Western Passport Center employees gather to celebrate Cultivate DEIA during Consular Leadership Day, Oct. 19, 2022. Photo by Jamie Lewallen
By Topher Taylor, Amy Simms, and Sarah Wardwell
Consular professionals are working to improve customer relations, internal communication, morale, and productivity by championing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). For the past two years, despite challenges brought on by the pandemic, the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) has cultivated and inspired strategic DEIA action in domestic offices, passport agencies and centers, and consular sections worldwide. Volunteers from all CA offices and directorates created the CA DEIA Council to initiate policy changes that create and sustain an environment in which diverse life experiences and perspectives are valued and incorporated into the workplace.
In 2020, CA took on an ambitious list of 20 new initiatives proposed by the CA DEIA Council to incorporate DEIA processes into bureau policy. Creation of a new leadership tenet, Cultivate DEIA, was one of these key initiatives. The DEIA tenet, one of eleven leadership tenets, is now displayed in every embassy, consulate, office, agency, and center worldwide, empowering each employee to play a key role in fostering a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible workplace and customer experience.
The Cultivate DEIA tenet states: “We commit to hold ourselves and others accountable for creating a diverse and inclusive workplace that affords dignity and accessibility to all. We empower our workforce to succeed through continuous learning, open communication, and equitable treatment. We intentionally encourage employees to share their unique perspectives and experiences.”
To help teams infuse DEIA into their workplace, Cultivate DEIA was the 2020 theme for the annual Consular Leadership Day (CLD). Teams around the globe implemented creative strategies to break down barriers to difficult conversations regarding diversity in their workplace and in the country or communities where they serve. CA’s Office of 1CA, which provides resources to help consular professionals optimize operations and supports the annual CLD, created three new tenet lesson plans to help teams focus on specific components of DEIA. 1CA also compiled reading resources, recommended actions, and additional activities to encourage teams to continue conversations on DEIA beyond the CLD. For example, 1CA’s videos depicting common workplace microaggressions provide an opportunity for group discussion and personal reflection on how to speak up in these scenarios. Other activities also helped consular professionals talk about difficult situations, such as dealing with customers who make racist remarks or mitigating unconscious bias.
Many passport agencies and centers focused their Cultivate DEIA activities around celebrating diversity to promote inclusivity. Inclusive teams overwhelmingly report increased psychological well-being, which leads to improved customer relations and productivity. For example, the San Diego passport agency created a “Tour Around the World” event to better understand the diversity of their colleagues. Each member of the management team selected a country or place that represented something important to them and were assigned to a station that employees visited in small groups. Managers shared personal stories and taught employees about their chosen country and culture while leading small group discussions. After the activity, managers felt grateful for the opportunity to give employees greater insight into their personal identity, diverse experiences, and heritage. They also described how the activity helped individual participants feel comfortable sharing their experiences and backgrounds with colleagues with whom they may not have spoken with outside of the CLD setting.
For its CLD activities, the Western Passport Center (WPC) in Tucson, Ariz., invited all employees to participate in a survey evaluating the center’s success at promoting inclusion. A committee of employees used the survey results for an agency-wide discussion of DEIA principles and appreciation for the uniqueness of each individual on the team. Employees brainstormed ways of incorporating DEIA and other CA leadership tenets into the workplace, which led to an actionable agency plan for improving equity and transparency. The plan centered on creating and maintaining more open channels of communication among employees, such as creating a safe space for employees to share their insights on how having different backgrounds and cultures can enhance common strengths and skillsets. The main success of the event was to normalize having difficult but necessary conversations. Following their CLD activities, both the San Diego Passport Agency and WPC reported greater openness among colleagues and strengthened morale, both of which have contributed to passport services’ continual growth in productivity.
Consular sections overseas also improved their customer relations by focusing on DEIA. The consular section at Embassy Doha in Qatar created and amplified post’s accommodation policy in English and Arabic to improve the experience for applicants with disabilities. In addition, Embassy Doha improved accessibility of the consular waiting rooms and restrooms, and implemented procedures to accommodate applicants with disabilities. For example, the consular section created large-print materials for applicants with low vision and a clearance process for applicants to bring medical equipment into the waiting room. Providing these accommodations improves the customer service experience and ensures all individuals are treated equitably.
To take Cultivate DEIA beyond CLD, Consular Officer Keabra OpongBrown and Mission Mexico architect Fabian Iriarte created the presentation Colorism and the Visa Line to increase consular adjudicator awareness of how unconscious and conscious biases can impact consular work. The presentation defines and explores the history of colorism, then examines its evolution through examples from pop culture and the media. These examples lay the foundation to encourage adjudicators to reflect on the impact of their biases in the fast-paced environment of consular adjudications.
Several consular sections discussed the potential impact of biases in consular work with all consular staff. By having these honest discussions, consular staff reported increased understanding and awareness of their own biases. Keabra and Fabian have presented at several missions around the world and are continuing to work with CA, the Foreign Service Institute, and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to institutionalize this presentation on a broader scale.
The tenet Cultivate DEIA is more than just a foundation of the culture in CA. It is integrated into the professional development process for consular professionals. CA now includes the Cultivate DEIA tenet in the annual Consular Leadership Indicator, a tool for supervisors to determine opportunities for growth by receiving feedback on how well they address leadership and management competencies. Posts and the consular assignments team also review how well assessors rate consular officers’ ability to cultivate DEIA in the consular bidding assessment tool that foreign service officers complete when applying for new assignments.
Cultivate DEIA is built into CA’s functional bureau strategy, and CA has five action items that promote equity for underserved populations in compliance with E.O. 13985 Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. Beginning in 2022, CA further committed to DEIA by including a line item in every consular budget to fund specific DEIA initiatives involving the public, such as offering sign language training or interpretation, obtaining signs in braille, and other projects that will make the delivery of consular services more equitable, inclusive, and accessible. CA continues to expand outreach to underserved communities in the United States, such as through fraternities and sororities of historically black colleges and universities, encouraging all people to explore international travel and inspiring a new group of future consular professionals.
Topher Taylor is a passport specialist at the San Diego Passport Agency, and Amy Simms and Sarah Wardwell are Foreign Service officers currently serving at the Bureau of Consular Affairs headquarters in Washington.