BY ERIC RUBIN
This is a time of seismic change for the world, our country, our profession and our institutions. The global wildfire-like spread of the novel coronavirus and the economic and social shocks that it brought have led to unprecedented challenges. There is no doubt our country could have responded better to the crisis. And while it was widely understood that our society had failed to address fundamental issues of racial and economic fairness, the wave of protest that followed the killing of George Floyd caught many Americans off guard.
This is the first of two back-to-back issues of The Foreign Service Journal dedicated to issues of diversity, inclusion and discrimination in our Service. The passing of Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) reminds us—as he himself often did—that while we have come a long way since the days of Jim Crow and legal segregation, we have a long way to go to become a truly fair and inclusive society. The ongoing debates over Confederate flags and monuments also remind us that we have not succeeded in achieving a common national understanding of the Civil War and its causes, nor of the years and decades that followed the Union victory.
Why do we need to focus on diversity in the Foreign Service today? First of all, because we are still not the Service we are supposed to be, one that looks like the country we represent. We’re more diverse than we were decades ago, to be sure, but progress has slowed dramatically, and in some respects we have gone backward.
Second, because we have not lived up to our rhetoric. The numbers speak for themselves, and the recent GAO reports are particularly revealing. AFSA recently polled our membership on issues related to racism and diversity. The responses underline how common it is for minority members of the Service to experience blatant or subtle racism and discrimination, and how unrepresentative many of our overseas posts and domestic bureaus are in terms of looking like America.
Of course, the effects of the coronavirus crisis on our Service are real and dramatic. AFSA is working hard to support our members as they deal with the dislocation that 2020 has brought. We have won important victories on issues that are critical to our members in navigating this crisis, and we are very glad that our agencies are bringing on new members of the Service through online training and orientation.
We are still not the Service we are supposed to be.
The months ahead will bring more challenges and painful compromises. The loss of consular fees due to the impact of coronavirus will affect State’s ability to hire new officers. These fees pay the salaries of many entry-level officers, who serve in consular assignments first.
The separation of families due to post departures related to the pandemic, and the fact that many are still stuck in place due to travel restrictions, has brought a slew of difficult decisions. Overseas schools, which are so important to making accompanied tours possible for families with children, are in some cases facing challenges to their survival. Issues related to COVID-19 testing, quarantine and authorized departure continue to demand creative solutions and the protection of our members and their families.
This brings us to the larger reality: The Foreign Service Act of 1980 is 40 years old this year. It is our foundational legislation, and I believe it is fundamentally sound and should be largely preserved. But the Foreign Service cannot be frozen in amber. We are dealing with major changes in America’s role in the world, significant generational changes regarding attitudes and expectations, and the need to rethink and improve how we recruit, hire and retain talent. We also need a hard focus on workplace culture and its importance in fostering respect, inclusion and morale.
We want to hear your views on what needs to be done to improve and modernize our Service. Please share your thoughts with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your commitment and dedication to our country and to our shared mission at this very challenging time.