Moving The Needle

Arab-Americans in foreign affairs advance diversity

By Jamal A. Al-Mussawi

Throughout the past two decades, Department of State leadership has consistently acknowledged the importance of inclusion and diversity. The seriousness of our leadership’s commitment is seen through the development and expansion of the Diversity Governance Council, the deputy secretary’s own diversity forum, as well as bureau- and office-led diversity awareness groups. Additionally, the creation of new employee affinity groups, which serve as a link between diverse employee constituencies and the Department’s senior management, have moved the needle in a positive direction with respect to enhanced recruitment and retention efforts. While a pat on the back for past and existing efforts is deserved, there is of course still much work to be done.

One of the employee affinity groups that grew out of the drive for diversity is the Arab-Americans in Foreign Affairs Agencies (AAIFAA). Founded in 2014 by Department employee Jamal A. Al-Mussawi, along with a handful of dedicated and mission-focused supporters, this inclusive group’s number one mandate is to foster greater inclusion and diversity across the foreign affairs community. | Cont. |6 “In my nearly 17 years in the Department, I’ve honestly only encountered widespread willingness to increase inclusion, decrease exclusion and turn State into a true melting pot of diversity of all sorts. It’s a common goal and a common refrain I’ve heard time and again from colleagues throughout the Department,” said Al-Mussawi, currently the special assistant in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

AAIFAA participated in a Diversity Forum meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan, center, and S/OCR leadership. Attendees included EAG leaders and representatives including former AAIFAA Chair, Khulood Kandil, first row, fourth from right. | State Department photo

However, despite an overall willingness from the Department, the need for an affinity group focused towards Arab-Americans and those with an affinity for Arab culture was essential in achieving the ultimate goal of inclusion. To its success, AAIFAA has seen rapid growth over the past five years with new members representing very diverse backgrounds. Presently with more than 300 members from the Department and other foreign affairs agencies, AAIFAA is also now co-registered at USAID. 

“Branching out to and partnering with other agencies has helped AAIFAA cement its inclusion and outreach activities with the foreign affairs community. Expanding AAIFAA’s network to other parts of the government has in turn broadened the pool of great ideas about what we can do, government-wide, to meet our diversification goals,” added Al-Mussawi.  | Cont. |6

AAIFAA works in close partnership with the 14 other employee affinity groups that are managed by the Office of Civil Rights (S/OCR). As with other ethnic- and minority-based employee associations, AAIFAA serves as a resource for relevant ideas and experiences that can be shared amongst our government’s Arab-American communities. AAIFAA has striven since day one to provide the Department’s senior leaders with advice and ideas on how to broaden diversity and include Arab-Americans in public service. AAIFAA’s aim has been and will continue to be encouraging foreign affairs agencies to more closely resemble the nation they represent. 

AAIFAA Deputy Chair Charles Kiamie III, right, shares information about the employee affinity group with an attendee of a diversity and inclusion fair. | Photo courtesy of AAIFAA

To encourage diversity effectively, AAIFAA has focused on recruiting new employees with diverse backgrounds and ensuring that all current employees have equal opportunities for professional development and growth. This goal is easier said than done when employee affinity groups must work with small budgets, if any, and few personnel to broadcast their goals. Despite these obstacles, AAIFAA has received top-level support in spreading its message of diversity. AAIFAA’s leadership liaison, Ambassador Daniel B. Smith, works to provide advice and ideas about effective leadership within the context of Department culture. Smith said, “I have seen firsthand how diversity in our workforce both domestically and overseas brings valuable new insights and perspectives and enhances our ability to reach out to more diverse audiences. Affinity groups like AAIFAA play a critical role in retention and recruitment, especially of individuals from diverse backgrounds who might not otherwise think about a career in the State Department or other foreign affairs agencies.”    

From left: Ambassador Daniel Smith, AAIFAA’s leadership liaison and FSI director poses with Jamal A. Al-Mussawi, AAIFAA’s founder and former chair and EUR special assistant in the C street lobby. | Photo by Luis A. Jimenez Jr.

To highlight the benefits of diversity in the workplace, AAIFAA has hosted or been part of various events aimed at raising awareness for both Arab-Americans in the workplace, as well as how the Department will benefit from a more diverse community. From talks on what Arab-Americans, or others with diverse backgrounds, have done to build our nation, to social gatherings designed to widen personal networks that can assist in developing careers, AAIFAA and its affinity group partners continue to work daily to improve the Department’s standards for broader benefit.  | Cont. |6

As AAIFAA has worked on these efforts, certain observations have become clear, according to Al-Mussawi, “First and foremost, it is apparent that broader recruitment is a crucial part of the Department’s diversity and inclusion objectives. How can we change the way we look and act, if we don’t have more people who look and act differently than what we’ve seen and experienced thus far? To do this, it is important to have an accurate representation of the diverse workforce that the Department strives to embody. Secondly, though just as importantly, we need to continue taking a hard look at our efforts to keep good people with us and promote them to positions of great responsibility.” 

Leading the overall effort, Deputy Secretary Sullivan and S/OCR have welcomed discussion and ideas related to unconscious bias in hiring and promoting personnel. Past Diversity Forum gatherings have also welcomed discussion on promoting diversity awareness and inclusivity in practice.

Apart from its day-to-day efforts to foster greater awareness of and adherence to the tenets of diversity, each April, AAIFAA takes a step back to celebrate Arab-American heritage during Arab-American Heritage Month. This April, AAIFAA plans to celebrate its fifth anniversary as an official employee affinity group—a celebration AAIFAA hopes will be shared by its growing membership as well as its committed supporters.   

AAIFAA’s 2019 Chair, Nadia Farra poses next to the AAIFAA banner with Leadership Liaison Ambassador Daniel Smith in the C Street lobby. | Photo by Luis A. Jimenez Jr.

While AAIFAA’s membership has grown, the group continues to encourage awareness of the promotion, protection and utilization of the cultural, linguistic, personal and professional assets that Arab-American foreign affairs professionals commonly share. Along with other affinity groups, S/OCR, the Deputy’s office and HR, everyone is working to achieve a common objective, and AAIFAA is confident that the majority of Department employees support such efforts every step of the way. 

AAIFAA membership is not based on any ethnicity or religion, but rather a shared affinity for Arab culture and a shared belief in the need to expand diversity. For more information, please contact [email protected] 

Jamal A. Al-Mussawi is the founder and former chair of the Arab-Americans in Foreign Affairs Agencies official employee affinity group.

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