By Michelle Warren, Gillian Oak, and Kris Arvind
The nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by rioters Jan. 6, 2021, and the alarming increase in violence targeting Asians and Asian Americans continue to highlight the deep social and cultural divide in the United States. These events also serve as a reminder that all members of society must continue to push and move forward in the fight for diversity, inclusion, and tolerance. The Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Council (the Council), established in early 2020, is committed to asking challenging questions, making difficult recommendations, and holding its team accountable as they seek to advance diversity and inclusion within the bureau and the broader Department of State community.
In January 2020, EAP Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ambassador Atul Keshap convened a volunteer council of domestic employees from all ranks and employment categories—Civil and Foreign Service and contractors—to identify areas in which EAP could strengthen its efforts to foster an inclusive and equitable workforce.
The Council launched several initiatives in its first six months, including EAP’s first-ever (virtual) hiring manager brown bag with approximately 100 participants, June 2020. EAP hiring managers learned strategies to mitigate unconscious bias in the hiring process and were encouraged to use standardized interview questions and scoring matrices.
In the fall of 2020, the Council expanded with new leadership; Keshap successfully onboarded the bureau’s first-ever senior advisor, Karen Kelley. With Kelley’s guidance and support, the Council leadership crafted a mission statement and key objectives focused on measurable improvements in diversity and inclusion.
The Council quickly recognized the importance of asking the difficult questions and using data to help understand the answers to those questions. After identifying a significant gender equity issue in the bureau—EAP has had one of the lowest percentages of female Foreign Service officer (FSO) generalists among the regional geographic bureaus at 34 percent—the Council, under the guidance of the Office of Civil Rights, started a gender barrier analysis to understand the barriers to equal opportunity for women in the bureau and to assess what steps could be taken to mitigate those barriers. The Council crowd-sourced possible gender barriers and identified key areas of improvement and actionable projects. The Council will use this work as the basis for policy recommendations to the EAP front office, documenting whether implemented changes affect female FSO generalist representation in EAP. Additionally, in late 2020, to better understand EAP retention rates and challenges, the Council released a first-ever departure survey to FSOs who departed an EAP assignment during the 2020 transfer season. Based on the results, the Council submitted a decision memo to the EAP front office outlining concrete recommendations to communicate D&I efforts and expand workplace flexibilities while including more formal D&I reporting mechanisms and guidance on hiring best practices to increase retention of talented officers in EAP.
The Council has also led and partnered with other bureaus on many events to strengthen the level of discourse surrounding difficult and controversial issues covering the many facets of diversity and inclusion. Their monthly Book and Movie Club is open to the entire bureau, including overseas posts, and has so far discussed literature including “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram Kendi, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent” by Isabel Wilkerson, as well as the documentaries “13th” and “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.”
The Council also collaborates with the Department’s employee affinity groups to host Department-wide events. In celebration of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, the Council partnered with the Thursday Luncheon Group and the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association to host a “Blacks in Asia” event featuring Ambassadors Aurelia Brazeal and Sylvia Stanfield. Following the recent murders of six people of Asian descent in Atlanta and increasing anti-Asian hate crimes throughout the United States, the Council organized an “Open Conversation” to encourage a safe space for discussion among working-level colleagues. The Council also hosted a Women’s History Month discussion about inspirational women and gender equality and diversity in EAP, featuring panelists Deputy Executive Secretary Stephanie Syptak-Ramnath, Deputy Assistant Secretary Sandra Oudkirk, Deputy Assistant Secretary Richard Buangan, and EAP’s Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs Deputy Director Brooke Moppert.
Meanwhile, in an effort to fulfill one of the Council’s top priorities of connecting information to people horizontally and vertically, within and across bureaus, as well as disseminate resources to the field, Kelley and the Council leadership launched a series of “calls to the field” to engage with EAP overseas D&I councils and working groups. These interactive sessions have included broader quarterly calls highlighting specific themes, such as engaging locally employed staff, setting up and managing D&I councils at smaller posts, and hosting guest speakers from the Bureau of Global Talent Management and other bureaus to share information on Department-wide D&I efforts. Thanks in part to these meetings, the Council has drafted a charter and a pledge, started a monthly newsletter, and set up a SharePoint site with resources and information for domestic and overseas EAP employees.
Their work is only beginning, and although it has been a very busy year, they recognize that they have a long way to go. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and EAP Bureau leadership have all emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusion in building a strong and capable workforce that reflects the diversity of the American people. Everyone deserves the opportunity to serve in a diverse, equitable, inclusive, accessible, and tolerant organization. One that reflects America’s ethnic and cultural mosaic and leverages its inherent creativity and talent to advance the United States’ foreign policy priorities.
As Blinken recently said, “Diversity and inclusion make us stronger, smarter, more creative, and more innovative. They are essential for doing our job of representing the American people to the world.”
Michelle Warren is the acting senior desk officer for Indonesia and co-chair of the Recruitment and Retention Committee of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Council. Gillian Oak is the desk officer for the Republic of Korea and co-chair of the EAP D&I Council. Kris Arvind is the post management officer for China and Hong Kong and co-chair of the EAP D&I Council.