Meet Stephen Benjamin, the most senior Black man in the White House

The former mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, tells theGrio he looks forward to telling the "good news" of the Biden-Harris administration as the new director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

As senior advisor to President Joe Biden and the new director of the Office of Public Engagement, Stephen Benjamin is the most senior Black man working inside the White House. 

It’s a public-facing job that Benjamin, who was the first Black mayor of South Carolina’s capital city, tells theGrio he is “thankful” for because the job goes beyond serving the United States at the pleasure of the president. It also allows him to serve as a liaison between the Biden-Harris administration and local communities, especially Black communities. 

“I enjoy this role in the White House,” said Benjamin, who served 12 years as mayor of Columbia. “Every single day really has been a blessing.”

Mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, Stephen Benjamin speaks during K.I.D.S/Fashion Delivers Annual Gala at American Museum of Natural History on November 4, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for K.I.D.S./Fashion Delivers)

He admits, however, that working in the chaos of Washington, D.C., politics has been an adjustment as the new head of the White House’s public engagement team. The role was previously held by Keisha Lance Bottoms, the former mayor of Atlanta.

“I quickly learned that inside the Beltway is a whole different animal,” Benjamin said. “It’s been a month, but in dog years in D.C., you feel like you’ve been there for about a year or two already.”

Benjamin was born and raised in Queens, New York, and later relocated to his family’s home state of South Carolina for college.

Though it’s been less than two months since taking office, the highest-ranking Black man at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue said he is already astonished at “the number of serious issues that come before us every single day” at the White House.

“There’s always a lot to do,” he added.

Part of the mission as head of public engagement is to deliver the “good news” of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are doing to better the lives of Black Americans, Benjamin said.

In 2020, Black voters flexed their muscles and turned out in historic numbers, especially during the Democratic primary in South Carolina, to help Biden defeat former President Donald Trump in the presidential election.

U.S. President Joe Biden and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris hold hands onstage after speaking at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting on February 03, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

That good news, says the White House official, includes the historic infrastructure law used to address the impact of racist redlining on Black communities and the CHIPS and Science Act, which will invest “billions of dollars to re-shore American manufacturing and bring great jobs back to our communities.” 

Benjamin also highlighted Biden’s historic nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman justice on the Supreme Court, the record number of Black female judges appointed to federal benches and the “strategic investments” in job creation that has “led to the lowest African-American unemployment rate in history.”

While Benjamin’s job is to highlight the achievements of the Biden-Harris administration, he acknowledged it’s important for the White House to also “listen twice as much as you talk.”

“It’s our job to go out and tell the story. It’s the job of citizens to make sure they share with us exactly what they’re dealing with [and] the challenges they’re facing,” he declared.

As a Black man, Benjamin also understands the importance of speaking directly to Black men, who have been a focal point in politics over concerns the Democratic Party may disillusion them. 

“Some of our challenges are still downright systemic and real,” he said. “Some of these challenges are unique when it comes to Black men — it’s something we have to talk about.”

Benjamin said he and other Black male leaders, including NAACP President Derrick Johnson, Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Steven Horsford, are actively discussing how to “lift up the voices of Black men.”

Other challenges for the administration that the senior advisor will have to speak to are the commitments made by Biden, like passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and federal voting rights protections, that haven’t happened due to the political divide in Congress. 

Demonstrators gather and march through downtown protesting the death of Tyre Nichols on January 28, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Benjamin said it’s crucial that Americans, particularly Black Americans, “give a really serious and fair look at the successes of the administration … realizing that on this journey towards being a more perfect union, there’s so much more work to do.”

He added, “If, in fact, we give this president and vice president the opportunity to finish the job and at the same time give them the tools that they need in terms of additional help in the Congress to move some of these really tough bills forward, we can do it.”

Benjamin said he looks forward to continuing to work with the “committed group of public servants” at the White House who are “focused like a laser beam on trying to solve critical problems facing American families.”

“The president’s going to continue to lead … and continue the push on the things that matter most that address the soul of this country,” he added. “And I’m excited about being a part of it.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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