OPM put on a panel with agency leaders Tuesday for government interns. Loyce Pace talked about the experience she brings to her role as assistant Health and Human Services secretary for Global Affairs.

OPM put on a panel with agency leaders Tuesday for government interns. Loyce Pace talked about the experience she brings to her role as assistant Health and Human Services secretary for Global Affairs. Screengrab courtesy of the White House

‘Trailblazing’ federal leaders urge perseverance, authenticity to government interns

Panelists at an OPM event for interns praised federal DEI programs, which some congressional Republicans want to end.

Before she led the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Charlotte Burrows worked at the Justice Department. There, she was handling cases that dealt with discrimination in the construction industry. 

“In D.C. — then as now, frankly —- there was a construction site on pretty much every corner, and I would look and every time there weren't any women. I was a biker —- I still am —- and I would bike to work and I'm looking and I'm seeing no women on these construction sites,” she said. “Every now and then you would see someone holding the sign. So not learning the skills, not becoming an electrician, not doing the skilled trade work that gets you pretty good salaries, but just holding the signs —- stop, go —- you've seen that. That was it. That was the extent and total of what women were doing.”

So she decided to keep at those cases, or, in her words, “be that little bit of sand in these particular gears.” And a couple years later, she noticed during a bike ride that a woman was managing a construction site. 

Burrows shared this anecdote on a panel Tuesday with “trailblazing” agency leaders from underrepresented groups, which the Office of Personnel Management hosted for federal interns. 

Acting OPM Director Rob Shriver, who moderated the panel, touted the Biden administration’s efforts to “break down barriers” for entering the federal workforce, including a push to increase the number of paid government internships as well as updates to the federal internship program intended to improve recruitment of early-career workers. 

“Something that we really do work on across all of our agencies all the time is making sure that we are advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility for the federal workforce,” he said. “You have leadership-level commitment.” 

But there is not congressional-level commitment. Republicans recently introduced legislation that would largely prohibit federal DEI programs, arguing such efforts contravene merit-based hiring. 

Loyce Pace said her experiences growing up in an inner city inform her work as the assistant Health and Human Services secretary for Global Affairs.  

“I remember my mother being very concerned when I started to tell my story…I don't know if people do this anymore, but there's this concept of code switching and the way that you're supposed to present when you end up at a place like Stanford, when you end up in a place like Andover, when you end up at a place like the Department of Health and Human Services,” she said. “But the reality is people can tell when you're faking it, and it's much harder to connect and advance the agenda when I'm not fully myself. I've had to learn that over time as well.”

Small Business Administration Deputy Administrator Dilawar Syed urged the audience “to constantly seek opportunities to learn, grow and be inspired.” 

As an example, the highest-ranking Muslim official in the Biden administration recalled attending the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre and destruction of “Black Wall Street.” He said the experience spurred him to continue working to help people who historically have been discriminated against. 

Sara C. Bronin, who is the first person of color to serve as chair of the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, told the interns in attendance to ask their bosses questions. 

“I have had interns that don't ask me anything, and they just sort of think, ‘Well, if I just seem totally put together, it's fine.’ So I try to tease that out. I think just that back and forth with people in your life can make a difference — at least it did with me,” she said. “So do not be afraid to just say, ‘Well, why did you do that? How did you get here? Why are you giving me this assignment? What's the big picture here?’” 

The panelists also expressed enthusiasm about Generation Z entering the federal workforce, praising young people for their commitment to diversity and tech-savvy. But EEOC Chair Burrows said she’s thrilled for another reason. 

“I am personally excited about the little bit of impatience that Gen Z brings to the government,” she said. “We are so amazing in the federal government and do so many different things, but we are not known for speed necessarily.”