Joint Center Updates


Our February 2021 Work: Shaping Section 230 Reform, Small Business Priorities & More

Happy Black History Month! This is our regular monthly newsletter, which reviews the Joint Center’s work over the past month.

Economic Studies

Joint Center proposal centerpiece of Section 230 reform bills to protect civil rights: U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) announced the Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms (SAFE TECH) Act, which seeks to reform Section 230. The bill includes a solution proposed in the Joint Center law review article State Power to Regulate Social Media Companies to Prevent Voter Suppression (the proposal is on pages 1827-28), which calls on Congress to make clear that Section 230 does not exempt platforms from complying with civil rights laws when they target employment, housing, and financial services online ads toward white communities and away from Black communities. Our contribution to the legislation was also mentioned in the Wall Street Journal.

The Senate bill follows a call for public comments from Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY) on the draft of her upcoming bill, the Civil Rights Modernization Act of 2021, which also includes the solution proposed in the Joint Center law review article as the centerpiece of the draft bill.

Equitable access to the internet: The Joint Center joined nine other organizations in filing comments on the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program which seeks to “help low-income consumers across the internet.” Recommendations include using plain language, ensuring all information and publicity is available in many languages beyond English, using culturally relevant and inclusive marketing practices, expanding publicity beyond FCC and USAC official websites, and more. Other participants in sending the letter include American Civil Liberties Union, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, Common Cause, Free Press, MediaJustice, National Hispanic Media Coalition, New America, Public Knowledge, and UnidosUS.

Engaging congressional leadership on internet connectivity: Joint Center Technology Policy Director Dr. Dominique Harrison joined Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), and the Lifeline Coalition for a congressional briefing on “the problems low-income and marginalized communities face when trying to connect, and the multi-pronged approach Congress should take to address these issues during the pandemic and beyond.”

Talking Black tech policy with House Energy & Commerce Members: Dominique was the featured speaker at a discussion with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Racial Disparities Working Group led by Energy and Commerce Committee Vice Chair Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY) and Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust Chair Robin Kelly (D-IL). During her presentation, Dominique discussed the problems with regard to platform accountability, broadband access and adoption, and privacy and algorithmic fairness.

Getting connected on HBCU campuses: Dominique also moderated the FCC’s HBCU Presidents’ Roundtable on “what solutions need to be implemented to ensure students, faculty, staff, and surrounding communities of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) get connected to affordable, reliable broadband during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

A seat at the tech table: Dominique also joined Public Knowledge’s panel discussion on a report entitled Diversity in Early-Career Tech Policy Roles: Challenges and Opportunities. The discussion explored “the types of early career opportunities available in tech policy nonprofits and the diversity within these roles, as well as the steps organizations are taking to increase diversity.” Other panelists included Office of FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks Senior Advisor Dr. Alisa Valentin, Free Press Chief of Staff Misty Perez, and Free Press Senior Director of Strategy and Engagement Joe Torres. Public Knowledge Communications Justice Fellow Tsion Tesfaye moderated the conversation.

AI bias: Dominique also participated in a panel at the Sadie Collective Third Annual Conference exploring how AI bias can negatively affect Black communities. Other panelists included UC Berkeley Computer Science Assistant Professor Dr. Rediet Abebe and Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Ph.D. Student Jordan Harrod.

Small business priorities for the Biden Administration: Joint Center Vice President Jessica Fulton joined small business owners to discuss small business priorities in the first 100 days of the Biden Administration. The conversation, moderated by Main Street Alliance Government Affairs Director Didier Trinh, included discussion on protecting and rebuilding businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic; capital, credit, and business development needs of small businesses; and leveling the playing field for small businesses by supporting a more robust safety net.

Black America’s next steps—strong institutions: “Any battle plan for progress must incorporate building and fortifying Black institutions,” said Joint Center President Spencer Overton in an article in USA Today on the next course of action for Black America’s progress amid the COVID-19 pandemic and continued police gun violence. In the article, Spencer noted that while “law politicians will come and go,” strong Black institutions “allow us to weather the storms, exercise agency and leadership, debate, participate, and fully take advantage of opportunities.”

Political Studies

Report card on top staff diversity of newly-elected Members: As of February 22, the Joint Center’s report card tracking top staff hires by each new Member in the 117th Congress illustrates that 202 of 213 (or 94.8 percent) possible positions have already been filled. Of Members who have hired all three top spots, so far Alex Padilla (D-CA) leads in the Senate and Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) leads in the House for hiring top staff of color. Those at the bottom of the lists are Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Congresswoman Yvette Herrell (R-NM).

Of the top staff hired by new Members so far, 24.3 percent are people of color, and 5.4 percent are African American. People of color account for 40 percent of the U.S. population and African Americans account for 13.4 percent of the U.S.

Presenting data to Black staffers: Joint Center Senior Fellow of Diversity and Inclusion Dr. LaShonda Brenson was a panelist in the Congressional Black Associates’ discussion on the importance of congressional staff diversity. During the discussion, LaShonda presented data from Joint Center research showing the lack of racial diversity among top staff in Congress. NALEO Educational Fund Director of Policy Initiatives Mario Beovides also spoke about NALEO’s training opportunities for mid-level staffers, and Office of House Diversity and Inclusion Professional Staff Christopher Lange and Senate Diversity and Inclusion Deputy Director Will Reese explained the steps they’re taking to increase congressional staff diversity.

New LegiStorm report shows new House Members hire more diverse staff: According to LegiStorm data, 47 percent of newly-elected Democratic House Members’ staffers are people of color, compared to 35 percent of all Democratic House staffers. Among newly-elected Republican House Members, 11 percent of staffers are people of color, compared to 8 percent of all Republican House staffers. Data collected by the Joint Center shows this trend extends to top staff positions. Read Joint Center Senior Fellow of Diversity and Inclusion Dr. LaShonda Brenson’s analysis of LegiStorm’s latest numbers here.

Joint Center pushes for bipartisan Senate Diversity and Inclusion Office: The Joint Center organized a letter signed by over 35 civil rights groups addressed to Majority Leader Schumer urging his office to establish a bipartisan Senate Diversity and Inclusion Office. In the letter, we recommend the new bipartisan Senate Diversity and Inclusion Office be staffed by professionals with expertise in diversity who support both Democratic and Republican Members in identifying, recruiting, hiring, retaining, and promoting diverse talent. The Senate Office should also collect demographic data of staff, and analyze, disclose, and disaggregate the data by position and other factors.

Joint Center quoted in Politico: “Communities of color aren’t just pawns to mobilize on election day. They have real issues that need to be realized in policy,” said LaShonda who authored the Joint Center’s 2020 report on the lack of diversity among top staff in the Senate. “Members of Congress must hire staff of color who can really speak to different constituencies that they may have, just so that their interests are represented.” LaShonda’s research was also featured in the podcast, Politico Dispatch.

Roll Call on Hill diversity: LaShonda was also quoted in Roll Call saying the bottom line is that “Congress literally cannot effectively create public policy that benefits all Americans if people that are making the decisions do not look like America.” Joint Center Board Member Paul Thornell was also quoted explaining several reasons for the lack of hill staff diversity, and noting that Members should hire diverse outside advisors to send “a signal to diverse candidates that there’s somebody that looks like me in his orbit or her orbit” and adopt a “Rooney Rule 2.0” which would require at least one person of color to be interviewed for a position.

Creating a healthy congressional culture: The Joint Center signed on to a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Committee on Rules & Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar, and Senate Committee on Rules & Administration Ranking Member Roy Blunt calling for the Senate to commit resources and administrative power toward an effort to improve the function of the Senate.

Diverse staff can help make Congress a better place to work: Brookings mentioned Joint Center congressional staff diversity research in its analysis on making Congress a “better place to work.” In the piece, Brookings states that “ensuring congressional staff look like the Americans they serve” will positively affect the workplace in Congress.

Biden should prioritize Black appointments to the U.S. Court of Appeals: Spencer argues in this post that President Biden needs to appoint more Black judges to the U.S. Court of Appeals. African Americans account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, but only 10 percent of active U.S. Appellate judges. This number could drop quickly since Black U.S. Appellate judges are disproportionately eligible to retire and many of them have been waiting for a Democratic president and U.S. Senate to retire. If all Black U.S. Appellate judges eligible to retire did so tomorrow (all of them were originally nominated by Democratic presidents), only 5 percent of active U.S. Appellate judges would be African American.

The Joint Center’s New Communications Manager

We are excited to announce Victoria Johnson as the Joint Center’s Communications Manager. Victoria joined our team as the Digital Communications Specialist in October 2018. Since then she’s played a key role in furthering our communications strategy and managing the organization’s communications priorities.

In Case You Missed It

Joint Center co-founder Louis E. Martin was profiled in Face 2 Face Africa. The late Joint Center Board Chair was known as the “godfather of Black politics” and advised three presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter.


Future of Work for Black communities: On March 10, Spencer will join a WorkingNation and Lumina Foundation SXSW EDU panel entitled Will Robots Displace Workers of Color? with Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis, New America Vice President for Public Interest Technology and Local Initiatives Cecilia Munoz, and The Patrick J. McGovern Foundation President Vilas Dhar. Register to virtually attend SXSW EDU here.