By Nayab Khan
Department of State employees around the world continuously show remarkable resilience. Amidst a worldwide pandemic and renewed national discussion about race and representation, the workforce continues to adapt to accomplish their missions. This adaptation includes the Department’s employee affinity group (EAG) leaders—who already face challenges under normal circumstances. EAG board members are volunteers who accept the responsibility of leading their groups and their regular jobs and workloads. The Department currently recognizes 16 EAGs, showcasing diversity across the Department’s workforce.
While the work of EAGs is crucial to establishing cultural changes, expanding knowledge, and celebrating differences, organizing EAG meetings or events typically comes with an intense level of planning. In a pandemic, limited face-to-face interaction, the inability to travel, and social distancing have added an extra layer of consideration when planning. The coronavirus pandemic may have put a halt to in-office meetings and in-person gatherings, but it hasn’t stopped the will, sheer determination, and grit of EAGs to fulfill their missions and connect their membership. EAGs are forging ahead, while putting safety first, and operating in creative ways. Many EAGs have begun holding virtual events to reach out to their members and stay connected.
Over the past few months, Executive Women @ State (EW@S) has held several virtual events to stay connected with members. Their president, Michelle Bernier-Toth, released a video message, March 26, encouraging members to take care of one another and to stay strong and healthy. EW@S Civil Service Vice President Ruth Murphy wrote a moving piece in the EW@S June newsletter discussing recent systemic injustice in the nation and diversity data pertaining to the Department’s workforce.
“The data shows that a workforce that is diverse and inclusive performs better,” said Murphy. “We are stronger together and more effective at carrying out our foreign policy mission.”
The Asian American Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA) recognized the need to openly discuss recent events, including the COVID-19 pandemic and rise of anti-Asian American and other racial/ethnic acts of hate or discrimination across the United States. They published a collaborative poem, May 28, in honor of Asian American heroes and volunteers fighting coronavirus. AAFAA launched a series of listening sessions featuring private sector speakers in order to bolster solidarity among EAG. In partnership with the South Asian American Employee Association, AAFAA joined the Office of Civil Rights and the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s (GTM) Diversity and Inclusion Unit to hold an Open Conversation on nurturing allyship and strengthening institution-building across the Department. Additionally, AAFAA led the EAG community in composing a letter to Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Global Talent (DG) Carol Z. Perez, supporting the Department in countering COVID-19-related stigma and discrimination—both in and out—of the workplace.
“We stand with our colleagues, and together we are engaging our leaders to take care of our people—to confront systemic racism in our institution and to build up our diplomatic corps to fully represent and embrace the diversity of our nation,” said Tina Wong, president of AAFAA.
The Pickering Rangel and Fellows Association (PRFA), Blacks in Government (BIG), and the Thursday Luncheon Group (TLG) have worked diligently to deepen the conversation related to historic and systemic racial disparities in the advancement of outstanding minority employees at the Department. PRFA represents a cadre of diverse and talented Foreign Service officers, primarily alumni of the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship and Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship.
“Since 1992, these programs have recruited outstanding individuals to join the Foreign Service,” said PRFA President Christina Tilghman. “Recipients of these prestigious fellowships are held to an extraordinarily high standard, undergoing an intensive selection process as well as completing the mandatory requirements to join the Foreign Service—passing both written and oral exams.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of domestic racial tensions triggered inflection points in America, creating the space for PRFA to take action to tackle systemic racial disparities within the Department. PRFA has collaborated with the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) to create a pilot program for the Chief of Mission course—incorporating specific accounts of toxic and discriminatory behavior endured by employees of color. To increase diversity within the Department, PRFA met with regional and functional bureaus to discuss specific recruitment tactics ahead of the upcoming Foreign Service bidding season. PRFA has also connected with GTM and the DG to discuss mentoring, career advancement, along with shifting the Department’s organizational culture to change negative perceptions of these fellowships. During the summer, they hosted a listening session for their members following the murder of George Floyd and other media reports highlighting systemic racial disparities within the Department. They held more than 10 professional development virtual events.
TLG and BIG have also worked on promoting African-American Foreign and Civil Service officers to change the conversation on diversity and inclusion efforts within their respective EAGs and across the Department as a whole. TLG was founded in 1973 to increase the participation of African Americans and other minorities in the formulation, articulation, and implementation of U.S. foreign policy. Through their communication and outreach, they have shown their members that the truth for justice, adaptation, and resilience in the most trying of times are what exemplary leaders are made of.
“When you are climbing the ranks of the service, one’s focus becomes more about the individual—me, myself, and I,” said TLG’s present leader and second-generation Senior Foreign Service Officer Irvin Hicks Jr. “But when you become a senior Foreign Service officer [FSO], the focus shifts from ‘me’ to ‘we’ as one mentors, sponsors, and empowers the next generation of FSO leaders.”
TLG has given particular attention to helping boost morale across its membership with their work in the creation of mentorships and sponsorships.
“I’ve tried to help raise morale amongst my fellow board members, as well as Foreign and Civil Service colleagues across the Department through impactful leadership, innovative initiatives, and seamless teamwork with TLG,” said Hicks.
TLG launched the Recruitment, Advancement, Retention, and Employment initiative which helps expand recruitment efforts for TLG membership as well as assists the Department in recruitments efforts of African-American Civil and Foreign Service officers; helps employees advance with mentorship and sponsorship, coaching opportunities; assists the Department’s retention efforts with training and support; and empowers members through outreach and events. On June 19, TLG organized a Juneteenth Commemoration attended by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the DG, and other Department leadership and EAG members. TLG has also submitted diversity and inclusion reforms in collaboration with BIG and PRFA, established the George Floyd Mentorship and Sponsorship Program, and launched a Mock Selection Board to review 20 Foreign Service officers employee evaluation reports, to assess their competitiveness for promotion.
“To boost morale, EAGs need to engage with their community on easily accessible platforms and support the activities of other EAGs in a sustainable way that brings about meaningful solutions to the challenges affecting the personnel in the State Department,” said Charlotte Suka, a foreign affairs officer and board member of TLG. “TLG has enabled me and many others with a community platform to voice our concerns to Department leadership.”
Other EAGs such as the Hispanic Employee Council for Foreign Affairs Agencies (HECFAA) have continued working on recruitment, retention, and advancement of Hispanics at the Department amid the pandemic. HECFAA has organized several meetings for its members focused on self-advocacy, managing virtually, and strategies on advancing a career. More recently, HECFAA has had the honor to provide mentorship opportunities for incoming Hispanic interns who are currently part of the Pickering Fellowship and Pathways Fellowship, preparing for their careers at the Department.
GRACE—a group of Department employees working to promote an office culture that embraces employees’ ability to manifest religious belief generally, Christianity specifically—has served as a forum for fellowship, support, and engagement on issues of faith, work, and life. In doing so, GRACE “aspires to emulate Jesus’ love and respect for all people, regardless of their background or religion.” Accordingly, GRACE’s membership is open to all Department employees and contractors, whether stateside or deployed overseas. GRACE has used Microsoft Teams to gather weekly for lunch to encourage and support each other during this challenging time. GRACE also conducted remote elections over the summer to establish a new Steering Committee. Most recently, they have been discussing ways that people of faith can combat racism by affirming every individual’s worth, purpose, and identity.
The Disability Action Group (DAG) continues to enhance awareness of the stigmas around disability, noting how persons with disabilities are typically a forgotten minority. They have focused on outreach in recent months, meeting with officials from the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs and Bureau of North Eastern Asian Affairs to discuss their support for and the encouragement of disabled Foreign Service officers bidding on posts in their region and accommodating their needs. In April, DAG celebrated their success in achieving the reinstatement of the GAP memo—a document placed in an employee’s personnel file seen by promotion panels which explains why there has been a gap in their job, such as taking language training or undergoing medical treatment. DAG also recently highlighted the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), sharing how ADA has enhanced world views on disability and accessibility. DAG also plans to release an upcoming survey regarding the promotion of Department employees with disabilities to support their messaging.
Another group that has expanded their programming and membership during the COVID-19-crisis is glifaa, LGBT+ Pride in Foreign Affairs Agencies (glifaa). To mark Pride Month in June, they joined with the nonpartisan organization Atlantic Council to organize a virtual panel featuring Biegun on U.S. government engagement on LGBT+ issues worldwide. They also held more than 10 virtual discussions in collaboration with bureaus around the Department, Diplomat in Residence for the Northwest Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, the Pickering and Rangel Fellows, and FSI. Also as part of Pride, glifaa launched an online exhibition at the National Museum of American Diplomacy highlighting the nearly 30-year history of their organization. In August, glifaa and the LGBT+ EAG groups from the House of Representatives and the Senate also organized a virtual discussion with Dr. Eric Cervini, author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Deviant’s War.” Virtual programming has allowed glifaa to engage more of its 1,000 person network in order to advance LGBT+ equality and broader diversity and inclusion within the Department.
Many EAGs agree that solidarity and collaboration with each other enhance the ability to advocate and support the Department’s goal of “one team, one mission.”
“I feel supported with the wealth of resources and experience of my counterparts,” said Suka. “This has enabled me to press through challenges that I face as a result of COVID-19 and racism in the Department. Being a part of the TLG board has allowed me to promote positive development of TLG on social media.”
More collective efforts across the EAGs included a recent EAG leadership dialogue with the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee Chairman Rep. Joaquin Castro and Ranking Member Rep. Lee Zeldin on ways that Congress can work together with EAGs and the Department to strengthen diversity and inclusion efforts. The vital input from EAGs on goals and measures to increase transparency, accountability, and fairness is also being collected to provide important input for the next Department Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, pending final rollout in the coming weeks.
The EAG community also created rotational EAG liaison roles to strengthen communications across the groups and facilitate new initiatives with Department leadership.
“Our EAG supports the great work that our other EAGs have been doing to address diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Peter Redmond, president of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. “One of my favorite Peace Corps PSAs (public service announcements) is the classic ‘Glass is half full’ ad. My EAG counterparts are all about making a difference and fit that ‘glass is half full’ mentality. I’ve been impressed by the communication and coordination between EAG leaders as they try to influence the discussion on race, diversity, equality, and inclusion within the Department of State.”
A list of the Department’s EAGs and how to contact or join their efforts can be found here.
Nayab Khan is a regional policy advisor/foreign affairs officer in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues and president of the Council for Career Enhancement and Professionalization.