Two Secrets of the Foreign Service

President's Views


This month let’s take a look at two institutions of the Foreign Service that deserve wider recognition and appreciation. The AFSA legal division and the Senior Living Foundation of the American Foreign Service are each important to our careers and our moral well-being.

The legal team at AFSA is an agent for change. In U.S. history, change often begins not through legislation or executive fiat but in case-by-case legal challenges that go beyond the individual context to alter procedures, laws and eventually societal consensus. That has been the way of the AFSA legal team.

Here is one example from recent history. Two decades ago, being gay or lesbian in the Foreign Service could have led to a determination that one was an unacceptable security risk, resulting in the loss of one’s clearances and the end of one’s career.

The theory was that homosexuals were susceptible to blackmail from foreign spies based on their sexual orientation. This theory perfectly dovetailed with social prejudices, but faced a problem: the lack of factual evidence supporting it in individual cases.

That is where AFSA’s legal team came in. It represented employees in security investigations and in grievances before the Foreign Service Grievance Board. AFSA’s general counsel filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals on behalf of a gay Foreign Service officer.

Over the years, AFSA lawyers, alongside representatives from Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, continued to challenge homophobic biases.

Today societal views have changed, and policies are catching up. At the start of my Foreign Service career, that wasn’t the case. Personally, I wondered about the justification for this policy, but like so many others I did nothing, unfortunately. And to be honest, AFSA itself as an organization was not in the forefront of challenging this policy.

AFSA lawyers were. Their role in the system is to advocate for individuals, and they did their jobs well. In the end, they also helped shape policy, under the old common-law approach of one case at a time.

The legal team at AFSA is an agent for change, and the Senior Living Foundation helps retirees in need.

I had never heard of the Senior Living Foundation before starting this assignment one year ago. After working with Executive Director Paula Jakub over the past year, I want to report to you how vital this institution is.

The foundation supports retired Foreign Service members and their families who need financial help and personal care. Here is the reality we are all aware of: spending our lives largely overseas often means we have not built and sustained the family and domestic networks needed in retirement.

The foundation steps into that gap and helps, from one-time grants for a wheelchair or hospital co-pay to monthly visits from a volunteer and support over the course of one’s retirement. The foundation helps a lot of Foreign Service folks, more than 1,200 since it started in 1988.

I have seen it intervene to prevent the eviction of a Foreign Service widow, who was selling her personal possessions to pay her rent and medical expenses. In another case, a retired FS Office Management Specialist needed monthly assistance as her diabetes worsened and she was paying for insulin out-of-pocket.

Here’s the problem: the Foreign Service leadership of the foundation, people like Joan Clark, Bill Harrop, Roz Ridgway, Alan Lukens and Bob Blake Sr., are themselves not getting any younger. We need more support from recent retirees and active duty folks to ensure that the foundation remains healthy into the future.

If you want more information on ways to support this worthy cause, please visit the foundation’s website at or contact Paula Jakub at (202) 887-8170.

These two institutions aren’t really secrets, but they do deserve to be better known. Each in different ways keeps us on the straight and narrow.

Be well, stay safe and keep in touch,


Robert J. Silverman is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.