On August 7 the Hamilton Lugar School initiated its speaker series on Race, Gender and Power in Global Affairs with a conversation between HLS Dean Lee Feinstein and Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins about her career in international affairs and the importance of diversity in diplomacy.
After working on arms control in the federal government and at the Ford Foundation, Amb. Jenkins was appointed by President Obama to serve as Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs in the State Department, where she worked from 2009-2017. There she devoted herself to reducing the risk and roles of nuclear weapons, a particularly relevant topic considering the possibility of nonproliferation treaties expiring and attempts to once again allow testing on new kinds of nuclear weapons.
“From the very beginning I had the desire to work in public service,” Amb. Jenkins told the audience on Facebook Live. She started her career in the New York City government, then moved to the New York State government, and finally went to Washington, DC, to work on international issues.
The founder of Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS), Amb. Jenkins has been a longtime advocate of incorporating diverse voices into policy discussions of security and peace. Created after she left the State Department, WCAPS has already established itself as a major force in international relations, with offices in Washington, DC, New York, California, London, and soon Paris.
The organization, Amb. Jenkins told Amb. Feinstein, is changing “behavior and perceptions so the results are more reflective of the diverse population that we are.”
“Culture change doesn’t happen very easily. It has to be sustained and be continuously held accountable,” she added.
This work comes at a time when it is needed tremendously. Roughly 80 percent of the State Department’s Foreign Service officers and 60 percent of its Civil Service staff are white, according to a recent report by The New York Times. Further, the American Academy of Diplomacy reports that of 189 ambassadors serving abroad today, only three career diplomats are African-American and four are Hispanic. Add to this the State Department’s current difficulty in recruiting and retaining its staff, and some would view the outlook negatively.
But Amb. Jenkins doesn’t. “Government service is about a commitment to the Constitution…and that provides a foundation for why people stay,” she said. And this higher calling to the country and Constitution is not going away.
As part of its work to “advance the leadership and professional development of women of color in the fields of international peace, security, and conflict transformation,” WCAPS has a Young Ambassadors Program to mentor women of color in the beginning of their global careers—whether in government, think tanks, or nonprofits—and a podcast consisting of interviews with women of color in global affairs.
The discussion considered the importance of learning languages, the differences and similarities of “hard security” and “soft security,” and other topics crucial to the field.
Students and members of the community can find the full conversation, which also included questions from the audience, on the Hamilton Lugar School’s Facebook page.
Look for the next conversation in Race, Gender and Power in Global Affairs, “Decolonizing Politics,” on August 12, when Professor and Assistant Dean Shruti Rana will talk with Johns Hopkins scholar Robbie Shilliam about colonization and race in the global order.