Life after the Foreign Service

The Theater and Policy Salon


The author moderates a salon discussion of “People Respect Me Now,” directed by Paula Stenström Öhman, at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Visual Artist Thom Goertel

Panelists from the Delegation of the European Union to the United States, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund and Human Rights Watch in front of the set of “Twelve Angry Men” at Ford’s Theatre in early 2019. Set design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz.
NJ Mitchell, Theater and Policy Salon

While getting ready to retire from the Foreign Service, I came to realize that I wanted to make my long-term avocation—theater and the arts—into my vocation while continuing my policy work as a supporting element. The “profit center” part of my post–Foreign Service work involves providing strategic partnership and cultural diplomacy advice to local arts organizations and foreign cultural institutions through my company Transitions International. The “cost center” part of my post-FS work—what is euphemistically termed a passion project—is dedicated to advancing policy through theater.

In 2018 I co-founded the Theater and Policy Salon, which works with D.C.-area theaters to curate policy conversations around several plays during a full theater season. Amplifying the messages coming from the stage, we seek to inspire individual action on real-world issues by pinpointing pragmatic, nonpartisan policy responses. The salon pairs socially conscious plays with policy conversations with experts and practitioners. In addition, I develop policy-related programming as part of Mosaic Theater Company’s Public Programming Committee.

Staying connected to our broader community of diplomats led directly to the launch of the salon. Thanks to the encouragement, advice and support of the Swedish cultural counselor, herself a practicing theater director, the salon launched its “Who Gets to Feel Safe?” season in July 2018 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company with a play reading and panel discussion featuring a Swedish playwright.

During the rest of the 2018-2019 season, we partnered with Ford’s Theatre, Mosaic Theater Company, the Delegation of the European Union to the United States and the New York University Washington, D.C., campus to host dialogues on inequality and criminal justice, as well as the role of story, music and culture in resilience.

Making this transformation happen required mapping my Foreign Service skills and Washington policymaking experience onto the U.S. domestic theater and arts sector. Working at an arts policy think-tank, Createquity, allowed me to use the analytical, drafting and quantitative chops from the Foreign Service—on top of the more obvious public diplomacy skills—to publish and speak on arts policy issues.

Finding common ground with practitioners in the arts world served as another point of entry. I connected with the Forum Theatre’s community engagement coordinator over a shared background in global development in 2016. Our shared experience in foreign policy and American arts policy enabled me to design and launch the Talk Tank series to explore policy issues underpinning Forum’s productions.

The Talk Tank program served as a beta version of Theater and Policy Salon. I partnered on policy discussions with the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Friends Service Committee and the Jamestown Foundation, along with local experts including a local police executive in charge of recruitment and doctrine.

In fact, successfully transitioning to both the arts and policy practice and my Transitions International work paralleled the familiar Foreign Service experience of arriving at a new post and establishing oneself as an effective interlocutor and influential voice.

In fact, successfully transitioning to both the arts and policy practice and my Transitions International work paralleled the familiar Foreign Service experience of arriving at a new post ...

In my new role, I set about establishing my profile and building my networks in the arts policy and theater world in Washington following retirement. In addition to working a lot of rooms, I published articles, spoke at symposia and nurtured my social media presence (follow me @artsconnectedDC).

Our 2019-2020 Theater and Policy Salon season is focused on two themes: resilience in struggling U.S. communities, and migrants and refugees. The first fall salon looked at resilience, in partnership with NYU Washington, Shakespeare Theatre Company and Ford’s Theatre. We continued with a salon at Studio Theatre on migration issues centered on a Thai-Australian playwright’s work, in partnership with the Australian embassy.

In early 2020 we held discussions hosted by Theater J, Mosaic Theater Company and Studio Theatre. And this spring we are partnering with the Mexican Cultural Institute and NYU Washington to focus on Arena Stage and the InSeries productions dealing with migration and resilience.

One benchmark of success came when one of my arts and theater collaborators playfully accused me of “being everywhere and knowing everyone.” Future retirees should know that building a network and reputation when representing only oneself will be both harder, and potentially more satisfying, than making contacts while serving as a U.S. government representative abroad.

Michael Feldman is principal at Transitions International and the co-founder of the Theater and Policy Salon in Washington, D.C. A retired FSO, he served in Italy, the Czech Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Germany, along with assignments at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. Senate, the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and the State Department.


The Inn by the Lake


The view of the deck and Priest Lake from the upstairs balcony of the Old Northern Inn.
Courtesy of David Summers

David Summers at the entrance to the inn.
Courtesy of David Summers

A family reunion at Priest Lake. Back row: David Summers and Beatrice Camp. Front row (from left to right): Son Daniel with his wife, Ana; son Will with his wife, Megan, and their son, Charlie.
Courtesy of David Summers

Soon after my retirement, my family was mystified when I declared my intent to buy a bed-and-breakfast in a far corner of Idaho. They still remembered my adverse reaction to our one-and-only stay at a bed-and-breakfast farmhouse in Pennsylvania Dutch country where I declined, on behalf of all of us, the invitation to rise before dawn and watch cows being milked. That had been much of my Kentucky childhood, which had then fueled my ambition to join the Foreign Service.

Despite the gentle remonstrations of those dear to me (“But Bea, they have rocking chairs on the front porch, and when we’re old, we can have our whole family around us.” “David, there are rocking chairs on our front porch now, and our whole family is around us.”), I soon became the owner of the Old Northern Inn on Priest Lake.

The six-room hostelry had been built in 1900 from rough-hewn logs by a guy who mistakenly thought a railroad was coming. A history of the lake reveals that he soon went bankrupt, and over time the building transitioned to a brothel, an old folks’ home, a liquor store, a Mexican restaurant, an empty hulk and, finally, a bed-and-breakfast.

I had stumbled on Priest Lake in 2003, at the start of a summer camping trip to the three states I had never visited—Idaho, Montana and North Dakota. With no particular plan, my son and I pitched our tent there on a deserted island where by day, the water was so clear that paddling a canoe felt like flying and by night, stars spangled the ponderosa pines like Christmas lights.

That experience stayed with me, and after returning home, I telephoned a realtor to ask about buying a little cabin on the lake. I learned that the little cabins were leased by the state, and that the only lakefront place for sale was the bed-and-breakfast. I calculated that we could afford that with the income generated by the inn.

I decided to “follow my bliss,” as Joseph Campbell summed things up in a 1985 interview with Bill Moyers. Every year when it’s time to return to open for the season, I anticipate how the air will taste when I step out of the car. Every year it is sweeter and fresher than I imagined. Sometimes, a hummingbird will appear, as if to say, “Where have you been? The feeders aren’t up yet.”

The timeless beauty of Priest Lake has brought me back again and again. I hadn’t given much thought to the hospitality business, but it soon became as important a pull as the place itself. The guests turned out to be engaging and enlightening.

For instance, on our opening night we sat by the fire until midnight chatting about Bangkok. We had lived there in the 1980s, and coincidentally, our guest had been a Navy wife there in the 1960s. When we finally went to bed, my wife threw her head against the pillows and exclaimed, “I never thought I’d be doing this!”

“Bea, it’s just like having company. It’s like having our family over.”

“Yes,” she answered, “but the guests are more polite.”

The timeless beauty of Priest Lake has brought me back again and again. I hadn’t given much thought to the hospitality business, but it soon became as important a pull as the place itself.

I also didn’t expect how much the little community of Coolin, Idaho, would come to mean to me. Every Memorial Day, the members of the Coolin Civic Association pull together the Spring Festival featuring a parade, bake sale, crafts fair and quilt show.

Every September, a potluck supper is held at the Old Northern Inn. Neighbors keep an eye out for the Old Northern Inn when it is closed for the winter, deciding when snow needs to be shoveled from the roof and noting when there are new footprints in the snow.

Running the inn turned out to be more work than I thought. Managing reservations, meals, staff and repairs is a continuous and overlapping responsibility, causing one workday to blend into the next.

We had an accurate picture that we could cover these operating expenses with the revenue from running the inn, but we made a mistaken assumption that the property value would appreciate the way real estate has inside the Beltway. We won’t realize a windfall when we sell the place.

But that was never the main point: our whole family did gather on the front porch with the rocking chairs. It happened, with the arrival of our newest family member, a grandson. And the Navy wife who had lived in Bangkok? A new friend, she made a quilt for that baby.

David Summers was born in Kentucky in 1949. He joined the Foreign Service after college, and had overseas postings to Krakow, Warsaw, Beijing, Bangkok, Stockholm and Budapest. He took a leave of absence from 1979 to 1981 to direct the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. After retirement in 1999, he accompanied his wife, FSO Beatrice Camp, to her postings in Chiang Mai and Shanghai. David and Bea have two married sons and a grandson.


Try the Smaller Pond


Running a 525-person precinct caucus in a high school gym, Feb. 3, 2020.
Courtesy of Janice Weiner

Happy graduate and mom, May 2018.
Courtesy of Janice Weiner

The author marches with county Democrats in a Fourth of July parade in Coralville, Iowa, with granddaughter on back.
Courtesy of Tom Jacobs

Do I miss the Foreign Service? Yes. Is there life after the Foreign Service? Unequivocally. It is whatever you choose it to be, because we all have an incredible stockpile of transferable skills.

I moved back almost five years ago to where I grew up—Iowa City, Iowa. It’s a university town with all the amenities that a large city brings, but on a much smaller scale. I can get anywhere in 10-15 minutes. Really. The cost of living is lower, and I got a lot more house for my money.

Why did I move back to what many consider “flyover country”? First, to make sure my younger daughter made it through high school, which I was pretty certain would not have happened in Fairfax County. It did here, thanks to teachers and counselors and family friends—and her own efforts. For that alone, it was worth the move back.

What do I do with my time? For one, I’m on the board of my synagogue and on the program committee of our local foreign relations council.

I’ve been on the board of Shelter House, a nongovernmental organization that helps those experiencing homelessness, and so much more. In fact, one year ago, we opened the first permanent supportive housing complex in the state; it now houses 24 persons who otherwise would never have been housed.

We are on the front lines of rapid re-housing, an approach where we quickly create the stability needed for a person to be able to move on with other aspects of his or her life.

We’re participating in a new joint county-cities venture, an access center where those in the midst of a mental health crisis or needing help with addiction can go to keep themselves out of jails and hospital ERs. It will help people and save tax dollars.

I stepped down from the Shelter House board in December, just before being sworn in as a member of the Iowa City City Council, part of the first-ever female-majority council (five out of seven).

I’m also on the county, district and state boards for the Democratic Party. In February, I ran a 525-person precinct caucus.

And, oh yes, I am now the legal guardian of my 2-year-old granddaughter, who has already met more presidential candidates than most Americans ever will. And I had their ear when I needed to push sensible foreign policy, as well as mental health and addiction policies.

Try being a bigger fish in a smaller pond. You can really make an impact.

Janice Weiner served in the Foreign Service from 1987 to 2013, in East Berlin, Brussels, Ankara (twice), Warsaw, Toronto, Mexico City and Düsseldorf, as well as in Washington, D.C. She now lives in Iowa City, Iowa.