By Jeremy Edwards
Jose Mercado, a special agent with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, was finishing up a detail assignment at the Inter-American Defense College and needed to find a follow-on job working on Western Hemisphere issues. Scouring the bidlist, he found himself unexpectedly drawn to a political officer position in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs (DRL/WHA), and ended up in a place he never expected.
“It called to me,” he said. “I spoke to the office director and thought, ‘Wow this is where I want to be.’ I interviewed and said, ‘this is home,’” said Mercado. “It’s incredible. [Coming here] is the best choice that I’ve made in my entire career in the Department [of State].”
Now an acting deputy director in DRL/WHA, Mercado extended his two-year tour into a third year—then a fourth.
“I’m really proud of the work that my colleagues do,” Mercado said. “Without a doubt and without hesitation, I love this job, I love the bureau, I love the mission. I love the potential that we have as a bureau, and the tools that we have, to be people’s megaphones and tell their stories and help them enact changes in their countries.”
DRL’s Multilateral and Global Affairs’ (MLGA) Jeremy Edwards, who is an FS-03 on his first domestic tour, wanted a job that would allow him to work on multilateral issues that mattered to him. He describes his position on the team as “a bit of a dream job.”
“I caught the multilateral bug while supporting G20 environment negotiators in Tokyo, and then served as a negotiator myself at the U.S. NATO mission in Brussels,” he said. “Now I help develop guidance for human rights negotiators at the U.N. Human Rights Council and Third Committee. It’s a great place to be.”
“I work on solid, interesting issues; I have opportunities to contribute to major policy discussions, potential temporary assignments to New York and Geneva, and managers who enthusiastically support work-life balance,” he said.
Surprisingly, Edwards said, when he accepted the handshake, many of his colleagues questioned the career decision.
“The implication was like, ‘Are you sure you want to go there?’” he said. “I asked my supervisor if I’d made some kind of career-killing blunder. I really wanted the job, and I didn’t understand why people seemed dubious.”
MLGA Deputy Director Mollie Jackson noted that, like many functional bureaus, DRL has at times struggled to attract sufficient bidders during Foreign Service bid season.
“There’s a myth out there that serving in DRL is not career enhancing, or that the bureau just does the Human Rights Report (HRR). Neither of which are true,” said Jackson. “The HRR is an important part of what the bureau does, but it’s just one small part. The reality is that those of us serving in DRL spend most of our time engaging directly with civil society and likeminded partners to promote democracy, counter authoritarianism, advance fundamental freedoms, and protect the rights of marginalized populations around the world. It’s diplomatic work at its finest, because we get to promote our values and our vision for a more secure, stable, and prosperous world.”
Jackson, who is moving on to what she describes as her “dream assignment” in Amman, Jordan, added that her tour in DRL was not just career-enhancing, but also life-enhancing.
“I’ve been in the Foreign Service for almost 20 years, and this has been hands-down one of the best assignments I’ve ever had, both professionally and personally. I’ve gotten to work on meaningful issues that align with my values, and I did so while working with a fantastic team and supportive leadership that values professional development, work-life balance, and a robust telework posture. Oh yeah, and I got promoted in the process,” she said.
Many Foreign Service officers (FSO) serving in DRL point to the satisfaction of working on important issues in a way that is congruent with their values.
“I heard about DRL from a former supervisor who described her experience in the bureau as one of her most fulfilling and meaningful jobs at State,” said Sylvia Stankova-Loomis, a generalist now on a domestic employee teleworking overseas tour with DRL where she works to advance democratic governance, media freedom, and human and labor rights in Central Asia.
“Democracy and human rights have deep personal meaning for me and I don’t take them for granted,” she said. “I grew up in post-communist Eastern Europe, absorbing family stories of life behind the ‘Iron Curtain,’ where basic human rights and freedoms were severely restricted. I see it as my privilege and duty to serve in DRL doing work aligned with my values.”
Brooke Williams, serving as chief of staff and senior advisor to the U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons, calls her job a “unicorn position” that is both personally rewarding and professionally enriching.
“DRL’s mission is a daily reminder that our work is more than a job,” she said. “Fulfilling that mission can be done in a way that respects work-life balance, provides unique and career-enhancing opportunities, and allows individual officers to see directly the impact their efforts make on both advancing Administration priorities and making the world a better, safer, more beautiful place.”
Political-coned officer Victoria Nibarger leads DRL’s engagement with the Community of Democracies, a Warsaw-based intergovernmental coalition co-founded by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“Prior to joining DRL, I hadn’t worked closely with the many democracy-focused organizations outside of traditional multilateral entities like the U.N.,” said Nibarger. “This assignment has challenged me to creatively rally partners in support of democracy and human rights. They can really help drive collective action.”
Promotion rates for FSOs serving in DRL during FY22 were largely in line with domestic promotion rates across the Department, according to statistics from the Bureau of Global Talent Management, and current and former officers say tours in DRL have helped them advance in their careers.
Aamod Omprakash, now serving as a cyber and digital policy officer at Embassy Delhi, credits his DRL experience with helping him land his current position. In DRL from 2019-2022, he worked on technology and human rights policy, focusing on emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, and surveillance.
“It helped due to the heavy intersection between the digital economy and Internet freedom issues,” he said.
Stankova-Loomis expects her DRL tour will positively affect her prospects, both for promotion and for a desirable onward assignment.
“Demonstrating the impact of DRL work in an employee evaluation report and linking it to Department priorities is straightforward,” she said. “I’ve gained experience developing and implementing policy and preparing focused talking points and briefing materials for senior leadership. I’ve also honed my ability to negotiate priorities and build effective relationships across bureaus. These skills will make me a stronger candidate when I bid on my next assignment.”
Jeremy Edwards is a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s Office of Multilateral and Global Affairs.