Advancing Racial Equity and DEIA: Ten Truths of Implementation

A Senior Foreign Service officer who was charged with advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs distills lessons learned.


Racism makes democracies less prosperous, less stable, less equitable. It fosters polarization and distrust. And it robs democracies of the strength, the innovation, the creativity that can be drawn from diverse and inclusive communities and workplaces. It requires a concerted, urgent effort on the part of all of our communities and institutions to address this challenge, including government institutions like the one I lead. One of my top priorities at the State Department is ensuring that our diplomats reflect America in all of its remarkable diversity.

—Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “Making Democracy Deliver for the Americas,” Quito, Oct. 21, 2021

With these words, Secretary Blinken summed up the assignment Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian A. Nichols and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ricardo Zúniga had reiterated to me a month earlier, in September 2021. We had just started in our new positions, mine a one-year tour as the first senior adviser for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) front office. My mandate: Lead a concerted, urgent effort to (1) include equity as part of our foreign policy to reduce the corrosive impact of racism on equal opportunity in the Western Hemisphere and (2) institutionalize processes and programs to recruit and retain a bureau workforce that reflects the diversity of the United States.

I knew the State Department’s historical track record on diversity in our workforce and inclusion in our workplace was poor. I knew the WHA front office had to provide the leadership, but the entire bureau had to do the work. I knew that most of the State Department had little experience discussing racism, but employee volunteer diversity councils in WHA were tackling this hard conversation and seeking to value differences, not just similarities. I knew we had to make a strategic national security case for equity as part of our foreign policy and a business case for DEIA in our workforce. I knew we had to measure progress. I knew we would make mistakes. I knew some changes would be unpopular.

I also knew that the COVID-19 pandemic had delivered disproportionate tragedy to the people of the Americas, eroding confidence in leaders’ ability to deliver and accelerating the demand for more equal, inclusive societies. We had an opportunity on the ground and a clear policy mandate from the top. On his first day in office, President Biden signed Executive Order (EO) 13985 mandating all federal agencies to advance racial equity and support for underserved communities. Six months later, he issued EO 14035 on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the federal workforce. Racial equity and DEIA were top priorities for the Secretary of State and for several members of Congress.

In November 2021 testimony on U.S. policy on democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Assistant Secretary Nichols summed up the challenge: “Close the gap between democracy’s promise and its reality.” He directed the bureau to leverage our diplomatic, information, and economic influence to help build a more equitable, inclusive region in partnership with democracies.

What did we learn during the first years of our efforts on both the internal workforce and foreign policy fronts? As James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” I offer 10 difficult truths from my experience in WHA that must be faced before change will take hold.

Moving the DEIA Needle in General

Difficult Truth #1: The State Department is still at the “facing DEIA” stage, figuring out how to consider race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability as more than EEO categories, and how to engage with other countries on racial equity when our own historical record is so poor. This will require more specificity with vocabulary and clarity as to the results we seek from DEIA in the workforce and from external foreign affairs equity work.

Difficult Truth #2: An underfunded policy applied persistently can produce some change but is unlikely to create a generational commitment or systemic change. Thus far, the State Department has dedicated relatively few resources to DEIA and equity. In WHA we used existing resources to enhance outreach to marginalized communities, embed equity considerations, and further DEIA via public diplomacy programs, economic support fund projects, training, high-level dialogues, and more.

Difficult Truth #3: Identifying and breaking down structural and cultural barriers to inclusion require expertise and concentrated time. Disproportionately, women and people of color have led the charge on DEIA councils and on the State Department’s Equity Action Plan and DEIA Strategic Plan. They do this in addition to their full-time jobs, and many are exhausted. Some bureaus have hired DEIA experts, but the bureaucratic inertia to creating high-level DEIA or equity expert positions weakens implementation. The addition of DEIA into the Foreign Service precepts for promotion critically increased the number of people engaged on DEIA and racial equity, but didn’t necessarily add needed technical expertise.

Advancing Equity in Our Foreign Policy

WHA had already built a strong foundation for advancing racial and gender equity in our foreign policy. Established more than a decade ago, WHA’s Race, Ethnicity, and Social Inclusion (RESI) Unit pioneered the department’s only bilateral RESI agreements with Colombia, Brazil, and Uruguay. For many years, USAID, public diplomacy, and human rights programs and staff in the Americas have focused on engaging with and promoting opportunities for marginalized communities, such as access to education and health care, entrepreneurship, and civil society empowerment. It is, of course, important to avoid the politicization of these issues, which leads to polarization and reinforcement of the status quo.

Since 2021, WHA has reinvigorated the existing bilateral RESI agreements and worked on new ones such as the North American Partnership for Equity and Racial Justice with Canada and Mexico (2021) and a new DEIA Memorandum of Understanding with Chile (2022). WHA recommitted to working with the Dominican Republic on ending statelessness there.

Identifying and breaking down structural and cultural barriers to inclusion require expertise and concentrated time.

When the U.S. hosted the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June 2022 under the theme “Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future,” our team negotiated action plans in which the heads of state and government pledged “increased attention with respect to members of groups that have been historically marginalized, discriminated against, and/or in vulnerable situations, as well as all women and girls.” President Biden announced a new America’s Partnership for Economic Prosperity with a promise that it would promote growth from the bottom up.

As host of the 52nd Organization of American States General Assembly in Lima in October 2022, Peru continued the conversation among the countries of the region under the theme “Together Against Inequality and Discrimination.” A follow-up Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver in April 2023 included municipal measures to address inequalities.

This work exposed some uncomfortable facts.

Difficult Truth #4: The consistency of senior leadership matters. An occasional talking point on racial justice or LGBTQI+ discrimination or sprinkling “equity” into documents won’t reduce inequality. Senior leaders from across the U.S. government must relentlessly and with humility engage foreign counterparts in the search for innovative solutions to mitigate inequity and inequality. No single country has all the solutions; we stand a better chance of finding them by learning from each other and working together.

Difficult Truth #5: The empowerment of marginalized communities may upset traditional elites, many of whom the United States has considered longtime friends. True friends have difficult conversations. Most diplomats are not trained to have hard conversations on racial bias or LGBTQI+ prejudice, nor to handle the backlash. But we and our partners lose when we overlook racism, LGBTQI+ discrimination, misogyny, and religious bigotry; they contribute to instability. We also lose when we overlook a government’s progress on reducing inequality because we don’t agree on other issues; giving credit where credit is due builds trust.

Difficult Truth #6: The State Department makes insufficient use of data. Even a widely accepted (albeit imperfect) measure of income inequality such as the Gini coefficient isn’t used very often by U.S. diplomats and policymakers. The department’s Equity Action Plan, required by EO 13985, pledges to integrate equity into every aspect of our foreign affairs mission. I served as a co-chair of the working group that, among other measures, proposed a framework to track progress on reducing barriers to equity. I enlisted the department’s Center for Analytics on a pilot project, a dashboard map of the Americas with country-by-country equity data—wealth concentration, demographics, health and education figures, Gini, etc. We got as far as the review of more than 130 independent data sources to identify the most credible and reliable when staffing turnover and budget challenges stalled the project.

Advancing DEIA in Our Workforce

In 2018 WHA started one of the State Department’s first employee-led Diversity and Inclusion Councils. By the end of 2022, U.S. embassies and consulates in the Americas had formed more than 30 volunteer DEIA Councils, groups of employees who came together to create more inclusive workplaces. Embassy DEIA Councils hold educational events, pilot diversity recruiting practices and professional development programs, and use data to identify and mitigate disparate treatment in awards, consular services, exchanges, ID checks, and more.

From Washington, we supported WHA employee-led councils’ innovative programs. We advised chiefs of mission and collaborated with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. We offered eCornell diversity and inclusion courses. When U.S. chiefs of mission doggedly engaged ministries of foreign affairs about equal accreditation for all legal spouses of U.S. diplomats, in several places it made the difference in persuading partner governments to provide same-sex spouses the same privileges and immunities as opposite-sex spouses.

And we looked for metaphorical “curb-cuts,” a concept I took from Angela Glover Blackwell’s 2017 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “The Curb-Cut Effect.” Curb-cuts in public sidewalks were required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to give people in wheelchairs access. Who else benefited? Anyone pulling a wheeled suitcase, pushing a stroller, riding a scooter. Focusing on eliminating a barrier to access for one group created better access for everyone.

The empowerment of marginalized communities may upset traditional elites, many of whom the United States has considered longtime friends.

Informed by anonymized workforce demographic data and knowing WHA’s reputation as a cliquish bureau, our first “curb-cut” came from WHA’s assignments chief to make the assignments process for FSOs more transparent—less who you know, and more what you know and what experiences taught you. We aimed to attract diversity through inclusivity by making the bidding process fairer for all. (At the same time, diplomacy is a relationship business, so who you know will continue to matter. Unfortunately, weaker professional networks may be an unintended by-product of telecommuting, which anecdotal evidence suggests women and people with disabilities do more of.)

We conducted diversity recruitment and instituted scored panel interviews with set questions that would interview all at-grade, in-cone bidders. WHA doubled down on adding senior-level “out-year-language program” positions on the bid list to give officers who had spent careers in other regions the time to learn a WHA language. We catalyzed a multibureau bidder feedback survey to measure success. We mostly succeeded, but not without unintended consequences. Notably, the new requirements took considerably more time.

In the process of this work, we discovered some challenging realities.

Difficult Truth #7: Most employees don’t see procedural changes to advance DEIA as their responsibility. With several notable exceptions, I found mid-level staff more hesitant to change the priorities and rules they had learned to live by and expect to get promoted by, even when they had the authority to do so. Entry-level and senior-level personnel tended to be more open to systems and culture changes, but many senior-level personnel don’t do enough to examine the DEIA outcomes under their control and insufficiently challenge their own teams and portfolios.

Difficult Truth #8: The diplomatic advantage of a diverse workforce is clear, but the route from the department staff we have to a racial, gender, and ethnic composition that mirrors our country in fewer than several decades isn’t clear. Nor is accountability clear. Who should be held responsible when the department’s workforce doesn’t represent the demographic diversity of our country? And how should we hold them accountable?

Difficult Truth #9: Even obvious “curb-cuts” often get dismissed as infeasible due to lack of resources or siloed portfolios. For example, the 360-reference system was an improvement when it was built but now adds little value to the Foreign Service assignments process. A system that includes an element of feedback from random subordinates and peers (not just the handpicked ones) would provide interview panels with better insight and could incentivize more collegiality. This requires pulling together information from disparate IT systems controlled by several bureaus, a challenging and perhaps costly undertaking.

Difficult Truth #10: The State Department encourages teamwork, but few rewards actually incentivize teamwork, much less inclusive, diverse teamwork. The most important incentives—promotions, assignments, awards—prioritize individual performance and are competitive and limited, creating a mostly “me vs. you” career ladder. Incentivizing diverse and inclusive collaboration, rather than constant competition, may produce better teamwork.

The State Department encourages teamwork, but few rewards actually incentivize teamwork, much less inclusive, diverse teamwork.

The good news is that the State Department has a history of successfully combining employee-driven change with leadership from the top to make procedural and cultural “curb-cuts,” although they weren’t called that at the time. “The Macomber Era,” as AFSA’s Tex Harris dubbed Ambassador William Butts Macomber’s 1969-1973 period as under secretary, “introduced the cone system and open bidding for jobs, emancipated wives from ratings and unpaid work, mandated gender equality, provided for due process in evaluations, allowed officers to see their ‘secret’ performance appraisals and much more” in the Foreign Service.

Fifty years ago, Amb. Macomber set up dozens of task forces with hundreds of employee volunteers examining how the department conducts business. This is exactly what many offices and bureaus in the department as well as outside organizations have done over the past few years. The State Department is in the midst of an equally monumental era of change.

We need to face difficult truths by holding more uncomfortable conversations and dedicating sufficient resources both human and financial. We need to consider the cost of not making “curb-cut” changes rather than just the immediate price tag of making such changes. We need to collect and analyze data and measure progress. We need to consider equity outcomes in our foreign affairs policies and programs early on, and engage more on equity with foreign counterparts and affected communities.

Most of all, we need to accelerate the consideration of diverse identities, backgrounds, and experiences as our workforce’s superpowers. These qualities make us more effective at understanding, persuading, and negotiating with other cultures and countries. And we need to embrace the national security imperative to seize this historic, urgent moment to strengthen democracies’ collective ability to attack the consistent bias and discrimination that corrodes our societies. There is no better inoculation against authoritarianism than a democracy that delivers equitably for all.

Marianne Scott recently retired from the Senior Foreign Service. Her 26-year diplomatic career included assignments in South, Central, and North America; Africa; and, most recently, as senior adviser for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility with the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.


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