With a spotlight on State’s lack of diversity in the senior ranks, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs has stepped forward with a practical program to create real change.
BY STACY D. WILLIAMS
Institutional change may seem daunting, but with committed staff dedicated to addressing systemic challenges that have left valuable employees behind, positive change can occur. The Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Diversity Council has provided the advocacy necessary to stimulate action toward dismantling systemic racism and address other issues that prevent the bureau from realizing its full potential. During the summer of 2018, immediately following a town hall on diversity conducted by Acting Assistant Secretary Francisco “Paco” Palmieri, several participants met and drew up a game plan establishing the WHA Diversity Council.
Several months later, the WHA Diversity Council Core Group fleshed out the structure and values for the council, created a comprehensive intranet website, and launched an employee profile page featuring both Foreign Service and Civil Service staff. The council also identified 10 workstreams to advance specific issues; these include policy communications, speaker series, statistical analysis, Foreign Service bidding and Civil Service development, to name a few.
Today, with persistence and support from across all leadership levels, including from 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 has sought a range of speakers from both within and outside the State Department to generate discussion, debate and ideas for change. Speaker series events have included a talk on “Words Matter” and a well-attended December 2019 roundtable on “Walking the Talk on Diversity,” which drew participants from across the department and included on the panel Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s very first chief diversity officer, Janice Underwood. We hosted speakers on racism and microaggressions for domestic audiences, drawing more than 200 participants, as well as for deputy chiefs of mission (DCMs) and principal officers.
At the 2020 WHA DCM/Principal Officers conference, Diversity Council members pitched posts to set up their own diversity and inclusion councils, using the WHA Diversity Council as a resource. Posts across the Western Hemisphere are standing up and expanding their diversity council mandates and creating a bureau-wide network to share best practices. In addition, two intergovernmental agencies—the Inter-American Foundation and the Millennium Challenge Corporation—requested and received briefings to help the organizations strategize and set up their respective approaches moving forward on diversity and inclusion for staff in Washington, D.C., and throughout the field.
Members of the WHA Diversity Council have served as diversity and inclusion advisers by participating in conference calls with DCMs, reviewing posts’ concept papers, and providing best practices lists and other reading and resource materials. 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 our core principles on diversity at a town hall following the death of George Floyd. As a result of those discussions, the WHA Diversity Council identified 15 actionable steps that the bureau and the department can take to ensure every employee is treated fairly and has a fair shake with regard to 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 new workstreams following several blog posts from former State Department Consular Fellow Tianna Spears, and engaging the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to improve practices at border checkpoints. The bureau is focusing on establishing and coaching “first responders” so officers know there is always someone they can turn to.
Discussions are also underway to establish sponsorship programs for Foreign Service and Civil Service officers and develop a midlevel program modeled after the Powell Fellows program advanced during the mid-2000s. Additional plans 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. The collective experiences of 2020 led WHA to release its own diversity pledge on July 24 (see sidebar, below).
The council 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 their respective goals. Likewise, the group is constantly seeking talented, diverse officers and continues to support WHA’s ongoing efforts for the summer 2021 bidding season.
Through its innovative and forward-leaning work, the council has made WHA a model of how to better understand and promote diversity and inclusion, one that other bureaus actively seek to emulate. For more information or guidance, please contact the WHA Diversity Council Core Group at WHADiversityCouncilCoreGroup@state.gov.
We believe strongly that the [State] Department and the Bureau should look like the United States and reflect America’s diversity at all levels.
We embrace diversity not only because it is right, but because it works: diverse teams are more likely to have a wide range of ideas and better outcomes, challenge conventional wisdom, innovate, and produce more thorough analysis to advance the Bureau’s mission and goals.
We are committed to focusing our collective efforts moving forward on the recruitment, retention and development of talented staff.
We strive to be the Bureau of choice for the Department’s top talent in all its diverse forms. We are building a cadre of leaders at all levels through active outreach to Employee Affinity Groups, other Diversity Councils, international affairs agencies, and interns who will contribute to the success of the Department wherever they serve.
WHA is committed to developing and promoting active mentoring and sponsorship programming.
We value and actively seek diverse candidates. We will dedicate ourselves to creating a work environment in which they can succeed.
We take affirmative steps to recognize and mitigate unconscious bias, including by strongly encouraging all staff to take the requisite online training on this issue.
We promote a vibrant, innovative, and results-focused Diversity Council in which all are empowered and invited to participate.
We welcome and embrace the contributions of every member of the team and seek to ensure that everyone understands the important role they play in our mission.
We are also empowering and coaching Deputy Chiefs of Mission, Directors, Deputy Directors and first line supervisors as they strategically develop entry and midlevel staff so that they are seen, heard, respected, and valued so that no officers are left out and each has full opportunity to succeed.
We honor the value of each employee and will take all possible measures to reduce or remove obstacles in Washington and in host countries so that all employees and their families may serve with dignity further reducing undue stress and harm.
We hold ourselves, our staff, and leadership accountable for building and supporting a diverse and inclusive workplace by incorporating those values in work requirement statements/commitments and acknowledging them through performance reviews and annual award processes, as appropriate.
We respect each other, invest in one another, and we succeed together as one.