Institutional Evolution

WHA Diversity Council works to change Bureau culture

Illustration by Elisabeth Schettle
Illustration by Elisabeth Schettle

By Stacy D. Williams

Institutional change may seem daunting, but with staff dedicated to addressing systemic challenges that have left valuable employees behind, positive change can ensue. The Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) Diversity Council has provided the advocacy necessary to dismantle systemic racism and other issues that stifle the Bureau from realizing its full potential. During the summer of 2018, immediately following an acting assistant secretary town hall on diversity, several participants met and drew up a game plan to form a WHA Diversity Council. Several months later, the WHA Diversity Council Core Group fleshed out the structure and values for the Diversity Council, created a comprehensive intranet website, and launched an employee profile page featuring both Foreign and Civil Service staff. The council also identified 10 workstreams to advance specific issues to include policy communications, speaker series, analyzing statistics, Foreign Service bidding, and Civil Service development, among others. With persistence and support from leadership—including Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie Chung—WHA’s Diversity Council is putting into practice policy, programming, and processes to advance its key pillars: recruitment, retention, and professional development.

   WHA’s Diversity Council sought a range of speakers from both within and outside the Department of State to generate discussion, debate, and ideas for change. Speaker series events like “Words Matter,” and the well-attended December 2019 roundtable on “Walking the Talk on Diversity,” drew participants from across the Department and included Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s very first chief diversity officer. The council hosted speakers on racism and microaggressions for domestic audiences, which drew more than 200 participants and deputy chiefs of mission (DCMs) and principal officers. At the March 2020 WHA DCM/principal officers conference, diversity council members encouraged posts to set up their own diversity and inclusion councils, using the WHA Diversity Council as a resource. As a result, posts across the Western hemisphere are standing up and expanding their diversity council mandates and creating a bureau-wide network to share best practices. Additionally, two intergovernmental agencies—Inter-American Foundation and Millennium Challenge Corporation—requested and received briefings to help the respective organizations strategize and set up their own approaches moving forward on diversity and inclusion for staff in Washington and throughout the field.

The WHA Diversity Council core group takes a walk to the National Mall, May 2019. From left: Maria Apud, Stacy D. Williams, Litah Miller, Miriam Murray, Blakeney Vasquez, and John Crippen. Photo by Kelsey Hastings
The WHA Diversity Council core group takes a walk to the National Mall, May 2019. From left: Maria Apud, Stacy D. Williams, Litah Miller, Miriam Murray, Blakeney Vasquez, and John Crippen. Photo by Kelsey Hastings

Members of the council served as diversity and inclusion advisors by participating in conference calls with DCMs, reviewed posts’ concept papers, and provided best practices lists and other reading and resource materials. On one call with a WHA post, one DCM noted that the council’s “deep understanding for the complexities of the issues, appreciation for the essential role of leadership, and practical guidance to take us from concept to council were enormously useful.”

WHA was one of the first bureaus to disseminate a message standing against discrimination and reaffirming its core principles on diversity at a town hall following the death of George Floyd. As a result of those discussions, the diversity council identified 15 actionable steps that WHA and the Department can advance to ensure every employee is treated fairly and has a fair shake about development, advancement, and participation in bureau policy. Many members of the WHA Diversity Council also serve on employee affinity groups and have forged partnerships across these groups. 

The council is currently leading discussions on several new workstreams, including engaging with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to improve practices at border checkpoints, focusing on establishing and coaching “first responders” at the borders so Department employees know there is always someone they can turn to. Discussions are also underway to establish sponsorship programs for Foreign Service officers and Civil Service employees and develop a mid-level program to be modeled after the Department’s Powell Fellows program advanced during the mid-2000s. Additional measures are underway to enhance outreach to contractors, office management specialists, and interns. The bureau is also working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to join forces on diversity issues. All of the collective experiences of 2020 led WHA to release its own diversity pledge committing to “changing the culture within WHA.”

Due to the council’s success, it has established a Microsoft Teams site (TEAM WHA: Diversity and Inclusion Councils Forward!) to facilitate opportunities for all WHA embassies and consulates to discuss best practices as they develop and advance their respective diversity and inclusion goals. Likewise, the council is constantly seeking talented, diverse officers and continues to support WHA’s ongoing 2021 bidding season efforts. WHA’s Diversity Council has made WHA a model of better understanding and promoting diversity and inclusion, one that other bureaus actively seek to emulate. For more information or guidance, please email the WHA Diversity Council Core Group.

Stacy D. Williams is chair for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Diversity Council.