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Black Staffers Report Productive Talks With Legislators

A coalition of Black State House staffers has had "productive" conversations with the offices of legislative leaders in the week-plus since unveiling a list of demands aimed at improving culture in the building, members said.

Leaders of the Beacon Building Leaders of Color, or Beacon BLOC, group said they talked with individuals representing both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka after launching a public campaign on July 29 to highlight racism that coalition members faced while working in legislative offices and to call for workplace reforms.

"After productive conversations with representatives of Senate and House leadership, Beacon BLOC is continuing to work toward the remaining seven goals, with a focus on institution-wide education on, engagement with, and implementation of antiracist structures and processes," the group wrote in a Friday press release.

Since it outlined eight demands at the end of July and highlighted personal stories of facing racism, Beacon BLOC has heard messages of support from more than 300 current and former legislative staffers, including several high-ranking chiefs of staff, the group said.

More than 40 outside organizations — including organized labor, civil rights advocacy and faith groups — also signed a letter in solidarity with Beacon BLOC.

Beacon BLOC's still-unaddressed demands include creation of an independent Office of Policy Equity to review how pending pieces of legislation affect equity and racial justice in Massachusetts, creation of a central diversity and inclusion office, development of tools for employees to report racist aggressions, and construction of a talent pipeline for people of color to work on Beacon Hill.

One of the group's original goals was to secure an extension to the formal lawmaking session beyond the traditional July 31 deadline. Plans had already been in motion when Beacon BLOC announced its support, and formal sessions can now continue through the end of the two-year term.

"Extending session was a necessary step to ensure that communities most impacted by COVID-19 and structural racism, which in most cases are one in the same, could continue to have a say in the way their government responds to the multiple pandemics facing communities of color," Maia Raynor, a legislative director for Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and member of Beacon BLOC, said in the release. "It also shows that Senate and House leadership is open to listening and working with us, which is necessary to change this institution."

While Beacon BLOC said it talked with representatives for legislative leaders, the group said it still has not received a response from Secretary of State William Galvin, the third Beacon Hill official to whom it directed its initial message.

Staffers in the group cited instances of harassment by lobbyists and asked Galvin to develop a way to suspend lobbyists for such interactions. The secretary said in a late July statement that he would need authorization from the Legislature for disciplinary changes to the lobbying system.

Beacon BLOC set its sights on the annual rules package that the House and Senate adopt every odd-year January, right at the start of two-year lawmaking sessions, to set rails on how business can proceed.

The group said Friday it will push for a "staff and resident-centered" package when the next General Court is inaugurated in January 2021.

"There is still so much work to be done to make Beacon Hill a safe space where Black staffers are not silenced by fear of retaliation for speaking up against injustice and advocating for their basic rights," Immaculate Nyaigoti, another Beacon BLOC member who works in Sen. Jamie Eldridge's office, said in the release. "We all have a role to play and words alone don't create change. As we move forward, I hope to see that supporters are present not only in name, but also in action."

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