Multiple times in recent months, Democratic leaders have promised to invite more veterans from minority and underserved groups to the table when it comes to policy discussions.
This week, they provided the chairs.
On Wednesday, during a joint hearing by the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees, leaders from Minority Veterans of America and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans sat for the first time among organizations invited each year to give their views on current Veterans Affairs policies and shortfalls.
Later this month, the National Congress of American Indians and National Association for Black Veterans will also make their first appearance at the advocates’ legislative presentation panels.
Denis McDonough said that finding the right leaders for the department is among his first priorities in office.
The public recognition is normally reserved for older and more prominent groups. Officials from Disabled American Veterans and Student Veterans of America also testified the same day. Veterans of Foreign Wars leaders will testify at the March 18 event.
But White House officials and new Veterans Affairs leaders in recent weeks have repeatedly vowed to make federal veterans programs “more inclusive” in public comments on their department reform plans. And congressional Democrats said they’ll help ensure that happens, with a closer look at the faces and voices they have advising their work to ensure the entire veterans’ community is represented.
“Inviting groups that specifically advocate for minority and underserved veterans is a crucial first step toward our goal to create a more welcoming VA,” House committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said at the start of Wednesday’s event. “We plan to promote the inclusion of more diverse veterans voices beyond this hearing.”
Much of the celebration of the veterans service organizations’ testimony was muted this year, since the pandemic forced the event online. Typically groups pack hearing rooms with hundreds of members, applauding loudly as lawmakers praise organization leaders and call out visitors from their own states.
Even without that pomp, however, officials at Minority Veterans of America hailed the moves as an exciting and noteworthy first step — but only a first step.
“It was powerful to be able to represent the communities we do in that kind of forum,” said Lindsay Church, executive director and co-founder of MVA. “Now we have to make sure this opens the door to others, because no one group has all the answers.”
MVA was founded just four years ago, with a goal of highlighting the challenges facing “veterans of color, women, LGBTQ veterans, and non-religious minorities.”
On Wednesday, Church highlighted several of the group’s legislative priorities for the year: increasing job training and entrepreneurship opportunities for minority veterans, improving support programs for military sexual trauma victims, ensuring protections for transgender veterans and ensuring VA’s coronavirus response helps as many veterans as possible.
Church said the goal isn’t to divide the veterans community into different categories, but to instead ensure that broad solutions to challenges don’t overlook some smaller segments of the population.
“I urge the committees to consider a mindset shift and to begin examining existing and potential systems and frameworks through a lens that centers and prioritizes the minority veteran,” Church said during Wednesday’s testimony.
“We have found that where a system is designed to serve the most marginalized, it will innately serve those that experience more privilege.”
Related, Takano this week also unveiled legislation to mandate a commission on LGBTQ servicemembers and veterans, to “conduct an investigation into the historic and ongoing impacts of discriminatory military policies and practices” on those individuals. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has said he will introduce companion legislation in coming days.
Denis McDonough was sworn in as the new VA Secretary on Tuesday.
“Our nation must reckon with the effects of discriminatory military policies and undo the damage that has been done,” Takano said in a statement.
“Establishing this commission would help Americans understand the effects of anti-LGBTQ military policies, provide a path forward to rectify the injustices, and help create a welcoming culture for LGBTQ servicemembers and veterans.”
Last month, VA officials announced a department-wide policy review to ensure that current medical practices are in line with White House requirements combating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough in his public remarks has repeatedly stated his goal of making sure the department provides “a welcoming and inclusive and inclusive environment for all veterans,” with an emphasis on women veterans and minority groups.
That’s an encouraging start, Church said. “We’re seeing a difference in how VA leadership is approaching us and other veterans, and that matters.”