Kyéra Sterling thought she had a sense of what working in the State House would be like when she took a job as chief of staff for a state representative from the Berkshires.
It wasn’t her first job in government: She had interned under then-Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley and with the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women.
But none of that prepared her for the ultra-insular environment of Beacon Hill, where a small group of Black staffers feel their outsider status every working day.
From supposedly innocent but clueless comments about their hair to feeling left in the dark about arcane legislative processes no one has bothered to explain, their work life is a challenge.
“It makes you feel like you’re ill-equipped and not fit to be there,” Sterling told me. “That’s what I’ve dealt with, like I’ve made a bad choice and shouldn’t be there. We’re just so disincentivized to be there.”
Though a precise count doesn’t exist, there are an estimated 30 to 40 Black staffers in the Legislature. And there are six Black members of the 13-person Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. The State House is a very white building.
Echoing the feelings of Black people in a wide range of workplaces, the members of Beacon BLOC described working in a culture that was not intended for people who look like them. They mentioned that many of their white colleagues had entered the State House in internships they couldn't have afforded to take.
Sterling talked about becoming involved in government because it gave her an opportunity to work on issues that had touched her life personally, like food insecurity.
“I think so many Black and Latino staffers get involved in the business out of necessity, unlike our whilte counterparts who have dreams of running for office and are built for that building,” Sterling said. “We’re here for our grandmothers and our aunts.”
As a national reckoning on race began to unfold this spring, Black Beacon Hill staffers began to look at their own working environment.
Meeting at first informally, along with a handful of white allies, they began to put together a list of changes that would make the State House a more equitable working environment.
Now known as Beacon BLOC (Black Leaders of Color) the group presented those ideas in a letter to House and Senate leadership earlier his month. They are calling for a better “onboarding” process for new employees, to give new people a better grasp of how the building works.
But that’s not all. Convinced that their experience mirrors a dismissive attitude toward people of color generally, they are calling for an office that will examine state policies and proposed legislation with an eye toward their impact on racial equity. They also called for extending the current session, to allow for more time to address race-related issues.. Among those is police reform legislation whose House and Senate versions have yet to be reconciled.
The staffers argue, convincingly, that a Legislature that doesn’t focus on the experiences of employees of color probably treats constituents the same way.
Maia Raynor, the legislative director for Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, said she has experienced both racial abuse and sexual harassment in her two years on Beacon Hill.
She stressed that both her boss, Chang-Diaz, and the Legislature’s human resources department were responsive.
But Raynor and others told me the HR process is too decentralized and disjointed — she said she felt “listened to” but didn’t know how much ultimately came of her complaints.
I asked if she would encourage other people of color to work as staff members at the State House.
“I would encourage a person of color to do whatever they want to fight for the cause,” Raynor said. But she said prospective staffers should ask plenty of questions about the support they can expect. “I think going in with eyes wide open is important.”
Their letter to management landed toward the end of a chaotic legislative session. Senate President Karen Spilka quickly agreed to meet with them, though nothing has been scheduled yet.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has not been in contact with the group, though his office released a statement Wednesday.
“In 2018, the House of Representatives made rules changes to make the HR-related functions of the House more robust. The House created the positions of the independent equal employment opportunity officer and employee engagement director, as part of those rules changes, among other things, to address issues of equality,” the statement read. “We look forward to learning more about the details of the requests and how we can work with our partners in state government on enhancing best practices.”
The people I talked to stressed that their issues were not with individual supervisors. They were, rather, with a culture that has never seriously wrestled with how to absorb new employees who challenge sometimes unconscious assumptions about who belongs on Beacon Hill.
Among their biggest institutional challenges is simply struggling to be seen.
“We’re all just so hidden,” Sterling said. “We don’t even know each other all that well.”
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.