Numbers are shrinking for people of color staffing the Legislature, even as its GOP leadership tries to ban efforts to fight injustice and teach a more complete view of racial history.
For Nada Elmikashfi, chief of staff for Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison), sitting in the Assembly gallery, listening to the state representatives debate bills intended to quash teaching and training about race, history and social issues, was not a detached political exercise, but incredibly personal.
“[W]atching legislators fight over my humanity as a black staffer was in many ways traumatizing,” Elmikashfi said. “To hold so much hatred in your heart, so much aversion to equity and equality, that you’d legislate a ban on [teaching] history was something I couldn’t wrap my head around.”
While that legislation may be abstract or politically-motivated for the white lawmakers, for Elmikashfi and other staffers of color they are personal and very real because they have very real impacts on them and their communities—including their workplace, the very center of Wisconsin government and civic values.
“I hope they understand that what might have been solely a political move to assert their flailing GOP agenda, is going to translate into much more than that,” Elmikashfi said. “Their legacy now includes an unadulterated championing of white supremacy, and that should haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
And efforts at civility don’t negate that.
“Some of those same Republicans who voted to ban words like multiculturalism and racial healing, among many others, sometimes would offer me a smile when they would catch my eye. But how little do they actually care about my well-being if their name is on a bill that effectively discriminates against me on the basis of my race?” Elmikashfi said. “Do they not realize the harm this bill would cause to the people of color they know?”
Outnumbered and overlooked
The manufactured outrage over critical race theory wasn’t the only time the statehouse felt like a hostile environment for Elmikashfi and other staffers. While Republicans use culture war issues, such as transgender youth, Afghan refugees, and disenfranchising voters, particularly urban voters, to rally the base, those are direct attacks against minority staffers. Meanwhile, issues that could help those communities, such as lead pipes, criminal justice, and police reform, are ignored.
“For our own survival, we have to be forgiving and not holding that contempt and really letting it just slide past, but also giving ourselves room to mourn and to be angry and to be sad about the things that have happened to us,” Elmikashfi said. “That is how we show them we are the party of grace.”
Elmikashfi is one of four Black staffers out of 236 total staffers in the Assembly, according to records from the Legislature’s human resources department; in the Senate there are five Black staffers out of 199 total.
That is actually worse representation than in previous years: the number of Black Assembly staffers peaked in 2019 at nine, then went down to 8 in 2020 and then dropped to 4 in 2021. The Senate had 17 Black staffers in 2017, then 13 in 2018 and 2019, then 12 in 2020 and then dropped down to five in 2021.
But the issues at the statehouse are not just a matter of numbers. Elmikashfi said the statehouse’s work culture is different from her previous workplaces.
“Generally in the other places I worked, there’s this idea that you treat people with respect, especially for who they are,” Elmikashfi said. “I say that as a Muslim, black women who wears hijab, who’s been subject to a lot of just hate and discrimination: it is so different here than it is outside.”
Generally Elmikashfi said there’s a sense of camaraderie among staffers of both parties but it is difficult being one of the very few people of color.
“Seeing how a system that is so inherently disparate when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and segregates the few of us that are people of color is in this building,” Elmikashfi said.
For one, she said a lot of the socializing and networking involves alcohol, which some staffers, particularly some Muslims do not drink. Other staffers of color, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told UpNorth News they’re not always invited or don’t always feel welcome to join their white colleagues.
Staffers of color also said that they feel tokenized in their jobs, as though their colleagues think they were only hired for their race or ethnicity and not their experience and skills. Staffers of color said they often feel their expertise is overlooked—whether it’s economics, health, education, or environmental issues—but it’s assumed they are experts on all issues pertaining to race.
They also said they feel they are under greater scrutiny for their social media statements than their white colleagues, especially if they post about race. Elmikashfi and Hong have experienced extreme backlash for speaking out on racism. In June, Assembly Democrats exposed how Assembly Republicans were ignoring Democratic resolutions to recognize Pride Month, Motherhood Month, and Gun Violence Survivor Day as retaliation against Hong, Elmikashfi’s boss.
Assembly Democrats stated that several resolutions they have put forward were not scheduled by Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaunana) and instead received a message that it was received—but the message would also include a copy of a critical statement from Hong. After a resolution recognizing Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Month, Hong celebrated the passage of the resolution, but recognized that her Black colleagues were denied a vote on the resolution to mark Black History Month.
In a Twitter thread, Elmikashfi said that Hong had originally written the APIDA resolution but chose to remove herself from it because Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) “refused to put it on the calendar [because] their leadership didn’t like her tweets about racism.”
The fact that Democratic leadership decided to stand up to Assembly Republicans rather than take the bait and turn on Hong was reassuring to Elmikashfi, given the tendency of white Americans to not call out racism “in order not to shake things up, even if in person they are empathetic.”
“To see [Democrats] not playing into Steineke’s divide and conquer [tactics], but to also say, ‘This goes against our values of the caucus and we’re going to cover and protect our own’ while also giving adequate room to explain why what Steineke did or what the Republicans did was racist, for me, that was a really great insight that this environment of social and racial justice reckoning that we’re in is changing the culture,” Emikashfi said. “And I think it gives you hope.”
But months later, that hostility towards Hong and Elmikaskfi still persists. They say all they can do, and have done, is keep their door open to whoever wants to talk, hopefully reach an understanding, and work together.
“They know that we fight for our constituents just as we hope that they do and this is how we fight: We speak about racial injustice and white supremacy in a way that calls out the truth and calls out racism,” Elmikashfi said. “And if they don’t like it, they need to look inward, as we do. We’re not always the ones that are correct, we acknowledged that, but we’re also the ones that are willing to listen to every single point.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to say there are 236 staffers in the Assembly, not 243 as originally written.