Waikinya Clanton '08 of Congressional Black Associates
Waikinya Clanton knows it took more than her bright smile and solid work ethic to land her position in the office of Rep. Bennie Thompson. The 26-year-old legislative correspondent for the Mississippi Democrat had something common to many successful staffers on Capitol Hill: a connection.
Now, as president of the networking group Congressional Black Associates, Clanton is helping others who aspire to work for Congress make connections and trying to ensure that African-American staffers on the Hill have opportunities to move up the ladder.
Clanton was working in a FedEx Kinko’s store in Jackson, Miss., during her senior year at Tougaloo College when an alumnus of the historically black school came into the store and asked about her plans after graduation. She mentioned she might like to work in Washington, but had no clue how to apply for a position.
The alumnus knew Thompson and asked Clanton for a copy of her resume. She was in the right place at the right time—in a store that specializes in printing important documents, with a resume on her thumb drive—and the rest is history. She soon had an internship in Thompson’s office that eventually led to a full-time job. “We were only required to work four days” as interns, Clanton said. “I worked five. I really wanted to put in my time.”
Congressional Black Associates members often point to last year’s Hill People issue of National Journal, which profiled staffers in key positions, when explaining the organization’s mission. A staff survey for the June special edition found that 93 percent of top aides on the Hill are white. “Visually, you can see it,” said the group’s vice president, Keenan Austin. “Being here, you can feel it.”
When Clanton and Austin were elected to the networking group’s leadership positions last month, they decided to focus on changing that profile. Austin, 28, who became senior adviser to Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., through a connection made working for a pharmaceutical company, said she is ready to handle “the blunt truth.”
The group is organizing an April event that will draw members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others on the Hill for a discussion on how to increase African-American employment in congressional offices and how staffers already there can excel.
“We need people we can look to for guidance,” Clanton said. “We need people who are not afraid to give us advice. We really want to know about what it is that you need to do in order to get ahead.” Austin said she’s been told to keep her social network racially diverse, because it would be smaller otherwise.
Clanton is also busy networking, including as a regional contact for students and alumni of her alma mater, Tougaloo College. She tells aspiring staffers: “Yes, it’s different; yes, it’s fast; but you can do it. Stay ambitious and don’t sell yourself out.”