Dear State Department (A Letter from a Former Black U.S. Diplomat)

July 7, 2020

The Honorable U.S. Department of State

Hello there, it’s me again, Tianna. A month ago, I told my story on my blog.

You held discussions and town halls. As the paint dries, Juneteenth receives recognition, and Confederate statues are destroyed, remember that this is just the beginning.

You ask people of color and Black employees to share their suffering and experiences that were repeatedly dismissed and ignored. There is trauma, mental illness, stolen dreams, nightmares, and whispers that travel around the world in household effects. This isn’t the case just for Foreign Service members that are people of color, but the entire organization.

As employees that are people of color come forward and speak their truth, have you provided paid counseling/ therapy and tangible resources to continue these conversations? You ask my fellow colleagues to do the work for you once again. You retraumatize.

My Black colleagues are exhausted. They won’t pretend George Floyd wasn’t murdered. They won’t wait for watered down statements on diversity from leadership. My colleagues that are people of color are exhausted. They played this game with you for four quarters. You fumbled the ball while they handed you their blood, sweat, tears, families, and dreams. They gave you things that cannot be explained. And in the fourth quarter, you just arrived at the stadium.

This is unacceptable.

Five days ago, I received a message from a former U.S. diplomat explaining their personal experience with racism, sexism, and discrimination on the U.S.- Mexico border. To my horror, it was 30 years ago. How is it that I have a shared trauma with someone that started their State Department career before I was born?

Yet, you sit and discuss my pain at your table. I never received an apology, email, or a phone call. I read a two sentence reply in The New York Times as an adjudication of my pain.

It took a blog post, but how many others were silenced? How many more? What happened to accountability, action, investigations, and leadership?

I wake up to underrepresentation in senior ranks, underrepresentation of women and minorities, and three African American Ambassadors out of 189. As you reach for your calculator, that is 1.59%. There are four Latinx Ambassadors out of 189. That is 2.12%.

This is unacceptable.

I wake up to a 1% increase of African Americans in the Foreign Service between 2002 to 2018.

It took 16 years to increase from 6% to 7%.

16 years.

I wake up to the removal of a rainbow flag that celebrates LGBTQ Pride and Joy. I wake up to the removal of a Black Lives Matter banner that celebrates my existence.

Your point is clear.

Dear State Department, you never wanted me.

To my fellow incoming and future diplomats that are people of color, Black, LGBTQ, disabled, Muslim, underrepresented, and left behind, we owe it to you to give you a workplace that meets the criteria of your wildest dreams. For my enthusiastic, incoming Pickering and Rangel Fellow colleagues that reached out to me, do not fret. We know you represent America and deserve to be celebrated. You deserve a seat at the table. We see you. We hear you.

You must arrive ready for a battle that you never asked for. Use your voice and stand tall in your convictions. We owe it to you to give you a workplace that meets the criteria of your wildest dreams. Thank you for your service.

To my fellow colleagues that ask me if they should stay in an environment that does not love them, only you know the answer to this question.

There is no right or wrong answer.

Use your voice, forge ahead, and do the best you can. My hope is that you are surrounded by colleagues that offer you a safe space and banana pancakes, water your plants, welcome you into their homes, and offer a scarf when it gets too cold.

If you leave, there will be communities of people that will love you for who you are. This is what I have been lucky to discover in the last eight months. It is not easy, but you will regain peace of mind. Rest, grieve, rebuild, recover, and repeat. We know you did your best.

Thank you for your service.

If you stay, your colleagues will demand specific action and expect measurable results. You will sit at tables on the 6th and 7th floor with senior management that listen, follow with action, and require accountability. Senior management will set goals and specific policies, to fix a broken system. Remember, a goal is specific, measurable, relevant, and time-bound. I ask you, what goal is not achievable?

To my former white colleagues, will you listen, advocate, and uplift people of color and their voices, do the necessary work, and extend a hand? We need more seats at the table, leadership positions, and a larger table. Remember, a person who looks within, does the work, and advocates for others is earnest.

To my Foreign Service colleagues, do you hear my words?

I believe you have what it takes.

Dear State Department, you never asked for my opinion. It’s been awhile since we last spoke.

Here are a few recommendations, in no particular order.

1. Create a Department that actually looks like America. 

    • America was never “Pale, Male, and Yale.” We learned that the State Department was intentionally designed this way. America is made up of people from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and stories that contribute to American society and culture. Our representation strengthens the foundation of Embassies and Consulates around the world.
    • Two Fellowship Programs as the only means of increasing diversity is a joke. When I arrive at a new assignment, why do colleagues think I’m a Fellow because of the color of my skin?
    • At Diversity Meetings guided by white leadership, why am I asked to raise my hand (in front of my colleagues) if I entered the State Department through a Fellowship Program? “So, how did you manage to enter the Foreign Service?” You assume before I enter the room and then tell me we are making progress.
    • What specific hiring, retention, and promotion policies will the State Department implement to increase diversity and leadership positions for people of color and women? With most working remotely during the current pandemic, leadership has more than enough time to think of an answer. What does success look like?

2. Encourage managers to grow. Hold management accountable.

    • Do you open your office door and give direct eye contact? Do you say good morning, provide mentoring, positive feedback, opportunities for growth, and build relationships?
    • You are only as strong as your team. A title is not as important as how you lead. How you manage reveals your character. We are watching.
    • What specific policies hold managers accountable for their actions, examine comments made on Employee Evaluation Reports, and require monthly racial sensitivity training?
    • If and when management disappoints, missteps, harasses, and fails our expectations of leadership, who is held responsible?

3. Treat Local Staff well.

    • U.S. Foreign Service Officers arrive in countries and are received with open arms by our Local Staff. In Juarez, as I struggled to make it out of bed in the morning, I arrived at work to buenos días, hugs, and kisses on the cheek. Not a single Local Staff colleague knew what I was going through and they still held the door open for me. When I had a question, I was met with patience and an open door.
    • I was invited to share pozole at cafeteria tables and I was handed pesos when I forgot my wallet. A Juarez colleague who became a friend took me to lunch in Mexico City when my hair was falling out of my head. We stuffed ourselves with pasta and she wouldn’t let me pay for my meal. I will always remember.
    • Local Staff colleagues teach us what cannot be learned in textbooks, online webinars, training, and listen to our attempts at their language. We work alongside Local Staff colleagues that are experts, dedicate their careers to our organization and country, and celebrate 10, 20, and 30 year work anniversaries.
    • How often do Local Staff colleagues say hello and goodbye during our two-year assignments? Do we even listen to our colleagues? And what can we truly change in two years without our Local Staff?
    • Let us not create division with our brothers and sisters. We can do better.
    • A mis amigxs en Juarez y la Ciudad de Mexico, no puedo explicar como sus amistades han cambiado mi vida. Les extraño un monton. No tuve la oportunidad para decir eso pero siempre tienen casa en Carolina del Norte. Mil gracias.

4. Pay interns with a paycheck, health insurance, housing, and roundtrip airfare.

    • The State Department further upholds the idea of “Pale, Male, and Yale” when significant barriers to entry exist. Unpaid internships cater to a demographic that does not need compensation for their time. 
    • When I look for jobs, the first thing I do is guarantee that the position is paid and includes health insurance. If not, I never bother to apply. With an unpaid position/ internship, please tell me how I can put food on my table?
    • If you enforce additional barriers to entry, offer unpaid internships, and fail to retain employees, you lose. You miss out on America’s best talent.

5. Say Good Morning. Be kind.

    • As you enter the office and take a sip of your coffee, did you say good morning to anyone?
    • As you approach the desk of our colleague with the curly hair and bright smile, did you acknowledge her? Her desk is directly in front of the door. How often do you say hello and wait for her response?
    • Did you say Ramadan Mubarak to your colleagues? 
    • Do American colleagues extend the same kindness to our Local Staff? To each other? To our guards? To visa applicants…?
    • As you skip lunch and rush to the next meeting, did you remind your neighbor and wait so you could walk over together? Why did you not eat lunch?
    • Why do Local Staff colleagues and Americans sit separately or alone in the cafeteria? When is the last time you pulled up a chair?
    • Is it necessary to wear our finest suits while we stand for 15 minutes as the Ambassador walks around the room? Yes, the Ambassador shook my hand, but is my name remembered?
    • We uphold an environment that only views success as bureaucratic handshakes, Ivy league degrees, offices that take an elevator to reach, tenure recommendations, and the number of hardship tours. Is this who we are?
    • Have we become so forced, persuaded, and rewarded to be unhealthily consumed in our careers that we forget to be kind? To extend a hand?
    • To the colleagues that reached out when I was at rock bottom, I will always remember.

Dear State Department, you have failed so many people, myself included. You have a responsibility to create change. And the rest of us are waiting to see how you respond.

Again, a goal is specific, measurable, relevant, and time-bound. What goal is not achievable? Remember, nothing sustainable can be built on a weak foundation.

Let’s see if you have what it takes.

 

Sincerely,

Tianna Spears

Former Black U.S. Diplomat (2018-2019)

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Dear State Department (A Letter from a Former Black U.S. Diplomat)

  1. Excellent suggestions indeed. Also, I can relate to your experience regarding the local staff abroad. On many days they brought sunshine into my many sad days and life abroad. Also, a good morning and general greetings goes a long way. It is indeed very important to integrate as one and not have two groups abroad. Acknowledgement and unity.

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  2. Wow! What powerful information in your points 1-5. Your invaluable experience is tatamount to your extremely precise feedback.
    All I can hope for is that they implement your words. You’re a force to be reckoned with!

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  3. Dear Tianna,

    Though brief, let me thank you for your service. I regret that you were not given any support to alleviate your situation in the Foreign Service. The Department should have done better. I served over 40 years in the Department, and saw good times and bad times. I never gave up. Overall, I think that my contributions to international affairs and mutual understanding were worth it. Those of us outside the Department must keep speaking up and those currently in the Department must continue the struggle. We shall overcome.

    Claudia Anyaso

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  4. Dear Tianna,

    Thank you for standing up for something that should be instilled in each of us as human beings: recognize and appreciate those around us. In all my overseas assignments, I was careful not to focus on my American colleagues to the point of neglecting our local staff. They provided Mission continuity, afforded us insights into the society in which we found ourselves, and often became our friends. In my years as ambassador, some of my most enjoyable moments were as I shared coffee, tea, and jokes with the drivers in the motor pool. I truly hope that your effort to sensitize current and future leaders of the State Department succeed in bringing real change.

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  5. Dear Tianna,

    Yet another moving and impactful description of what happened to you and some excellent suggestions to move the FS forward in terms of diversity. But, it’s going to be a long, hard road and I hope there are people sitting down to map out a concrete campaign and that they are prepared to go public with it, demanding the Department’s attention. If you’ll look at the NYT article you reference in this blog, you’ll find a link in that article to a 1994 FSJ issue in which a number of AFSA reps piously state that they’re all in favor of diversity . . . except for actually taking steps to implement it, which might make the white males who run the Department (and, thus AFSA) uncomfortable, and we wouldn’t want them to be uncomfortable, would we?

    I don’t think a lot has changed since then. I hope you can work with sincere people, ready to make a meaningful change, to implement policies that ensure greater diversities. The apology, however, will be unlikely. It is not legal for anyone in the Department at or over the FS 1 level to apologize as it might reveal that they could have made a mistake – and we know that no one at the FS 1 level or above ever makes mistakes! In my case, the Department actually approved of one of is employees telling prospective adoptive parents that the Department itself wanted them to sue me, personally, to “rein me in”, because I was a “rogue consular officer” and a bad person. Eventually, the individual was fired, but not one single person at the FS 1 level or above ever apologized for such incredibly distressing and unprofessional behavior. Keep that in mind – the Department rarely explains and never apologizes!

    Keep up the good work and keep demanding that the Department reform!

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  6. My dear sister as sobering but typical happening in the Land of our Birth, I pray that your experience does not dampen your light and cause you to lose faith in humanity.

    This is a war that I fight on a daily basis.

    Keep fighting the good fight, you are not alone!

    Like

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