the caucus hasn't always successfully employed. "In the first two years of Obama's presidency, when Barbara Lee was the chair of the CBC, she had a golden-opportunity moment to get what they want done," Lauren Victoria Burke, who exhaustively covers the caucus on her blog Crew of 42, told The Root. "It just so happens that they did get things done in those first two years, but people don't know about them."
Among those legislative accomplishments under Lee were reducing the crack and powder-cocaine sentencing disparity, relieving Haiti's debt to the United States, appropriating $1.2 billion for the long-stalled black farmers' discrimination suit, securing higher-education tax credits for students, and a series of provisions in the Affordable Care Act that added $11 billion for community health centers and $36 billion for Pell Grants.
"A lot of times what the press covers is not going to be the details of policy," said Burke, who started her blog as a response to news reports on the CBC that focused only on the anger, controversy or disagreements of individual members. "Emanuel Cleaver and Stephanie Young have been quite different from past CBC leaders who didn't want to talk to the press. They're pumping up their accomplishments and information."
As Burke noted, the boost in Cleaver's media presence, particularly on cable news and the Sunday-morning shows, has been so stark that in his first 60 days, he'd made more national TV and radio appearances than the last three chairs combined. It's been a deliberate change. "My goal coming into this was to ensure that a consistent CBC voice was heard — whether that be through a position statement, interview or blog — on every major American issue," said Young.
The team has further kept up with technology by revamping its website to be more user-friendly, frequently updating its Facebook page and joining Twitter. "We also have to remember that African Americans are more likely to find their news online, and use Twitter at a higher rate," said Young. "All these things are very important to reaching our constituents, and moving forward, that's just the way we had to go."
The Next Steps
Despite the changes that the team has brought about over the past nine months, its members deflect attention from the fact that they're all under the age of 35, working for an organization with an average age of 62. "Instead of focusing on the age divide, we really soak up the knowledge and wisdom that comes from our mentors in the caucus," said Rye, also pointing out that younger voices, such as 36-year-old Indiana Rep. Andre Carson and 46-year-old New York Rep. Yvette Clarke, are represented, too.
Furthermore, having a caucus with some of the House's most senior members can be a good thing in Congress. "If you look at the legislation that passed when Democrats had the majority, a lot of it was not the result of a huge push by 40 CBC members but by one savvy member who was a pain in the neck," said Burke. "That member is often a senior member.
"When people complain about having a bunch of older people around, they don't understand that the way to get power around here is through seniority," she continues. "Members like Charles Rangel, Maxine Waters and Ed Towns, who are in their 70s and 80s, know how to get something through. That becomes huge."
That said, the young CBC staff concur that their goal is not to push through new ideological thinking or overhaul membership. "We've given the CBC a stronger brand and ensured that people of my generation know about what we're doing," said Rye, who stated that the group's next big initiative will involve an awareness campaign on voter protection and newly passed voter-ID laws nationwide.
"We've also strengthened the relationship across the board," she added, "with House and Senate leadership and the Obama administration, to improve the productivity of the CBC and improve our reach to the people who matter to us."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.