The 2022 Conference on Diversity in International Affairs was a collaborative effort by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Global Access Pipeline, and the International Career Advancement Program.
HAASS: Well, good afternoon. I’m still Richard Haass even after that introduction, and I want to welcome you all to today’s meeting, which is the keynote session of this year’s Conference on Diversity in International Affairs.
This is our tenth anniversary conference and it’s part of the long-standing commitment on the part of the Council on Foreign Relations to diversity and building the talent pipeline for careers in international relations and foreign policy that this country and this world of ours both need.
This event is a joint one. It’s presented by the Council, by Global Access Pipeline, and the International Career Advancement Program, and we want to thank GAP and ICAP for their collaboration on this conference.
I also want to emphasize the importance of diversity in this field. I’ve been involved in it for nearly half a century and I strongly believe that having the United States represented in government and international business in the academy and think tanks and journalism and NGOs, you name it, that it’s, truly, important that people represent the diversity of our country and that’s why the Council on Foreign Relations is as committed as it is to help build the pipeline of the next generation of foreign policy professionals in addition to all else we do, most of all our commitment to producing and disseminating authoritative analysis about the world, about foreign policy, and also putting forward creative, practical recommendations for policy.
Now, the way we plan and the way we do commit to building the essential pipeline of talent is, one, through our internship program—I should make clear, our paid internship program—which allows students from diverse backgrounds to spend several months here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and we’ve also added a remote element so we’re no longer bound by geography. So we have interns from all over the country.
We’ve also got the International Affairs Fellowship Program that’s for early and mid-career professionals and for those in academia, the private sector, it gives them, roughly, a year in government, or just the opposite for those with careers in government it gives them a year, say, to spend time in a think tank or a university.
We also have created the possibility for individuals to spend time overseas in Japan, India, and Canada, and, again, we’ve worked over these many years with the HBCUs, HSIs, and other organizations to dramatically increase and expand the pool of international affairs fellows.
Third, we’ve got the term membership program here at the Council on Foreign Relations for individuals. When they’re between thirty and thirty-six they can apply for terms of five years and now we’ve got upwards of, I think, eight (hundred) or nine hundred term members here at the Council, basically, people in their thirties for five-year stints.
We also do our best to showcase diverse voices and viewpoints in our meetings and all events, and our magazine, Foreign Affairs, which, if you don’t read regularly I really hope you will start doing so, both the magazine and the website, ForeignAffairs.com.
Speaking about websites, I also hope you are regular visitors to CFR.org. These are really extraordinary resources, if I’m allowed to brag on us.
And, last but not least, we do our best to involve students and teachers and professors through our education program. We also reach out to congregational and religious leaders through our outreach program. The whole idea is to bring people from diverse backgrounds of all sorts into the foreign policy conversation.
This conference will continue today and tomorrow with a number of plenaries focused on our priorities and on our democracy, and there will also be time devoted to professional development. There will also be a couple of receptions. So I hope you’ll join us for as much of the conference as your schedule allows.
We’d be hard pressed to get off to a better start. We’re going to begin with CFR Distinguished Fellow Roger Ferguson. Roger is the Steven A. Tananbaum Distinguished Fellow for International Economics. He is the immediate past president and CEO of TIAA, which is where people like me in the nonprofit world invest. So the good news is Roger was and is very good at what he does.
He is former head of financial services for Swiss Re and chairman of Swiss Re’s America Holding Corporation, and he’s also the former vice chair of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System. So, again, we would be hard pressed to do better.
I’d say the same thing about CFR member Ché Bolden, who will be moderating today’s discussion. Ché is a twenty-six-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. I’ve learned you never say a former Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine. He’s president and CEO of the Charles F. Bolden Group, serves as co-founder and chief strategy officer of SapientONE and he’s also executive director of Inter Astra. I have no idea what Inter Astra is but maybe Roger will turn the tables and ask him what it is. So you are in very good hands.
Now, before I turn it over to these two distinguished, talented gentlemen, who I—also I feel fortunate to count as friends, I want to introduce a short video that CFR has produced highlighting the conversations we have had now over the last ten years at this conference. I hope and think you’ll enjoy it, and I want to thank in advance Roger and Ché for being with us today, and if they do well then maybe we’ll add them to next year’s video.
So let’s let it roll and, again, thank you for attending.
(A video presentation is shown.)
BOLDEN: Good afternoon. All right. So I’m going to jump right in. First thing I’m going to—I’m not a professional room reader, but I got to say Richard’s complete office where he’s got the artwork that looks very much like the office is very impressive.
Dr. Ferguson, good to see you. As I said, I’m going to jump right in and I’m going to jump in by violating the first rule of the facilitator—I won’t say presider, I’m going to say facilitator—where you’re not supposed to talk about yourself. But there’s something I need to tell you because it’s going to lead into the very first question.
Last summer, our company, the Charles F. Bolden Group—that was my dad you saw up there earlier—we were tasked to conduct a survey on behalf of one of the service chiefs to look at bias in the service and, as a result of that, we delivered a report that will make it out there at some point or another.
But, most recently, the Marine Corps decided to finally nominate a(n) officer of African descent to be a four-star general in the United States military, first time in its history, and so he is going to take command of the U.S. forces in Africa.
And so I posted this on LinkedIn and I said it’s very important that institutions, particularly the United States Marine Corps, recognize what diversity means and what representation means. And I got an old colleague who came back to me and said, hey, I respectfully disagree. We need to have the best and most competent, to which point I responded, why are they mutually exclusive?
So my first question, Roger, for you is: Why is diversity even important?
FERGUSON: Thank you very much, and it’s a pleasure to be here. So, look, diversity is important because there’s more and more evidence that shows—not suggests, demonstrates, proves that diverse teams, diverse groups, lead to better outcomes, better answers. And so to answer your colleague, your friend—the person who questioned you—there’s no distinction between more diversity and better outcomes. They are actually the same.
The reason they’re the same is pretty simple, which is, frankly, creating diversity of thought, diversity of experience, diversity of background avoids this thing called groupthink, and there’s a lot of evidence on the other side that groupthink leads to worse outcomes. And the final thing is there’s just a huge amount of evidence, theoretical and practical, that shows diverse ecosystems are more resilient.
So, you know, better outcomes achieved, worse outcomes avoided, more resilient. It doesn’t seem like it’s that hard. It’s not higher math to get to that place.
BOLDEN: Yeah. You know, interestingly enough, the descriptions that you just provided can apply to just about any organization out there, regardless of their purpose. When you were at the Fed you were responsible for representing the United States at the G-10, and the primary objective of the G-10 is to coordinate fiscal and monetary policies to foster economic stability worldwide.
As we talk about diversity, and you just very succinctly laid out why diversity is important, how do you think that the G-10 can better represent a diverse perspective if they are lacking representation from Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and the like?
FERGUSON: Well, so, you know, the history of these Gs goes back, basically, to the end of the Second World War. So you had the G-7, which was, in some sense, the inner group. They then added four countries to get to the G-10—math was not necessarily a requirement at that moment—and so the truth of the matter is the G-7 and the G-10 represent what they represent, which is, basically, industrialized economies as of, roughly, the mid 1950s.
So in order to get more diversity into the decision-making process what has happened over time is an expansion and a creation of more of these conversation groups. So right now, in some ways, most of the action has moved from the G-7, G-10, to actually the G-20, which includes India, includes major Latin American countries, et cetera, African countries.
And so the way the global financial and economic policy diplomacy is carried on now is through this, you know, combination of different kinds of community groups, some of which are, frankly, not very diverse in terms of nationality and look, and others are very diverse in terms of the nations represented.
So it’s a balance, frankly, Ché. You know, I’m not going to, you know, argue more or less than that except to say there are places and voices where everyone can be heard.
BOLDEN: No, it’s a great pivot into something you and I had discussed in the prep for this was, you know, when people say diversity in today’s vernacular it has a very specific social connotation. However, you and I discussed that, you know, there’s a much broader explanation and understanding of diversity. Can you kind of explain what we talked about when you talk about what different types of interpretation of diversity there are?
FERGUSON: Absolutely. First, there’s—you know, there’s this national diversity, right. But, more importantly, I think there’s diversity of experience, diversity of thought, you know, diversity of training.
And so when I think about the areas that I’ve been involved in, which include mainly finance and banking regulation, what you discover is that people’s experiences with major institutions, regardless of what they may look like, give them a very different view on what a good regulation looks like.
People’s experiences at the border or with international trade, regardless of what they may look like, might give them a very different perspective, and the truth of the matter that you get better outcomes by having different perspectives.
So, you know, we, in the U.S., think of diversity around, you know, racial lines, gender lines, ethnic lines, perhaps—you know, identity lines of one sort or another. But there’s also very important, you know, diversity of thought, diversity of experience, and, frankly, you know, diversity of nationality also matters.
So, you know, this concept of diversity, if we are going to be, you know, part of a global conversation as we intend to be we’ve got to recognize that there are different kinds of diversities, you know, that matter.
There’s some countries where diversity of religion is much debated. There’s some countries, frankly, where, believe it or not, diversity of accent is critical. And, you know, if we’re going to be part of a global dialogue, seeing diversity through a U.S. lens is important but seeing how others think about diversity in their contexts is also important.
BOLDEN: You know, when we had our prep session—you know, for those of you out there, when you’re talking to somebody as esteemed as Dr. Ferguson you need to make sure you do a little bit more homework and so you don’t accuse the Ivy Leagues as being monolithic if they went to—(laughter)—an Ivy League school.
So let’s talk a little bit about, you know, how does a boy from Washington , D.C., become an Ivy League person and what were your experiences during your schooling?
FERGUSON: So my story is, I think, very much, in some sense, the American story from a time and a place. So my most important formative experiences, and I think this is probably true for all of us, were my parents. My mother had grown up, as did my father, in Washington, D.C., and, you know, she put a huge amount of weight on education. She herself was well educated but she came from a family that didn’t value education. So she always thought of education as a gift and she told me to stay in school as long as possible.
I don’t think she expected me to stay in school until I was thirty. But, nevertheless, I was listening closely when she said stay in school as long as possible. My father, other major experience in my life, was a child of the Depression, and the Depression got him very interested in banks and financial matters. So we had the equivalent of financial literacy every night at our kitchen table.
So the two of those folks—stay in school, be well educated, and, you know, learn about financial matters—ultimately, sort of created an environment in which, you know, the Ivy League was a possibility. I would also say that I was a product and still am proudly a product of the D.C. public school systems. Charles Young, River Terrace School over in Anacostia that’s still there, Jefferson Junior High School in southwest D.C., for folks who know that. Then I will say I went on to Sidwell Friends School, a(n) upper Northwest D.C. private school.
But I felt really well prepared. So I had parents that encouraged schooling. That got me ready, and then the final point I have to make is when I applied to college the Ivy Leagues were very focused on creating diversity, you know, and to be—I always say—the last point, I will make it clear, I also think of myself, therefore, as proudly a product of affirmative action and affirmative action in the sense that the Ivy League schools finally went out and affirmatively tried to find people of color who, clearly, could do the work but had been excluded before because of race and ethnicity.
So there’s some folks who say, oh, you know, let’s not talk about affirmative action. I’m saying I’m a child of Brown v. Board of Education with, at last, integrated schools in D.C., a child of a family that valued education and product of an affirmative action world in which Harvard, Yale, and Princeton finally said, guess what, there are qualified folks who happen to be of darker skin. Let’s find some of those folks. And I was fortunate enough to be in one of the first classes that really had broad diversity that way at Harvard.
BOLDEN: Now, I want to—this will be a little bit personal and it’s based on shared experiences—you know, you being one of one in many occasions I have no doubt that you probably fell prey or victim to the perception that you were some form of an exception as opposed to being exceptional, which you are.
Did you find that you had to convince people that you were not merely an exception? And then we can later talk about how that opens more doors, but did you experience any pushback from anybody thinking that you were there for reasons other than your abilities and your skill?
FERGUSON: Oh, no. Yeah. I like the way you put it in the past tense because—(laughs)—I think it’s probably still true in the present tense. So, you know, the answer is of course. You know, I think, sadly, in this world, you know, people often see folks like you and me think, well, you know, one of a few who got in for special reasons, must have lowered the standards, et cetera.
I’ve got always three reactions. One is I never let the stupidity of somebody else create stupidity in me and so, you know, I am quite mindful that it’s not my job to necessarily then turn their stupidity into anger.
Secondly, I firmly believe that, you know, the best counter to that is simply to be the—you know, the superior, extraordinary, very strong person that you are. But I also am comfortable, you know, reminding people of my story, and the reason I say I’m a child of affirmative action is because I want them to hear the way I think about affirmative action and recognize that all it means is you’re finally affirmatively giving people a chance.
You know, I happen to believe that talent is broadly distributed in some sort of bell curve for everybody. Opportunity is the thing that’s missing for some of us and let’s just stand up and simply say, you know, if you don’t see enough people of color or women or others it’s not because they aren’t talented. It’s because you haven’t given them the opportunity.
And so, you know, let’s think about really where the problem is. The problem is not that there are not a lot of striving, capable African Americans, women, et cetera. The problem is there with society that’s not giving them a fair shake to get into, you know, the Harvards, the Yales, the Princetons, whatever it may be. And so—and be very clear about, you know, what you stand for and, you know, what your beliefs are. Not being defensive, but being firm.
BOLDEN: So without giving short shrift to all your accomplishments prior to you taking your position with the Fed, there’s something to be said about proving your exceptional nature and opening doors for other people.
So as you got into that position and you, through your expertise, led the United States’ participation on the global stage and one of the—if you talk about the four elements of national power I’m sure you all are familiar—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic—obviously, sir, you were diplomatic and economic in high demand and you did that job.
How did you see your perception on the international stage? Did people—did they think of you in terms of diversity or did they just see you as you’re the American representative?
FERGUSON: You know, good question that I’ve often wondered about. It started with you’re the American representative, right, because at the end of the day, you know, when I spoke that people would say, well, that’s the Fed’s point of view. I was some—a friend of mine has recently written a book in which he said, well, the Fed’s point of view was X and I said, well, how did you know that? He said, because you told me.
And so, you know, it started with I am the vice chairman of the Fed, have gone through the process. You know, that’s where we start. You know, it helped me, to be honest, places where I wasn’t diverse, so having gone to Harvard to get a Ph.D. So in that sense, I felt in with, you know, the groupthink that exists in central banking.
But I’m also sure that there were a few people who sort of wondered, like, OK, and it was my job to not, you know, try to attack or push. But people understand the nature of America. They understand that there is, you know, racism here. They understand that, you know, that not everybody wishes us well.
But at the end of the day, I think I was—I know I was very fortunate that central banking is primarily driven by technicians, and at the end of the day, you know, you prove your worth by what you do, and you can tell by their background maybe. I’m here in the U.K. I just had a seminar with Mervyn King, who used to be the governor of the Bank of England here, and he was kind enough to talk about, you know, my skills and my ability to represent the United States well.
So I am pleased that whatever people may have thought, by the end of my term what they mainly recall is that Ferguson, you know, did his job in representing the United States well in these international conversations around economic diplomacy.
BOLDEN: There was—I have to take a little bit of issue with part of the introduction only because we’ve gotten very accustomed to using the term underrepresented when the actual accurate term would be excluded, and as you talk about your success as a representative of the United States I can’t help but think of how our vice president is currently perceived by many people. You know, she’s seen as an exception, right. Yet, more than 50 percent of the world’s population are excluded from the process.
Can you talk a little bit about, you know, some of the challenges that you think she is facing as one of our lead diplomats as a result of her being perceived as an exception?
FERGUSON: I think she is, certainly, confronted with the notion of does she actually speak for the United States. I don’t know this for a fact. But, first, as you know, the vice president—sometimes is not clear how close that person is to the president, et cetera, and then you add to it African-American woman, Indian woman as well.
So I’m sure a lot of people are wondering, really? Is she really the one that we should be listening to? You know, then there’s the second challenge for sure, which is, in some spaces, you know, being the elected rep versus being a technician becomes relevant, and so I think you’ve got that.
And I know from experience there are more women now and women of great power than had been the case before. But it’s still, certainly, a bit of an exception. So this notion of, you know, old boys’ club still is part of, I think, one of the challenges she’s confronting in certain places.
Having said that, you know, I think the answer to that is to do what she does, show that she is, clearly, you know, up to the brief, so to speak, as we say in foreign policy, you know, and she not just knows the talking points but actually can think through, you know, the arguments and, you know, win the respect of the world, as I think she is—I hope she is—by simply showing that she’s got this job, you know, well in hand and, you know, without getting overly political, who knows what the future might hold in terms of the next job she might have. And to be fair, in international politics, you know, the whisper that you might get, you know, the next job also certainly helps because people, certainly, don’t want to be on the wrong side of, you know, the occupant of, quote, “the next job.”
BOLDEN: Mmm hmm. You know, one of the things that happens, and you and I talked a little bit about this, is when you look at not just government on the international stage or the national stage, but when you look even at private industry you can see that there’s a lot of talk about the issue and the priority of diversity but then when it comes down to it it’s actually just talk.
And so there’s a difference between compliant organizations and committed organizations. We spoke a little bit about, you know, how a lot of boards tend to be very homogenous. In your experiences, particularly now as a high-ranking academician, which is another area where they have the same issues, how do you think that we can look at it both from a national perspective and international perspective to get organizations to become more committed to the value of diversity as opposed to just complying for optics?
FERGUSON: So I go back to where this conversation really began. All right. So compliance suggests someone else made—someone else made you do it. You know, you’ll do the bare minimum to stay out of trouble. It’s a negative motivation.
If the conversation turns, as I hope it does, to, well, what do we know about the value of diversity, to heck with what I actually think is the right thing to do—if you are here to achieve goals and those goals may be, you know, total shareholder return, they may be influencing, you know, a trade negotiation, a treaty, et cetera, how do I do that? Well, you go back to what the evidence shows. The evidence shows that diverse teams are the ones that win. And so, in that sense, it’s—I don’t—I don’t go to the moral argument, though I believe in the moral argument. What I find in business and diplomacy is outcomes matter and, particularly, in some of these places where people want to know, well, what are the data, what are the science, what’s the theory, you can show all of it. You know, in business we find that companies and boards that have 30 percent or more female representation, those companies tend to do better over a ten-, twelve-, fifteen-year period in total shareholder return.
You know, we know all the evidence about groupthinking being a negative. Those—you could speak to this, I suspect, you know, thinking about things in the military from many different perspectives probably also allows you to imagine outcomes that could be the ones you have to prepare for.
And so I think the way we move from a compliance mindset to an embracing mindset is not to talk about morality, not to talk about history and justice, though those things matter, but it’s really to talk about what matters most to people, which is outcomes, and if you want to be on the winning team with better outcomes that team had better have, you know, different points of view and those points of view probably come in different shapes, sizes, colors, you know, accents, ethnicities, et cetera.
BOLDEN: So my last question before we get to the best part, which is the smart people get to start asking questions, is as we talk about compliance versus commitment, exceptional versus accepted, there needs to be a shift in the mindset of leadership across the board as to how, particularly from a U.S. perspective, how is it that we can position ourselves to be better received by the rest of the world.
And I think that, you know, from a moral perspective, we can agree that it’s—you have to have diverse representation, but from a performance perspective what are the keys, you think, for us to push that forward so that it no longer becomes an emotional discussion and just one of, you know, we need to do this because it’s the right thing to do and that’s how we’re going to be better?
FERGUSON: Well, let me—I think for the international perspective, and I say this about many things, it’s a both/and. So I don’t want to create a false dichotomy. So, you know, the fact that we want to tell other nations how they should run things, we have to make sure our house is in shape, right, and one of the nice things about the tape was someone talking about, you know, we have—we get to the moral high ground if we’re no longer playing defense on how we treat our own, you know, excluded minorities and our women, et cetera. And so that’s, you know, part of the story around soft power, I believe, is the ability to show that you have managed through these challenges yourself. It creates more credibility. It creates more acceptance.
And then the second part of it, obviously, is you then go back and say we think we have better solutions because we’ve looked at them in these various different ways. So it’s really just—it’s a both/and. But, particularly, in diplomacy, if we’re going to ask people to follow us we’ve got to make sure we look like and are ready to be followed.
And then the final point to make, obviously, is the vast majority of the world is, certainly, what we would describe as diverse, and so just listening closely, creating some empathy, you know, feeling more global, so to speak, you know, I think leveraging the various minorities and various hues and shades in the U.S. are an important part of being relevant to the rest of the world.
So I think, again, it’s sort of a no brainer in terms of the success of our foreign policy if we actually put forward teams that look much more like America.
BOLDEN: Well, the great news is I’m staring at a roomful of people that do a good job of representing America. So I think we’re at the time where we can, like I said, get the really smart questions. So what we will do is we’ve got some—obviously, there’ll be individuals here who want to ask and I’ll try and call on you in a fair manner, and then we’ll also go to some of the online questions.
So we’ll start present first. So who wants to ask the first question? Now, there we go, because I was going to say Council events normally have, like, ten people in the front row jumping up and you got to go back but—up front.
Q: Thank you.
BOLDEN: And just for the sake of the—identify yourself where you’re from so everybody kind of knows.
Q: Sure. Good afternoon, everyone. Dr. Ferguson, good afternoon. My name is Gevin Reynolds. I work over at the White House in the Office of the National Cyber Director.
I’m very interested, actually, specifically in the point about corporate boards, right. I actually think I read an article the other day that said that the number of Black people on, like, Fortune 500 companies’ boards decreased over the past year after increasing the year before following George Floyd. I can’t cite the article. I don’t remember which one it was. But it’s, clearly, a—oh, I see you’re furrowing your brows. (Laughter.)
FERGUSON: Keep going.
Q: But—sure. It’s, certainly, a complex issue and I, in my former life, worked for the National Football League and so I think about this issue sort of when it comes to minority head coaches, right.
FERGUSON: Mmm hmm.
Q: Obviously, there are certain rules and procedures in place to encourage diversity but oftentimes ownership of various teams in the NFL will sort of bring on, you know, the handpicked coaches with them to different ownership meetings to expose those individuals in this White man’s club to those who could be their next boss.
So what are some of the ways in the world of corporate boards that we can ensure that those qualified African American and diverse female candidates whose names might not otherwise be known can have their names brought up to the forefront and be looked at when some of these board openings come about?
FERGUSON: All right. So good question. My brow was furrowed only because I was thinking back quickly through my mental Rolodex of articles in this topic to see if I, you know, recall the one you’re talking about.
So my experience is that there are a couple of levers at the board level to drive this. One is—we’ve already seen it so to Ché’s question around compliance—one of our major exchanges has created a listing requirement that, basically, says if you don’t have diversity in the board you have to explain why and that it’s not a quota. It’s not a mandate. It is simply explain why you don’t have diversity on the board, and that’s created a certain amount of excitement in the corporate governance world.
But, you know, the message is pretty clear. You know, you decide for yourself. You want to be listed on this exchange and get, you know, access to trillions of dollars of investable money from Americans, just explain why you don’t have diversity. So that has proven to be both controversial and, I think, very helpful and I fully support Adena Friedman for doing that.
The second approach that I’ve seen or second component, because these are all part and parcel of a solution, is, frankly, go to where the nominating powers exist on a board, and it’s in the nom and gov committee or the corporate governance committee or whatever it may be. I happen to be on a couple of nom and gov committees and, you know, you get the voice there.
So for those who are on these boards who are, you know, excluded/diverse, let’s not forget to speak up. And, you know, it’s not just about me but almost every—not almost, every woman or African American or Latinx person I know on a board has recognized the need to think about this topic, you know, to get yourselves into, if you can, the nom and gov committee because that’s where the decisions are made.
And then, finally, even if they’re not on that committee when openings emerge what I have seen, I think, as a very good story is the insistence from the top of the house that we must have, you know, diverse voices.
I think the message is gradually getting through. Not as quickly as it should have, but there’s some pressure there. And, importantly—and I was a very good beneficiary of this—don’t let openings go without seeing a diverse slate, and send those executive recruiters back three or four times. Just say come forth with a diverse slate.
And so, you know, these are all techniques that we’re all using not having made the progress that we want, but we are, certainly, making some progress. And, you know, it might not be—if your recollection is right, it might not be a straight line but, you know, that I think there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic that actually corporate America may be hearing this message, perhaps, more than some other sectors, including maybe—and you know better than I—you know, the leadership part of some of our major sports leagues. But, you know, that’s your expertise, not mine.
BOLDEN: So, Roger, before I call on the next person, just that you had a question that made me think about it. How do you educate people to look in the mirror and realize that ducks pick ducks and that maybe they need to think that a different bird might be worth mentioning or worth looking at?
FERGUSON: So, look, I think the first answer is always honesty—(laughs)—right, which is to say, you know, let’s look around this table. Are we comfortable with this look in, you know, 2021, 2022 in modern-day America, given all the things that’s happened?
The other thing that I found that really works is using the demographic numbers. So, particularly, for CPG firms—consumer products goods firms—talking about what their customer base is going to look like also really drives it.
I was on the board of one company that sold, mainly, packaged goods in, you know, big box retail and they now have almost, I think, 50 percent women because they realized people making the purchasing decision for their products were female. So they said, as a business matter we need to get more of our customers, you know, on this board. And so, you know, another way to do that is just to talk about what the business imperative is by looking at what your customers are today or, very importantly, what they’re likely to be, going forward.
BOLDEN: Next question right here. Someone in the back next time.
Q: Thank you so much, Dr. Ferguson, for your time here today. My name is Katerina. I’m here with Florida International University but I’ve been spending the last few months in the Office of International Affairs at the SEC and it’s been really exciting to watch global financial exchanges, especially because there’s a ton of D&I initiatives coming out of Europe.
And it’s always interesting, going back to that comply versus embrace mentality, especially when we hear from a lot of entities such as the Bank of England, which is predominantly White English men—hear all the time from D&I initiatives coming out of these regions that we, in the U.S., need to be less litigated and we need to, you know, further our processes at a much faster pace.
When you were in the Fed did you feel that Europe was sort of in that comply mindset with the U.S. trying to push us along? Did you feel the U.S. was more leading in that advocacy space? And, I guess, how does that go further in economics and finance?
FERGUSON: So, look, I think they’re—both sides of the Atlantic have places where they are leading and places where they’re catching up, and so there’s no doubt that continental Europe was very much leading on issues around climate change. They are leading on ESG for sure. They jumped into the lead around women on boards through, frankly, a legislative kind of process.
Having said that, I would say that we, perhaps, are—we, in the U.S.—are, perhaps, you know, a little more attuned to other kinds of diversity than, perhaps, my friends here in New York are. And so I found, you know, frankly, this thing being very, very uneven—places where we were maybe more attuned, we, being the U.S. team, places where the European team, perhaps, was more attuned. But to your other point, you know, major institutions, wherever we are, you know, still are, you know, predominantly White male.
Now, I’m really proud of what’s happened at the Fed of late where we have at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta an African American, where we have a good—a great female Black female economist coming in Boston. We’ve just had two governors, you know, confirmed. I had been the last Black governor at the board.
And so, you know, the stodgy old central bank world, at least in the U.S., you know, is, you know, catching up and maybe moving ahead. And so, you know, one can still hold out hope that with the right kind of leadership and the right kind of push, you know, even central banking can move forward here, and I think I’m very pleased to see where we are in that regard.
BOLDEN: We’re going to take our next question in virtual.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Earl Carr.
Q: Thank you, Dr. Ferguson. My name is Earl Carr. I’m the founder and CEO of CJPA Global Advisors.
You’ve talked about the importance of racial equity in the U.S. and how that translates into American soft power abroad. I’m curious to get your perspective on how you currently assess the current state of racial equity and its impact on U.S. soft power currently abroad.
FERGUSON: So, look, let’s be very—we know it’s very, shall we say, mildly uneven. Put it another way, you know, that arc of history is moving awfully slowly, and so let’s just be clear that while we have some things we can be proud of—and I just listed, you know, as a Federal Reserve alumnus/friend/aficionado how proud I am of what the Fed is now starting to look like—there are places where that’s, simply, not the case. And so I think we are really, really uneven. Good effort, in some cases. Effort is not good enough, though. And so let’s just be clear that we haven’t yet succeeded in the soft power story when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion at major institutions.
I think the SEC has just sworn in its first Asian-American, you know, commissioner. The CFTC has had, you know, some African-American representation from time to time. Obviously, if we look at the U.S. Treasury, we got a phenomenal team there with a female secretary, an African-American, you know, deputy. We can go around to other agencies as well.
So, look, I think in this administration we’ve worked really hard to have leadership, both appointed and elected, that looks much more like America. But it’s really uneven. And then we have, you know, some of the other things that have taken place in other parts of America that, you know, call us—call our commitment into question.
So I’d say got some things where we can stand firm and other things where our head has to be hung a little bit in terms of, you know, leading the world.
BOLDEN: Blue jacket. That’s the back of the room.
Q: Thank you for your time, sir. I’m Gabe Royal. I’m an Army officer and a Ph.D. student at GW.
Thank you for speaking on diversity at the Fed. My question is along those lines. I recently read an article about the disproportionate impact accommodative monetary policy has had across racial lines, specifically, exacerbating the racial wealth gap. Does the Fed need to go beyond just representation and, perhaps, change or modify its mandate to include giving consideration to the impact of its own policies across racial or demographic lines?
FERGUSON: I would not want to change the mandate because that opens up a whole Pandora’s box of what might be done. Having said that, I think the Fed is becoming, you know, more and more sensitized to this set of issues, partially because of the change in some of the leadership. And so we’re seeing more discussion of these topics.
You know, I think, having said that, you know, Chair Powell pointed out very clear the Fed’s tools are, frankly, relatively blunt and, you know, the challenge that, I think, we have in terms of Fed policy impacting wealth is that wealth is already very unequally distributed. When interest rates are low, asset valuations tend to go up and so that helps those who have money beget more money, so to speak.
So I think the issues that—of wealth gap, income gap, et cetera, are touched by Fed policy because they touch asset valuations. I don’t think they’re going to be resolved by Fed policy. I think there are other places to look there. Having said that, you know, one of those places to look is on financial literacy and the Fed has for a very, very long time, you know, been in the forefront of thinking through that gnarly problem and they also are very much in the forefront of doing research on what these pockets of inequality look like—you know, what that might mean for the future of America.
So I think they’re using their analytical tools or starting to use their analytical tools in the right way and I applaud that. I applaud the focus that we’re seeing from various parts of the Fed. I wouldn’t ask them to change their mandate because I think, you know, that is not—that’s not the solution.
So I think they’ve got to be part of the problem but let’s not put too much weight on monetary policy to overcome, you know, challenges that have to do with many, many policy areas that are outside of the movement of interest rates up and down.
BOLDEN: Let’s go back to the virtual, get another one from there. Another one? OK. Who is in the room?
Q: Hi, Dr. Ferguson. My name is Kevin Bloodworth. I’m a former intern here at the Council on Foreign Relations and a rising senior at the College of William and Mary, studying economics.
So I was just curious on your, like, educational and, like, early career development, seeing as, I guess, I’ll be coming onto the job market next year. But I just wanted to ask, since I saw that you had completed your J.D. at Harvard and a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard, and so I guess I was just curious, as someone who’s considering, like, both of those two routes, curious as to what you felt maybe wasn’t fulfilling in your J.D. experience to make you want to go on to continue to get a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard, or if there was—(laughs)—or if there was any sort of, I guess, life experience that influenced that decision. Thank you.
FERGUSON: Happy to answer the question. The reason I was smiling is it just takes me back to an important part of my life. So there was an important life experience that drove some of my thinking and it was the appointment of a man named Andrew Brimmer to be the first African-American governor at the Federal Reserve. This was in 1966 and I was fourteen, fifteen years old then, and I told you my father—we talked a lot about interest rates and banks at the kitchen table.
So Andy’s appointment to the Fed was just—for me, it defined everything. I knew I wanted to be an economist. It was a really important life experience and he was a role model from, you know, that moment on.
So when I got to college I knew I wanted to major in economics, and as I got to the end of my undergraduate years, I knew there was a lot of economics to know and, importantly, I knew I could never call myself an economist without getting that ultimate degree of the Ph.D. So, for me, it was something I was fascinated with from, you know, a relatively young age.
The law degree came along because I also wanted to have some—I’m going to use the word practical—knowledge. That’s not to say that economics is not practical. What I meant by that is I can imagine a career in which regulation might be part of the story and all of regulation is, basically, driven by the law, so to speak. So that’s why I married those two.
Now, I would be—and I decided to do them simultaneously, which was before the period of the formal joint degree so I had to apply to each one separately and there was no—very little cross registration. I hasten to add that one of the great benefits I had was this was at a point when scholarship money was pretty ample. This was before a period of having to carry a lot of student debt to go to college. So I was very fortunate in that way.
But I will tell you, you know, staying in school until you’re thirty, it’s—you start to feel like you’re been left behind pretty quickly. So you have to have a really strong sense that, you know, you’re prepared to forego lots of things in order to invest in yourself initially, and I’m a big believer in investing in your human capital when you’re young even if it looks like other folks are pulling ahead because there’s no substitute for a complete education and at least in my disciplines, you know, the Ph.D. was the—you know, the last stop on the train, so to speak, and the J.D. was the only way you could be a lawyer.
So I’m glad to do what I did. Obviously, it’s turned out, you know, not too badly and, you know, if your financial circumstances are such I would encourage people to think about how much education they could get and continue to get because building human capital is the—as my mother used to say, education is the only thing they can’t take away from you, and I’ll let you figure out who they was in that sentence.
BOLDEN: Let’s see if there’s anybody on that side of the room, the far side.
FERGUSON: Oh, we’re doing geographic diversity, I see.
BOLDEN: I am. I’m trying to be as diverse as I possibly can. Walk the walk, right. Right there next to the mic.
Q: Good afternoon, Dr. Ferguson. My name is Bradford Ellison. I’m an attorney with Squire Patton Boggs. I’ll add I’m also the beneficiary of your mother’s great legacy at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church.
FERGUSON: I was going to say, that name sounds sort of familiar.
Q: I was your sister’s student and I also teach in the Sunday school now. But on the point that you just made, I’m curious, what can or should the U.S. government do to incentivize diverse audiences to enter public service when it may be cost prohibitive to many.
I’ll give, for example, that I was fortunate to intern at the U.S. Embassy in Togo as an undergraduate at Duke University and that was an unpaid internship. The only reason I was able to pursue it was because my university provided me a grant to live comfortably that summer.
But for others who may attend less-endowed universities or who may be making career decisions later on in life with a great deal of debt, what, again, can or should the U.S. government do to incentivize their public service? Thank you.
FERGUSON: Well, thank you, and, my God, I cannot tell you how moved I am by your references to Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. For those who don’t know it, it’s one of the iconic African-American churches in Washington, D.C. There are others. I’m not insulting anybody. But it happened to be my home church. So I’m pleased to hear you mention my mother and my sister and others.
So, look, there’s obviously no magic bullet, right. We’re not going to increase—we should but I think we’re unlikely to increase the compensation for our, you know, civil servants. I do think you put your finger on something else, which is, you know, taking another look at student debt repayment policy, and I’m not going to go, you know, deeply into that discussion.
But that has got to be on the table. If one of the things that keeps people from going into public service is the high burden of debt then let’s think about that. And by the way, it’s not just the government’s problem or challenge.
But, you know, some of our most elite schools have, you know, policies about repayment that may be excluding some people from going into public service and I know that from observing some of my younger friends. So, you know, that’s another place to look.
You know, I think we also have to really recognize that if all else fails, you know, the really aggressive recruitment of, you know, people of color, women, et cetera, into these roles by getting, you know, people like—I saw—I think I saw Susan Rice there in that video and others—and so this whole notion of if you can see it you can be it, reminding people of that, and I think, frankly, we need some internal—I’ll use the word domestic diplomacy about the value of, you know, both the military and civilian kinds of service. You know, the military, I think, has been lucky to have, you know, a number of folks including, you know, Ché and Ché’s father and a number of other role models, so people starting to imagine that might be where you can have a good career.
We still have a paucity of role models in public service and, particularly, in the Foreign Service. You know, I think of my predecessor, Cliff Wharton, one of the first if not the first African-American Foreign Service Officer. But figuring out how to tell these stories so that people recognize that, you know, there’s room for all of us in these places.
So, you know, aggressive public diplomacy by places like the State Department and others to point out what their history and legacy has been would be really helpful as well. So all parts of the solution, not on the silver bullet.
BOLDEN: So while I was supposed to remind you that it’s on the record—you already knew that—but this next question I’m going to ask for all of you is, technically, not for attribution because we are the Council on Foreign Relations.
How many people want to have a job in international relations? OK. So this next and last question is oriented to you all, and this was brought about by a conversation I was having in the green room.
Dr. Ferguson, as a role model and as a mentor, can you describe the importance of both your ascendancy and then how these young folks can be a little bit more forthright in finding their role models and mentors and engaging with them?
FERGUSON: Oh. So, look, I think there’s nothing more important than—I’m going to use three words—role models, mentors, and sponsors, particularly in government service but also in the rest of life. So let’s distinguish the three first.
Role model is somebody you may or may not know but you—you know, you admire what they’ve done. So in my case, Andy Brimmer.
Mentor, a person who may coach you, guide you, et cetera. A sponsor, a person who sort of will, you know, bring—you know, argue for you, you know, push your candidacy, et cetera. And the truth of the matter is, particularly, in the government but it’s also in the private sector, you need all three and that third one is really important because the decisions often come down to a hair’s breadth of discussion and you need somebody at the table saying, we must have, you know, this person, not that other person.
And so all the things, I think, are really important. But that’s one of the reasons that I, you know, do positive shout outs about what’s happening at the Fed or, you know, Cliff Wharton or, you know, Ché, you and your father, et cetera, because I think people need to at least find role models, even if nothing else, and then you build on that to be mentors and eventually get to be a sponsor.
So I think it’s all part of the story. Let’s make sure we continue to pay it back and pay it forward, so to speak. And the folks in that room need to look around and say, who are my role models? Secondly, am I a good protégé so there’s somebody who wants to mentor me, and then, finally, you know, am I, you know, really achieving at the first level, the highest possible level—first rate levels—so that my sponsors can safely sponsor me and move me up the ladder, so to speak.
So there’s a role for people to play at both sides of that, being the role model, mentor, sponsor at one end and being, you know, the individual who’s coming up the ladder at the other.
BOLDEN: That is a great stopping point for us, largely, because this room is full of people from excluded communities and it’s important that you take an active role in finding all three of those.
So as we close out, I’d like to thank you for joining today’s session and thank you to Dr. Ferguson. Please note that the video and the transcript of this symposium will be posted on CFR’s website and please be sure to join us for the conference’s first plenary “New and Next: U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities Around the World” today at 4:15 to 5:15, in person as well as on Zoom.
Please help me to welcome—or, to thank Dr. Ferguson for his—(applause).
FERGUSON: Thank you very, very much. Take care.
This is an uncorrected transcript.
HAQ: Welcome, welcome, everybody. Glad that you could all join us today. I wanted to give you a few notes—an update of what we’re doing here today.
This is the New and Next: U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities Around the Globe international affairs plenary session for our diversity and international affairs conference.
I am Nayyera Haq. I’m an independent journalist—most recently with The World Tonight on the Black News Channel.
Our esteemed panelists, I will allow them to introduce themselves real quick.
NELSON: I’m Janaina Nelson, and I’m a government digital transformation advisor with Amazon Web Services and a specialist in Latin American issues.
KANAPATHY: Ivan Kanapathy. I’m a consultant at Beacon Global Strategies and a specialist in Indo-Pacific.
JOHNSON: Alex Johnson. I am a specialist in Europe and Eurasia. I’m the deputy director for U.S. foreign policy at Open Society Foundations and its policy center.
ANKU: I am Amaka Anku. I run the Africa practice at Eurasia Group, which is a global political risk analysis and consultant firm.
HAQ: And between all of us we can cover the globe from a perspective of diversity as well as expertise.
So with that, I wanted to level set on the moment that we find ourselves in right now, which is we are well into the Biden administration, which has faced multiple crises domestic and international—a global pandemic, once-in-a-lifetime crisis; supply chain issues; economic collapse and insecurity; a drawdown in Afghanistan that did not please many people, if at all; and now we find ourselves in a conflict in Ukraine.
Now we’re not boots on the ground, as one would say, but we are heavily in support of the Ukrainian insurgency against a Russian intervention.
So let me start at the end, Amaka, with you. Does this moment in time with the United States backing up the democracy in Ukraine, standing up to the authoritarians of the world, is this a moment for the global community?
ANKU: I’m going to pass that onto Ivan because you had—(laughter)—
HAQ: We’re going to come back to you from the perspective of Africa, though.
HAQ: We will come back to you from the perspective of Africa.
Ivan, why don’t you take it.
You know, it’s interesting I think we were—I was watching this—I guess I saw a news article—but you guys know Davos is happening—the World Economic Forum—and we had a bunch of U.S. senators and I think a congressman up there. And one of our senators said that, you know, the war in Ukraine has united the world, you know, and everybody’s doing everything they can blah, blah, blah. And fortunately, the conversation shifted a bit, and I think they kind of came to the realization that it’s not actually everybody, right?
I think from a sanctions standpoint, two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries that are not participating in these sanctions on Russia, and so I think it’s interesting—sort of a very uniquely American perspective, right, that sort of everybody really is sort of all—or if you look at it, pretty much all our treaty allies, that’s who everybody—that’s onboard right now. There’s probably some good reasons for that.
HAQ: It’s a Eurocentric perspective, for sure. It’s a NATO-centric perspective.
Amaka, do you want to chime in on Africa now and where Africa fits into the landscape of Russia, China, Ukraine—this great power competition that we’re seeing play out.
ANKU: Well, what we have seen is that most African countries do not want to get dragged in one way or the other. A lot of African countries have various ties with Russia—trading relationships, military relationships. They’re not really all that important, but the history—a lot of African countries really tried to be nonaligned during the Cold War, and they’re still, I would say, committed to that. And I think that most people don’t think that.
So the two ways to look at it, I think—you know, most diplomats you talk to in Africa understand that Putin’s actions in Ukraine changed the global order in a way that fundamentally is not necessarily beneficial to Africa, right? And you know, you can say that while acknowledging the, you know, hypocrisies of the global hegemon—invading Iraq, blah, blah, blah. That’s different from not even trying to justify your actions under international law in any way, right?
And if you are at the periphery of the global economy like Africa and you’re weak, you don’t want a global system that is based on any strong nation just invading whoever they want without even trying to justify it, right?
So there’s that, but at the same time, not knowing how this is going to turn out would rather just stay on the outskirts and see how it plays out.
HAQ: Alex, if you could chime in on the concerns about energy, economic connections. We’ve seen them throughout Europe and how that played a role. Despite that, there was still unity among European allies, but we’re looking at the Middle East, right? OPEC-Plus. Russia still having a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia. How do we navigate that?
JOHNSON: Well, I’d also like to return to this point on unity, and I would say, while we have seen opportunities for the consolidation of democracies, we’ve also seen it show a number of inequities in terms of the prioritization of this particular conflict.
I’ve observed multiple elections in Ukraine. I’ve, you know, engaged a lot in the security assistance effort in different roles, and I would say I was a bit concerned and surprised but also heartened by the fact that the world in terms of the Northern Hemisphere, as Ivan was putting it, showed up to engage and activate mechanisms and tools that we haven’t even used before in terms of global governance.
But I was concerned that there were so many other conflicts that were not galvanized as a part of this particular effort—that, you know, looking at Yemen, looking all over across the globe where the wasn’t the same level of commitment.
I would say we’ve seen things that we never expected in terms of, you know, the NATO defense ministerials that I joined with the secretary of Defense’s delegation, where we never expected Finland or Sweden to put forward an application. This is exciting, but it also puts us on the precipice of really substantial and potential conflict in terms of Article 5 invocation.
So going back to economics and other points that you had raised, I think there are a lot of concerns around food insecurity globally. I have friends and family in places like Tunisia and Egypt that had substantial exposure to Ukrainian wheat, where now people are lining up for bread. And this invasion by Russia has demonstrated a lot of single points of failure in terms of global supply chains and other engagement.
HAQ: Ana Janaina, Amaka mentioned the idea of what this says about United States’ willingness to stand up for democracy. Alex mentioned the Northern Hemisphere. Let’s look at the Western Hemisphere. Does any of that rhetoric ring true for the people or the nations in Latin America?
NELSON: It’s interesting to see. I’d say the three countries to look at is Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. They’ve taken very interesting positions, very different positions—some you would expect to a certain extent.
But going to Alex’s point in terms of food security, both Brazil and Argentina are actually very concerned with the access to fertilizer from Russia, and that will then—that leads to—they’re the principal exporter of soy to China, right? So there’s a whole connection here.
And so they have taken a very cautious position, not different from what African countries have done, but in that sense—and right before the conflict itself—they, as many others thought that it was just bluff, and so they showed some support for Russia by traveling to Russia in early February. I don’t think they realized the impact of what they were doing at the time, especially for their relationship with the United States. They did it anyway, mostly because they were playing a double game.
When push comes to shove, though, they have supported actively the U.N. Security Council votes, the UNGA votes. So I think even though—and Mexico as well as has been uncharacteristically mum and kind of taken a step back when normally they’re very involved.
All three have taken a lot of refugees, have given humanitarian visas for two to three years to Ukrainian refugees. So it’s interesting to see how they kind of thread the needle of being—you know, being able to support the United States, support Ukraine, but not turn their back on Russia.
So they haven’t taken the strong stance that we’ve seen definitely in the transatlantic area, but they are supporting. But we—they are involved. They have taken a position.
HAQ: Staying with Latin America for a moment, looking at the Summit of Americas coming up, knowing that this Ukraine conflict and part of why it’s captured global imagination is the treaties, the NATO treaty and how that’s actively been enforced and engaged—engagement in that treaty.
And do we see a similar example coming out of Latin America?
NELSON: Yeah, no. It’s interesting that this whole conversation about do we solve—still solve global issues with treaties, right? And the answer’s probably not.
It’s an anachronistic. The Summit of the Americas is definitely an anachronistic. It was created in the ’90s when we naively still thought that we could come together. This is, you know, the FTAA, the Doha round.
And we’re in a very, very different place. We probably—and I don’t know what the White House is thinking at this stage—but we probably—you know, we started it. We probably should close it down for now and find other ways to engage with what I would call in the region our frenemies because our major problem in the region is we don’t really have allies. And therefore, they’re not interested in showing up to a summit that we are hosting and we have called for, and we’re very connected in terms of identity with.
So, no, it’s definitely not renewal of an alliance as we see in NATO—the opposite of that.
HAQ: Alex, when we talk about the relationship with allies and how we can strengthen these relationships, President Biden just came back from a trip to Asia, where he made some strong statements about Taiwan—what the U.S. will and will not do against the backdrop of what the United States did and did not do in Ukraine.
So same question to you about the Asia-Pacific region. Is there—is that region coming together without the United States?
JOHNSON: For Ivan.
HAQ: Ivan, I apologize.
KANAPATHY: No, no, no, of course.
So I think it’s, you know, for us to sort of have an apathy view, right, as foreign policy specialists like everybody here, and to not write off sort of what Russia and China are saying from a narrative perspective, and to really understand why Asia’s sort of fence-sitting, right, and this competition’s going on.
You know, from the China—if you want to call it propaganda or from their narrative perspective—what’s happening in Ukraine—again, they’re right there alongside Russia—is something that the West caused, right? Like we created a security dilemma, painted Putin into a corner. Putin gave us ample warnings over the years, and then finally had to respond, right, for his own security. That’s the storyline.
And there’s another piece to that that I think is important is that Ukraine is the victim in this, and the United States-led West has thrown Ukraine to the wolves.
And that is something that I think does gain some traction in the developing world—the G-77 what have you—because it, you know—it sort of—we’re very clear about, oh, we’re not putting American lives on the line, right? And then when you look at what’s actually happening to the Ukrainian people, that type of narrative, again, is not—we shouldn’t write them off, I guess, quite that easily.
HAQ: Is that a narrative just because of Ukraine or because of the Afghanistan withdrawal as well?
KANAPATHY: No, I think it’s from a series of things that have happened really, right, over the past decade, and it’s part of the larger narrative that China pushes, which obviously we need to consider—that, you know, the U.S. goes around the world intervening and creating a lot of suffering as a result.
You know, militarily like our answer is, you know, we’re hammering everything that looks like a nail. That’s the story, and that has, I think, around the world—a lot of folks do look at the United States through that lens.
HAQ: Amaka, what are we missing in Africa when it comes to the narrative that’s either being sold by China or sold by the United States?
ANKU: So there lots of ways to answer that question because there’s this whole myth about, you know, the dangers of China in Africa.
But let me start on the U.S. side, right, because I think that for me the biggest problem when I try to evaluate U.S. foreign policy in Africa is that I don’t know what the goal is, and I don’t know how—I don’t know if the U.S. knows how it would define success, right? And if you don’t know how you will define success, how can you be successful, right?
And so the first thing, you know, when I look at U.S. foreign policy in Africa is we need to define what the goal is. Is the goal simply to project American power? Or is it actually to promote peace and stability and prosperity and create stable markets for American exports that would help America?
And if that’s the case, then I think one of the—you know, it’s a maybe controversial position—you know, my view is that if that’s the case, then America needs to recognize that state legitimacy exists on a spectrum. Because when we look at the rhetoric, it’s often so focused on elections. Like when the liberal international order was created, you know—the U.S.-led order after the Second World War, the idea wasn’t through the post—the Cold War, the idea was that this is the best system to create prosperity and growth. That was the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal wasn’t to get you competitive elections, right?
But now that’s how all—at least in Africa, that’s how U.S. foreign policy acts as if the goal is to have an election, right? That’s not to say that elections are not good, things to aspire to, but the things that are going to get you prosperity, an economic take-off, is not necessarily just having an election.
But we have—we create an election and then we go, oh, yeah, and then what happens, right? A coup. (Laughter.) Anyway, so all of that to say—so I think we need to define the goals, recognize—and when I say recognize that state legitimacy exists on a spectrum, state legitimacy is all of the things that you expect a functioning government to be doing, and that’s what we should be evaluating.
We should nuance our rhetoric so that we can build in—yes, we want rule of law; yes, we want competitive elections, but yes, we want a government that is effective. We want competent bureaucracies. We want governments that provide infrastructure, electricity, security, policing.
Can we actually be supporting those things in state governments and not just funding civil societies to criticize government, right? Which is what I end up seeing a lot in Arica.
So I’ll stop there because I’m getting—I’m, like, talking too much. So let me stop, and we can come back to China in Africa. (Laughs.)
HAQ: Absolutely. We’ve got plenty to talk about across the continents, as we’re doing right now.
But let’s go to the Western Hemisphere again, Janaina, with you. How much of what Amaka has said applies to Latin America as well, particularly when we look at this idea of free and fair elections breeds prosperity for the people?
NELSON: So it’s interesting. I was born and raised abroad. I went to college abroad. And there’s a few things for me that are kind of—I’d say, kind of a culture shock. I was born and raised in Brazil and went to college in Brazil.
Definitely in Latin America and, I would argue, probably in Africa and in a lot of emerging markets, there is a prioritization of economic rights versus political rights. In the United States, there’s a definite priority for political rights. The argument goes, if you get political rights right, then the economic, you know, stability comes, and so on and so forth.
That is not how the emerging market sees this play out, and there’s a very clear reason why economic rights are more important. They need to survive. People need to find food. They need to have jobs, right? This is very basic.
So I do see that. I agree with Amaka that perhaps taking a different approach would make sense, not just focusing on the basics, focusing on economic development and see it kind of go the other way around. When you reach prosperity, perhaps then you will have stronger government, stronger elections, and democracies. Yeah.
HAQ: What does that mean in terms of U.S. resources?
NELSON: The amount of money that we would spend—that’s a good question. I mean, we are—we’re not—we don’t have to be the ones who are taking care of this all the time, right? I’d say—I mean, I’m in tech, so—and perhaps I’ve, you know, drank Kool-Aid on the tech side of things—but I would argue that if you help governments increase revenues, spend less, increase productivity, you could eventually get to a place in which the United States needs to give less aid, and they could stand on their own more.
We’re talking about basics such as digital justice, right? The justice system doesn’t work in the emerging markets. I can’t even pick a country in Latin America in which it does work. And it’s mostly a problem of bottlenecks. It’s mostly a problem of everything is in paper piles, and there’s just very few judges or paralegals to go through all of this.
But the result of that is that people don’t see government working for themselves, right? So they don’t trust governments, and they just think, oh, they’re all the same politicians. So if you can solve certain ones of these bottlenecks, I think you could actually make tangible progress without that much money.
Tax revenue is another issue. Obviously, there’s so much—there’s tax evasion. If you can find ways to automate and identify peaks and valleys and go after the ones that really are doing tax evasion, you could increase revenue of governments, which one would hope is then used to better spend and spend on citizens.
So I don’t think it’s all on the back of the United States. It’s definitely not just on back of the U.S. and Europe. I think everybody kind of has to stand on their own, but it’s really a prioritization ultimately.
HAQ: And Alex, in that context of resources and how we navigate U.S. influence and U.S. power, you work with civil society, right? You’ve been on both sides. You’ve been on the government side; now one of the largest civil society organizations. Even that term civil society is new to many people in the United States. So what is a civil society perspective on the value of free and fair elections and the value of U.S. power?
JOHNSON: First, I would say to go back to the government perspective and conclude with civil society perspective. In this space I think it’s important to put respect on the name of a pioneer in transatlantic relations, Representative Alcee Hastings, who I worked for many years for, a member of the CBC. And going back to the election point and political rights, he often said in many engagements, an election does not a democracy make.
And so his work in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly—the only American to ever be the president of that entity—he focused on U.S. influence and opportunities for engagement. And one of the key things that the OSCE does frequently is election observation and accountability and partnership with civil society to have key outcomes.
Going to the Europe beat and why political rights matter, looking at Hungary and the recent declaration by Prime Minister Orbán of essentially a state of emergency, because of the invasion of Ukraine, affords him the opportunity to rule by decree and consolidate political power and democratic institutions in a way that absolutely undermines the ability of underserved and underrepresented voices to be engaged in that country, and even in broader Europe in terms of the broader engagement that he has with EU institutions.
So civil society is particularly concerned with actions like this and autocratic trends by leaders, and we work in my daily work with a number of partners embattled, human rights defenders in closed spaces where they are fighting every day and under the threat of various actions to be taken by government in order to make a change and move beyond political rights into some of the issues that my colleagues here were discussing.
ANKU: Can I jump in on this?
HAQ: Of course.
ANKU: And I want to jump in on the issue of political rights—this idea that political rights—once you get that right, then other things come.
So I’ve thought about this a lot, like historically. So if you think about like the—most African countries are about 60 years old, right? When the U.S. was sixty years old? In 1836. Who could vote in the U.S., right?
It was maybe about—it was a decade before the Civil War, right? Which we know what was happening, right? Like even after the Civil War during Reconstruction, lots of like messy elections, violence. Black people were getting killed just for trying to vote, right? Women couldn’t vote.
So actually, historically, most of Europe industrialized not as democracies. America did not industrialize as a democracy. In many ways, Africa is actually attempting to do something that most industrialized nations did not do—industrialize as a place where everybody—women—you know, whatever you are, whatever color you are, whatever gender you are, can actually vote, right?
So if you think about it—you know, you could argue, look, is it harder maybe to, like, have everybody buy into an industrialization project when you have that many diverse constituencies versus just White men, right? And in some cases it was White landed men in Europe, not even all White men. But anyway—so the point being, actually there’s not a lot of historical examples for people democratizing with, like, widespread—I mean industrialized widespread political rights. OK.
To your question about what does this mean about U.S. resources—also something I think about a lot, recognizing that it’s a very difficult question, right—but I tend to see—like when I think a lot of aid—like people get—the way we talk about aid, as if aid actually goes to the country, right? The reality is that a lot of aid—
HAQ: You mean the people.
ANKU: Yeah, goes to the people.
HAQ: The people versus a government. OK, so—
ANKU: No, I mean, think about—USA doesn’t give money to governments most of the time, actually. The USA gives money to American contractors to write studies and do stuff. Like a lot of aid money is coming right back to the U.S., right? That’s just the reality of it.
And actually, there are reasons for that. I want to say, like, it’s complicated, and it’s—you know, there are reasons for that. A part of it is the fear of corruption, whatever, so fund civil society. But so—I’m from Nigeria. A lot of, you know, funding for civil society basically means like—the way it ends up being perceived—that’s why I say there’s a divide between the rhetoric and the actual—I think America wants to fund effective governments. But the way—because of the rhetoric, civil society means people who criticize government.
So if you want to get money from America, like, you should probably be criticizing government because we’ve embedded this deep distrust of government. And I’m not saying—again, I know there’s no easy answer to this—but maybe what we should be doing—so I would like to see, like, more programs.
Like the MCC does a great job, I think, of, like, actually supporting governments to do things, like, electricity, right. I would love to see—and I think this is a challenge for all of us. I’m not saying—I don’t have the right answer.
But it’s a challenge for all of us to think about, like, how do we actually do, you know, foreign policy in a way that promotes all the stuff that we want to see, but also promotes effective, you know, state capacity in providing policing, infrastructure?
The reason China has become—you know, now everybody’s worried about China in Africa is because China went—China was funding bridges, railways— things that African governments felt they needed, not the things that China—like the U.S. does—thinks you need.
You need to have multiparty democracy. We’re going to fund you to learn about democracy. That’s fine. But what about funding what we think we need for our development, more of that?
HAQ: The Inter-American Foundation does that for Latin America. The problem is scale. But the Inter-American Foundation does that.
ANKU: Yeah. And I want to say the U.S.—MCC also does some of that—
HAQ: A counterpoint?
JOHNSON: If I could jump in, two finger—a counterpoint indeed—being the civil society representative invoked—(laughter)—you know, she threw down the gauntlet.
No, but I would say it's not about criticizing governments. I’ll tell you one story why, and this really is relevant for those of you gathered in this room.
When I was working with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I was working a lot on fighting human trafficking. Civil Society has a number of organizations that are providing shelters and direct service providers in terms of crucial human needs in communities.
And I remember being in Uzbekistan meeting with human trafficking victims as a part of a U.S. delegation and raising to a couple of individuals—they asked why did I even care about trafficking victims in Uzbekistan. And I told them because I am the decedent of enslaved Africans of America, and this matters—an injustice here, an exploitation here matters.
The translator from the embassy was concerned about even translating what I said, and then, as soon as he did, people erupted into applause around the table. So it’s really important, especially for those of you in this room, to be engaged in this field because your agency and representation matters.
And in the—with all the organizations I’ve worked with in terms of human rights defenders and others, their presence and engagement is not just about critiquing governments, it’s about building capacity for governments to do the right thing.
And in some forms that takes a narrative approach in terms of public—a public engagement, and in other forms that’s actually a close partnership with governments in terms of implementing vital services that would not be delivered otherwise.
HAQ: And in other cases, it takes the form of U.S. officials using their power or their visit to meet with the marginalized communities, right—
HAQ: —particularly in Africa, support for LGBTQ members of Ugandan-Nigeria society.
But there’s no universe, Ivan, in which President Biden or any U.S. diplomat would go meet with Uyghur people in China, why is that the case?
KANAPATHY: Yeah. Well, it’s actually funny you should raise that. So the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, from—who hails from Latin America—Chile, I believe—Michelle Bachelet, is in China right now, quote/unquote, “meeting” with Uyghurs. I mean, she is meeting with the Uyghurs.
HAQ: But that’s the U.N., that’s not the United States.
KANAPATHY: No, it is, and that just—the background on that is that, one, has taken years to get to—get her to visit, but I think, more importantly, is not really the type of visit that we’re looking for. It’s not real access. It’s basically going to be a, you know, Potemkin type of trip and display.
And it’s a challenge, but I’ll tell you one of the things about that is, you know, she got to Beijing—and I think the Chinese Foreign Ministry put out a statement that said—you know, after a conversation with the foreign minister, I think the Chinese said, well, this—you know, she congratulated us on our achievements in human rights protection, which, you know, I’m sure she said some nice things, and they selectively quoted her, but there is—there is—again, if we step back and think about how we define human rights, there is a whole nother narrative coming out of China, but not just China, about what human rights means. And Amaka had touched on it a little bit; it’s just you have—the Chinese perspective is very different from sort of how we think in this country and how we’re raised to believe, and it’s about—one, it’s about collective so individual rights are clearly marginalized, but it’s about development, right? You are talking about people that, you know, could be for a long time below subsistence level, and so the achievement that they are talking about is bringing people out of poverty which obviously China has done over the years. But clearly, you know, taking advantage of the opportunity for propaganda, they’ve kind of twisted that a little bit in the case of the Uighurs here.
HAQ: Jana, we have a complicated history in Latin America when it comes to supporting human rights and political rights. Is there a new generation taking root in leadership in Latin America that can help us navigate a new curve?
NELSON: Yeah, now—and our very own Paul Angelo is the one who coined the term of the new millennials in power in Latin America.
We do. We have two presidents; one had just left in Costa Rica and then we have Bukele in El Salvador, and we have Boric in Chile that are all millennials. They do their work as presidents in a very different way. They probably—I’m just really thinking—but they wouldn’t take from the same playbook as Michelle Bachelet has done of, you know, let’s make everybody happy and work with everybody. They don’t have much patience for that. They have—in the case of Bukele, not necessarily for the better. Let’s see what happens with Boric in Chile, but things seems good, but definitely a new generation, definitely a very kind of more honest, more straightforward way of governing, more inclusive—I would argue in some cases—way of governing—definitely in the case of Boric. And just thinking about—again, on the tech side—but thinking about the world more digitally, right? Again, not necessarily for the better, but definitely taking more of a visual approach to how to govern.
HAQ: Didn’t El Salvador adopt cryptocurrency as a—as one of its key currencies, and is that the effort to jump ahead of this curve or the pain that everybody else has had to go through in this economic and industrial transition?
NELSON: No, that would not be the case. (Laughter.)
HAQ: Yeah. (Laughs.)
NELSON: Yes, he did adopt cryptocurrency. There are some countries in Latin America that are jumping ahead. I would say actually Chile, but not just necessarily because of Boric. Especially during the pandemic, a lot of countries in Latin America have decided to become more digital to provide digital services to their citizens. Now I’m sure, for those who have lived abroad, the idea of waking up at six in the morning, going to a government building to get your documentation is not unfamiliar to you. Now, in many countries, you don’t have to do that, and so they are—it’s not just about the presidents being millennials; there’s definitely a government change—millennials now in government. I mean, millennials are all in their 40s or starting to be in their 40s, right, so they are definitely in higher level positions. They are undersecretaries in Latin America, so they are bringing change to the region, also with this kind of more of a tech perspective. Yeah.
HAQ: Well, part of why I wanted to focus on each of the regions and their perspectives—not only U.S. resources but what they are trying to solve, right, that the solutions that they are looking for is then to bring it back now to what that means for U.S. foreign policy and U.S. action next because we don’t often hear in our meetings from the people that are being impacted by our decisions, right? They are not the number one priority when it comes to the Deputies Committee deciding what U.S. policy will be.
So thank you—each of you for providing that, and now, quick round robin of what you think is either the resource challenge, the technical challenge, the bureaucratic challenge within U.S. government structures—that we can maybe turn one key and make a difference to have U.S. foreign policy be more responsive to the needs of the global community.
Who wants to start?
NELSON: I actually have a pet peeve on that one.
HAQ: Done. Done.
NELSON: Can I start? (Laughter.)
So one of the things—and this may be a bit too long—but one of the things that seems to me very interesting is that folks don’t—I mean, we talk about white privilege a lot in the United States, as we should, but we don’t talk about American privilege, and it is a privilege to be an American, and not necessarily in the way that we think, right?
We’ve just gone through two years of printing money. The majority of countries in this world cannot do that. They do not have that tool in their toolbox. Even those who are extremely fiscally responsive—responsible, like Colombia has been the last two years—they just got their bonds downgraded to junk. The United States only gets a slap on the wrist from Fitch.
And so, you know, I understand the reasons why, but there is not much of a conversation about the reasons why. There’s not much of a conversation about the economic effects worldwide of the fact that we are printing money, right—how this is creating inflation, not for us but for everybody else—not just for us. But, you know, let’s talk about—imbue a little bit of these assumptions that we just take for granted, and shouldn’t, into other foreign policy conversations. So, for example, central bank digital currency—very exciting, very interesting. I’m in favor in many cases, but there isn’t really a conversation about how that will change the U.S. dollar’s power as a reserve currency, right? And it will. It will weaken the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency. And as a result, we will lose power in the global world because that is one of the reasons we have the global power that we have.
HAQ: The power of the U.S. dollar.
NELSON: The power of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency specifically—and it will limit our options in the toolbox with monetary and foreign policy.
Anyway, that is a pet peeve, but it’s definitely one thing that people don’t think about, and I think it’s just more evident and obvious if you are coming from abroad.
KANAPATHY: I think I would just stress sort of, you know, a couple of things—the examples that were brought up just now is that we need to take a more sort of targeted approach to the audiences that we’re at instead of—and you know, it kind of goes back to what Amaka was saying, like, you know, when she is saying it’s not just about elections, right? It’s about—it really depends on the country and sometimes even on a smaller scale the country on making sure that we understand what narratives are going to be effective. And I don’t mean that in a sense of, like, you know, trickery or propaganda on our part, which some would call it, but sort of understanding what the demand signal is and what we can provide because, again, everything is not a nail necessarily, right?
JOHNSON: I think I have a pretty easy thing. The U.S. government needs to hire many more people from out of this room right here. It would be an easy fix. When you—and also there needs to be advancement in terms of promotion and leadership that truly looks like America. And the reason why it matters is I can’t tell you in my career how many times I had the U.S. placard in front of me in a negotiation and my interlocutor did not expect me to be the one with the authority for that negotiation.
Until we show up and have more representation in our government to disabuse our partners, allies, and others of that notion, then we will continue to have less sustainable foreign policy outcomes. We need to bring our agency of all of our identities to the table in terms of our work and our engagement.
ANKU: I’m glad I’m going after that because I think that is an extremely important point, and I will—you know, I will say one of the things I think needs to improve, but I think it’s nice to go off of the back of like one of the—I think one of America’s superpowers, right—other than being a superpower—is that—it’s this ability to—(laughs)—it’s this ability to really bring talent from all over the world and for us to be having discussion, for me to be criticizing certain portions of policy, and learning from that and moving on, right?
OK, so in that spirit—(laughs)—so as somebody who is African, who studies African politics, I think, to Jana’s point, the most important thing for Africa to develop and to industrialize is finance—is lack of access of finance. The problem with U.S. foreign policy is that U.S. foreign policy has relegated Africa to the human rights strain, right? We can talk about—we talk about Latin America and we talk about economic stuff. We talk about Asia, it’s economic. When it’s about Africa, it’s corruption and human rights. OK.
Now that’s important, but that corruption and human rights did not stop American businesses from investing in China, right, from investing in South Korea, from investing—all of the new—all of the Asian Tigers, all of those countries that have recently industrialized—industrialized with a ton of capital flows from U.S. and Europe.
Africa has not been industrialized because we made some military—some militaries perfect and stop any human rights abuses. That’s not going to happen until we have more effective governments that can actually deliver social—you know, public goods to their citizens, right? So I feel like we need to sequence this properly and stop putting the horse before the cart; like we need to actually focus on effective government, building effective bureaucracies.
And I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about human rights, but that, to me—like, it’s frustrating as an African because that’s the only thing you talk about when it comes to Africa. So the one thing I would change is stop letting U.S. foreign policy be hijacked by special interests because that’s what ends up happening, and it’s special interests, both here and there, as opposed to like this is what we want to achieve, and this is how we’re going to achieve it.
HAQ: The other assumption we just made in this conversation, of course, is that U.S. foreign policy is actually about helping people around the world and not exclusively—(laughter)—about helping the United States.
JOHNSON: All right.
HAQ: But it was nice to sit in that space for a little bit, right? (Laughter.) Thank you for making those—but that’s why said in the beginning, is what is it about, right?
ANKU: Of course that’s a part of it.
HAQ: But wait. It taps into the idea we have of ourselves and who we want to be on the world stage.
And with that, I would like to open it up to questions from our audience. So let’s start with somebody in the room.
Q: Hi. Hello, thank you very much. I’m Valery Leon Quintero. I come from Wheaton College, Massachusetts, but I was born and raised in Venezuela.
It is very interesting to hear your perspective on human rights, but as we see on the current world, we are facing a major refugee crisis worldwide, and not all refugee crises are being attended properly given that a lot of people, like Venezuelans, are not even considered refugees, but displaced people.
So I would like to hear your perspective on what will be best or ideally considering the premise that the United States want to help everyone, and what could we do next to support refugees who might be a stateless people, such as Palestinians, and regard aid as well, so yes, I will just like to hear your thoughts on specific regions and what comes next for these regions.
HAQ: So the refugee crisis is a global one with global impact, so why don’t we do a quick answer from everybody, and we can go regionally.
ANKU: I’ll let somebody else speak up first.
JOHNSON: I think I spoke to this earlier on your question. We need equity in terms of our processes, particularly when it comes to refugees. I’ve heard stories at the—of border police, recently in Tijuana and other places, or right in San Diego—on the border, going out into a crowd and looking for someone White to ask if they are Ukrainian to bring them to the front of the line and say, hey, we’re helping Ukrainians now so, you know, skip everybody else. That is inherently, you know, discriminatory, and until we have accountability for those types of practices, and look at equity in terms of any of our support for refugees, and consideration of global conflicts, we’re going to still run into a lot of challenges. So that requires contacting your members of Congress who may represent near some of those border crossings to engage with that leadership in terms of trying to have some accountability.
HAQ: Does that bring us back to the challenge we’re seeing now with Turkey combatting NATO integration of Finland and Sweden because Turkey—no one—they don’t—from their perspective, no one helped them with their Syrian refugee crisis to the degree that everyone in Europe is helping Poland with their Ukrainian one.
JOHNSON: Yeah, well, I joined some visits to Gaziantep and others in terms of looking at that crisis as well, and I would say—and the Obama administration veterans would argue—I think a lot of bandwidth did go to try and help Turkey at that time. But I think not enough and not at the scale that we’ve seen in terms of the present conflict.
So maybe it’s learning from our mistakes as a nation in terms of U.S. foreign policy, but I think there is more there in terms of, you know, what refugees look like.
HAQ: Ivan, do you feel comfortable speaking to Rohingya refugees and the crisis we see in Southeast Asia?
KANAPATHY: Yeah. I mean, I think there is—you know, I would agree with Alex that I don’t think we can deny that there is a racial component to thinking the policy, the advocacy that you get, you know, here in the United States. There is also this timeliness component; like this is the latest thing, right? This is what’s in the news. And you saw it a little bit with Afghanistan, too, right? And the—you know, the Rohingya crisis has been, you know, dragging on for five-plus year now at this point, and it’s just—you know, it’s obviously dreadful. And thankfully it was—you know, not that this solves the problem, but we finally called it what it is this year, which is a genocide, just like we have in China. That brings some attention to it, but again, it doesn’t seem to—at least from my view doesn’t seem to really create the attention here in America that you see with the more recent issues.
HAQ: And real quick, Jana, then on—when it comes to—it’s a question started with Venezuela and Latin America, Colombia refugee crisis, and then of course we talk about Central America as if it’s an immigration problem and not a refugee problem.
NELSON: No, you are absolutely right, and I’m from right across the border from Venezuela, in Manaus, and so it’s very real for me. I see the numbers of refugees crossing the border and how they’re treated because it’s hard for the receiving country as well. And it shouldn’t be. We should all really take a step up and receive everybody with open arms, which I would argue many countries in Latin America have done.
You know, there’s pros and cons here, but Colombia has taken millions and millions, giving them free public health, education, and we really should applaud them. And the way we have been treating—the United States has been treating Central American refugees, Venezuelan refugees, and others—Haitians, the list goes on, to be honest—is definitely a blemish in our history.
HAQ: One question from our virtual friends.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Kailey Smith.
Q: Hi. My name is Kailey Smith, and I am currently a master’s student at Syracuse University.
And my question is for Amaka specifically since she happens to be the resident sort of expert on Africa, but if anyone has any feedback on this, it can be answered by anyone.
So you provided discussion on Africa industrialization and democracy when we’re talking about the continent. But I’m wondering if you can speak specifically on militarization of Africa, specifically in terms of the recently passed House Resolution 7311.
ANKU: Sorry, you mean the U.S. militarization of Africa?
Q: Yes, the U.S. militarization.
ANKU: (Laughs.) Do you really want me to—no, just kidding.
HAQ: Do it. Do it.
ANKU: (Laughs.) I don’t know what to say.
Look, I think—look, it goes all back to the same point that I’ve been trying to harp on, right, which is that U.S. policy in Africa has been driven mostly by security interests. And I want to be clear that I do recognize foreign policy—the goal of foreign policy is to benefit the U.S., right, like we have to start there. But I think that, you know—and in Africa it has been, oh, there are potential Islamic militants so let’s spend all this money on military cooperation.
I haven’t followed this resolution. I would say that it is something that several people are concerned about, that U.S. foreign policy has already been militarized enough. It’s already sort of—somewhat too focused on security in Africa so like to militarize Africa is not going to help anybody, right? So I guess that’s—that would be my view. I don’t think it will be helpful.
And I think that we just—just to use this question to like make a broader point, I do think that—part of my point is that America needs to recognize that—to take the long view, right, which some other countries take, which is for long-term security at home, right, depends on creating stable, functioning states—whatever that means—holistically, right? Not just states that can do elections like Mali did and then there was a coup, right? Or Benin and Burkina Faso there was a coup.
So I think that the security focus—and that’s in part because of the way the military-industrial complex works here that sucks up so much money in our foreign policy, right, like we need to figure out how to nuance it and move away from that, that there’s a bit focus on other things.
I don’t know if that answers your question, but I would say that it’s not—that’s something that some people are concerned about, and I don’t think it will help.
HAQ: And it’s not exclusively to Africa—is that lens of the war on terror and the long reach that that has had on foreign policy writ large.
Another question from the room.
Q: Hi, thank you all so much for speaking with us today. My name is Jocelyn Trainer. I work at the United States Institute of Peace on inclusive peace processes and reconciliation.
I was really struck by your conversation on democracy, and particularly how we frame the conversation around it. A lot of the American tools that seem to be really heavily reliant on sticks, such as sanctions, conditionalities on aid, naming and shaming—where are there opportunities to further rely on carrots to incentivize democracy to show the everyday payoffs and dividends of democracy and approach the conversation less as a patronizing older brother and more as a cooperative partner?
HAQ: Ivan, let’s start with you. And I say this because it is—East Asia presents an interesting balance of authoritarians and fully functioning industrialized democracies as opposed to emerging democracies.
KANAPATHY: Yeah. So a couple of things on that is I think, as was pointed out earlier, the sort of most developed, fully functioning democracies sort of started out as authoritarians and sort of—and started industrializing, and sort of made their transitions. And, you know, the obvious ones are South Korea and Taiwan. And so that’s the process that maybe, you know, a model—
HAQ: What were the carrots in that case? Were there any carrots—
KANAPATHY: Well, I think there was a lot of what—you know, sort of the post-war era—post-World War II, that is a lot of—and same thing Germany and Japan, really, were sort of—it was U.S. investment, you know, and engagement, and things like that, I mean, but that was part of a larger strategic investment—geostrategic—from the United States, like those are key places, you know, that we wanted to make sure were on sides. And so, again, it was U.S. foreign policy decisions that drove the engagement and the financing ultimately that kind of resulted in the map we have today.
I think this is true probably in Latin America and in Africa, but the question of, you know, the sticks, the military-industrial complex—it is very much the view out there—I think most of you understand that—that, you know, the U.S. is there to provide the security and whatnot, and DOD kind of has been asked—again, if that’s our hammer—to do a lot of things that aren’t actually—I mean, we have like civil affairs, we have all these things within the Defense Department now as a result of that, partly because of the way our system is set up.
But the view, you know, definitely in Asia and I think, again, in Africa, is that the economic engagement is going to come from China and already is, right? And so there is a problem, as you’ve identified—and I’m not giving you an answer, but that is just naturally where countries are looking for their economic sort of boost—is to China, and then the stability, security, and the basic capacity—health and, you know, very basic stuff—the U.S. is going to help us with that.
ANKU: Can I—
ANKU: Yeah, I mean, I think—I like that frame-in because I think you are sort of saying what I’ve been also saying, right, which is that if you take—if you take the long-term view, it’s easier to find carrots, right? So a part of the reason the U.S. opened up China in the first place—1972 or ’76 or whatever it was—because U.S. was looking and thinking, hmm, you know, they have a billion people—I don’t know how many people it was then, but so many people there, we might want to get them on our side, right, and so before the Soviets really locked them in.
And part of the reason so much money went into South Korea is because, again, you know, after the war North Korea was communist—oh, we really want to invest in South Korea so that we can show that we can succeed—you know, so the point being there needs to be focus for Africa. I don’t think people have sat down and thought, look, 20 percent of the world’s population is projected to be the only place where fertility rates are over three—five—I think it’s like 5.5 (percent), right, whereas like everybody else in the industrialized countries is barely replacing, right, like at barely replacement rates. Most of the projections are that almost—nearly half of the world’s population will be in Africa, right—90 percent will be in Africa and Asia, right, and by 2050—not that long from now.
So if you think about that, and if you think about most of the industrialized economies are saturated in terms of demand, right, most of the growth is going to come from Africa and Asia, then that becomes—that should be the carrots, right? So instead of, like, oh my God, how do I, you know—I don’t know, put more military (on the books ?) and, like, I’m so worried about human rights. That’s all fine, but why don’t we focus on creating markets because very soon there will be nobody left—I mean, I shouldn’t put it that way—there will not be as many people to buy our goods in Europe, right? There will be a lot more people in Africa and maybe in Asia as well, and we want those people to buy our goods, and we want them to buy our goods instead of Chinese goods, right? That’s a carrot.
So now let’s think about it that way, and how do we actually make it such that we create this viable export market, OK? I think that’s—I think that if we focus on the economic opportunity, then you create more carrots than sticks. And I agree that it’s more effective, right, than saying, you know, do this, create a perfect military and I’ll give you money, right, which is not going to happen.
HAQ: A question from our virtual friends.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Deneyse Kirkpatrick.
Q: Good afternoon panelists. My name is Deneyse Kirkpatrick. I am the senior advisor for the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, the oldest bipartisan foreign affairs commission in the U.S. government where we assess public diplomacy activities and report to the president, secretary of State, and Congress.
My question for the panelists is what are your thoughts on controversial domestic U.S. events and its impact on U.S. foreign policy? Does gun violence, racial injustice, or abortion issues have any impact on U.S. standing or credibility in the global community? Thank you.
HAQ: Alex, let’s start with you.
JOHNSON: So one of the things, when I was working at the U.S. Helsinki Commission with our commissioners there, that we did in the context of the movement for black lives and mobilization globally around violence was to convene a series of hearings and briefings on human rights at home. The thing about organizations and entities that are focused in terms of U.S. engagement in multilateral fora is that it needs to be reflexive; it needs to be reciprocal. We need to look at how we are living up to our obligations in terms of that international order that we espouse.
So we had a series of hearings that we literally engaged on racial justice in terms of our legitimacy to even go and work on these issues in terms of cooperation in other spaces. And I think, from my time working with other diplomatic delegations in the context of the OSCE, I did not find many other nations willing to be as candid in that type of reflection. You wouldn’t have seen in their parliaments that level of candor, and I think that’s going back to the discussion of superpowers—is something that we have is that we do have a vibrant space for discourse where we can engage that if we have the right leadership willing to take on those tough questions and have that courage.
HAQ: If we don’t have the right leadership willing to take on those questions, how much of a liability does that make us to our adversaries like Russia and China?
KANAPATHY: So I—I mean, I agree with Alex that I think it’s more of an advantage because of our system, right, that we can talk about it and are willing to say we’re talking about it. And the secretary of State has said, you know, in response to his Chinese counterparts, yeah, let’s talk about our problems, right? Or do you want to talk about yours, and he usually gets kind of a silent treatment—(laughter)—but that’s, I think, powerful because being able to say, yeah, we’re not perfect; we’re still evolving, I think it actually—I see it very much as an advantage. And we have obviously a history that, again, we’re willing to talk about. And in a place like China, you know, not as much, but I’m sure in Russia and other places that type of history, and current events, and things like this—not permissible. It’s whitewashed completely.
ANKU: I do think—to the question of does it impact our credibility abroad, I do think it does. And I think that—you know, if you—this is a part of why—so if you are—a lot of African diplomats, and I think people all over the world, not just in Africa, right—when you are looking at the U.S. and saying for the past thirty, forty years you’ve done a pretty poor job of actually meeting citizens’ needs, right, like we just have this flat and you haven’t been able to fix it—this gun violence, a reminder, like complete policy gridlock in part because it has been so hijacked by special interests, right? Same with like racial discrimination—I mean, there are so many issues that we’re not fixing at home because of the dysfunctional politics, which makes it hard. Then that’s why I think there’s this divide between like when Biden has this—is trying to create this democracy versus authoritarian—when you reduce your framing, right, for like how to think about the world to like these two things of democracy where—well, you haven’t been that great at delivering our needs through this framework, right? So I do think it impacts credibility.
HAQ: The president is applying that to the United States as well, that frame.
ANKU: Yeah, yeah, that’s fair.
HAQ: Right? But there’s a sense of humility that now it has to be applied to the United States as well.
NELSON: Too, I don’t think that the reason it’s a strength is because we’re willing to talk about it; more that it creates models for other groups abroad, right? So especially in Black Lives Matter conversation, this is—groups in Brazil in particular, but in other countries as well, have really take a lot of, you know, the lessons learned, and how to shape the argument, what to say, and they are carrying on in their way, but really following the model of the conversation in the United States.
There is the flip side to it as well. I mean, the guns conversation—also in Brazil there is a large group of people who are now very pro guns when it was never a thing in Brazil. And I’m taking this particular country just because I know it better, but I think the same is true in the LGBT conversation. In that particular case, yes, you know, not only are we willing to have this conversation, but we’re also willing to carry the flag, literally, right—march and pride, and so on, so forth, even when our leadership does not support it. So our embassies have done that against the president’s will in some cases. And I think that has supported groups abroad, civil society in particular.
HAQ: Audience question, in the room.
Q: Hello, everyone. My name is Pat Mealy, and I’m currently an Army officer.
My question for the panelists is, you know, when we look at intervention or crisis management, is there a role for benign paternalism when we try to address those certain issues? Thank you.
NELSON: Another pet peeve I have is benign sexism, so I actually can’t talk about benign paternalism, but I would assume it’s probably the same in terms of its effect—(laughter)—so I’ll pass it on to others. (Laughter.)
HAQ: No, please. Please continue. (Laughter.)
KANAPATHY: I’m stumped. (Laughter.)
HAQ: Is that weighted—is that a weighted frame of we know better than you but we’re going to try to help you because we know better than you?
JOHNSON: Is that—is that what you’re saying?
HAQ: Does it ever work? We tried for a really long time.
ANKU: Well, I was going to say, well, the proof is in the pudding. I mean, that’s been the—you could argue has been one of the tenets of foreign policy in some regions for a long time, and you know, I don’t think it works.
HAQ: I’ve seen it from the practitioner’s side internally. It is ingrained in how we approach our partners, whether they be government partners or civil society partners on the ground. So it is good to name it and call it, but it is very much a part of how a lot of work gets done in the U.S. government.
NELSON: So on that, and not just with our partners, but with ourselves, right? So there’s a bubble mentality in D.C. I don’t know if you’ve encountered it but, you know, it’s—(laughter)—sometimes you are coming from outside, and you’re like everybody thinks this? This is weird.
And what happens—and particularly at State and I’m sure other agencies—but I was recently talking to a young Foreign Service officer, diverse, who was thinking of leaving. And I looked at her resume, and I said, don’t leave. Don’t leave, and I know why you want to leave because you are at a place in your career right now that you, having had this diverse of experience abroad, knowing all the languages you do, coming from a—you know, not a region that traditionally Foreign Service officers come from—your bosses, who are all White, pale, male, and Yale—or however that saying goes—don’t hear your views and opinions, not because they’re not merited but because they are different from yours, right? So—or from theirs.
But at some point, once you cross that threshold, you are going to be the boss, and we need more people like you to be—to hear—because, A, you’re going to bring a diverse opinion, but B, you are also going to know to hear others with diverse opinion. You’re not going to close it out, right?
So the benign paternalism is not just with our partners; it’s also with our diverse groups in the U.S. government.
HAQ: Another one from in the room?
Q: Tina Long with the State Department, so I’m—great to see good friends, old friends all on the panel.
You know, speaking of retention in public service especially, the State Department and other agencies, I want to bring a big elephant in the room which is—as we are in Asian American Heritage Month—the issue of invisibility. This COVID pandemic has really caused a rise—I mean, it has happened before—way before the pandemic, but the acuteness of the situation of anti-Asian hate crime and also just anti—hate crime, all the hate crimes around the United States and the world. And as we’re encountering this dilemma of strategic competition with China, this is only more accelerated.
How do we retain, you know, the talents of Asian American and Hawaiian-Pacific Islanders who are huge contributors to our government, to the history of America? And so your advice through your walks of life to what message you want to send to them, especially when they are, you know, facing a whole bunch of issues, both internally and externally. Thank you.
HAQ: I will pick up that before I toss it over because I think it’s hilarious in a very dark humor way that in the United States I’m considered Asian whereas if you are in London or the U.K. Asian means South Asian, and then everybody else is Chinese British or Korean British, right, like there is an understanding that there is far more diversity within this two billion population that we’ve just lumped in together as AAPI, so I guess I will have to toss it to you, Ivan, given that is your region.
KANAPATHY: That is, and also my background—(laughter)—you know.
HAQ: I did not assume.
KANAPATHY: So, yeah, yeah. No, very much Asian American here.
I guess the advice from my perspective and experience is—and it’s going to sound not very helpful to you, I think, is—you know, it’s kind of like what Jana was saying: you’ve got to stick it out, and you’ve got to do it for the people who are a couple of years behind you, and they’ve got to do it for the people that are a couple of years behind them.
And you know what we saw with Japanese Americans in World War II, Muslim Americans after 9/11, and now it’s—you know, I think, you know, you can say Chinese Americans, but it’s East Asians because, you know, bigots don’t—can’t tell, right?
So the way we talk about things is important. Attributing sort of, you know, maligned behavior to the correct actors—obviously, it makes a difference over time when you hear things over and over again. And so it’s better, you know, not to say the Chinese are doing this, the Chinese are doing that. You know, it’s better to say, you know, the Chinese government, or Xi Jinping, or the Chinese Communist Party. I think that’s important to be precise in our language. But again, it’s not going to—it’s not going to solve everything, it will just help a little bit.
JOHNSON: I think briefly, just to add, you captured a lot of it, but I would say there should be so much more solidarity work that is done in coalition between different identity communities. I mean, when you look at the—most of the successes of the civil rights movement in terms of the Civil Rights Act, and everything in terms of the infrastructure we have today for empowerment that I would say has never fully been implemented and is even eroded in different political circumstances, a lot of that was achieved through coalitions. And I think right now there hasn’t been enough done in terms of solidarity, in terms of hate crime against the AAPI community. Some people are showing up. I would look back to some of the key demonstrations associated with the movement for Black lives, and there were key instances of everyone showing up.
We all need to show up in the frame of, you know, to quote Martin Luther King—I’m surprised I’m the only one so far to say that—(laughs)—right, is, you know, injustice anywhere. We have to show up.
NELSON: I would say it’s also recognizing in our own history where that solidarity has worked—
NELSON: —and my family was only able to come in as immigrants because of the work of the civil rights movement, Black leaders who made sure that the immigration rules were also adjusted. Flip that forward today as we see Black communities and history coming under attack. There is opportunity for solidarity both ways.
HAQ: We’ll just take a little—oh, OK. Well, anyone, last question in the room because we’re ready to wrap.
Right up here, ma’am.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you all. My name is Camila Tobon. I am a master’s student at the SIS School at American University. My focus is U.S. foreign policy and national security, a concentration in China and Southeast Asia.
We’re talking a lot about cohesiveness, about understanding and how achieving a goal happens. And in order to achieve that goal, we have to have an understanding of what that goal is.
A point was brought up about how do we combat differing views on human rights when we ourselves don’t agree on what it is that we’re achieving or what cooperation means for us individually.
How would you say that we can achieve something like this to our perspective to reflect a fair and just world that resonates not just for us but for everyone alike? Does that mean that the issue is in the definition?
HAQ: To the point of U.S. foreign policy goals, do we—can we redefine the goal as a just world? (Laughter.)
ANKU: I don’t think I—(laughs)—I don’t know if that’s achievable.
HAQ: You have some hardened pragmatists up here on the stage right now.
ANKU: Yeah, like—
KANAPATHY: No, I don’t—
HAQ: Cynical experts—(laughter)—
KANAPATHY: No, I just—I just—
ANKU: I agree—no—
KANAPATHY: You know, at the end of the day, you know, the higher—sort of a higher strategic level you can say those things, right? But at the end of the day, there’s resources that you need, which means, you know, Congress has to give you those resources from a USG perspective, right, which means they are accountable, frankly, to the voters and the taxpayers. And so that—and not the world’s taxpayers; the American taxpayers. And that’s how our system works.
Now I think there is a view—an important view that, you know, creating—whatever you want to call it—stability, justice in other places around the world is beneficial in a longer term to the United States. And that’s the framing, I think, that we have, you know, traditionally taken for a lot of the programs that we do, whether it’s foreign assistance, whether it’s this or that. And I think that’s an important one that, you know, sort a stable, free, prosperous world leads to more stability, freedom, prosperity, I guess, here in America.
HAQ: And I’d also say our system does have within it built—it’s an adversarial system that we have internally, so there is a responsibility for those outside of government to hold—whether it be media or voters—to hold government accountable to a set of truths and better ideals.
NELSON: If I may just riff off of Ivan’s point—I’m on the advisory board of an entity called Foreign Policy for America, and what they do is they try to encourage and support legislators who are—or elected officials in general—who believe in foreign policy, who believe in certain core values of our foreign policy that goes to—in other words, your just point.
I think Ivan is absolutely correct, and the only way to change it—to change the system is from within, and to elect officials that, A, look diverse, look like the rest of our country and, B, believe in the United States as a true benevolent power, not as a paternalistic benevolent entity.
KANAPATHY: Or maternalistic. (Laughter.)
HAQ: Thank you all—a round of applause for our panelists. (Applause.) And I believe there is a reception outside that we can all catch up with each other and continue the conversation individually. Thank you.
This is an uncorrected transcript
THOMAS: Good afternoon, everyone. Hello. Good afternoon.
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon.
THOMAS: Excellent. My name is Jessica Thomas and I am director of strategic initiatives here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I’m also our diversity, equity, and inclusion business partner. In addition to that, I’m a very proud 2017 fellow of the International Career Advancement Program, ICAP, and so pleased to have each of you here for the 10th Annual Conference on Diversity in International Affairs. We’re here in person, something to, you know, celebrate; it’s very exciting.
A few reminders before we kick off today’s plenary. This meeting is on the record and we have attendees who are joining both in person and also obviously here, in person and also virtually.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
And now I will introduce to you my colleague, Jim Lindsay, who is CFR’s senior vice president and director of studies. Jim? (Applause.)
LINDSAY: Let me join Jessica in welcoming all of you here today, all of you who are here in person, as well as joining us via the Internet. As Jessica mentioned, I’m Jim Lindsay, senior vice president here at the Council. It is my great pleasure to welcome you here to this second day of the Conference on Diversity in International Affairs here at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As Council President Richard Haass mentioned at yesterday’s opening session, the Council is committed to helping pave the way for the next generation of foreign policy professionals. Now, we hold the Conference on Diversity in International Affairs every year as part of that commitment. We strive to bring together speakers and participants from a wide range of backgrounds and groups that are historically underrepresented in the field of foreign policy. The goal of the conference is to increase the access and preparedness for a career in foreign policy.
Now, we’re very fortunate that two outstanding organizations that share the Council’s commitment to creating a more diversified foreign policy community have collaborated with us on this conference. They are the Global Access Pipeline, GAP, and the International Career Advancement Program, ICAP. For those of you who are unfamiliar with GAP, it is a collaborative network of organizations forming a pipeline for underrepresented groups in the United States, from elementary school through senior leadership positions. ICAP is a professional development and leadership program for high-promising mid-career professionals in international affairs in the United States. On behalf of Richard Haass, I want to thank the GAP and ICAP leadership teams for their work with the Council on the Annual Conference on Diversity in International Affairs and on their broader work in the area, and I want to specifically single out Florence Akinyemi, Wida Amir, Nima Patel Edwards, Gabrielle Gueye, Lily Lopez-McGee, Lana Schanz, and Alyssa Tafti (sp). Now if I get a round of applause for those people, I would really appreciate it. (Applause.)
All of us also owe a very big thank you to Tom Rowe, who oversees both GAP and ICAP. Tom has been a leading voice in the field for more years than he would want me to tell you, so I simply want to ask you all so we can have some applause for Tom. (Applause.)
It would be remiss of me not to thank my colleagues here at the Council who have worked countless hours pulling together this year’s conference. Being both virtual and in-person creates a unique set of challenges and people who have been working very hard to overcome them, and I especially want to single out Teagan Judd, Connor Sutherland, Meghan Studer, and Shira Schwartz. If I get a round of applause for them as well—(applause)—I would appreciate it.
I want to remind everybody that after today’s panel we will host a reception both in person and on Zoom. I hope that you can stay to meet one another online and to continue the conversation.
At this point I’m now going to turn the microphone over to the presider for this afternoon’s discussion. That’s Arshad Mohammed. Arshad is a diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. In his career as a journalist, he has covered the White House and the State Department and he has reported from New York, Paris, Algiers, and of course from here in Washington, D.C. My thanks to Arshad and to our panelists for being here today.
Over to you, Arshad. (Applause.)
MOHAMMED: Thank you, Jim. So my name’s Arshad Mohammed. I’m a reporter with Reuters. Thank you all for being here. Welcome to today’s 2022 Conference on Diversity in International Affairs Plenary Two. This session is entitled “U.S. Democracy—By the People, For the People?”
I’m very pleased to have some really interesting panelists, starting at my far left, Art Motta, who is the national director of Policy and Legislation of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. Next to me is Ashley Quarcoo, who’s a senior director with Democracy Programs and Pillars at the Partnership for American Democracy. She’s also a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And virtually we’re joined by Minh-Thu Pham, who is cofounder of New American Voices and who, like Ashley, is a former CFR term member.
Essentially what we’re here to talk about is the health of American democracy, and I’d like to start by asking each of you, perhaps starting with you, Art, what you think is the state, the current state of American democracy? And what are the symptoms of its health or sickness?
MOTTA: Thank you for the question. Nice looking crowd here. Thank you all for being here on day two of your events here. It’s good to be back in person.
Sorry you’re in the box today but we’ll talk to you soon. (Laughs.)
You know, I’m at the League of United Latin American Citizens. Our organization is celebrating ninety-three years since our founding—ninety-three years—and when you think about why our organization was founded, we are the oldest and largest Latino and Hispanic membership volunteer-based organization in the country. We have over a thousand active chapters and councils across the country. This week one of our councils in Uvalde, Texas, has been working nonstop since Tuesday to help the families and the community in Uvalde, Texas, there. Just yesterday our team was at the White House with President Biden when he was signing an executive order on policing and criminal justice, which we helped draft with his team. And when we think about the health of our democracy, you know, for LULAC we see our members, our volunteers as the heart of our organization.
When you think about the health of any organization, any democracy, you definitely need to find out and ask yourself where is the heart of the organization? Where is the heart of the country? Who is leading? Who is guiding that country? You know, we’ve seen our own country in the last few years face turmoil within our population, within our, you know, citizens, residents, you know, the type of language that was used to disrupt our day-to-day living. For us we see ourselves as—you know, our home is America. We see ourselves as Americans, as citizens. Folks have left their home countries in Latin America to come to the U.S. because of that vision, that ideal that the American dream is for everyone and you can accomplish that. We’re seeing the turmoil in Latin American countries to this day, but America is our home. We know that there are promises that America has kept for our ancestors, and you know, we are committed to making sure that this democracy is—remains healthy. There are times when it’s not so healthy, but looking at—you were asking about the symptoms that we see—again, our leadership; who is leading the country? Our democracy, if we call it that—if we can call it that, I should say. There’s times where we’re not so sure what to call it, but knowing that organizations like ours do have to work with the leadership of not only our country, our administration, but even in our states across the country. You know, what is the health of democracies in our states?
Our membership, you know, ideology-wise, do vary across the political spectrum. We have members that are, you know, hardcore Roman Catholics and conversative, then we have folks on the other side of the spectrum that think that AOC is a moderate and not progressive enough. So we have to deal with that on a day-to-day. I’ll stop there. (Laughs.)
MOHAMMED: Forgive me for cutting in, Art, but in two words, would you say the democracy is now healthy or unhealthy?
MOTTA: It gets better. (Laughs.) We hope. We have to hope it gets better.
MOHAMMED: Ashley, if I may turn to you next. Same question: Is the democracy healthy and what are its symptoms?
QUARCOO: I would not describe us as healthy. I would describe us as, you know, I don’t know, having a bad cold—(laughs)—or some other description. You know, I remain an optimist, but I spent most of my career working on democracy globally and so I have always looked at the United States in comparative perspective from that experience, and I look at sort of the key indicators. Certainly if you look at any kind of global comparison of the U.S. vis-à-vis other democracies, we have—we’re in decline and have been in decline relative to ourselves and relative to the rest of the world. We also—I mean, I think, you know, we have been through a lot of turmoil but I think that the aftermath of especially a lot of the events of 2020 have not really—we’re yet to see the impact of those on our democracy, and I’ll talk about a couple things.
In particular, one is lots of attention has been put on the new legislation that has been restrictive of voting rights in a lot of parts of the country. I think that’s one important indicator, of course, to assess the health of our democracy, but I think another important indicator is that we are seeing increasing efforts to make even just the administration of elections themselves become much more partisan, or much more—the control about those processes to become much more partisan, so several laws that have been introduced and passed in certain places that will put the election process in the control of people with partisan agendas. We’ve seen laws that are going to criminalize election officials for making—you know, there will be mistakes in any kind of election but the kind of chilling effect that that kind of legislation has on really just public servants doing their duty. We’ve seen those officials being suffered from harassment, threats, intimidation; they’re being driven out of their jobs; they’re being, you know, threatened, their families are being threatened. So we do have sort of a crisis in the sense of the atrophy of our election—the administration of our elections, and I think that is an untold story and really, really important as we consider the health of our democracy.
Another really quick thing I’ll say is, an indicator we’d look at overseas is freedom of speech, and I will say I look at the issue around book banning as a freedom of speech issue. I think it is, again, an under-kind-of-examined part of kind of what we look at at as the health of our democracy, but there are, you know, over fifteen hundred books that have been banned across, you know, like eighty-six counties in twenty-five states, so half the country, this kind of censorship is happening. And that is—that’s a chilling kind of dynamic, and if I was looking at this country overseas I would be alarmed by that kind of censorship, especially because it’s being done in response to directives of elected officials in the state, not because of community members lifting up these concerns and wanting to address them.
I’ll leave it there then.
MOHAMMED: Thank you.
Minh-Thu, what’s your take on health or illness?
PHAM: Thanks so much, and really great to be here. I’m sorry I can’t be down there in Washington today with you all.
So just to add to some of the great things that have already been said, first, it’s just to reiterate Ashley’s point. On the censorship and freedom of speech, I think we also need to be looking at the health of our independent media and journalism in this country. You know, I think we know the stories. There’s been a backsliding or at least a decline in local journalism, which—you know, it’s really important for communities to have reliable, fact-based sources of information. And I think disinformation/misinformation has taken hold in a lot of places, and that’s quite concerning.
Secondly, just to Ashley’s point about voting rights, I think we also need to look at passive voter suppression. So when we look at our democracy, the sense of belonging that people have and whether this is truly an egalitarian democracy is an issue. I think, you know, the kinds of things that we saw with George Floyd’s murder two years ago really brought a lot of that to the fore, where many Americans don’t feel like they participate and can belong in our democracy. And you know, a lot of campaigns during elections don’t even reach out to a whole swath of Americans. You know, the poor, immigrants, overlooked, marginalized, communities of color aren’t often the targets of campaign outreach. And as a result, the effect of their not turning out to vote because they’re not reached by campaigns actually has been shown to be even greater than active voter-suppression legislation that’s taking hold across the country right now.
The third thing I’d want to raise is just civic engagement. And actually, I think on there we’re doing a whole lot better. I was going to start this by saying, you know, if I could take a page from Richard Haass’ book of grading, you know, foreign policy or grading performance, I’d say our democracy—I’d give it a C-minus. And you know, I think we all know the negatives: January 6th, the sort of rise of disinformation and authoritarianism and that sort of thing. But I think on the sort of healthier side of that equation is civic engagement. You know, since the election of Donald Trump, but actually even before that I think we’ve seen an increase in many Americans deciding to march, deciding to turn out to vote. I mean, the 2020 election, the voter outreach and turnout was just phenomenal. Within the Asian-American community it increased by 47 percent over 2016, which was just remarkable. And I think you’ve seen new nonprofits cropping up. You’ve seen people, you know, coming out onto the streets and really vocalizing how, you know, concerned they are about our democracy. So I think on that side of it things are getting a lot better. So I would give us a C-minus, but there is a whole lot to be concerned about.
And lastly, just, you know—it’s obvious to everyone here—social cohesion of this country: the sense of belonging, the sort of deep political polarization, and the—it really being very clear now that our institutions, and especially our democratic institutions, may not be suited to the kinds of challenges that we’re dealing with right now, and that we really do have to look at fundamental, systemic reform across the board.
MOHAMMED: So, Minh-Thu, thank you so much for that.
I’m going to start with addressing kind of my first more specific question to you. Pew did polls last year which showed that consistently about 30 percent of the American population believes that the 2020 election was stolen. And much higher percentages of Republicans believe that it was stolen, perhaps as much as 70 percent. What are some of the fundamental causes underlying this C-minus performance of the American democracy at this moment? How much of it do you think has to do—I guess I’d be interested in two things.
One, you talk about the decline of local newspapers, which is an—or, of local news coverage. The flipside of that is sort of the huge dominance of social media transmission of information. So one question would be: What do you think gives rise to this much skepticism or this much doubt about who won the election when the vast majority of the independent reporting suggests that there is no reason to believe—none at all—that the election was stolen? And then the second thing is: How do you address those underlying kind of problems?
PHAM: Yeah. Great, great question, and these are not—these are not easy issues.
I think, you know, we’ve seen over the last few years a lot of social division, and I think a lot of that is grounded in the economics. I think a lot of people feel like, you know, the world is going in a direction that they don’t necessarily understand. And when you look at—I think it’s easy to blame globalization. It’s easy to blame deep inequality that’s increasing. And I think a lot of people look across the landscape, and they’re working incredibly hard, and they see that they just can’t make it through. And at the same time, you have rapid technological change that’s not keeping pace with even just our own ability to understand the world and what’s going on. And I think the sense of deep polarization, not understanding what’s happening, seeing that you’re working so hard and maybe not necessarily being able to make ends meet, I think this sense of fear and despair oftentimes will get people to believe in conspiracy theories, that there’s some greater forces out there that they don’t understand that’s sort of controlling their lives. And when they see that there may be rampant corruption or money in politics that’s controlling things or, you know, their own ability to have agency in their own lives has been undermined by some other factors out there that they don’t understand, I think it often makes people more susceptible to authoritarians but also to conspiracy theories. And so when somebody says that, you know—you know, with a tiny ounce of truth that there is voter fraud or that there’s something else that’s out there causing you to not be able to have control over your lives, I think people do believe that.
And disinformation, particularly because of the efficiency of social media and the sort of technology platforms that we have, has really fed into that. I don’t think that social media is itself alone to blame. I think, you know, that is an exacerbating factor. Throughout history, we’ve always had, you know, rapid technological change that’s then been followed by deep social crises. And so, you know, whether that’s the printing press back then or social media now, I don’t think that in and of itself is the cause. But I do think, you know, that human element to it, when people are susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories and then you have these pathways or these dissemination mechanisms that make it so much easier for us to believe it but then also be so siloed in the kinds of information we get, I think, you know, you have what you see right now.
How do we deal with it? I think, you know, social inclusion and belonging is a really deep need in any democracy, but in particular in a diverse, multiracial, multiethnic democracy. And this, you know, it’s—our democracy is an experiment. I mean, we’re the most diverse country in the world, and we’ve got to figure out how to both crate a sense of national identity while also honoring the differences and what makes each of our communities, each of our families really special here. It’s a really tough challenge. I don’t know that any country’s been able to deal with that.
Like Ashley, I’ve worked in other countries. I come from a foreign policy background. I decided to leave because I saw this crisis in our democracy. My family came here as refugees from Vietnam because they fundamentally believed that America was the beacon on the hill, you know, for democracy and freedom and security in the world. And then to see that, you know, start to fray really worried me quite a bit. I know that’s the case for everyone on this panel and hopefully everyone in this room. You know, there is this sense out there, and so I think we need to do everything we can. But it is a human problem at its core and we need to really address that.
MOHAMMED: So, Art, if I may turn to you, how do you deal with what is often called the big lie? How do you combat disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation? And in particular, I’d be interested in your thoughts on how you do that with a point that—you know, with immigrant populations who may be consuming media in their own native languages rather than English. Anyway, how do you—how do you get to an agreed set—a common set of facts?
MOTTA: I mean, definitely has not been easy. Our organization has been active on that the last few years when you think about disinformation, misinformation, but also malinformation. And especially when you think of the Spanish language and the different Latin American countries, there’s terms that are used differently between different countries. And we’ve seen terms being used to deceive other folks from home countries, as well. That’s malinformation, of course.
But the—going back to the roots of that is looking at our membership and our members here in D.C. and in the country who are voting. When you think about access to voting in itself, access to the ballot, you know, we don’t have a(n) official language, but de facto English is the language. And we think of immigrant populations that may not be fully versed in English. You know, just the simple ask of, hey, can you give me this information in my native language, my native tongue, we call that language justice, which we’re fighting for, to make sure that ballots are in their language so they can participate in this democracy, if you want to call it, in the U.S.
And we’ve seen even in New York, where they changed their system to ranked-choice voting, they had very little to no training on how to vote on their ballot with the ranked-choice voting So we had many folks that reached out to us and told us, hey, my ballot was tossed out because I circled too many boxes. And, yeah, that’s another point that we have to look into: Are we actually training our voting population on how to fill out that ballot?
When you change the whole system like that, of course, the—but back to your question, definitely, using the terminology, the words. You know, when you think about Hispanic media, you know, we—most of our families rely on specific anchors that they rely on each day or on the radio. You know, they listen to what they say with a hundred percent, they believe, accuracy. We know now that it’s not entirely accurate.
MOHAMMED: So what do you guys do to try to combat that? I mean, do you have people who truth squad, you know, particular newscasts and try to post corrections? Or, you know—
MOTTA: Yeah. Since we are a membership organization, we host local townhalls and clinics where we help train and teach the local populace on this—this is what you heard; this is actually, in actuality, what they meant and what they’re lying about; the myths; demystifying what they’re saying or unpacking what they’re saying, too. This is what they said, what they actually meant was this, and the reality is this.
But, really, you have to go down to speaking to people face to face. You know, with Zoom and the pandemic, it was definitely hard. But going back to in person, having the in-person interactions, you can do that. You can immediately tackle back and attack back with the information that we’re fed day to day. And many of those folks that we have relied on for news, you know, are now making their way into Congress, so many of them are now in Congress, too, the folks that we’ve trusted. Now our families are not able to fully trust them anymore.
MOHAMMED: Ashley, I’d like to widen the aperture slightly and talk a little bit about the importance of American democracy in—you know, in the world. A friend of mine who is from the South Pacific island of Fiji was in D.C. a couple of weeks ago. And he had some free time, and he went to the memorials, and he talked about how at the Lincoln Memorial reading Lincoln’s, you know, Second Inaugural, he was sort of staggered at the thought that this is an experiment, you know, the very beginning of the Constitution, “In order to form a more perfect union.” There’s no belief that American democracy is—was then perfect or is now. And I’m interested in the extent to which you think the corrosion of democratic norms in this country may have a knock-on effect elsewhere. Does it matter what happens here for what happens in China, in Russia, in Hungary, or not? Or are those very local issues?
QUARCOO: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, I do think that this point about us being an experiment remains a really salient one because we are—we are unusual. We are an unusual country. The premise of our existence was unusual at the time. And as Minh-Thu said, we remain unusual because we are this multiracial, multicultural, multireligious society that remains aspiring and remains a democracy, and that’s unusual. And that is why it’s important that we remain so in the eyes of the world, I believe, as well, because there are lots of other multiethnic, multireligious, pluralistic nations that look to us.
It has—you know, the global kind of democracy consensus has been on decline around the world for, like, over fifteen years. So we are in good company when it comes to a broader trend that has been ongoing as we’ve seen the rise of populist leaders in Brazil and in Hungary and India really preying on some of these things that Minh-Thu talked about—you know, inequality, polarization. This kind of populism, it tends to happen in quite polarized countries, and we are a quite polarized country. So we make ourselves vulnerable to that, to the rise of those kinds of leaders.
But it—I don’t think we’re leading the world in terms of this broader decline. I think we’re experiencing it in tandem with many other democracies. But the fact that we are so visibly struggling, I mean, we have the eye—the spotlight on us, certainly after January 6th—does really matter. There are norms breaking down right and left, even when it comes to the norm around international election observation, for example. So being able to send observers, international election observers, to other countries and sort of hold them up to certain kinds of democratic standards, countries are pushing back on those kinds of norms now.
The sort of leadership role that we play, even when Biden had his democracy summit, big foreign policy event last December, you know, lots of questions about our ability—our credibility, even, to hold such a global agenda-setting event because we sort of hadn’t gotten our own house in order, so to speak. And so I do think it really matters.
The problem is these are things that can’t be undone, you know, very quickly. We can’t sort of—once the kind of reputation and the norm has been eroded, it’s really hard to build it back. I think our credibility has been bruised, and so we really do have to work hard domestically and overseas to demonstrate our commitment to human rights, to democratic values and freedoms, and we have to do it in a consistent way. But I think that people are yearning for that. I think democracies are yearning for that, people seeking—who are not in democratic societies that are seeking freedom yearn for us to play that role. And I don’t think we should—I don’t think we should cede it just because we do have these problems at home. I think we have to, you know, walk and chew gum at the same time, and do both—and do both.
MOHAMMED: Minh-Thu, one quick question to you before we go to questions both virtually and from the audience. Do you sort of agree with the premise of what Ashley was saying, that when the United States sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold? And what can be done to—you know, one of the beauties of the design of this society was the division—you know, the separation of powers. What—which is one of our most fundamental sort of guardrails, right, because power is not vested in any one branch let alone any one individual. That said, what can be done to strengthen the guardrails of democracy so that when norms are violated there is a tendency toward bringing them back?
PHAM: Yeah. Thanks for that. And you know, I a hundred percent agree with Ashley. I’m not sure that the U.S. sneezes and everyone catches and that we’re leading this. I think she’s right that we are part of a global trend. And I think one of the reasons for that global trend is that—you know, the premise of your previous question. We are an experiment. And the second that any of us takes our foot off of the pedal in terms of paying attention to the norms, the institutions, the ideas of our democracy, that’s when things start to fall apart. And I think, you know, us being able to, you know, pay attention to the fissures in our society not just in terms of social divisions, but the economic divisions is really important.
There are countries out there that are offering a different model. You look at China, and they believe that they are a democracy, and they will say that our model is really messy. Democracy, you know, in America, if you wanted to look around the world and say that you wanted to follow that, I think the Chinese would point to us and say look at how messy it is, you know? They can’t even get their COVID policies, you know, straight. People are arguing over vaccinations and masks. There’s, you know, gun violence; I mean, the horrors of this past week. But, you know, so I think there are other countries, other models that are out there, and people are looking around the world to say, well, what should we follow.
But the American model, I think we have to show that this experiment works because even though democracy is messy, the fact of the matter is it has to be messy if you’re talking about a multicultural, multiracial, diverse society. And our societies—it’s not just America, but you know, other societies are also getting more and more diverse.
So the more that we can pay attention to the needs of folks—how do we bring people in? How do we create this sense of belonging? Art raised a really important point about Spanish-language political outreach. Within the Asian-American community, you know, there are a lot of people who don’t feel like they belong in our democracy: immigrants, the poor, people of color. But when you reach out to them, they actually do turn out to vote. If there’s a way to sort of broaden our sense of who is—who belongs as a citizen, who has a say in our democracy, that is a critical part of the solution.
I think a lot of people are saying right now that corruption of democracies around the world, not just in the U.S. but in Europe and in other parts, it’s one of the causes of this. And I think a lot of people look at American democracy and say that money in politics has corrupted our democracy such that it’s made it really hard for us to be able to make basic decisions about how we govern ourselves. And so, you know, one potential solution is, as I mentioned, first is just creating that broader sense of belonging. And then, second, how do we figure out who really has a say in our democracy? Who votes and who pays for these elections, and who do our political leaders listen to and why?
I think there’s a fundamental challenge of how do we democratize campaign finance? How do we democratize voting and political outreach? How do we include more people in this experiment so that they feel like they can actually participate in this? One of the takeaways from this I hope that we don’t have is that, you know, there’s—everything is just—you know, we should all be in despair and things are hopeless. I actually think there is a glimmer of hope. And I hope that, you know, people will step up and say, you know, we can do something about this, and let’s try to bring in more people.
MOHAMMED: Thank you. At this time I’d like to invite participants to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. We’ll start with a question from our virtual audience, if the CFR staff would kindly recognize somebody from Zoom.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the first question from Gelila Yonas.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for speaking with us today. I’m Gelila Yonas. And I’m junior studying IR and public health at the College of William and Mary.
And I was studying how the dramatic instances of global backsliding in recent years is also adjacent to the increase in accessible technology in both journalism media and social media. And you guys touched on this earlier, but I was wondering how you all feel we should address the power of social media, given that the pillar of freedom to organize and freedom of speech have emboldened specifically alt-right groups with illiberal sentiments, especially because there are just so many forums indoctrinating the young population.
MOHAMMED: Ashley, do you want to take a shot at that?
QUARCOO: (Laughs.) Sure. Well, I’m—
MOHAMMED: An easy one.
QUARCOO: Exactly. I was going to say, I can’t offer any deeply knowledgeable answer. But I do think that, you know, Europe and the EU has—you know, has done much more than we have done to think about how we—how we engage productively with, you know, government oversight of social media platforms. And the U.S. really needs to follow suit and to find, you know, whatever regulatory framework we are going to use. The platforms say that they’re asking for this, and we just haven’t been able to get—to get on board with doing something about it.
So it’s a really important—you know, social media companies largely originate in our country. And they have outsized influence on what’s happening all over the world. And so it is—it’s incumbent upon us, I think, not only for ourselves but for all of the ways in which social media is influencing events—which we know it is in Burma, and other places—for bad, and maybe for good in other places. But there are models, I would say, to draw from, especially out in Europe, that we should look towards.
MOHAMMED: Do we have a question from—this gentleman in the far back.
Q: Thank you. Hello. My name is Kendrick Roberson. I am a professor of political science over at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
And my question revolves around the Senate, which by constitutional design is an anti-democratic institution. To the extent that I live in California. If there’s someone in North Carolina, their vote is worth nine times as much as mine in the Senate, right? And if I move to North Carolina, then my vote becomes nine times more than my mom’s, right? If I move to D.C., then my vote in the Senate is actually zero—my representation in the Senate is zero, right, because they are denied Senate representation, even though they have a larger population than two other states, right?
And so my question to you all is what do we think about this? You know, I guess there’s a small, tiny movement out there that says abolish the Senate, but there’s no traction to that because we kind of play into the Senate role, because it exists and if we don’t play into it then we lose major gains. And so I just wanted to know your thoughts on the Senate as we have this democracy conversation.
MOHAMMED: Thank you for that. Art, as a fellow—or, at least former Californian, I’d be interested in your thoughts about that. I’m reminded of the old saying that the hot tea of the House is cooled in the saucer of the Senate. But tell me what you—what you think about that?
MOTTA: I don’t drink tea, but I’ll believe you. (Laughter.) No, I mean, abolish the Senate. I’ve heard repeal and replace the Senate. You know, maybe it’s time for us to evaluate, you know, parliamentary, you know, government here for us. When you think about the population representation, you know, California, we didn’t—our population didn’t grow enough, so we actually lost a seat in the House. How does that make sense? Our population did not grow enough, but other states who grew at rate, got an extra seat in the House?
When you think about, you know, our residents, citizens that are living in territories—you know, Puerto Rico has over 2.3 million population-wise. And they don’t have any voice in government. They have a non-voting member in the House as a delegate, as a resident commissioner. But, you know, they have a population that’s more than almost twenty of the least-populated states in the U.S., when you think about representation. Professor, good question. But yeah, that’s exactly, what’s next? What do we do about that?
MOHAMMED: Yeah, please.
QUARCOO: Can I just jump in?
QUARCOO: You know, one—there’s a very interesting report that I recommend to you from the Academy of Arts and Sciences, called Our Common Purpose. It was done a couple of years ago. And it makes a number—it makes thirty-one recommendations sort of to think about how we reimagine American democracy. And one of those recommendations is about expanding the House of Representatives, to sort of—you know, it’s been 438 for however long, and our country has continued to grow. It recommends things like looking at multimember districts, you know, thinking about having multiple people who can represent a single constituency. It’s a lot of innovative ideas there that I think, you know, trying to put out, you know, thought leadership about how we could reimagine American democracy if we wanted to make it more representative. So I think you might want to look at that report. It has some very interesting recommendations.
MOHAMMED: I think Mitch McConnell might have some things to say about your thoughts on abolishing—and Chuck Schumer. (Laughter.)
I think we—actually, forgive me. We’re going to go to a virtual question, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Earl Carr.
Q: Good afternoon. Earl Carr, founder and CEO of CJPA Global Advisors.
I’m curious to know your thoughts on U.S. democracy, particularly in international institutions like the United Nations. How should we think about democracy, particularly as it relates to enlarging the U.N. Security Council? Biden made a number of interesting statements looking at including Japan as a permanent Security Council member at the U.N. Curious to get your thoughts on that. Thank you so much.
MOHAMMED: Minh-Thu, do you want to take a shot at that one? As you all obviously know, there are five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and those were decided right after the Second World War. So is it still relevant to have those nations represented? Please.
PHAM: Thanks so much for that great question, Earl. You know, as Arshad said, you know, the U.N. was founded after World War II. It is built into the U.N. Charter that those are the five countries that have a veto. Whether we expand the Security Council or not, you know, this has been a debate that’s been ongoing almost since the beginning of the U.N. (Laughs.) So, you know, it’s probably even tougher than this question of expanding or getting rid of the Senate, right? So there are procedural issues there.
I think, though, you know, more recently, given what’s going on in Ukraine—and President Zelensky really putting that challenge to the world about what’s the relevance of the U.N. if it can’t prevent a fundamental, you know, breach of its own charter, where one country unprovoked goes and invades another country? I think that is a challenge for the world. We are seeing a crisis in multilateralism and how we come together as a world to defend democracy.
But let me just say that, you know, one glimmer of hope here is that when the U.N. General Assembly had to vote to condemn Russia, 141 countries came out. And these were not just Western countries. I do have a bee in my bonnet about us continually calling it, you know, the West against Russia. It isn’t the West. There were many countries that came out, at great risk to themselves and their diplomacy, to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But that was a shining light. And the Russians were kicked out of the U.N. Human Rights Council as well.
So there are ways around this. And I think this is a lesson for us in how do we organize and work with other people to be able to rally around concepts of democracy and threats to democracy to be able to prevent it? It can be done. It’s hard. There are challenges to the U.N. There are challenges to global democracy. But when we actually, you know, put pedal to the metal and really try to reach out to our colleagues and other people, we can actually send the right signals to support democracy.
MOHAMMED: Thank you. I think there was a lady in the black there. Yeah.
Q: Hello. My name is Taren Scott (sp). I am an intern for the U.S. Senate.
So my question to you all is—so my train of thought basically is that we’re seeing, like, hyper-partisanship within our political systems. And I think a symptom of this is an acceleration of independent voters. So in what way do you think that diversity is beneficial within political parties? And perhaps a potential drawback?
MOHAMMED: Art, would you like to take that one?
MOTTA: Yeah, definitely. Not only diversity in how we look, but also diversity in thought. And we acknowledge that as well. Right now, it’s too much diversity in thought, if I can say that. But yeah, I mean, the Senate has changed the rules in its history, and they’re able to do it again. You know, they’ve—you know, we know that they need at least sixty votes to get much done, but they’ve changed the rules to have a majority—a simple majority vote. And they can do that. And we ask ourselves, why don’t they do that? You know, they always—what do they call it—the point of no return. But when the—they have a term for this.
MOHAMMED: Yeah, the nuclear option.
MOTTA: Nuclear option, there you go. I try to not use that word, but that’s the word that we’ve seen done in the past where, you know, even when we think about, you know, how the last government was able to appoint three Supreme Court justices, who are definitely changing the dynamics of our country, and we’re seeing the repercussions of that now to this day. But that’s a very good question. They have the capacity to do that. Why don’t they? We ask ourselves each day. Even if it’s simple legislation in the House that representative passed, you know, there’s legislation that has been waiting for over a year for the Senate to even act on that.
Just this morning, LULAC, we sent a letter to the Senate to ask them to pass the Bipartisan Background Check Act, but also to think about how they’re going to react to gun violence prevention. We’re asking them to raise the age to twenty-one to be able to purchase any firearms. We already have rules that you have to be twenty-one to buy tobacco, alcohol. Why are those being treated differently than firearms? So.
PHAM: Actually, can I just—
MOHAMMED: Yeah, please. Sorry, who was speaking?
MOTTA: It was Minh-Thu.
MOHAMMED: Minh-Thu, yes, by all means.
PHAM: I wanted to just add another quick point to that. You were talking about communities of color. What’s interesting is that Latino and Asian-American communities actually, by and large, register as independents in this country. And so, you know, I think sometimes we take diversity for granted, and a lot of people assume that communities of color are just going to vote for one party. But in fact, a lot of communities of color, in particular first-generation Americans who are new voters, don’t already have party allegiance—or allegiance to any particular party. And so they do often end up voting independent.
Which means that they’re often disenfranchised because the primary elections and the vast majority of elections in this country, are determinative because our districts are already going to be red or blue. And so the primary is really where your representation matters. But if you’re a registered independent, most of the time you’re not able to vote. So that is an issue. And I thought that was just a really good question, and I wanted to highlight that issue.
MOHAMMED: Thank you. Shall we take another question from—nope? OK. Let’s go—we’ll move around the room. The lady in the front, please.
Q: Hi. Good afternoon. My name is Valery Leon Quintero. And I’m representing Wheaton College, Massachusetts.
My question is oriented on the future of democracy concerning Puerto Rico and Hawaii, given that as we’ve talked that we need to demonstrate commitment and human rights, and how we defend all of these issues, and we often forget about these territories that we can also call colonies, given that they are second-class citizens, perceived by the government. So how can we demonstrate our commitment to human rights and how can we move forward in a democracy where those voices are included, and they are used not part of any economic benefit for the United States? Thank you.
MOHAMMED: Ashley, do you have any thoughts on that?
QUARCOO: I was looking at you, Art. (Laughter.)
MOHAMMED: Art? Go ahead, Art.
MOTTA: No, I mean, I was going to say, again, like, we are a membership-based organization. And when you think about our most heavily involved states—Texas, California, Puerto Rico, and then New York. So we have our membership in Puerto Rico that is very active. They’ve seen the way they’ve been treated, you know, for decades as a territory. You know, they’ve been talking about self-determination for the last, you know, two, three decades, and we’re still talking about that to this day. LULAC, as an organization, we’ve come out in support of our Puerto Ricans for full statehood. They voted at least three times for statehood, to be part of this democracy, if you want to call it that, here in the U.S.
They are citizens of the U.S., but they’re not being treated as citizens—second-class citizens. You know, they’re not able to vote for the president. They have no representation in Congress, in the House or in the Senate. That’s definitely something that we need to consider as we think about what it means to—when we talk about the health of our democracy, the heart of our democracy, when you exclude people not only because of how they look but where they live. You know, Puerto Ricans can come to the mainland, and they’ll have the full rights and benefits, but why is it any different from where they live?
MOHAMMED: Speaking as somebody who was born and mostly raised in Washington, D.C., and who still lives there now, I feel a certain sympathy for this. I could move to Maryland or Virginia, but I’m loyal. (Laughter.)
Let’s stay in the room, unless there’s some more questions. So there’s a gentleman wearing a jacket in the second row. Yes.
Q: Thank you for the selection. I’m Hakim. I’m a fellow at the Elliot School of International Affairs.
I will ask a simple question, which is twofold. One, I would be interested in the panelists’ view on what is the most pressing foreign policy problems right now the United States is facing, and what’s your comment on any of the solutions? And the second-fold would be the previous question that was proposed in terms of how do you strengthen the institutions, the check(s) and balances, so that can help, you know, implement better policies, and the role of citizenry? Thank you.
MOHAMMED: Who would like to take that one? Minh-Thu, would you?
PHAM: Maybe I’ll just go first. So if it’s OK, I’ll say there are two main challenges. One is climate change. You said most pressing foreign policy challenge. I think the first is climate change and second is democracy. And I wouldn’t put one above the other. I think you have to have a vibrant democracy to be able to really tackle some of the climate change problems that we—that we need to address. And that obviously if we don’t tackle climate, we’re not going to have democracies to enjoy in the future. These are really, really important.
QUARCOO: I would just say, you know, I think the answer to that question really depends on who you’re talking to.
MOHAMMED: Well, I’m talking to you. (Laughter.)
QUARCOO: Well, I know but I—what do I think are the most important foreign policy challenges? I agree, certainly, with climate. Even though it’s not an issue I work on, I think it’s an enormously important issue. I think that we are also going into a world of heightened geopolitical conflict. Not necessarily like hot conflict, but certainly cold conflict with China, whether we, you know, recognize it or not, because those—that conflict is taking on economic dimensions, and cyber dimensions, and other kinds of dimensions. And I think that is going to determine a lot of our foreign policy going forward and our economic policy going forward. And so I think that’s a big—that’s a big challenge. And I think that is reflected I why President Biden decided to go to the region just this past week.
The second question was about how do we strengthen institutions to be more effective? You know, I think that there’s a lot of good ideas around institutional reform—certainly, for example, out of the Our Common Purpose Report. I think, though, that where I see the most optimism is at the state of local level. I think these are really right now where we find the greatest laboratories for democracy, both because of what we’re seeing in terms of citizen engagement and mobilization. I mean, look at Georgia. They’ve just mobilized more voters than they had in 2020 for a primary election. It was really an amazing sort of civil society mobilization. And I think that, you know, institutional reform, there’s also great power coming from the people.
Michigan just had a very successful redistricting movement where they successfully got a nonpartisan commission put in place. And they’re going to have, for the first time, very competitive districts in a number of places, which is really going to matter there. So I think—but that’s all coming from the grassroots. It’s all coming from citizens. So I think it’s bottom up. I think it’s highly localized, state-based. I think that’s where the action and energy is.
MOHAMMED: Art, top two global problems and how do we strengthen the institutions?
MOTTA: I mean, we definitely—we polled our members on issues and we asked them. And the top two were environmental justice, of course, and climate change, as two different issues. When you think about our reliance—as our technology advances, our reliance on foreign countries for those rare earth elements that we need for our devices. You know, they’re not being reproduced, so we have to recycle those. And knowing where those are going to, when you think about renewable energy, electric vehicles. You know, how much of our population is able to afford those new electric vehicles, you know, to rely on transportation? But the role that the government is doing to make sure that it’s affordable for folks to use that transportation. So, yeah.
MOHAMMED: Thank you. Yes, the lady wearing red in, I think, the third row. Please.
Q: Hi, thank you so much. My name is Olivia Issa. I take she/her pronouns. I work in refugee resettlement.
My question is about gun violence and gun control. I’ve seen studies recently that show that the vast majority of people in the U.S., even up to 90 percent from some studies, are in favor of more stringent gun control or gun laws. And I’m curious, with all the, you know, inaction—I’m happy to hear that some of you have been involved in legislation recently, but this is a decades-long problem and there’s been, you know, massive inaction in Congress. I’m curious, from each of your experiences, what this has done to represent American democracy in the international sphere. Thank you.
MOHAMMED: Art, do you want to take that one, since I know that’s an issue you worked?
MOTTA: Yeah, an issue that we’re working on this week. You know, just, what ten—now, twelve days ago when Buffalo incident happened, we worked with our partners, the ADL and the National Urban League and NAACP, to write a letter to the White House urging them to host a—or, hold a national conference on hate and domestic terrorism. And we got a phone call a few days later, they invited us to the White House to have a conversation and start planning that process, so that we can have that dialogue and that conversation.
And then now with gun violence prevention, as we see when Sandy Hook happened, you know, that’s when it became OK for us to ignore it. Unacceptable. To this day, the events that happened in Uvalde, you know, the second-deadliest shooting since Sandy Hook. You know, for us it hit close to home. About 90 percent of the population of that school, Hispanic origin. You know, again, I was saying we have a council there and members that have been working nonstop helping families, helping neighborhoods try to recuperate over that.
But there has to be action. And as I was saying earlier, we’re pushing not only President Biden but Congress to act now. And the least they can do is raise the age to make sure that guns are inaccessible. In many of those incidences, the guns were purchased legally, you know, unfortunately, so.
PHAM: Maybe just a quick—
PHAM: Maybe just a quick two-finger on that. I really hope that people don’t lose hope. I know a lot of people are saying if we didn’t do anything after Sandy Hook, there’s no way we’re going to be doing something now. I actually don’t believe that at all, because the world has changed since then. Back then in 2012, 2013, when people tried to get through sensible gun safety legislation, the gun lobby was a lot more powerful. Right now, and since then, the gun safety advocates—moms, you know, communities across the country, have really come out. I mean, this is the value of civic engagement, right? They’ve really come out. And I think the environment has changed. Yes, Sandy Hook was an absolutely horrific thing. Just because we didn’t do anything then doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do something now. I actually think that the momentum has changed. The gun lobby is weaker than it was then. I don’t think we can give up hope.
Maybe one thing to just leave everyone with, you know, when—after Trump was elected, I know a lot of folks—even if—you know, and not as a partisan matter—but folks who were pro-democracy were pretty discouraged. And Jon—what’s his name—from the Daily Show—Jon Stewart, he said, you know, Trump talks about making America great again. Maybe he will make American great again. And I actually think that has come to fruition. Americans from all walks of life are stepping up, are becoming much more civically engaged. And so I hope that you all do, because we absolutely need you to. If you’re worried about climate change, if you’re worried about our democracy, if you’re worried about gun safety in schools, I think it just means that we all have to step up and do more to strengthen our democracy.
MOHAMMED: Thank you all for joining today’s CDI plenary. And thank you very much to our panelists. It’s a rare panel in Washington that ends on a note of hope, so thank you for that, Minh-Thu. (Laughter.) Please note that the video and transcript of this symposium will be posted on CFR’s website. And please join us for a virtual and in-person networking reception via Zoom and here at the Council. Thank you.
This is an uncorrected transcript.
ZAID: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Conference on Diversity in International Affairs concurrent session on “The Changing Workplace: Evaluating Your Options and Choosing Your Path” with Ryan Kaminski and Maryum Saifee. I am Zaid Zaid, the head of U.S. public policy at Cloudflare, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.
Just quick introductions. Maryum is the senior advisor in the Secretary of State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the U.S. Department of State. She’s also a former CFR term member. And Ryan Kaminski is the LGBTQI+ advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
So I’ll get started with my first question for—and Maryum over to you first. What has been your experience living and working abroad, the good and the bad? And how have family obligations and friendships in the United States factored into your decisions about living and working abroad?
SAIFEE: That’s a great question. So for me, you know, I started my career pre-Foreign Service in international affairs as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan, and so that type of living was really different from the State Department type of career. So that might be something that we can get into in the Q&A is the different sort of options.
And I think the hardest part is just being away from family. That can be difficult. With the State Department and the Foreign Service every two years, three years, depending on the length of the assignment, you’re moving from post to post.
So the upside is the moves themselves are not that difficult because there’s a lot of help in logistics and moving that’s sort of taken into account. So it’s not—the logistics are not the hard part, but the emotional bonds of being away from family can be really tough.
So some of the assignments I’ve taken like when I was in Cairo—or sorry, actually when I was in Iraq—these shorter assignments, you get three R&Rs, which mean every, you know, three months you get three weeks to go home. So that was actually kind of nice because I would see a lot more of my family on some of these, like, shorter assignments.
But also, the upside is that your family can come see you. So my parents came to Egypt my first assignment in 2011 right after the uprising, and so in July of 2011 when the landscape of the country had really shifted, they got to experience history unfolding with me.
And I was able to be—since I had been there for about a year could take them around; I spoke the language. So that’s really an exciting thing when you can share your experiences with your loved ones.
Though, I will say, it is hard being away, and just a note just in this current moment with the pandemic, there are lot of shifts that are happening with many institutions, I think, across our—you know, the private sector, the public sector. So there’s been a lot more flexibility in the workplace for options like remote work, and so that’s been really nice for me because I’ve spent a lot more time with family.
At this stage in my career, I sort of need to be closer to home. So I think you can make the Foreign Service, in some ways, fit based on what your needs are, especially as you’ve been in you understand sort of how things work. So I’d say it’s—it can be challenging, but it’s still very workable.
ZAID: Great. And Ryan, I know that most of your career has been in the United States, but you’ve also lived and worked abroad. Can you talk about your experience?
KAMINSKI: Thanks for the question, Zaid, and hi, everyone. My name is Ryan. My pronouns are he/him.
And you know, to the question, I think going abroad—the first time I went abroad was in college, and in terms of familial relationships, this was really a time I really had to make a difficult choice as a young adult.
I come from a Midwestern family, blue-collar background, where folks don’t generally go abroad, and so when I said I wanted to go to China for language study, there was a little bit of hesitation from my family. And you know, kind of don’t do it; it’s a bad idea.
But you know, I really had to look at my options, realize this was important to me to go see the world—part of my education, part of my professional career goals—and so I went on that trip. And it was quite incredible. I learned a lot. It was tough—you know, being—having that language requirement, but it was fantastic.
And I also credit that experience with, you know, being able to travel throughout the region, seeing Burma and Thailand, and really getting me interested in international affairs from that study abroad experience. Later I lived in Hong Kong, a part of the U.S. Fulbright experience.
And that was exposure to a different education system, a different governance system; getting to apply skills I didn’t really know I had at the time through organizing a model U.N. club, teaching about human rights and international law, which, sadly, I think wouldn’t be possible in this current context.
And also, like Maryum said, my family came out to visit me, which was great. First time in Asia, and we had a really terrific experience. But I really credit these experiences with, you know, kind of broadening my horizons, and really there is nothing like living abroad for a while and getting to see a different culture, and you know, just interact with people on the ground.
So I credit this a lot with my growth as a person as well as educational and professional growth, and I really, really can’t recommend the Fulbright program enough.
ZAID: Great. You know, I’m a huge proponent of study abroad as well. I, similar to you, hadn’t lived abroad until study abroad in college, and I went to Cairo for a year. And it was an amazing experience.
This was in the mid-’90s, so this was pre-cell phone, pre-social media. It was a completely different experience for the most part. You know, didn’t—I mean, like people literally—including my parents—would send me email—I mean not email, rather, mail—in the mail. It would take a month to get there.
But it was still an amazing experience, and I encourage everyone to study abroad, even if you just go to another English-speaking country. It’s just the experience that is incredible.
And, Ryan, I’ll start with you for the next question. Particularly given, you know, the participants on this call, and the—you know, sort of the whole reason for this conference, I would love for you to tell us about a professional setback that you’ve had and how you recovered.
It can be something small, like, you know, you accidentally sent an email to the wrong person, and you know, you were a little too candid. Or it can be something bigger, you know, where you were trying to think, you know, what is my next move or something like that.
KAMINSKI: Yeah, thanks, Zaid, and I really appreciate the question.
The one example I can think of that just rings in my mind—and I actually am really glad this happened because it really kind of changed how I looked at professional opportunities, and how I kind of look at strategy in that regard.
When I was in college there was this amazing human rights fellowship that my university offered. It was a research project, a travel opportunity, a professional internship opportunity. It was, you know, the kind of blue-ribbon human rights option.
And I applied. I knew I was interested in human rights. It was like this was built for me. I’m really excited about this. And then, you know, of course you find out it’s really competitive. There’s lots of excellent people who are interested in human rights and have other projects, and it didn’t work out.
I remember getting the email—I was back home in Illinois for some reason; I don’t remember why—but I remember getting the email, and it was just like getting hit by a truck. I, you know, just had no idea what to do. I was, like, did I—am I fundamentally flawed as a student, or is this not where I’m supposed to be going? I mean, it was rough.
And you know, after a while I consulted with friends, other students, peers, you know, instructors, and—but what I kept hearing is, you know, you have every right to feel disappointed. You have every right to feel, you know, sad and negative that this didn’t work out. But look at other opportunities, take a breath, and don’t self-disqualify. And that’s what I did.
I scoured the various departments at school. I went on the listservs. I asked friends. And I ended up applying to another similar-type opportunity, and ended up at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. for my very first summer internship. And it was amazing. I learned so much.
I still keep in contact with the colleagues I had from that experience. I won’t say when it was because I’d be dating myself just a tad bit, but, you know, this was coming from a moment where you felt everything—you know, the one thing you were going for didn’t work out and being able to say—acknowledge the fact that, yes, it’s a bummer. Take a breather and say, I’m not going to self-disqualify; I’m going to look at other opportunities.
And I can say from this experience that, you know, for me anyway, imposter—when you feel like that imposter syndrome, it’s real, it can happen, but don’t self-disqualify because if you don’t apply you know it’s absolutely not going to work out.
So I’m really happy I was able to take a breather, consult with friends and colleagues, and actually end up at a different opportunity that I think was just as useful and helpful in the long-term.
ZAID: That’s some—that’s a good story, and it reminds me of a story that I tell all the time—because I think it’s worth people hearing, you know, sort of the ups and the downs—is that when I applied to law school, I got—the first time, I got rejected from every single law school that I applied to. And it hit me like a ton of bricks because I had never—I had never been rejected from any school that I applied to for college or for grad school.
After grad school, I went into the Foreign Service, and it was from the Foreign Service that I applied to law school. And you know—as I’m sure people on this call will know, law school—they do rolling admissions, and so the earlier you apply, the better chance you have of getting in.
And I was one of those people who didn’t have my applications in until the end of January, which is sort of like when the applications—like the last possible time you can apply, and I got rejected. Now, granted, I only applied to the top ten-ranked law schools, but still—that still hit me really hard.
And I just—I made a commitment to the following year apply earlier. I had all my applications in by November, and I got into every single law school that I applied to. And I ended up going to Columbia.
So like you, you know, you sort of like you hit that setback and you start to question, you know, your worth, but in the end, it sometimes ends up motivating you as well.
Maryum, what about you?
SAIFEE: So it’s a great question, and agree with you on—I also have had many rejections, and it’s character building, but it also sometimes leads you into serendipity into other places that you may not expect. So that’s something—even with my own trajectory into the State Department into the Foreign Service.
I, you know, started with Peace Corps, and always thought I would stay in the activist realm and did AmeriCorps after Peace Corps. I was very into the grassroots work, and then the financial crisis hit in New York right after I graduated from Columbia, the international affairs program, and, you know, needed a job.
My parents said we’re not going to subsidize this adventure of yours. You didn’t go to med school, which is their big disappointment. So they—so I ended up joining the department kind of on a whim because I had took the test, sort of forgot about it, because I didn’t want to be a government bureaucrat. I didn’t see myself in that way, and then had no choice.
And so it was sort of—I wanted to do journalism, but the industry was collapsing. So sometimes, you know, these circumstances lead to things that are actually—I have no regrets over a decade in. It’s been such a great career.
But having said that, it’s an intense career. To link to the first question about the challenges of a life overseas, my tours in the beginning I had—I was in Cairo—so early days of the Arabs’ uprising in 2011 and then also 2013—I got evacuated twice from the same country. So this was when—the lead up to the al-Sisi, you know, presidency.
So I had two pretty tough, you know, experiences, in one country. Then I went to Baghdad. Also really intense during our military withdrawal, working on special immigrant visas, which is a really tough topic, and made headlines last year with the Afghanistan withdrawal.
So it can take a toll, and I don’t think I realized how much of a toll it was taking on me until, you know, a few more years in, after I served in Pakistan, another hardship post, under our last administration as a spokesperson for the consulate in Lahore, I just needed a break. I just needed a break.
And so I—you know, even though the career path is very competitive a little bit—like you have to go this ladder, as Zaid might remember, you know, from the department and being in the Foreign Service, there’s a lot of this, like, you know, comparing, you know, with the other—your classmates, your—what you call A-100, the people you started with.
And I just decided I was going to burn out and sort of at the end of my fumes, and so I ended up applying for the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship, which came at the perfect time for me.
I mean, it's really meant to be—for those of you—we can drop it in the link—or we can drop it in the chat. But it’s a mid-career sort of program so people in government can get exposure outside government, and people outside government can go in government so it’s a really interesting way to just have exposure.
But the purpose of it is really for personal development. There really wasn’t—I’m such a Type A person—what’s the deliverable, what do I have to produce, and really, it was, you know, like, it’s for your growth. It’s to learn, and so it was an extraordinary year. And I have just finished it, and now I’m back in the State Department. But I was actually questioning if I was even going to come back at all. But I took that year off, and I think that helped me to sort of gain a new perspective and realize I actually do enjoy the career, and I came back to it.
And so take a break. Like it really—it’s the journey. It doesn’t matter sort of how fast you get to wherever you want to go. I mean, I started college when I was fifteen. I was one of those like very—my parents were very—you know, immigrant parents from India. So like must be the top of your class, must go—and I thought, why did I do that?
My brother kept saying that’s so dumb. You’re missing out on the best years of college and high school by condensing it, and so he was right. And so there’s no rush, and enjoy the journey.
ZAID: Great. That’s really important advice.
Maryum, I’m going to stay with you. You’ve mentioned some of—some of the other things that you’ve done and some of the other things that you were considering. But I’d love for, you know—particularly, again, given the audience—what were some of the different options you had coming out of college, coming out of grad school? And how did—how did you ultimately decide which route to take?
SAIFEE: So, for me, I mean I started with the various sort of math and science background and wasn’t really planning on a career in international affairs. And I—because I had started college so early, I decided I would do the Peace Corps to make my med school application look more competitive. Like it was a very pragmatic thing.
But then I realized I loved being abroad, and I fell in love with the Middle East when I was posted there. I learned Arabic when I was in Jordan. And so didn’t really see myself, you know, taking over my mom’s practice in Texas. Like their—my parents’ vision for what I wanted to do just wasn’t quite what I wanted to do I started to realize.
And so with that, I had to kind of think through, you know—I did AmeriCorps after Peace Corps because I wasn’t quite sure what was next for me, and so I liked doing the grassroots advocacy work, working with constituencies on the ground, which you can do a lot in the State Department, especially if you’re working on human rights issues, which Ryan can talk about as well having liaised with the Bureau of Human Rights.
So I was, you know, sort of stumbling a bit in the beginning not knowing what I could do, and then eventually got a degree in international affairs with a focus on the Middle East and human rights issues. So that helped kind of shape my interest and hone what I was interested in.
And then after that, I thought I would actually work in philanthropy, so I did a year working at the Ford Foundation as a consultant and thought this is where I want to end up. I like the idea of sort of resourcing, you know, organizations, institutions, and human rights work in particular.
But then the financial crisis hit, and as I said before, I just sort of had to, you know, take the offer, and in the end—you know, I didn’t plan to stay in the State Department. I think my plan was—you know, I wanted to do journalism at that point, and thought, OK, I’ll work for some English daily, go to Cairo, and then leave.
And then I just loved it. You know, I just really loved being—kind of having a seat at the table in places that you would never have access to. And I think for me, too, the fun part of being a generalist—because there’s different tracks within Foreign Service and then, of course, there’s civil service and many pathways—is that you can reinvent yourself every time.
So Cairo, I was working on cultural affairs, and sending filmmakers to the U.S., and got to know all these—all the folks in the revolution in Tahrir were people I knew, you know? So that was really exciting. Baghdad, I worked on something else. You know, Lahore I worked on other things. So every tour you’re reinventing yourself.
So, for me, I stumbled into it, and then I feel like every assignment is a new job in a sense and a new career in a sense. So the dynamism is what keeps me—keeps me engaged in this.
ZAID: Great. Thanks.
Ryan, what about you? What were some of the things you were considering coming out of—(audio break)?
KAMINSKI: Yeah. Well, like Maryum, I was graduating during the financial crisis, which was, you know, not a good time. You know, when you’re coming home and, you know, seeing the markets collapse in front of you, and you’re thinking about, you know, what’s next.
And so remembering what happened with the human rights application, I kind of did a throw everything up on the wall and see what sticks—applied for Teach for America, Peace Corps, grad school, the Fulbright program. And you know, on April Fool’s Day, I got notified that I got accepted for the Fulbright program, and when I figured out it wasn’t a joke or something, I was really happy.
And you know, coming out of the Fulbright program, the economy I think was still kind of recovering, and so my thought process was, well, what’s the one sector that is, you know, never going to go bankrupt and, you know, there will always be jobs, you know, kind of no matter what.
And I was really looking at the security factor, actually, and defense, and so in grad school, I was really focused on international security policy and defense. And I mean maybe it was just like I kind of knew I was, you know, more kind of inclined towards the human rights sphere of things, but I just kept taking more courses on that.
And I really owe it to some of my instructors who said, you know, maybe you should look at a think tank, and I think you’d be really interested in that. You seem to like research a lot. You seem to like writing a lot. You know, try out a think tank.
And so taking that advice, right out of grad school I was really excited to get a position at the Council on Foreign Relations in D.C. working in the International Institutions and Global Governance Program. Learned a ton. Got to meet an incredible spectrum of people from all different backgrounds on all different issues—everything ranging from space to peacekeeping in Africa to other topics.
It was really an incredible time. But I think all this just kind of shows like, you know, you can try and plan and have a, you know, a plan—you know, a long-term plan, and that’s great if it works out.
But in case it doesn’t work out, there’s nothing wrong with that, too. Sometimes unexpected things happen. Sometimes the world changes. And if you do find yourself in a different place than what you had planned, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and you know, sometimes that happens and it’s OK.
ZAID: Great. So we have about eight more minutes. We’re going to take questions—or conversation between the three of us, and then I’m going to open it up for questions from the audience. So please be thinking about questions.
So, Ryan, I’m going to go back to you. So we—all three of us have worked on issues or in places that really spoke to our identities—the different identities that we bring to the table. Can you talk to me a little bit about how your identity has factored into some of the work that you’ve done? And maybe talk as well about some of the strengths that you’ve been able to bring because of your identity, but also, maybe what—how your identity has ever been a limiting factor for some of the things that you’ve done as well?
KAMINSKI: Yeah, thanks for the question, Zaid.
Well, you know, as a gay male, I’ve, you know, typically—that’s part of the LGBTQI+ community—I really have always been interested in LGBTQI+ human rights, and when I was working, you know, with a job focusing on the United Nations, a lot of my work, you know, tended to gravitate that.
So when I initially began the position, it was very broadly human rights, but over time, more of a focus on LGBTQI+ issues became part of my portfolio. And I think that the benefit there was the institution not only realized this was a really helpful thing and a really important issue to stay focused on, but also, it was important to have someone dedicated to those issues.
So this, in turn, led to, you know, opening the door to other professional networks that I really enjoyed working with—like the Cuba national security project, U.N. Globe and others—and it’s just really been an opportunity to build a professional network and engage others.
And when there has been breaking news or events, you know, it’s kind of neat to have senior or even executive leadership come to you and say, you know, this happened, can we have your expertise or recommendations? What should it be?
So in that way, it’s been, you know, really, in my view, a strength, and you know, being part of these networks I never would have imagined, you know, starting a position, you know, that really was supposed to be focused on research.
And then kind of at the tail end of the same position being involved in managing three corporate partnerships—involving the company Kenneth Cole and U.N. ambassadors seeing the Broadway show The Prom to raise awareness about LBGTQI+ human rights—it just kind of evolved in a very unexpected, but really delightful way.
On the limiting side, you know, I’ve heard, you know—you know, I think there’s this kind of view that sometimes folks in the LGBTQI+ community feel internally that they always have to, you know, work extra hard to kind of prove themselves, and, you know, that can come from a lot of places, and—you know, bullying and you know issues growing up.
So that’s—you know, this expectation that you always have to, you know, go a little bit farther, I think, can be real for a lot of folks, and I’ve also, you know, heard, you know, in some professional settings, you know, some really troubling advice.
I was in a meeting with a very prominent U.N. advocate, who was telling a bunch of young people, you know, when you speak at meetings make sure you lower your voice—and this person said this especially to the girls in the audience— like, make sure you lower your voice so you sound more commanding in the room. And I remember just kind of being like, you know, like that’s absolutely not the advice we should be giving to people, and that’s—you know, like, I can’t believe that this prominent person is saying that to folks. We should—it’s actually the opposite advice you should be giving. People should be authentic.
So I feel like there’s been a tremendous amount of progress. I never in a thousand years would have imagined LGBTQI+ advisor would be in my job title. When I was first coming out, I was like, OK, never getting a job in government, never going to be doing this, never going to be doing that. So that’s great news, but of course, we still have a whole long way to go. There’s lots of progress to be made.
ZAID: Great. Thanks so much.
Maryum, over to you.
SAIFEE: Yeah, no, echoing a lot of what Ryan said, I think, you know, your identity can be such a huge asset—the diversity of the experiences that you bring—and I think many of us are intersecting with so many different kinds of backgrounds, identities. I’m originally—you know, I was born in Texas, originally from India, Muslim by faith and a woman, and you know, sort of all of these things kind of create an interesting lens.
And I think the department itself is really—our leadership in particular, the secretary of state has highlighted how important it is to have a workforce that looks and really reflects the diversity of the country because it’s a national security asset. So I do feel like I’ve seen how my identity, you know, in concrete ways has contributed to policy in a positive way.
One area that I worked on in the U.S. when I was posted in Washington, I was brought into work in the office—the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, which is a phenomenal office, and largely because I had—I lived experience that was unique—I was a survivor—or am a survivor of female genital mutilation, which is, you know, something that’s not really thought about as happening here in the United States. Usually, people think of it in Sub Sahara Africa and far away villages out there. There’s a stereotype.
And when I came into the office, I saw how it was being characterized, and it was largely framed in this exotic way—as a cultural rite of passage. You know, it’s a harmful thing, but it wasn’t really framed in a human-rights—with a human-rights lens, and it was really fetishized, ghettoized.
And also, I found out in the United States there are White Christian communities that undergo FGM that are very underground. The issue is very taboo.
And so we weren’t including everyone at the table, and so when I started the work, I was able to reframe the narrative—globalize it by being more inclusive of the survivor voices at the table, but also making sure when we do bring survivors of any kind of gender-based violence or human rights abuse, we’re treating those survivors with dignity, so that they’re treated like human beings rather than, you know, props on a stage or trauma puppets. Because sometimes that happens not just—you know, across different agencies and organizations. It’s not meant to be a—you know, people want to phrase—people want to sort of elevate these stories, but at what cost?
And so one of the things I advocated for, you know, successfully is putting mental health at the forefront of this, too—that the survivors themselves need to be—they’re part of these movements. They’re leading these movements. They’re informing them. And they should be at the table in a meaningful way, not just speaking about—and telling their stories, but also driving the policy itself, and recognized for what they bring to the table.
So that’s been a really extraordinary in this broader movement around inclusion to think about what does that actually mean. It’s not just about having those folks, you know, sort of on a panel, you know, or included, but also, you know, are their voices being heard, you know, and are these diverse experiences being incorporated?
And as a result, now our focus is no longer just on Sub Sahara Africa or parts of the Middle East, but Indonesia where half the girls are cut before fourteen. No one knew that until 2016. So we’ve been able to redirect resources and funding to places where we’re getting new data. So that’s just one example.
But on the flip side, it can also be very limiting, so I’m glad that, Zaid, you brought that up, too. Because I did one year in that office focused on gender issues, but my whole career has been largely on the Middle East, largely on, you know, a whole set of issues around—you know, human rights issues that—on press freedom.
My CFR fellowship was driving in a car with Saudi dissident Manal Al Sharif across the country to raise awareness on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, for example. So I have a broad background, but when I’m invited to panels sometimes—and this happened recently, where I was supposed to speak on subnational diplomacy—how cities and states can drive foreign policy, nothing to do with FGM—but then somebody looked at my bio and was like, oh, this is what you’re going to talk about. I was like this has nothing to do with the topic.
So that sometimes—you know, being put in a box like that can be frustrating, and what I’ve learned to do is self-advocate. So in that situation, I thought to myself, do I just pull out of the panel? It was kind of humiliating, actually, to be put in this box.
But I really care about this issue. I want—you know, in my personal capacity, I would love to have an office of subnational diplomacy in the department. I said this is a great opportunity.
So instead, I talked to the—in advance and said, hey, we—you know, I said, here are the parameters. This is off the table. This is not going be discussed. And then they agreed to it, you know, and so I think that’s the other thing is sometimes when you’re in—you’re from an underrepresented group, you will be put into a box sometimes. And it will be really frustrating, and it’s not fair.
But you can also—you know, you have the power to push back as well, so, and I’ve only recently started doing that, so. Before I probably would have walked away from the opportunity sort of upset, but now I’m learning that, no, you sort of have to speak up when these moments happen.
ZAID: Great. I’m about to invite participants to speak and, you know, have you raise your hand on the raise hand function.
But before saying that, I just want to add to, you know—both Ryan and Maryum were talking about their, you know, professional paid experiences. But you know, all of us also have, you know, the work that we do outside of work that, you know, for a lot of us is either—you know, what is important for us—it may be part of our identity, but also just may be an issue that we care about, that we may not even be connected to as part of our identity.
I know Maryum does, you know, work outside of her paid job just organizing Muslim federal employees, you know, and I’ve done a number of stuff like pro bono work when I was out at law firms, you know, sitting on nonprofit boards for things that I care about, and that’s something else that I think that a lot of us at our—you know, even in our twenties, early thirties—you know, I’m in my late forties—(laughs)—but, you know, do over time to help enhance our careers but also to really contribute to issues that are really important to us.
So at this time I’d like to invite participants to join in our conversation with your questions. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record, so if you have a question, just use the raised-hand function. Don’t limit yourself to the things we were discussing. If you have a question that, you know, sort of—that you want to ask for any of us, go ahead and ask.
Ling, why don’t we start with you? And take yourself off of mute, and please introduce yourself; give your name and affiliation, if you can.
Q: Hi, everyone. My name is Ling Guo. I am currently a master’s student at London School of Economics.
Before this I was working in defense contracting, and right now I’m sort of at the point where I’m trying to figure out where I go next and one of the things, one of the factors, I guess, I’m considering is, you know, whether to go private sector or public sector. Defense contracting kind of straddles the two in a strange way, but I’m trying to figure out sort of what are the pros and cons of both. So if you guys can speak to your experiences working in public versus private, you know, in terms of flexibility or the culture, that would be great. Thank you.
ZAID: Maryum, do you want to take that?
SAIFEE: Sure. And, Zaid, you actually are the best example since you’ve—(laughs)—gone between public and private. I would say, having—so, you know, the public sector the—you can be somewhat more constrained in terms of how, you know, how much you can—you can speak; you can speak in your personal capacity, actually, quite a lot, but you may not have as much freedom, you know, let’s say on a particular issue to speak, especially if you’re posted, let’s say, in a country and you have a view that’s maybe different from our policy view; you still have to represent the policy, right, so if you’re a spokesperson you represent the government or the policy position. And if you’re in the private sector and you’re in the nonprofit or philanthropy sectors you have a little bit more freedom, though, having said that, there’s still guidelines that you have to follow that are sector-specific, company-specific, as well. But I would say, generally speaking, you probably have a bit more freedom outside of government in that way.
But having said that, inside government you’re shaping policy that’s so broad and far-reaching that it’s pretty exciting to be at the table and then see how much of an impact you’ll have, so it really depends. You know, outside government, when I was working in nonprofits, when I did the CFR International Affairs Fellowship I worked with a human rights organization and they could be very loud and creative even, like the campaign, the driving campaign, for example, and Manal Sharif, the person I was in the car with, actually advocated to lift the driving ban in Saudi Arabia but then her co-campaigners were thrown in jail—(laughs)—so that was sort of—but it was interesting to see that perspective of the outside versus the inside government. And so—and many times they’re having conversations, usually behind the scenes, about policy, but it just depends on the perspective and role—all the roles are, I think, very needed, I’d say, inside and outside of government.
ZAID: Yeah. So I’ll add—I mean, I think that it can depend on what you’re looking for in terms of experience. It can also depend on, like, what, you know, your time horizon is, because sometimes, you know, government jobs can take a long time to get hired; you might have to go through a security clearance that, you know, depending on how many different places, particularly abroad, where you’ve lived it could take a long time. You know, government, I think in a lot of ways, is a lot harder for them to give you a specific timeline on when you’re going to start because it, you know, comes—it could come down to an FBI clearance; it could come down to a background check, et cetera.
For me—I mean, I went into the Foreign Service right out of grad school and at the time—you know, I’ve always been a Democrat. I wasn’t thinking about joining the Foreign Service as a Democrat; I was just thinking about joining the Foreign Service as a civil servant. The longer that I was in the Foreign Service the more I decided that I wanted to be more politically engaged, which you can’t do in the same way that I wanted to do as a Foreign Service officer, and so I knew that I wanted to go into the private sector and that I only wanted to work in an administration that I supported. Most of my time in the Foreign Service was under the George W. Bush administration. I started at the very end of the Clinton administration, you know, again, as a civil servant. I had a lot of really good friends who were political appointees in the Bush administration, but I knew that leaving government I was only going to come back as an appointee, as a political appointee in a Democratic administration. So that’s how I thought about it.
And in so—and, you know, and for me what it meant in between was going into the private sector. And now I’m, you know, still in the private sector but that was more a decision I made because—partly because I have three little boys and my husband told me under no uncertain terms could I join the administration. (Laughs.) But I think you have to think about a lot of things. You have to think about your personal life; you have to think about, you know, how you want to be in government, if you want to be a civil servant, if you want to be an appointee, if you want to be a contractor, and think about how that—where you land on some of those things, and also, like, what the particular role is, what the particular job is.
Ryan, do you have anything to add here before we move on?
KAMINSKI: I think you both covered it extremely well. The only small thing I would add is there’s a lot more silo breaking that is going on, you know, very recently than, in my view, there has been ever before between partnerships and public sector work with the private sector, private sector working with philanthropy, and that sometimes it may seem like they’re very, you know, completely separated silos, but through partnerships and other campaigns, I think there’s a lot more of these two interacting together than there has been before, and that’s also really exciting as well. In case you don’t want to kind of be in a role that quite leaves one entirely behind, so it’s not necessarily being in a silo.
ZAID: And I always like to tell people that the government isn’t going anywhere, and for that matter, the private sector isn’t either, and, you know, I’ve been in and out of the public and private sector, you know, three or four times so—and I plan—at some point I’ll probably go back into the public sector, so you can go back and forth for sure.
Why don’t we take our next question from Nareen (ph)?
Q: Hi. I’m Nareen (ph). I’m currently being a Ph.D. in political science at the University of California, Irvine. I specifically study international humanitarian aid, development, refugee crises, and resilience, and I’m also doing a master’s in counseling and psychology to get my license to do therapy.
Something that I’m really interested in knowing more about is the opportunities to do remote work in that kind of field in this post-COVID context. You know, we’ve talked a lot about family and personal lives going into these kinds of work and there are not many options to kind of get into that kind of work in Southern California, so I was wondering what that is looking like now in this transition to remote work life.
ZAID: Maryum, do you want to start?
SAIFEE: Sure. So I am an example of doing remote work. I am based out of New York and work in an office that’s headquartered in D.C. at the—in the headquarters in Washington. So there are flexibilities. It’s, right now, more of a case-by-case basis, but there is definitely an understanding—I think during the pandemic everyone was remote for the most part. A lot of people in Washington had to be remote. So we learned, the department, the institution itself was sort of forced to learn that, yes, you can still function, maybe not completely to the same degree but there are workarounds or there are ways—I mean, I know our IT infrastructure, when I left I was on—I left before the pandemic when I did the CFR fellowship, came after the pandemic, and was blown away by how everything functions. Like, my—a good friend in the Foreign Service even coached me saying, oh, you’re going to—you won’t even recognize the portals anymore—(laughs)—because everything works, everything is cloud-based, you know, things that of course in the private sector this is so a given; in the public sector we really were kind of brought into maybe the twentieth century, if not the twenty-first century. (Laughs.) We’re still getting there.
But yeah, so there is definitely a culture of understanding that remote work and workplace flexibility is actually a part of a broader conversation around retention, so, you know, morale and just understanding that people in different life cycles are going to need moments where they’re going to have more flexibility, and so how do we figure out institutionally how to make that happen? And those conversations are very much happening within the institution, and that change is happening, which is really great to see.
ZAID: Great. Ryan?
KAMINSKI: Yeah, I’ve been remote work 100 percent since I started last August. I’ve been to the office twice, once just to pick up business cards; I’d gotten lost ones. So at this point, we’re doing a phased reentry and the order of the day is flexibility and that this process is iterative, so recognizing the need for leadership to, again, look at special cases to make exceptions where possible and recognize, you know, this has never happened before; you know, we’re really building up something from scratch. So it seems there’s a lot of flexibility built in right now, you know. And I will just say, you know, one of the silver linings of all this has been, you know, when we’re having these, you know, events, if you’re coming from the advocate community, if you’re coming from the civil society part of the world, if you’re having a multistakeholder event and you want to bring in perspectives from around the world, it’s been so much easier to make sure those voices are at the table and they’re actually being listened to rather than always having a physical meeting and, you know, folks, some folks and voices can’t be there because of plane tickets or visa issues, so it’s been, in some ways, a very helpful silver lining to actually bring folks to the table and have events and convenings that actually have voices and where, you know, different perspectives can be elevated. So hopefully that flexibility will continue, and, you know, maybe in the future it’s some sort of optimal mix of hybrid in-person and remote.
ZAID: Yeah, from where I sit in the private sector I would say—I will say that—we haven’t figured it out. People are—like, are still trying to figure out what works; people are trying out different things. You know, I follow—I’m in the tech sector, I follow what all the big tech companies are doing, and, you know, a year ago everyone was like, we’re going back to the office, we’re going back to the office five days a week. Banks, you know, on Wall Street are “no, we need to be in the office,” and there’s all this pressure that people want—or some people want to be in the office and other people are like, I don’t want to be in the office. And I think even studies have shown that a lot of women and minorities don’t want to be in the office. There have even been, you know, reports and studies showing that, you know, some minorities haven’t had to deal with some, you know, microaggressions or other racial issues that they would have to deal with in the office when they’re remote.
At the same time, there are also studies showing that particularly people earlier in their career, younger workers, that going to the office is hugely beneficial because of the, you know, intangible connections that you can make with somebody and what that might lead to in terms of work assignments, in terms of relationships. Some companies—Cloudflare, my own company, being one of them—are trying to make sure that they account for that. Like, they want to, you know, make sure that somebody doesn’t get—doesn’t have this huge extra benefit from being in the office all the time versus someone else who’s remote. And one of the things that we are exploring is what—how do you have a meeting when you have remote people versus folks in the office, and one of the things that we’re thinking about is if anybody is remote, everyone has to be on screen, instead of having one person, you know, on screen and five other people sitting around a table in person. Who knows whether or not that’s the right thing, but a lot of companies are trying out different things.
Another thing to keep in mind is—you know, and I’m not—obviously, I’m not an expert, like, you know, on this—but is to think about when you’re applying for jobs, you know, if something says that it’s San Francisco-based and you live in New York and don’t want to move, don’t assume that that job can’t be done remotely. A friend of mine recently started at Salesforce for a job that was—that did—that, you know, was San Francisco Bay area, and I asked the hiring manager, who was a friend of mine, I said, do you—does this person have to be in person? And she said, for the right person, we’ll make it remote. So it was not listed as a remote job. My friend eventually got the job and it’s now remote. So think about that. I don’t know when the best time is to have that conversation. It might be, you know, at the beginning; it’s maybe at the end after you’ve gotten the offer saying, eh, I don’t—you know, I don’t want to move; like, are there these opportunities? But that’s, you know, I think a different discussion that you should have with a number of different people about how you position yourself for remote role, even if something is not listed as remote.
Why don’t we go to the next question? Ronnie, I see you here. Ronnie Townsend.
Q: Yes. Hello, everyone. I want to say thank you to the presenters before I ask my question. My name is Ronnie Townsend and I’m the event technology specialist at NAFSA, the Association of International Educators.
And my question to the presenters is: What was the defining moment, you know, whether it was a job, whether it was a trip, you serving somewhere that really molded your career?
ZAID: Ryan, do you want to go?
KAMINSKI: Yeah, that’s such a great question, Ronnie. Thank you very much. You know, for me it really has to be that first trip abroad and specifically it was the opportunity to visit the Thai-Burma border. This was about a decade ago, maybe a little more. And, you know, I had done some advocacy work on campus with the Free Burma Project, and, you know, you hear about a situation, you read books about a situation, you, you know, make a poster, you, you know, go to class and learn about it, and, you know, having the opportunity to go there, meet with advocates, you know, be in a situation where you’re, you know, getting out of the van and running, you know, really fast, you know, till you make sure you’re not causing any trouble or, you know, just, you know, being in a situation where you feel like, you know, things could possibly go wrong now, you know, it really just opened my eyes to, you know, kind of what, you know, human rights meant on the ground and what this kind of broader context really was about. And, you know, of course, things are in a very different place in that part of the world right now, but, you know, I came back to school really interested in these issues, really wanting to really just learn more but also recognize—you know, kind of recognize your role in all of this, and, you know, you can’t necessarily, you know, do everything; you have to really, you know, find a place where you can do the best you can and be a part of that process. But I will say that trip, being able to be on the ground, meet people, and, you know—Maryum was talking about making those connections, being in different places, the importance of that. I can’t emphasize that enough.
SAIFEE: Yeah, this is such a great question, and there’s been so many moments, which I guess is a good thing, to think through that have been formative for me. I guess I’d say my first assignment in Cairo, being there just, you know, I served from summer of 2009 to summer of 2011, so during the early days of the uprising, and I remember—actually I think it was end of 2010; you know, it was sort of like—you know, I’d been back and forth in the region at the point for a while, having done the Peace Corps in Jordan and then studied in graduate school in the Middle East so I had been, you know, familiar with the region and thought, oh, there’s like this stasis; like, it doesn’t seem like—I mean, Zaid, you were in Egypt.
Like, it didn’t seem like—you know, Mubarak had been there for so long, didn’t think there would be any change, and, you know, Tunisia happened in 2010, end of 2010, and then early 2011 we—you know, we were really sort of taken by surprise in many ways, and so I think being there on the ground—like Ryan said, when you’re physically there, it’s so different than if you read about it. I’m sure if I read about it or saw it on TV, what was happening in the square, it would be moving and extraordinary, and a lot of people are like, wow, that must have been incredible, but there was an energy in the air that’s so intangible that, you know, it really was—you know, people can reflect on the moment now over a decade later on where Egypt is, but in that particular moment, it felt like a utopia and people were so proud of the country, and one of the Egyptian slogans I won’t forget is, you know, in Arabic, is Erfaa rasak foa’, enta masry; like, “Hold your head up high, you’re an Egyptian.” Like, it was like they had taken the streets for their own—this sort of—the streets weren’t—you know, there was order in the streets, there was—you know, there were people—there were no gender roles.
I remember when my mom came to visit and it’s July of 2011. We went to the square and she wanted to leave because she was—oh, it’s too crowded and could be scary, and she said—and her excuse was, I have to go pray. Because we’re Muslims, so she’s like, at—you know, Friday prayer, time to go—(speaks in Arabic)—time, time to go. And I remember, you know, two women, you know, praying in the square, and this is not normal in a public space to have—in Mecca you have men and women praying side by side, but in Egypt in mosques it’s usually separated, men on one side, women on the other. And to see two women interspersed amongst all these men praying, it was like that’s a micro-revolution happening under the surface I never would have seen before. So it just—that, I think, has really taught me to rethink a lot of assumptions I had about, you know, Egypt in particular, the region, and just the fluidity of all these movements and identities and what can happen, so I think it was humbling for me as well as really extraordinary.
ZAID: Great. Thanks.
So for me there are so many different things that I, you know—that came to mind when you asked that question, Ronnie, but one thing that I think was really new for me at age 38 was actually applying for a job and selling myself. I hadn’t done that before. Every job I’ve had was just sort of like moving along the conveyor belt. You know, I went to grad school right after undergrad and then I joined the Foreign Service; like, I had taken the Foreign Service exam but also I was a Pickering Fellow so, like, that was part of the Pickering conveyor belt. And then I, you know, left and went to law school, and when you are in law school and applying to clerkships, which I did, or applying to law firms, which I did, all of that is just based on, like, your grades, and, you know, teacher recommendations and, you know, like, people don’t ask you anything related to the law; they really just want to know that you’re not, you know, someone with two heads and that you’re not crazy. It was at age thirty-eight, after, you know, having, you know, had—you know, done three degrees and, you know, had three different kinds of—three different jobs, you know, Foreign Service, law clerkships, you know, law—that I actually had to apply to something and sell myself and, like, market myself, and that was—I hadn’t really thought about it at the time, that, like, again, everything that I’d done was just kind of conveyor belt, like, based on grades, and here was this time where I actually had to come to the table with, like, here’s what I bring, here’s my value-added, here’s my experience, and here’s why I think that I would be good for your organization. And that was kind of a wakeup call at age thirty-eight. I think I did fine, but it was just like something I never really had to do before.
Before I turn to a question in chat, we had Imani Brooks first to raise her hand. Imani, why don’t you take yourself off of mute and introduce yourself?
Q: Hi. My name is Imani Brooks. I am a law student at American University.
And I have a question for Maryum, specifically about applying for a fellowship with CFR. I just wanted to know about the application process, if you remember, and any tips you have for any fellowships with CFR.
SAIFEE: Sure. And I know there’s CFR staff, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s—the deadline for the International Affairs Fellowship is the end of October. And you usually find out in the spring. So it’s a pretty—once you apply, interviews happen, like, shortly after, a couple of months later, and then you find out a month or so later. So it’s October, so plenty of time, actually, if you’re interested for the next year. End of October is the deadline.
FULCO: Maryum, sorry to interrupt.
SAIFEE: And I know there are other ones too.
FULCO: Sorry to interrupt. This is Meaghan Fulco. I’m with the Council. And I will chat out a video we have of an informational session we did about a year and a half ago that might be useful.
SAIFEE: Oh, perfect. Excellent. We’ll put it in the chat. And there’s also more fellowships, not just the International Affairs Fellowship, but there’s country-specific ones. I think there’s one to Japan. There’s one to India. There’s quite a few. And I think those are also getting updated and changed and added, new ones that keep getting added I’ve been noticing, which is exciting.
So—and so you might want to also—and some are for academics as well. So they really—there are quite a few. So the one I did was much more for generalists and might be of interest. Especially if you’re in law school and you’re interested in exposure in government, it’s a great way to just get a taste of what it would be like to work in government.
KAMINSKI: Very quickly, I just want to do a quick plug for CFR term membership. I’m sure that’s come up at the conference. But it’s a great thing. I’m a CFR term member. It’s how I really got to know Maryum, because I always got to see her at events. And, you know, like just last week I was able to have a great chat with the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, which I, again, never would have thought would have been the horizon. So it's a really, really cool opportunity.
ZAID: Great. And I’m also a former term member as well.
So I’m going to turn to the chat really quickly to ask a question, and it is from Alexandria Maloney. She’s the president of Black Professionals in International Affairs. Unfortunately, something’s wrong with her computer and she can’t unmute. So she asks, do you have any words of encouragement and/or strategies for those who are, one, actively applying for competitive internships and positions, two, may not already have the network within that organization, and three, and find themselves not getting interviewed or selected, particularly those of us who are BIPOC or from underrepresented backgrounds?
Maryum, do you want to start?
SAIFEE: Sure. So there—it’s a great question. And thank you, Alexandria. We know each other, actually. And I’ll put a plug actually for her organization, Black Professionals in International Affairs. But there are many organizations that are—that I think, when I was starting, didn’t even exist when I was doing the Peace Corps years ago. And now it’s super exciting.
There’s Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, which I can drop the link in later after. But there’s—and, of course, Alexandria’s organization. There’s the Truman National Security Project that’s for kind of young professionals. They’re diversifying. But there are a lot of these great networks that I’d recommend just exploring, you know, WCAPS, for example, the Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security. You can be of any background. You don’t have to be a woman of color to be part of it. It’s free to join, and it’s an amazing listserv where people are hosting opportunities. And, you know, I’ve even gotten speaking opportunities or writing opportunities when people—you know, I’ve reached out to folks through that list. It’s expansive.
So I’d recommend, you know, getting plugged into some of these networks that already exist. I just discovered one called Speechwriters of Color. It’s a new one, just launched, I think, a year ago. So a lot of great organizations are coming about that are really not limited to underrepresented groups—anyone can join—but are really trying to make sure that those pipelines are there.
I dropped a few links. I was dropping a lot of links in the chat for folks. We can probably email them to you as well, you know, so you have them. But there’s the Pickering Program and the Rangel Program that are fellowships that are amazing. I wish I’d known about them, actually, when I was applying to the Foreign Service. I didn’t know. But they’ll even pay for graduate school, you know, in international affairs before you go and join the Foreign Service. And that’s what Zaid had done. So there’s a lot of these programs that exist that I frankly had no idea existed. But these networks that exist as well are a great pathway.
And then also, you know, use LinkedIn. You know, people have randomly reached out to me on LinkedIn, and I am always game. And I can drop my email in the chat as well for, you know, a 15-minute, 30-minute informational interview, you know, before my workday starts. I’ve benefited so much from phenomenal mentors that I want to pay it forward. And so I think that’s another thing. Don’t be shy to do that. And the worst thing that can happen is someone doesn’t respond. But I think that’s something that’s also, you know, a tool that you can use.
KAMINSKI: I agree with everything Maryum said.
I want to also, you know, recommend—and if you have time, you know, really emphasizing publications you’ve done. When I was in grad school and undergrad, I really got into doing op-eds. And a lot of them would be human-rights-focused, LGBTQIA+-focused.
And, you know, it was interesting. When I was starting my interview process and, you know, looking for a job, a lot of the questions I got were about my writing and, you know, tell me about that. What was your process? And so, you know, even if it’s, you know, sending an op-ed to a, you know, school newspaper, if you’re submitting it, you know, to an online platform, if you have a piece of research you’ve done and you want to submit it to a conference, it’s just a really great way to say, you know, I’ve put something out in the public space. I’ve offered an opinion. And, you know, I took this perspective.
And it’s really a great way to elicit conversation because I think, you know, sometimes, you know, anyone, you know, in an application or cover letter could just say, you know, this is me. I’m at this school. And, you know, that’s—I’m interested in the position. But I really think op-eds. And I know there’s another conversation happening on that now—and a great way just to show, you know, critical thinking, your ability to do research, and also write, which is, you know, so critical to careers. But that, generally speaking, would be advice from me.
ZAID: Great. I—thanks so much, both Ryan and Maryum. You know, I think one of the things that people have to do, and sometimes some of this are better at this than others, is that—is to mention to people that you’re thinking about something. You never know where a conversation is going to lead.
One of my colleagues was telling me that he came to Cloudflare after he was working at the Department of Justice, was at a wedding, was kind of, you know, trying to leave government, and just started talking to a random person at the wedding about wanting to leave and not really sure what to do. And this guy’s like, I heard about this new company called Cloudflare, you should think about it, and, like, you know, passed his name on. And that’s how he ended up, you know, here. And that happens all the time.
And, like, you know, you can think about professors. You can think about, you know, just who—it doesn’t have to be someone who works at an organization necessarily, but, you know, somebody in your network is probably going to know other people. And then that’s a great way to see whether or not you have an in, you know, or an opportunity.
I know a lot of the times I get emails, you know, asking for, you know, candidates for stuff. And, you know, I don’t really know as many people who were earlier in their career. So I always send stuff to Georgetown because that’s where I went to undergrad and, you know, I know folks there. And I send it there and say, hey, if you know any students like these, you know, let me know. These people are looking for folks.
So use your professor networks. Use your, you know, friends, people who graduated ahead of you, to try to see if they know anybody.
Why don’t we go to—hopefully, I’m saying it right—Anika.
Q: Hi. Yeah. Thanks so much for everything you’ve talked about so far. It’s been really interesting sort of hearing about the—yeah, especially the transition between private and public sector. And I think it comes back to our discussion earlier of this idea of a plan.
So I’m 18. My affiliation is the Center for Science and Environment. And sort of I feel this idea of having a plan is very prominent right now. And I wanted to ask: How do you come to terms with having clarity on what you want to do and what you’re interested in without sort of overplanning and restricting yourself from opportunities that might actually be the right ones for you but that don’t fit in, like, this narrow view of your plan? Yeah.
ZAID: I always say have a five-year plan but be ready to throw it out the window. And you should, like, jump at opportunities as they come along. And I think that you—I think having a plan is useful because you’ve sat down and you’ve thought about certain things. But I don’t think you should be beholden to it at all. I think you should be open to opportunities when they present themselves and think about where something might lead you.
I think some—I think a part of your plan should also be—particularly, you know, we’re at a time—we’re, you know, at a time in history right now where almost nobody stays in a job for their entire career, right. Like, between Maryum, Ryan and I, we’ve probably had, you know, twenty-five—we’ve probably worked at twenty-five different places between the three of us, whereas, you know, maybe our parents, maybe not, but our grandparents, you know, maybe went someplace and worked there for twenty or thirty years.
So one of the reasons I say that is because whenever you take something, you should be thinking about if I take this, what is it going to set me up for? What are the opportunities coming out? What am I going to learn in this role that I can then take somewhere else? And if you can’t necessarily answer that, you should think about whether or not that should be part of your plan. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t, but you should just explore those questions.
Ryan, why don’t we go to you and see if you have anything you want to add there.
KAMINSKI: Yeah, I really agree with the point about having the five-year plan and being prepared to nix that if something exciting comes along. You know, I think the great thing about now is, you know, there’s a host of fellowships that are coming around. I know when I transitioned from the Council on Foreign Relations, it was because a really great human-rights fellowship opened up and it just was—you know, I wasn’t exactly looking for a new job, but it was just like, wow, this sounds like a great opportunity.
And so I think it’s also recognizing that maybe your job search isn’t necessarily like lights on, lights off, switch. You know, if something happens to come along that really gets your attention, go for it. But always ask yourself, you know, if I put myself in this position, you know, where does it—like, where does it get me down the line? Where can I go from here? And, you know, what’s my narrative about this? What can I say I learned from this? What can I say I accomplished with this? And again, if you’re struggling with that, you know, maybe it’s not the best fit.
ZAID: Hey, Maryum, do you have anything to add?
SAIFEE: Yeah, no, just echoing the same; you know, having some kind of an idea of a plan, we—I think being flexible and open to opportunities, but also thinking about, you know, what are the things—like, for example, I wanted to do journalism and I realized I can write in the Foreign Service. Like, if there’s a particular thing you like to do, thinking about how to hone that tradecraft in different ways and so that you can still kind of come away with a skill, as Zaid mentioned, amongst the—(audio break)—so you have probably two dozen different types of jobs, but also, you know, also building your plan.
You know, sort of—in the State Department in particular, I think you are used—were behind the scenes. Somebody had said something like, oh, a diplomat is like a pilot. You only know they exist unless the plane crashes. (Laughs.) Like, you know, it’s sort of a weird analogy, but it’s true. Like, we’re very invisible. But I’ve been learning through actually a women’s mentorship program I’m in of doing that, building your brand, writing. So I’ve been writing a lot more, using the personal-capacity disclaimer, to just write about topics of interest, to build a name for myself in areas that I’m just excited about.
So I think don’t be afraid to do that either. And I wish I’d done that earlier, actually, in my career. But it’s never too late to sort of do that. But think about that as well.
ZAID: Great. So we have two questions. We have about eight minutes left. Taylor Hamilton, we’ll go to you.
Q: Thank you. Hi. My name is Taylor. I work in management consulting, mostly in government, state and local, or IDO consulting.
But my question was sort of piggybacking off of Alexandria’s on how to break into the space, but more from an early to mid-career professional perspective, because I think, as we know, there’s lots of recruitment for BIPOC in our early years. There’s lots of educational pushes, you know, lots of government and, like, civil-society pushes for BIPOC to be educated. And then you get an opportunity, right.
But, like, if we already have enough letters behind our name, how do we break into that space through the normal channels, right, or through the more public channels? I think a lot of these fellowships—you know, there’s probably like 30 people selected, right. So how do we reach out actively? Or, you know, what programs or activities do you know that are, like, reaching out actively to, like, early and mid-career professionals?
ZAID: I’ll answer that quick and then we’ll just spend, like, one more minute on it from either Ryan or Maryum, because we don’t have a lot of time and we’ve got two hands up.
So Taylor, I would say that there are a number of professional associations, depending on, you know, what your interests are, that you should think about joining if you haven’t already, something like Black Professionals in International Affairs. I know that, you know, they have a series of conversations, a series of events that are super-helpful. You know, things like the Truman National Security Project, if you’re interested in national security, it has a lot of different opportunities as well.
So I think, you know, and those will lead to other professional opportunities. ICAP, the International Career Advancement Program, that’s run with the University of Denver, also a sponsor, a co-sponsor of this conference, I believe. That’s another thing to think about. That is actually—it’s a week in Aspen, Colorado. It is aimed at minorities in international affairs. And one of the things it really helps you do is think about where am I, where do I want to go, and how do I get there? And they have professional coaches. There’s a whole community. There are alums. I’m an alum. I’m sure there are other folks on the phone, on the call, who are an alum as well. And that’s one thing that I would offer as an opportunity.
Quickly, Maryum, do you have anything to add? No?
All right. Let’s go to Ashley Gray.
Q: Hello. My name is Ashley. I am currently a researcher at the Terrorist Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. I was actually a DIA intern for the Department of State in Diplomatic Security. And I’ll actually be coming back to State as a Pathways intern.
And I just had a question about what have you all seen in your careers in the way of DIA advancements in the department?
ZAID: Do you mean the Department of State?
ZAID: Maryum, that’s—
ZAID: —one of the things I know you can answer.
SAIFEE: (Inaudible.) (Laughs.) That’s a great question. Thank you, Ashley, for asking that question. And it’s—we—as you know, since you’ve been a part of the department, and excited that you’ll be coming back, there’s a lot of exciting things happening.
We launched an office last year, June 14th of last year, focusing on diversity and inclusion specifically. There was a White House executive order that went out last summer, June 30th, tasking every federal agency to come up with concrete action plans, multiyear action plans, to actually move the needle on this in substantive ways. So there’s the DEIA work, or Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility work, that’s kind of—you know, heritage months, Black History Month, et cetera. That’s important. But we also need to look at the structural inequities that are sort of baked into the system.
So one of the things the department just did—we released to the workforce a few weeks ago, actually—is the first ever demographic baseline report. So this is creating a benchmark to measure future progress again, So it’s disaggregated by race, by gender, by different categories of, you know—in the life cycle, so to really understand, you know, where are people at? Are there certain categories of people not moving? Are certain underrepresented groups more disproportionately impacted when it comes to promotions?
So the data is critical. It was the first thing my ambassador, who’s the department’s first stand-alone chief diversity and inclusion officer, Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, the very first thing she did was to set up the data working group, because if we don’t have access to this data, we can’t really know the scope of the problem. And we need to know. So that’s one thing. It’s the transparency piece.
We also just launched a climate survey that really talks about the tough issues around, you know, harassment and toxicity in the workplace and things that, honestly, we weren’t really asking those questions. And we want to know. My office wants to know where we need to do better so we can use the information from the workforce. And it’s comprehensive. This was for all Civil Service and Foreign Service employees. We’re working to roll out for locally-employed staff, the majority of our workforce, to understand what’s happening and to ask those tougher questions to be able to inform policy.
So—and then the last thing I’ll say—there’s many things, but another big highlight that just started is—going into effect in April—is tying, you know, diversity work—there’s work to advance equity—to money, promotions, to pay. You know, so now Foreign Service officers, when they’re writing their employee evaluations, will have to show concretely what they have done—and I’m saying in concrete ways—to move the needle, you know, on equity inclusion.
So it’s not only doing an event during Black History Month or Women’s History or International Women’s Day. That’s also important. But, you know, how are you mitigating gender bias in language, let’s say, in awards and evaluation? Who’s at the table? How are you making the table more accessible in concrete ways?
So that’s pretty exciting. There’s a lot of change happening. And again, the leadership at the very highest level—the secretary in his confirmation hearing, before he even started his job, said I will judge the success of my tenure as secretary of state based on how well I can both recruit and retain a workforce that reflects the country. So he gets it. He sees it and he prioritizes it, you know, sort of at every step consistently.
So that’s pretty exciting in terms of, at least in my—I know there have been many efforts to reform the State Department over many decades. I did a task force or a lot of task force on this, so I know this isn’t the first time. But what I do think is the first is that we have an alignment of every federal agency, members of Congress, leadership, that are really focused on this and know that this is really a must. We can’t afford to just have it as a nice-to-have box-checking exercise.
ZAID: Great. Thank you, Maryum.
We’ve got about 30 seconds. I’m going to go to Christian, see if you can—we have a quick question from you.
Q: Yeah. Hi. My name is Christian Guichard. I’m a recent graduate from Claremont-McKenna College and I’m—I majored in international relations. And then I’m going to UCLA Luskin School of Public Policy next year with a focus on international relations again.
I’m just wondering, I think two of the speakers talked about how they went to graduate school or graduate school early on. I was wondering if you had any tips or advice for how you take advantage of other policy or international-relations grad program right out of college and what you did to use those tools to, like, shape your career.
ZAID: Ryan, do you want to go quickly?
KAMINSKI: Thanks so much, Christian, and congratulations.
I would say get to know your professors very well. Build a network as quickly and as fast as you can with professors that you are interested in their research or interested in their courses. Those relationships will help you in terms of the next step. Learning about the field is also exploring areas maybe you weren’t aware of or you want to learn more about. So definitely get to know your instructors and build a really strong network there as soon as possible.
ZAID: Maryum, do you have a few seconds you want to add?
SAIFEE: (Off mic.) And I would say, in addition to getting to know your professors and the students in your cohort—you’ll be surprised how many come back into your life—also capstones, so these practical sort of—if you can ever do one of these that are, you know, working paired with an international organization or a nonprofit. Mine was actually to go back to Jordan to work on a microfinance project. So that can be really exciting to kind of bridge the academic work with the practical work, and can be a bridge to a future job afterwards.
ZAID: Thank you so much, Maryum and Ryan.
Christian, one little thing. Get to know your classmates—hugely important—as well as your professors.
So thank you for joining today’s virtual meeting. And thank you to both of our speakers, Ryan and Maryum, again. Please note that the audio and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. Thanks so much.
This is an uncorrected transcript.
KIANPOUR: Thank you so much. And thank you, everyone, for joining this session. Hello from Switzerland.
I especially want to thank our guests—Seema Mody and Jamila White—for joining this very important conversation about the cost-benefit analysis of social media engagement, which I feel like is a topic that I personally have been discussing a lot with my colleagues and friends lately.
And so I first want to introduce you and say who you are and what you do, and of course have you go in and talk a bit more about that and how social media affects what you do. Seema Mody is a global markets reporter for MSNBC, and Jamila White is founder and principal of blakQuity. And so I want to start out, frankly, going in with the topic of this discussion, the cost-benefit analysis of social media engagement.
Seema, do you see it as a net negative or a net positive? And the same question for you, Jamila. I’ll start with you, Seema.
MODY: Listen, social media is so controversial these days; it’s the hot topic of discussion. But as a journalist, I would say even with all the bad there is still more good. Social media is critical at CNBC, at least for me, for being a successful journalist. And I just want to unpack that for a second.
For me, who works primarily in TV, our on-air contributions can be as short as two minutes and all the way up to ten minutes—that is if you are not anchoring a show. We are now of course living in a world where a lot of people do not watch TV, especially the younger generation. They are using their phones to consume content. So it’s really imperative for us to be able to share that content on social media to increase engagement when you—when you have a story—a breaking news story, like I did today, actually, you want to be able to share it with the world so you can further the story, and social media is an important tool.
It’s actually invaluable when it comes to collecting information, especially for me as a financial journalist at CNBC when now we are living in a world in corporate America where CEOs, executives, tech founders—the richest man in the world, Elon Musk, will often skip the traditional PR media teams that many companies do use and go straight to social media to convey their thoughts, their opinions that often can move stocks. And as a journalist covering many of these companies, it’s important that we’re able to help our viewers understand why certain stocks are moving, and if it is on a tweet, we’ve got to cover it. So it’s an important platform, not just as a journalist, but also for collecting information, and also tracking and monitoring how some of the most important or influential figures in corporate America are also thinking as they, over time, use this platform to convey their thoughts.
KIANPOUR: And what about you, Jamila?
WHITE: I agree with pretty much everything Seema said, and before two years ago, I was only on Facebook, and I think I had a LinkedIn account. I had a couple hundred followers, and I would just vent my frustrations to my family and college and childhood friends.
But when I decided to run for public office as a commissioner in Washington, D.C., immediately my team was like, you have to get a social media presence. And I was like, what is the Twitter; I don’t even know—(laughs)—I was calling it the Twitter for so long. And so I immediately had to educate myself in social media—the demographics that are in my constituency and really how to reach them. And then very quickly I learned that some of the thoughtless vents that I used to post about were coming back up. And so I had to invest in getting communication support to not only teach me how to use social media, but teach me how to use it for a tool, and help me understand, too, that now, whatever I say or do—whether it’s coming from, you know, the political account, my personal, or my business as a small business owner—it’s all going to be tied into it. And I have to be very intentional about what I say, what I do, and what I’m supporting, and then also realize the influence that I have and that I, you know, continue to have online and on social media—so coming out with a strategy. So as a candidate and as a business owner, you know, I have a social media strategy so that we can make sure that our presence online is the identity that we want.
And, you know, oftentimes I’ll go to tweet something I’m really upset about and I’m like, let me just run this through somebody real quick and not do that. So learning how to kind of stop, be in the moment, and be very pleasant because I’m juggling all three of those lines, and it’s having that one identity and being true to that identity, too. So it can get overwhelming, especially if you are someone who wasn’t online, you know, using social media a lot. And then when people criticize you, quite frankly, and say negative things about you, and you start reading the comments or engaging in the comments, and that can be heavy, you know, and taking a toll—so understanding, you know, it is what it is. I mean, it is the virtual world, and you have so much support outside of that, and not losing sight—because it can be overwhelming, especially when you are in the public eye when you weren’t used to being in the public eye before.
KIANPOUR: How do you deal with that? I mean, women exponentially deal with online abuse more than men, particularly women of color. So how do you—how do you deal with that? I mean, you’ve touched on it, Jamila. Seema, is this something that you have dealt with as well? I know I have.
MODY: Yeah, certainly. You know, I think unfortunately as a woman, as you say, on social media, you tend to get more remarks regarding your physical appearance than perhaps men do. You know, again—just personal experiences where you’ll come on air, you’ll have some really important news to share, and the commentary you are receiving on social media is less about the content and what you are saying and more about the appearance or other snide remarks regarding, perhaps, what you are wearing.
So I think having that tough skin, not—what’s good now, I think, is—Twitter at least—there are ways to filter the messages that you receive and the responses you receive. And as much as I think it’s good to not just listen to the people that you follow—what they are saying—but just being mindful that there are tools you can now use on these social media platforms to filter and limit how much you see on a regular basis.
But I also think that if you are going to be in this game, and you want to be in the public spotlight as a journalist, as a corporate executive, or just a talking head as they say on TV, you’ve got to have that tough skin and be able to—not stomach it, but just understand this is part of the game. It’s not fair, and I know social media regulation is a huge issue, and it’s something that Congress is actively looking to nail down and figure out. And these companies, too, are under pressure to do more, and they should—absolutely should—but I think we’re in this world where these social media giants exist to provide a platform where we can all communicate with one another. And the number of people I have actually met and now have sources through social media is actually astounding; something I would not have thought ten years ago. But with that good does come a lot of the bad, which is that noise that I have found just personally as a way to limit—that’s my way of sort of dealing with it.
KIANPOUR: What about you, Jamila?
WHITE: You know, I remember that, you know, it’s a virtual world. People are sitting behind a computer. Some of them are boxes, not even real people, and just really not to try to engage in those rabbit holes. And I’ve put a lot into personal wellness, too—just taking care of myself—overall because it’s so much when you are, you know, fighting racism and talking about racial equity and white supremacy all the time, and talking about it within liberal contexts. And in a city like Washington, D.C., you know, it can be taxing, so putting that wellness into you.
And then I’ve just got to say, a lot of times my community comes to like—it comes and protects me online, and I’ll be like—seeing that I’ve been tagged and all this stuff, and they’re like, don’t talk about her—(laughter)—and it’s like you don’t even have to do anything or engage.
And so I think it’s, you know, understanding how to use it, having a strategy, and then making sure that you are still in community with the people you are trying to be in community with in real life because they’re going to show up for you wherever—you know, whether it’s online or offline, so.
WHITE: And then just—(off mic)—wellness and remembering being present, nothing is personal, nothing is permanent. This is a virtual world that we’re living in, and it’s just people behind a screen, if it even is people, so—
MODY: Just to kind of piggyback off of what she said, I agree, and there is different responses you can get out there: one that is just certain slander and criticizing your appearance and whatnot, but there is also the people who will have very strong opinions about what you are revealing on social media, whether it’s a certain story. I was down in Atlanta interviewing the governor there—Kemp—around the restrictive voting laws. And when I was covering that story I received a lot of pushback from conservatives about why it’s the right thing to do, whether it’s the wrong thing to do. And either way, it generated a conversation. At first it was a little intimidating to see that level of response to my reporting. But then I realized, you know, if you want to be a part of these big stories, and if you have an opinion that you think is justified, be ready for it. Be ready to have a debate on social media.
I think that is the world we are living in, and being OK to have that uncomfortable situation where sometimes you’re going to receive a lot of strong opinions—but to figure out and be strategic about when you engage because I do think having that conversation with people who have a very different view is important and actually provides a well-rounded conversation for those who are listening in.
KIANPOUR: What is an example for both of you of how—perhaps you came across a story or you came across someone in your community, Jamila, in your activism work, for example, that you otherwise would not have been able to have access to were it not for social media? I mean, for example, in my experience—so I host a podcast called Women Building Peace, and I connect high profile, influential women with women in conflict and post-conflict countries, and I facilitate direct conversations with them. And so I had an episode on Afghanistan where I had Hillary Clinton, who was on the episode with us, but I connected her with a young woman—a young Afghan woman who was hiding from the Taliban in a safe house in Afghanistan. And the way I got in touch with that woman—I mean, of course there are just millions like her, unfortunately—but I got—she ended up being in that position and on this episode because she messaged me on Twitter. She DMed me out of nowhere and told me her story, and we—I ended up, you know, keeping in touch with her. And next thing you know, this happened.
So is there an example for the two of you of something like that that would have never happened if it wasn’t for social media.
We’ll start with Jamila.
WHITE: Yeah, something that immediately comes to mind is mutual aid when the pandemic happened. If it wasn’t for social media, we would not have been able to set up a mutual aid community and connect our community to like, immediate resources.
And we were able to connect people not just in the local community, but like all across the city to access food, water, different supplies as things were shutting down and people was losing income. And that started entirely online—connecting different communities, organizers, et cetera. And from my work kind of in mutual aid is how I got connected to more of the philanthropic community in D.C. and said how can we support this? How can we learn from mutual aid which, you know, transitioned into some bigger relationships.
So on the business side it has been, you know, remarkable in terms of making connections and finding partnerships, but to make that real impact, mutual aid over the pandemic, the East of the River Mutual Aid that is the communities in Washington, D.C., Wards 7 and 8—those are east of the Anacostia River, 90 percent black communities. We’ve been able to reach more than 80,000 of our 160,000 neighbors throughout the pandemic with resources and support to make sure their needs were met when government just didn’t meet them.
And so it was because of the power of social media and being able to elevate it to bigger level, bigger platforms that picked up on what we were doing and was able to generate more support and more donations. And so it’s been an amazing tool for mutual aid and the work that I do.
MODY: You know, my primary role as a financial journalist often gets skewed a little bit with other requests that come beyond financial news. You know, my role is to find that intersection of international relations with Wall Street, but a month ago I was thrown into a story that involved the People’s Convoy. So three hours outside of L.A. we were driving, stopped at—where the convoy really started. Their goal was, of course, to come to D.C. and to cause some certain level of disruption. And in order to connect with some of the organizers of that convoy—because a lot of times these types of movements are grassroot, and they use social media as a way to sort of bring people together. I absolutely used Twitter to get in touch with the, quote, unquote, “founder” of the convoy to get him on record, get him on camera.
You know, sometimes in these situations you are not dealing with a PR company or they don’t really necessarily have the typical media people that one would have when you are sitting down for an interview. So Twitter and other social media platforms can certainly be very effective in getting in touch with the person you’re trying to interview. And sometimes when there is a story where you are not really sure who the lead voice is, using Twitter to see, you know, who has been the most active on this topic, looking at their following, looking at their engagement, that can certainly be helpful.
There is also another story I worked on recently that was outside of my prism of financial news which is how religion is changing across America and how, during the course of the pandemic, many millennials left organized religion and—part of that having to do with just mental health, losing faith for a number of reasons—but now looking at how they are finding that sense of community. It’s a different type of story.
You know, how do you find voices for a topic like this that is—it’s quite—it’s deeply personal? You can reach out to your network and see—and different churches and other places of worship to hear from their members, but I actually found social media as a convenient platform—just asked the question, how do you feel about religion, have you changed your views—and using those responses, and finding people who would come on camera with us was also a way that we were able to build the story a little bit more organically.
KIANPOUR: What about the dark side of social media? I mean, we’ve touched on it a bit, but broader than that—disinformation in particular, and the manipulation of information, and the manipulation of what is on these platforms. I mean, what experiences have both of you had? You know, particularly as a journalist, I would say how do you—how do discern right from wrong, you know? And Jamila, in your line of work, like do you—have you ever had any experiences where social media has been kind of used against you in a way?
We’ll start with Jamila.
WHITE: OK, I was hoping you would start with Seema. (Laughs.) But I haven’t had any experience where social media was more used against me, definitely has taken what I may have said out of context, and you had to get into that discussion and that debate, and seeing how far you want to go down there. But one of the things that—you know, we’ve just seen how the dark side of social media has just really impacted our community, and I’m just going to focus on the community I identify with—it’s the black community—and how black Americans have just been targeted so much in these misinformation campaigns whether it came to elections, whether it came to COVID, and in hesitancy or misinformation about the vaccine.
And I don’t work on the policy side, but it just seems that a lack of responsibility is being taken by the social media giants to stop this. And it feeds into systems of—oppression systems of racism, quite frankly, to target certain populations such as the black community. And so fighting those misinformation campaigns that are out there is something I’m glad that’s being talked about a lot more. I’m glad to see there’s a lot more funding being put into that, glad to see that more of the community is looking at different issues when it comes to kind of digital issues of information, but just a lot more needs to be done, and recognizing that a lot more needs to be done to tackle this, especially when it’s really targeted to certain populations that have already, you know, been targeted for other forms of oppression.
So—but personally I haven’t had, you know, any extremely negative effects except misquoting, misusing, misrepresenting something I’ve said, and then having to try to go back and put some context around it.
MODY: Yeah, similar to Jamila, I’ve had those types of incidents where—not incident—but where—and it’s just a—it’s a good thing to be mindful of when you do put something out on social media; it can be misconstrued. So the phrasing, the verbiage, the lexicon that you use when constructing these tweets—I think there is a little bit of a strategy involved—not so much where you’re overthinking it because part of it is supposed to be it’s more fluid than perhaps a press statement or a full article for me, but either way, just being aware that every tweet you put out can be—can go viral, you know, and that’s sort of an exaggeration, but it’s good to be careful because, at the end of the day, these tweets are often seen as part of your personal brand as you build your brand as a founder, an entrepreneur, an activist, a journalist. When you—someone Googles your name, I think at least Twitter is usually one of the first things that shows up, including your LinkedIn.
So just be mindful of what you are saying. It can have implications. I think back to—not taking a political view, but once Representative Alexandria Cortez—AOC, as she is known—tweeted something, a stat regarding Amazon’s potential move to New York. This was two years ago; it never actually happened. And the stat that she used was wrong, and so I clarified it and corrected her in my tweet, and then that actually went viral. And it wasn’t trying to take a political view; it was simply stating that that stat she used was wrong on how much New York citizens would have to pay if Amazon moved here to New York. And so it may have been seen as a journalist taking a political view or trying to, you know, criticize a politician, but that wasn’t the case, so, you know, things can happen where they’ll see a dialog happening on social media, and people can construe it as—can see as a certain way, and so just being mindful of that.
I don’t regret, by the way, doing that. It’s just—that was my one experience.
KIANPOUR: And how do you—how do you sift through, kind of, fact and fiction when you are news gathering and like how do you discern what’s disinformation, misinformation and isn’t?
MODY: That’s a big one, right, especially as a journalist. If you are using these platforms to collect data, understand if you are not at a live event but other journalists are, you can use their Twitter feed to understand what’s actually happening at the scene of the action, what’s happening on the ground—at that Texas shooting—great example—where those local journalists become so pivotal in understanding how the story is moving and developing, right? But at the same time, being able to fact check, seeing if they have that blue check mark. Even something as small as that can make a huge difference in ensuring that who you are following and monitoring is legit. And if you do work for an organization, making sure you are tapping your resources, the internal social media and policy folks that may exist. We have that, of course, in a news organization. They can often help us ensure that, you know, they will fact check and look up these people, do those checks to ensure that the people we’re quoting potentially in our story are legitimate sources, or actually taking the extra step and saying, hey, I actually want—you’re here at XYZ event, you’re reporting from there. Can I get your name? I just want to get a sense of who you are—doing that extra step to make sure who you are following is a legitimate person can also be helpful as well.
KIANPOUR: So I want to kind of throw it forward a bit. I was just in Davos for the World Economic Forum, and I was surprised to increasingly hear this idea that social media is kind of on its way out; that it’s—you know, it’s waning—the popularity, the usage, that it’s waning.
Is that something that you two agree with or disagree with, and where do you think the future of social media—what is the future of social media? Where is it going? Five years from now, are we still going to be using Twitter, and Instagram, and LinkedIn, and Facebook, and TikTok the same way? Or can we not loop all those in together? Is it really—are they really that different?
WHITE: Wow, that’s a—that’s a big question, so I’ll kind of break it down into a few areas.
I think the way that we engage online is changing. It’s going to continue to change and evolve. Look how we’ve come from the days of AOL messenger chatrooms to where we are now.
I think that where the future comes and where—that growth is actually going to come out of Africa because they have the largest population of youth in the world, and they’re going to be having those consumers. So I do think it is youth around the world—youth in populations that we may not have thought of that’s going to really push us forward and see where we go in the future when it comes to technology, and how we engage online, and just—you know, when I go to the continent—in the continent, seeing the apps that people use, and how they engage, and WhatsApp and how it’s so important, and thinking about, like, well, money—how it’s been—you know, thriving in Africa, the M-Pesa, for years compared of just trying to break into, you know, the United States market, and seeing how I think Uber probably got their inspiration from the way that taxi systems worked in Africa because it was always—in a lot of countries I lived in—you know, shared systems, and was able to develop a product over here. So I see that innovation coming from Africa and youth around the world.
I do think it will look different. I think the way that we engage and interact will look different with introduction of AI and virtual reality. As you all know, I’m not a techie, so I’m not into all of that. I think it definitely is going to change, and I think that change is going to come from the youth, so—
KIANPOUR: And where are—like what social media platforms are they on largely in Africa? Because it does—it does differ geographically around the world. You’re right. I’ve definitely seen that in my reporting when I’ve traveled.
WHITE: You know, it does, and I don’t want to speak on behalf of them, but just—and I’ve been—haven’t been to the continent since COVID—but I think using WhatsApp, and not so much using a Facebook and like other apps that were coming up more were locally developed is what we’re seeing.
I think we are going to see more local—hope to see more kind of local, more grassroot development of technology of apps so that communities can connect and you can be in more community. I’m hoping that there is a decentralization that, you know, demonetization of these apps so that more diverse actors can get in the field and have ownership of, you know, digital relations. And so I’m hopeful that that’s happening. I’m glad to see that there’s been investments—whether it’s on the continent and investments here I’ve seen in Washington, D.C., in my own community—in trying to decentralized that and think about how do we get connected more outside of the traditional big companies, Facebook and Twitter. So I think—hope to see more of that, and I definitely do agree that the way we do interact will be different in the next—the next ten years.
MODY: Yeah, I agree. I think social media companies right now are under a lot of pressure to not only create a community that feels safe, but to ensure that they are limiting bad behavior, introducing new tools, algorithms to ensure they can take those bad—those behind cyber bullying and other things, other attacks, minimizing those. That’s going to be the big challenge.
Congress has, of course, held multiple hearings. They are looking at bipartisan bills. None of them have really passed.
Meta has been in the spotlight after a whistle-blower said that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well-being of children. So there are a lot of challenges that each of these companies are facing. Twitter now with this potential takeover from the world’s richest man, Elon Musk—does it actually go forward, and if so, what kind of changes will he be making to the platform?
It’s a fascinating time to be engaging in the social media world, and as someone who reports on it, the evolution and how these companies innovate will be key to understanding which ones survive and I think continue to thrive. Of course demographics are going to play into this as the younger generation—Gen Z now—they are much more susceptible to using TikTok versus Facebook. We’ve seen that, of course, play out as well. So already they’re the younger generation, they’re making their choices about which platforms they want to use to engage and interact on with friends, whether it’s Snap or TikTok, but of course the larger companies like Alphabet and Facebook have been quite acquisitive, so over time do you start to see more M&A—more mergers and acquisitions—of these—well, TikTok and Snap are by no means small, but if we start to see some more deal making, I think that could be really interesting especially, again, after Elon Musk’s forty-four-billion-dollar bid for Twitter. That could certainly change the landscape.
And just to let you know, I was speaking about, you know, how there is local players beyond these big names that we tend to fixate on here in America. I started my career as a journalist in India, and at that time it was Moshensheg (ph). That was one of the local apps that was used by many people on the ground. But now it’s dominated by Facebook. I mean, a lot of these U.S. companies have done a very successful job in expanding overseas.
KIANPOUR: Fascinating stuff—I mean, we could go on forever, but we’re going to open it up to questions from the audience, so if—yes, if you could ask a question by clicking on the raised hand signal—icon, then we’ll get going.
OK, so let’s start with Latanya.
Q: Hi, sorry. I think I’m—can you hear me?
KIANPOUR: Yes, we can hear you.
Q: OK, thank you. Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for doing this session, and I’m sorry I’m not on camera. I’m in California, so it’s a little bit early here for me.
But I do have a—you know, a question around some of the thoughtful comments that you made, and something that I’m also struggling with when I think about social media and my own platform.
How do you guys distinguish between sort of your work and yourself on social media? Because even though I know that whatever you put out there looks back to you, there’s a—you know, there’s a piece of the representation of the organization which right now in my life I feel like the organization owns all my social media properties.
And there’s the me, you know? And how do you sort of draw that balance in your own lives as you guys are all doing such wonderful things—so that, you know, one day I won’t be with the organization, but I’ll still have my social media, right, platforms. So how do you draw that balance?
KIANPOUR: It’s a good question. It’s something I actually personally kind of think about pretty much every time I post.
Q: And what’s your strategy, Suzanne?
KIANPOUR: Do you know, I actually—I think at this point and the position that I’m in, there really isn’t a separation, is there? I’m a journalist, I’m always a journalist. I’m never off the clock being a journalist. So there really isn’t—there is no private.
I don’t know if you feel that way or Jamila—
MODY: No, I agree, and I think it’s sort of understood that, you know, when you work for an organization you are not only reporting for yourself, but you are representing the brand as well. So being mindful of that is important where, at the same time, there are still opportunities to, I think, share personal takes on certain things that don’t conflict with the policies of your company. And even small things as a—and I’m sure—I haven’t seen your Twitter yet, Suzanne, but by even adding in after your title “tweets are my own” to try to have that—a little bit of distance, as well, to ensure that not everything you say is just coming from the brand. You also have your personal takes as well.
KIANPOUR: Yeah, I think even if you’re not with a brand necessarily, you’re a reporter; you’re a journalist. And therefore, you’re expected to be impartial and be objective, and I mean, like, you know, we’ve had a lot of politically divisive news situations happening in the last month alone. And I know—it’s been the first time in quite a long time where I’ve had to, like, really be, like, OK, am I making sure I’m staying neutral. But also—but also, you know, doing justice to the topics that I’m covering.
MODY: I agree. I guess, you know, in this world of business news I always think if I have the facts and the facts tell the story—and it may seem like political, but if the facts and the numbers tell a story, then I’m inclined to share those numbers, right, without having to share an opinion. Because the facts are—that’s the truth, and if you stick to those, then you’re in good hands.
WHITE: Hi, Latayna. Nice to see you here.
I think, you know, you’re in such a unique position as the face of an organization—the leader of a global organization, and then also this really dynamic human that’s doing so much great work. And it’s hard to kind of separate the two, but I think you finding your own voice and things that you want to blog about, tweet about, opinions that you want to make under your own social media account—it may be even investing in a comms strategist to help you develop your online brand would be something I recommend.
And it’s something that I did when I was leaving traditional international development, where I was a public face of a nonprofit, and I needed my own brand not only to run for office, but to start my own business. I invested in a comms strategist to help me develop an online brand that was Jamila White—the person, the politician, and then the business owner.
Now, the actual individual—there is really no just kind of personal—except, you know, a small old Facebook account where you’re just talking with your family and friends—but understanding I do use it for branding, an online presence for my business, my advocacy, my political work.
And you know, more of my personal work is in real life, and so I’m investing in that comms strategist that has a strong social media background to help you develop that brand. And then tag yourself in stuff that your company posts. Make sure that you’re being tagged as well. Make sure that maybe some of it can come from your account as being breaking and you tag your organization, but to make sure that, you know, it’s a partnership.
And understanding that you have a brand, and your brand is what brings that value to the organization. So it’s a partnership.
MODY: You know, I really like that you said that, Jamila, in a way, and Suzanne, as a journalist I’m not sure if you agree, but beyond—I tend to try to tweet about some things that are beyond my scope of storytelling and my beats.
So, for example, I’m a very passionate tennis player—an avid tennis player, grew up—and so when there’s a championship, if there’s an open, I’m often tweeting here and there about certain players, certain games, because I’m very involved in watching these sporting events.
You know, it’s a passion of mine, and it’s something I enjoy talking about. And that’s in a way—not that I’m doing for this reason, but you could say that’s one thing that sets me apart, that’s what makes me unique, and also, you’re building your personal brand when you’re talking about your passion.
So find those—find those things that you feel, again, passionate about and want to join a conversation because I don’t think there’s any harm, and just be strategic about it, too.
KIANPOUR: Well, I mean, I think authenticity is really important when it comes to, well, everything, but particularly on social media. And so—you know, and also different platforms are for different things, right? Like Twitter is for thoughts, and Instagram is for pictures. And I haven’t—I guess Facebook is kind of a combination of both, and LinkedIn is more professional.
And so there is a different strategy for each one, or there’s supposed to be, but you’re also human, and so, you know, if you’re all—if you’re just all work, well, I would imagine that an audience might find that a bit dull and move on to, you know, a person or account, or to follow someone that is a bit more dynamic.
So I guess that’s my two cents on that front, but we’re getting more questions so let’s move onto a next question.
Q: Hi. Laura Bresnahan. As my icon might suggest, I work for The Council on Foreign Relations.
So I came of age when social media was still just emerging and sort of relegated to specific closed audiences for the most part. I’m just curious throughout all of your social media careers, are there any, maybe, mistakes or missteps that you made and any lessons you’d be willing to share with us you learned?
KIANPOUR: Who wants to take that first?
WHITE: I think I was coming—when Facebook—coming of age, I think, when I was just getting into grad school, leaving undergrad, when Facebook opened up and it was still just, you know, college students at that time before it opened up, and then I kind of went and lived in Africa for a long time and didn’t engage online at all really.
But I think one of the lessons that I have learned is remembering that once you put it out there, it’s out there forever. So really taking an opportunity to breathe and think about it, and maybe even getting someone else to look at it.
And it’s funny, some tweets I had made a long time ago—I think it was during—when Freddie Gray was killed in Baltimore—something like that—and the city was having several demonstrations—and I had said something on my personal account that someone then, when I was running for office, kind of went back and grabbed it and tweeted it because they disagreed with what I said, and tried to make it seem like I was supporting the burning of Baltimore and not that I was supporting the oppression of black people and the voices, and how much it hurts and the pain, and being overlooked, so.
And so just understanding that what you put out there online is forever online, and just like anything, you just have to be accountable, and be, you know, ready to take whatever comes from that, as anything you do. And so being mindful, being intentional, slowing down is the key, I think, so that you can have that few seconds or few moments, or even a day or two before you put something out there.
And then I think another thing is people remember when you don’t say stuff, too, like when you don’t put out a statement or when you don’t make a comment. And I’ll say, like, when—for myself, when I was still working in kind of traditional development and George Floyd, who roughly two years ago was murdered, I had noticed that many international development organizations, humanitarian organizations, development contractors said nothing. Just absolutely no thoughts at all, and I made a comment on LinkedIn targeting those organizations, and then a lot of other people—I think it was like three (thousand) or four thousand likes, and people were sharing it. We started seeing more people make comments, and those organizations taking this as an issue. We are always looking internationally, but the work first starts at home.
And so I know that was a little bit more than what you asked for, but just being very intentional. And when you don’t say things when it’s a time to speak up, it’s noticed as well by people who are watching.
MODY: No, I actually completely agree with Jamila. Exactly the same thing I was going to say.
KIANPOUR: Yeah, I mean, we’ve seen—we’ve seen—and I guess this is kind of debatable as to whether or not someone should be punished for things that they posted on Facebook or Twitter when they were barely adults—but we’ve seen, you know, particularly reporters get into hot water for comments that they’ve made.
And yeah, as you say, putting—what you put online is forever. I luckily haven’t had any of those incidences where I’ve put something that was, like, really bad, but I have had—I kind of sometimes—you know, Facebook reminds you of what you posted twelve years ago, and I don’t know I was in college and I’m just, like, cringe. (Laughs.)
MODY: So I can definitely relate there, and I’ve actually gone back—five, seven years back and said why—that content doesn’t need to be out there anymore, whether it’s Facebook or even Twitter. So sometimes giving your profile a little bit of a refresh, whether public or private, is never a bad idea.
KIANPOUR: Some spring cleaning. So we’re thankful for the Facebook you were doing this on this day complaining about the rain or something.
KIANPOUR: OK. So let’s move on to Lucy’s question.
Q: Hi. My name is Lucindra Del Kate (ph). I work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And I am a term member and I had just a question for you.
One of the things I think we—I see a lot in my work—you know, I work for an academic leader, and I get concerned sometimes about how our social media can distort our feedback. And you know, you think about—you know, we have a community of fifty—forty thousand, fifty thousand people, and we’ll hear from our communications team, oh, there’s, you know—everyone is furious about this on Twitter, and you look and you know, it’s ten people who are furious about it. But a lot of people are not engaging with it at all, and trying to kind of balance that—and then we have issues that are—everyone on Twitter is furious about this and it is an issue that kind of is in everywhere.
And so my question just for you is, kind of, how would you kind of look for other ways to kind of balance our feedback and kind of thinking about—you know, social media I think so often has the people who are super engaged and not the kind of general—the general middle that is not as engaged. And I just wanted to see if you had any thoughts and ideas about how we should be thinking about that.
KIANPOUR: Jamila, do you want to take that?
WHITE: I was hoping one of the two journalists would. You know, I—can I think about that question? You know—like, so my company is a couple years old so we’re gaining followers, looking at what’s happening. And honestly engaging the right support to help you figure that out and how do you get more followers—how do you get better feedback, how do you get people to stay longer, to click more—is something that we’ve done, and we partner with some folks that understand that a lot more than we do.
And yeah, that’s just what I do.
MODY: Well, I know this doesn’t answer the question completely, but I guess just on building engagement if that’s, you know—just taking one part of your question—answering one part of your question, I would say kind of to what Jamila was saying as well—tagging certain organizations that you’re working with, or not working with. If there’s a certain view—or something you’re reporting that you want to get out there that you would like certain organizations to be aware of or certain politicians, tag them in your pieces. That’s definitely one way to boost engagement.
And often it may not come from the exact person you are tagging, but then what happens—the way Twitter’s sort of algorithm works is, if you do tag certain people, you will then be included in other people’s newsfeeds that follow those people, if that makes sense.
So that’s kind of the best way to build engagement when you’re starting from—yeah, starting from—starting from the bottom, and you’ve got to work up and create that following, that’s certainly one way to do it.
KIANPOUR: Well, Twitter seems to be—how to build a following on Twitter seems to be the most obvious of the social media platforms, but what about Instagram? Actually, like, I personally can’t seem to figure out what Instagram’s algorithm really is in terms of engagement and growth because, like, I almost feel like when I’m not as active on Instagram, I suddenly am getting all these followers, so.
MODY: Yeah, I tend to be private on Instagram, to sort of your point. Twitter is public. Instagram is private for me. So I don’t really use that as a way to build—I’m not looking to build engagement there as much, just with family and friends.
But I think you’re right, and it kind of just speaks to how every platform, while they all operate in the social media ecosystem, they’re all different. There’s these different nuances on how to build that engagement.
I can speak to Twitter about using effective tags and strategic tags as a way to get more followers. But yeah, it certainly changes. I think with Instagram there’s hashtags that I know a lot of people use, and finding those influencers, for lack of a better word, that can also help boost engagement. I’ve seen that to be useful as well.
KIANPOUR: The rest of the world, though, is largely on Instagram and Facebook. They’re not on Twitter. That—I mean, that’s kind of why at least like in—at least for some of our—my superiors that I’ve spoken to, they’ve suddenly been big on, you know, broadening what platforms we’re on and broadening our influence on these platforms outside of—outside of Twitter.
MODY: Which, Suzanne, I don’t know how you feel, but I mean, that’s a little taxing as a journalist, is things that only—
KIANPOUR: I completely agree. (Laughs.)
MODY: I mean, just coming off air or posting an article on CNBC, and then finding the right, you know, savvy tweet, you know, that gets people to retweet it, to think about that, and now have to post it on LinkedIn and these other platforms. This is going to be a challenge, I think, for people in the media, and even those who want to be a part of social media—is to figure out the time allotment that it takes because each platform is so different, and how you communicate a certain story or view. And I wonder if over time how that—if this changes over time, yeah. It’s exhausting.
KIANPOUR: Well, I hope so because it is exhausting. I mean, I literally—I was moderating a bunch of panels in Davos, and you know, obviously I wanted to get the word out. I had really important people on these panels who said really, you know, profound things that I wanted to share with my audience, and I just kind of was like—I’m like OK I need to get it on Twitter. I need it to get it on Instagram. I need to get it on LinkedIn. I need to get it on Facebook.
I’m not even going to go to TikTok, you know, that’s just—at least TikTok is a very different model. So that’s almost like—that’s almost the upside of that. But then, the challenge with being on TikTok as a journalist it—particularly, you know, for me—and I mostly focus on foreign affairs and some politics—is that the algorithm doesn’t push that kind of content.
So it’s difficult to get a following when you’re—frankly, when you’re talking about serious things. So you need to kind of pair it with what is popular like dog videos, and make-up videos, and dances.
And so the next thing you know you’re playing around with telling foreign policy headlines while petting a dog and, you know, doing little a dance, and you just kind of think, is this worth it?
So I think there’s so many—there’s still so many questions around, which is why we’re having this conversation today, the cost-benefit analysis of social media engagement.
I mean, is TikTok still going to be around five years from now? Is it still—I mean it’s huge, it’s massive. It’s hugely popular, but is it going to be in the—I guess in the iteration that it is right now?
And also, you know, I’ve been surprised at LinkedIn and how much LinkedIn has evolved and become a kind of must engage platform, in terms of posting and sharing and—because when I first got on LinkedIn, it was like professional Facebook. It’s your resume online—
MODY: Yeah, your resume.
KIANPOUR: —right? But it’s not anymore. Now it’s like—it’s like a combination of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram all in one.
MODY: Yeah, and it allows for—
KIANPOUR: That’s the one that I find myself forgetting about the most because I still see it as my online resume that I keep forgetting to update.
MODY: Which is interesting because so many recruiters now use it and, you know, people in the industry I think are very much leaning on LinkedIn, especially during the pandemic. I know we did a lot of surveys around it for recruiting.
So it’s definitely an important platform and one that should be leveraged, and I think even CEOs they often go to LinkedIn to post. If they have a certain view on abortion, for example, or their reaction to the Texas shooting, they’ll go to LinkedIn where they have more space. Twitter is, you know, confined to 140 letters whereas LinkedIn you can write as long as you want. So you often see many executives using that platform to convey their views and their message.
I’m actually going to be hosting a show on LinkedIn in about two weeks because we just want—we’re now as journalists trying to be more thoughtful about how we live in this multimedia world. It’s not just TV—certainly that’s not the case, and it’s not just Twitter—but using these different platforms and engaging with folks on those platforms in different ways. Why not, you know? This is the digital age we’re living in.
KIANPOUR: But it’s not really a one-size-fits-all, is it? Is that what you’re finding, Jamila?
WHITE: No. Yeah, and it’s interesting to see how LinkedIn has evolved so much, especially over the pandemic, and I think—and I don’t have any data on this, so this is all my own analysis—I’ve seen more CEOs and executive leaders within my network—as conversations around equity and oppression and DEI have become more prevalent and more acceptable and more known that it has to happen in the workforce, because that’s where the most integration and diversity actually is—feel more comfortable to go to these platforms to talk about other—these issues that are so important, and also seeing their role, you know, in these conversations and using their voice and the power and the influence that they have to weigh in on issues that are important and understand their responsibility.
And just kind of thinking back about engagement, the more you can be online talking and having your voice in short clips—whether it’s blogs, especially for Instagram—gets more followers—at least that’s what my comms strategist keeps telling me. You need to do more speaking online, even if it’s just your thoughts for thirty or forty-five seconds on IG so the more—
KIANPOUR: So like a story.
WHITE: Yeah, it’s your stories. Increasing your voice. It gets you added into reels more. And just having that voice and making comments to also attract people to you when they’re searching for stuff, especially journalists.
I think I get probably a majority of my journalist contacts or requests for interviews or something like that from online from comments I’ve made.
KIANPOUR: Well, that’s interesting because it’s also kind of—do you like writing more or do you like speaking more? That also kind of—at least I find that in my social media experience that—I mean, I like Twitter because I think even though I’m a broadcaster, inherently I am a writer. (Laughs.)
But you know, we do have to, like, you know, write short and sweet in television—you know this, Seema—so Twitter works.
MODY: Twitter definitely works. It definitely works.
But to your point, there’s times where you have so much to say or so much reporting that one tweet doesn’t suffice. Those 140 words—I’ve gone back and forth where I’m trying to, you know, make it all fit. And of course, you can post subsequent tweets tied to your first one, which is a new thing—
KIANPOUR: Yeah, how do we feel about threads?
MODY: I never read a full thread. I think now in this age because there’s so much information, I don’t think I have the patience to read a full thread unless it’s, again, a story I’m following, if I’m reporting on a certain topic—let’s say it’s Apple’s tech day and Tim Cook, the CEO of the company, has a thread, I’m going to read it because I’m reporting on that story.
But there’s some other people who I respect in the industry, and I really appreciate their views, that I will take the time. But how about you? Do you read all the threads?
WHITE: Just maybe Humans of New York. (Laughs.) Their threads are amazing. And like you said, if it’s a journalist or influencer that I really respect and want to see their story—like some of the things that were happening in, like, Tennessee with the judges, and the way she was, like, sending these kids to detention centers and stuff. So it has to be a subject that I really, really want to learn about.
But other than that, I’m not going to read it.
KIANPOUR: I’ve found that there have been some threads that I—that have been almost like a profound form of storytelling, but it really has to be a story. I mean, there was this one thread that I wish I could remember who actually did it. It was a British journalist in Uganda who told a story about how he was supposed to interview someone, but it kind of—you know, sometimes you’re in the field you get that sense where things are about to go haywire, and it turned out he was right, but of all the people that first person he thought of to say that this had happened was his mother. And the rest of the thread ended up being this, like, crazy extraction story where his mom mobilized a bunch of people to get him out of Uganda, and then they never spoke about it until her deathbed. And it turned out she was MI-6. That was a great thread. (Laughs.) See? Look at your faces. (Laughs.)
Yeah, anyway we’re going to take another question from Melissa Hevener.
Q: Hi. First of all, thank you so much for spending part of your day today doing this. My name is Melissa Hevener. I work at Precision Strategies, which is a political comms firm based here in D.C., and I actually have a couple questions, but I know we’re coming up on time, so we’ll see if we have time to get to it.
But my first question is, what are some good profiles you follow on Twitter or on any platform, really? And good can be anything, but I’m thinking specifically about how that person maybe balances their work affiliation and themselves; maybe it’s balancing engagement and putting your own content out there. What are some profiles that come top of mind for you?
MODY: Maybe, Jamila, if you want to start. I’m actually going to look right now to see who I—and just anyone, right? Influencers, people who are in our world we think do a good job at tweeting?
WHITE: I think—I follow a lot of kind of influencers, kind of local journalists. But Tamika Mallory from Black Lives Matter, I really like her Instagram. I follow her Instagram because she does mix the work that she’s doing, activism, but also some personal pieces of her life as well so you kind of get to see the whole person and authenticity.
And so that’s someone who comes to mind when I think about—whenever I think about should I join—put a personal post, and then I never end up doing it, but. I like her Instagram. And she elevates a lot of other activists from across the country and across internationally, too, which will help elevate them, so I like that she spots like—spotlights them with her activism.
MODY: OK. I’ve looked, and these individuals tend to be a bit more on the tech side of things—Silicon Valley folks who often tweet, though, about other topics beyond technology. Bill Gurley, who’s a venture capital investor, I think always has a nice intersection of public and private views, or public and private profiles, and his analysis and sort of off-hand remarks. Don Primack is a reporter out there, and Rana Foroohar from FT—(changes pronunciation)—Rana Foroohar; I can never pronounce her last name—but I think they—as well as Chris Sacca, who’s also a former tech executive who tends to have a lot of great thoughts to share online.
KIANPOUR: We’re going to go to our last question. Jessica.
Q: All right. Hello. Hi, Seema. Hi, Jamila. Great to see you both, and thanks for being here this morning—afternoon, sorry.
So my question actually refers to part of the conversation a little earlier. Now, Seema, you mentioned how exhausting it is to utilize all the different social media—Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, dah, dah, dah, dah—and Jamila, you explained how active you are in, you know, creating, responding to posts, and all of that.
So I’m curious to hear from both of you—or, you know, from all of you—what tips do you have to handle this increased level of work, you know, on top of your lives, outside of work? So what tips do you have to handle all of this and make the most of it, but also avoid burnout?
MODY: I love that question, Jessica. I think first, you know, piece of advice when you’re new to social media, put together that professional profile, create a community, be ethical and mindful of what you tweet, think about the implications, of course always fact-check your sources.
And then when it comes to managing these different platforms, the time needed to post on different platforms, it can be a little exhausting at times. So what I try to do is if I know I’m going to a big event—let’s say it’s Davos, let’s say it’s another on-the-record event—preparing ahead of time by knowing who’s speaking.
If I’m speaking on the panel, know who the panelists are, so you’re not last minute looking for the last name of the person who’s sitting on your right to ensure you get their name right and find their Twitter handle. Get all of that ready ahead of time. That way when you’re at the live event you can be tweeting. You have all the tools you need to increase your frequency and your speed of getting more messages out there on social media. I tend to do that.
Then this is one thing maybe for those in the room who are journalists or future journalists—if I have a story that I know is breaking tomorrow and I already have the scoop and the story, I can start formulating my tweets today. I don’t need to wait until tomorrow.
So sort of preplanning, in a way, to ensure that you can increase your social media engagement when you’re either at a live event or reporting on a certain story I think can be helpful, and also allow you to be a little bit more efficient as well.
KIANPOUR: Well, I think we’ve had a really great event. I’m sorry.
WHITE: And to add to what Seema said, totally agree. But there’s also websites like MeetEdgar. I use MeetEdgar where you can plan posts that will happen, and you can click all of the different social media profiles you want at once. So you’re not uploading everything.
And you can schedule it for the hour you want it to go out. And it forces you do the Tweet, and then makes sure you have a picture for Instagram. So use technology as your friend so you’re not having to post to all of these different apps yourself.
KIANPOUR: That’s actually really helpful. Although I feel like for us, for journalists, it’s a little bit—it’s a little—because like we’re supposed to be operating in real time, but then—but not always, I suppose. I think if you’re doing kind of like—you have like a series or some level of consistency, which you’re supposed to have, so.
I think these are all kind of a work in progress, and I’m really glad that we had these conversations today. And thank you to all of you for joining. Thank you, especially to Seema and Jamila, to take time out of your busy days to join us, and we’ll be following you on social media.
MODY: And you. Thank you, Suzanne.
WHITE: Thank you, everyone. A pleasure to be with you. And I put my social media online for all platforms. See you all next time.
KIANPOUR: Thank you.
This is an uncorrected transcript.
STARR: Welcome, everyone, to today’s conference. We are hosting a concurrent session, “Hear Me Out: How to Pitch Your Story.” I’m Alexandra Starr. I’m a senior editor at Foreign Affairs and I will be presiding over today’s discussion.
With me is Nayeema Raza. She’s a senior editor at the New York Times, where she runs Sway, which is a fantastic podcast hosted by Kara Swisher. If you guys haven’t checked it out, I highly encourage you to do so. Previously, she was a senior producer in the New York Times—in New York Times opinion video. And before—she has this really incredible background. You guys have her bio. But she used to work in international development before going to Harvard for an MPA, and Stanford for an MBA. And she has produced documentaries and been a showrunner. I mean, you have a real overachiever here. (Laughter.)
So we wanted to start—let’s see. How many people are—wow, there are thirty-six of you. OK. I’m really sorry we can’t be in person. This is the kind of thing that I think that it would help. But we’ll try to create that sense of informality in our siloed Zooms. (Laughs.) So I thought what might be interesting is to sort of give you guys a sense of how much opinion journalism is changing. I am older than all of you, and I grew up at a time when my family got the New York Times and the Washington Post delivered to the house every day, and, you know, we read the opinion pages in the print, you know, chop-down-the-trees version.
But that’s changing now. And Nayeema has really been at the forefront of helping to do that. So in addition to op-eds—sorry—opinion pieces—(laughs)—opinion essays is what they’re called now—
RAZA: They’re now called guest essays at the New York Times. They’re retired the term. But, you know, they are called op-eds elsewhere, and opinion pieces everywhere, right?
STARR: Yeah. And the publication I work for, FA, still hews pretty much to the 1,500-word opinion arguments prototype. So it’s not like it’s disappeared. But there are new options and kind of exciting ways to tell stories. So I thought we would start by seeing one of the videos that Nayeema helped make possible at the New York Times. Do you guys—do you think we can queue that up?
OPERATOR: Yes. One minute.
RAZA: And I just wanted to say thank you, everyone, for joining. And it’s great to be here with you. And a big fan of Alexandra’s work as well at Foreign Affairs.
STARR: Oh, thank you!
RAZA: So thank you for having me.
(A video presentation is shown.)
NARRATOR: This is Memo. Memo runs far and Memo runs fast. And somehow, he gets faster with age.
MORALES: Surprise for me too.
NARRATOR: Today Memo is one of the top ten runners in the world for his age group. He’s also a porter in an apartment building in Queens, New York. We’ll come back to that later. Memo believes in three things: hard work, never giving up, and—
MORALES: Actually, just two things.
NARRATOR: Fine, two things.
The American fitness industry is worth over $30 billion a year. That’s a lot of fancy gear and gym memberships. But Memo doesn’t believe in gadgets. This is Memo’s heart monitor. This is Memo’s gym. This is Memo’s nutrition plan. And this is Memo’s locker. Memo doesn’t believe in swanky gyms or boutique-y yoga studios. He doesn’t believe in self-promotion, even though there would be a lot to promote.
MORALES: I win some races, yes.
NARRATOR: You know what Memo really believes in? Memo believes in running.
MORALES: It’s my life. Make me feel free.
NARRATOR: In Santa Ana Cotapec, where Memo grew up, he was an average runner on a pretty average team. And Memo lived a pretty average life for a kid in that town. Memo crossed the border illegally at age fifteen.
MORALES: I come to find work.
NARRATOR: He did find work in America, in a kitchen and as a bike messenger. And he ran his first marathon in 1995. A year later, he was arrested and sent to jail.
MORALES: I don’t got no papers, so they just put me in jail for a while. So I think it’s over for me, they’re going to send me to Mexico. But they gave me the opportunity to see the judge, and pay my fine, and get a lawyer.
NARRATOR: In 2005, Memo passed his citizenship test and became an American citizen.
MORALES: How many states in the United States? Fifty states. What’s the first president of the United States? George Washington.
NARRATOR: By 2019, he became a top-ten runner globally in his age group and the second-fastest American in his age group.
MORALES: If I run for Mexico, I’d be number one. But I want to represent the United States to say thank you for everything I have.
NARRATOR: Now Memo works in Rego Park as a porter.
MORALES: I like this building. They made a sign for the last New York City Marathon to put in the lobby. They say: Congratulation, Memo, you do great. That was really nice for me.
MS. : I made those signs. Memo took them down one by one. (Laughs.) He doesn’t like to advertise how great of a runner he is.
NARRATOR: On November 3rd, Memo will take the day off to run the New York City Marathon. He’s on track to run faster than ever. Memo reminds us that we’re being sold and packaged something that’s free. Achievement doesn’t come from a sports brand or the latest high-tech gizmo. Just ask Memo. He believes in just three—
NARRATOR: Right—two things. That’s the Memo method.
(Video presentation ends.)
STARR: Thank you so much for showing that. I want to ask you—
RAZA: In Memo’s defense, I need to say something, he’s much faster than he appeared in that video, because I think we had a little bit of sync or delay issues. He’s very, very fast. (Laughs.)
STARR: Well, so how did—you know, as I was rewatching that, there are a lot of layers to it, right? So tell me how did that come about? Why did it get greenlit? And what are the—you know, because you’re talking about the fitness industry, but just by featuring someone who at one point was an undocumented immigrant, you know, the Times is telling a certain kind of story.
RAZA: Yeah. I think that, you know, what the value that the opinion section I think really provides, and our editor Kate Kingsbury is very big on this, is a robust range of ideas that we think are newsworthy and that, you know, engage and challenge our readers, our subscribers at every level. And I think that video and the, you know, what you were getting at, the change in format, that’s big. And the Times has been at the forefront of this much more. You know, I think the Times has just doubled down on digital and subscriber provisions. So there’s a huge appetite for video and audio content. And that allows, you know, diversity in a way that the traditional pages may not have necessarily allowed. Someone like Memo might not have been, you know, able to submit a 900-word op-ed, or have thought that he was able to submit that. I think that’s actually the broad thing.
But a colleague of mine, Lindsay Crouse, who’s a fabulous reporter and opinion journalist and writer here with me, had been sitting with Memo’s name in her reporter’s notebook for a little while because she’s part of the running community here and she’s done some great work on kind of the running community. And she has a very kind of raw approach to fitness. She runs. She’s—you know, and I am very much a boutique fitness aficionado, actually. (Laughter.) So I’m a little hypocritical in making this. But we had this very—we had this very—we had a friendship and a kind of conversation about this. And one day he came in to meet her and she invited me into the meeting. And we kind of conceived the idea of let’s do something with him in video, because there’s a huge contrast between, you know, his approach and the modern fitness approach, but also because, really more than anything, we wanted to tell the story about immigration and what it meant to be American.
And I think what’s, for me, the most meaningful part of that story is that—is the idea that Memo—what struck me and the hook, let’s say, is he could be the fastest runner in his age group if he chose to run as a Mexican. But he chooses to run as an American because he’s so grateful to this country for everything he’s had. And, you know, part of what he’s had has been to be thrown in jail, right, for coming into the country. And I think that was—again, it’s, like, you’re looking what will cut through the noise is, you know, ideas that really challenge your way of thinking or individuals who really surprise you.
And I think Memo, you know, did all that. And he was just really excited because when he ran the marathon—he said he was distracted. He was set to run his best race yet in the 2019 piece. But this—in the 2019 marathon, sorry. But this piece went quite viral and so people all over New York had signs and were chanting for him. And he really didn’t—(laughs)—you know, he said he was overwhelmed. And every year in the marathon he and his partner kind of send us messages, which is very sweet, to thank us. But really, yeah, it’s a story. It kind of brings you in. And I love that. I came to the Times as a filmmaker, and I love stories that bring you in.
You know, a lot of people who wouldn’t—like, if I wrote a piece and I said, you know, America needs to think about the value of its immigrants, I think people who click on that piece might already, you know, feel like they knew what the piece was going to say, or already believe in that piece. I think there’s a little bit of that that happens now, right? The echo chambers. And I think if you tell a story about, you know, fitness and a fast runner and how did he get so fast at that age, there’s a dramatic question, there’s intrigue, there’s a character. And the story about immigration is almost like a subplot that hits your heart, I think, in a different way.
STARR: Yes. And I do a lot of reporting on immigration. And something that I would fault—you know, and I’m a journalist—but I do think that oftentimes immigrants are sort of—particularly undocumented immigrants—are nameless and faceless. And that’s in part, you know, when you’re recording sometimes it can be hard to get people to go on the record when they’re scared that that would jeopardize their ability to be in the country. People are understandably very—they can be very distrustful, not without reason.
But I found some of the stories that are most rewarding for me are when I’m able to report from communities that don’t get a lot of public attention. And it’s always interesting to me, when I did those stories for NPR I would get so many emails, like, oh my God, they sound so American. I’m like, well, yeah. They’ve lived in—some of them have lived in this country their whole lives, guys. Like, it’s—yeah. But those kinds of pieces, I always found very rewarding to do.
So, actually, Nayeema, I want to ask you a little bit about your background. Because you said you came as a filmmaker. I think it would be of interest to our audience to sort of learn how you came into a career that I know—(laughs)—you did not think you were embarking on when you graduated from the foreign service school at Georgetown.
RAZA: I think it’s that—it was a Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford where he said, you know, life always makes sense backwards. I’m not sure it makes sense, even backwards. (Laughter.) But I think it makes more sense backwards than forwards, for sure. I’ll tell it more chronologically. Which is I’ve always kind of gravitated towards my interests more than a sense of a job or a career ladle. I think that notion, you know, from a young age, I kind of thought that’s what I was meant to do. And I went into a career in consulting after going to Georgetown for my undergrad. So I studied international political economy and international law a bit. And then I went to do what I thought would be a short stint on a consulting firm that was doing a lot of reform work in countries like Libya, Vietnam, West Africa. And it was so fascinating I did it for five years.
And I think when I stated that job I used to say that, you know, I was good at my job because I loved it. And at the end of the five years, I kind of was loving my job because I was good at it, and it was efficient—I was efficient at it. It was no longer a challenge. And so—and at the same time I was witnessing in some of the countries I was working in in the Middle East the power of social media. So this is now, like, 2011. And I decided I was going to go to grad school to really understand tech and this new kind of epicenter of—I would call it, like, a nonstate actor, is one of the ways I’ve heard it described by Richard Butler, who’s the former head of HBO and still a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. You know, and you have a nonstate actor, of social media, kind of defining our conversation and enabling people, and also, now, disinforming people in different ways.
And I think that for me that was just a great opportunity to go to grad school. And also I had family reasons. My father was ailing at the time, and so coming back to the U.S. and doing grad school here. And I kind of didn’t know what I was going to do afterwards. I just knew that I wanted to figure it out, and I wanted some time to figure it out, and I wanted to be surrounded by really interesting people. And why I went to GSB in particular, at Stanford they do this amazing job of cultivating this class of people who are former athletes, and people who worked in politics, and people who worked from all over. And then there’s, like, a large swath of people who went to private equity or hedge funds, and all the things that happen at a business school.
But you really get kind of a revolving door of careers. And the one I saw that I most gravitated toward was the one of a professor of mine who’s a documentary filmmaker, who had won, you know, a couple of Academy Awards, and made the film Nanking, and I thought, oh, maybe I could do that. I don’t know why I thought that, but I thought, oh, maybe I could do that. I could learn to do that. And so Bill Guttentag really took me under his wing. I TAed for him. And then we started developing projects together shortly after I graduated and were able to make some films. One of which was seen by a former Kennedy School classmate who—we didn’t overlap, but I knew him—who was the Times opinion video head, Adam Ellick, who is a former term member of CFR. Actually, one of my nominators for the process.
And Adam said, hey, why don’t you come, you know, work at the Times in opinion video? And I said, well, I don’t really want a job. And he said, that’s great, because I don’t really want someone who wants a job. (Laughter.) And I was waiting for a TV series to sell, and so I came here for eight, nine months, worked here on a temporary basis as a senior producer in opinion video. Got to make really cool stories. Learned a lot, and just loved it. And was really happy after that television series kind of finished production to come back in 2020 full time and be able to launch a podcast and learn a whole new format.
So I think, like, for me it’s not been a career ladder. It’s been a bit of a Rubik’s Cube or a, like, spiral staircase of a career. I think that’s all the more common now. And I think for people on this call who are younger than I, it will be even more common. And just surrounding yourself with interesting people and interesting places, right, where you encounter disagreement, I think is a great way to—you can encounter disagreement and still make things that’s, like, for me, like, the definition of a good day.
STARR: Yeah. And as someone who also had a (teaching ?) career, I can say—and I do do some teaching. This is something I tell my students, that even these positions you might take, or careers you might fall into that feel like detours, or, you know, I guess in some cases almost like a, quote, “waste of time,” they will get back to you. And they’re going to enrich your experiences and you’re going to be better at what you do next because of that experience.
Just very quickly, I started my journalism—well, I was an intern at NPR, and then I did a fellowship in Venezuela, and I felt like I had all of these interesting stories to tell, but there was—very little international interest. It was just as Chavez was coming on the scene. And I felt so frustrated. (Laughs.) I remember, I’m thinking, like, why aren’t I in Mexico? Or, I got to get out of here. And then, you know, once the country began blowing up, that was when people were like, actually, we want to send you back there. And there’s no way I could have done those sorts of stories later on if I didn’t have those years of experience really immersed in the society and in the political culture.
So now I want to share with you—wait, do you want to say something?
RAZA: Well, no, I was going to say I think it’s really amazing to think about how—and a similar story of what I was telling with Lindsay. Like, these ideas that you have in your reporter’s notebook. Like, these sources or things that struck you. You don’t always know what to do with them, and I think it’s a great idea to be able to write them down or to collect them somewhere, because as you guys are sitting here you might have ideas of, you know, oh, this could make a really cool video, but you don’t have bandwidth, or you’re not full—it’s not fully formed. I really encourage people to kind of hang onto those things, because the moment and the places in life that you are interested in or the ideas you’re interested in, like, it’s—I think your interest is a leading indicator of other people’s interest, often. And it just takes time sometimes to figure out how to do it. And, yeah, I’ve had a ton of failure, which I didn’t go through in my—(laughs)—in my bio, including cancelled series and, you know, all kinds of things. But I think you got to keep trying to make stuff.
STARR: Yeah. And you are so right. This is something that I didn’t learn until I was honestly middle aged. You are not—your interests are not as quirky as you think. If something draws your attention, do write it down. So I just did a piece, for example—
RAZA: For Mother Jones, right?
STARR: Yes. About Calvin Royal III, who’s just the second Black man to become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater.
RAZA: It’s a beautiful piece. I encourage you guys to read it.
STARR: No, thank you so much. But I saw him perform, and he’s a six-foot-one Black man who’s just an—you know, best dancer in the world, you know, one of the handful. And then I noticed he was promoted in 2017. And I just wrote it in my notebook. And when he was promoted to principal, that’s when NPR and Mother Jones were, like, yes. Let’s profile him. And I had reached out before, so we had a preexisting relationship. So, yes, I can’t—so much of this is timing. But in order to get the timing right, sometimes you have to have all that information in your notebook that you can tap. And, yeah, not every idea is going to come to fruition, but it is pretty great when something you’ve been obsessed with—(laughs)—you can share with the broader world and it resonates.
RAZA: Yeah. Hundred percent. On that subject of timing—I mean, sometime the timing is, like, joyous, and sometimes the timing is, like, a terrible moment. We had one of those, if I could share a brief thing. But we had one of those on Sway last year around January 6th, when on the day of the attack Kara and myself, and Paula Shuman are head of audio at the Times. We were kind on a text chain thinking, how are we going to cover this? This is 2:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m. I think it’s probably 3:00 p.m. at this point on January 6th. And we have an episode airing the next day. I think it was supposed to be Bryan Cranston or something. We’re, like, we’re not going to run that tomorrow. What are we going to do?
And we had been following kind of right-wing sites for a while as a team at Sway. And one of the sites we had been looking at was Parler, which was kind of coming to a fore. And in kind of an hour or two-hour period, I was—and one of my team members, Heba Elorbany, was able to find the contact number of the publicist. We got on the phone with, you know, the company, tried to figure out, OK, can we have the CEO come on? You know, someone to come speak on Sway about how—about the platform’s responsibility for this?
Because, you know, you have a platform where it was becoming extremely popular under then-President Trump. And you had a number of things that were being said, like calls for, you know, attacks on Pence, calls for attacks on the Capitol, that were not being moderated or removed. A platform that was, you know, famously and flagrantly, you know, quote, “free speech,” but really anti-content moderation, because free speech is, you know, a constitutional issue and not the business of private companies to necessarily provide as publishers. (Laughs.)
And so we were able to get the CEO in the seat. And we taped that conversation at 5:00 p.m., so less than two hours later, while the attacks were ongoing. And there’s a moment of that audio that I’d love to play, if we could. Cooper, if—great.
(A recording is played.)
SWISHER: (In progress)—feel any responsibility if people were organizing to—protests are very different. And you’re absolutely right. Everyone, you know, gets to run around with whatever flag they want to fly, and whatever coat they want to wear, and whatever chant they want to have. But going into the Capitol Building to do this, if it was organized on your site, what should happen on your site?
MATZE: Look, if it was illegally organized and against the law in what they were going, they would have gotten it taken down. But I don’t feel responsible for any of this, and neither should the platform, considering we’re a neutral town square that just adheres to the law. So if people are organizing something, that’s more of a problem of people are upset. They feel disenfranchised. They need their leaders to stop provoking this partisan hate. They need to come together and have a discussion on a place like Parler.
(End of recording.)
RAZA: So I think—yeah.
STARR: (Laughs.) I shouldn’t be shaking my head.
RAZA: No, go ahead. Oh, you can say your reaction to it.
STARR: I mean, I’m glad you guys got him on the record saying that.
RAZA: I think that was the important thing, is getting him on the record. And, look, it’s a long conversation, right? And John Matze, the CEO of Parler, who’s sitting in the chair with Kara—you can hear Kara—you know, we had no prep work. Kind of she had just gotten her kid—figured out where her kids were in D.C. that day. We were all riled up, right? And yet it’s extensive. It’s forty minutes of conversation with someone you really disagree with in this heated moment, right?
And that—you know, John Matze going on the record saying I don’t feel any responsibility, and neither should the platform, because we’re a neutral town square—well, that came back to him, you know, in the days and hours afterwards, because Apple and Amazon both cited that interview in their decision to remove Parler for their services. And said: You, in fact, are responsible when you are, you know, in the App Store, or you’re using Amazon Web Services. You are responsible for what happens on your platform, right?
And I think that’s really—for me, that’s a really, you know, important example of timing, but also of the opportunity you have with opinion journalism. Which is that you can have a point of view, and you actually move the needle on something, right? And so I have seen this in reporting—like Lindsay Crouse, who I mentioned—her reporting on Nike and maternity leave has resulted in real policy change over there. I think that you—like, thinking about using storytelling as a way—not just in opinion pages, but as a filmmaker—as a way to kind of shed a spotlight, but also change something. To have real world action, right? And I think that’s the opportunity that a really good story affords you.
STARR: Yeah. This is actually a good segue, I think, to taking questions from the audience. We have more examples we can share, but I want to make sure you guys get a chance to chime in. So I know there’s a process. Cooper, should I read it—(laughs)—or is the operator going to?
OPERATOR: I can jump in here now.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll give it just a minute for questions and I’ll hand it back over to you, Alexandra.
STARR: Great. Oh, already. OK, here we go.
Q: All right. Perfect. Y’all can hear me?
STARR: We can.
Q: Yes. Thank you. So thanks for everything that you’ve shown so far. This has been fantastic. So I’m a professor. My name is Kendrick Roberson. I’m a professor of political science over at Pepperdine University in UCLA. So, Malibu and Los Angeles.
And one of the questions that I have for you all is, as someone who’s not a journalist but is from academia, what’s your advice on, you know, pitching op-eds to news agencies regarding, you know, any events that might be going on? I personally do race and ethnic politics, so there are always things that I could push forward. And what advice do you have for professors like myself?
STARR: Do you want me to start with that?
RAZA: Yeah, maybe you can start with that, Alexandra, and then—
STARR: Yeah. So I work at Foreign Affairs. So what you’re talking about is—seems like more domestic—or, it could be international. But, you know, I imagine that it’s something that would work at the New York Times or, you know, the L.A. Times as much as it work at Foreign Affairs. Why don’t we share here—(laughs)—I’m going to just go ahead and share a pitch that was successful at FA, because I think it’ll just give you a sense of what we look for. And I’m not going to read this in its entirety. But this is an email from Michael Kimmage, who is a professor at Catholic University in D.C. He also was heavily involved during the Obama administration in Russia policy. So he has the expertise. And he doesn’t talk about that here because he had already written for FA, so people knew.
But what you’ll notice—and I think this will be provided. All this is recorded, so you’ll be able to access this later. But what made this successful is he was pitching a story that was very much tied to the news of the day, which was the war in Ukraine. But he was posing an attempting to answer questions about where we go forward, or if X happens should we do Y. And this actually ended up spurring a whole series—(laughs)—which you can read on FA if you’re so inclined. It’s, what if Russia wins? What if Russia loses?
FA does see itself as speaking to two audiences. So it’s—the idea is to be of interest to a general audience, but it’s also read by people in government. And that’s one of the remits of the publication. They want to offer prescriptions or get people to take into considerations issues they should take into account as they are crafting policy. So I hope this is helpful. I’m going to turn it over to Nayeema. And she will tell you, she does not—
RAZA: Yeah, no, yeah. I should comment that, like, I don’t greenlight pitches for the print desk of the New York Times. I just want to, like, have that be a very clear disclaimer. But I, you know, love reading and consuming those. And I’ve written for the pages as well and obviously made, you know, many video and audio opinion pieces as well. I think—you know, ultimately, like, I think a great guest essay—which is what we’re calling them now at the Times, makes an argument, right? It’s an argument. It’s not just an idea, but it’s a real argument based on facts. It’s based on ideally your own experience or expertise, right?
And it challenges either conventional wisdom, without—while drawing in people who might disagree with you. I think that is—you know, some of the best opinion pieces I’ve read have managed to do that for me. They provoke me, they engage me. You know, they are—they recognize themselves. So there will be caveats. You know, it’s not, like, all or nothing, right? There’s a caveat to your argument. No argument is perfect. OK, well, maybe this doesn’t apply to that, but let me tell you. So I think there’s some self-awareness in that. But I think ultimately when you’re pitching it’s, like, hey, here’s the—what in film we call the logline, right, or in journalism we call the nut graf, like, the big idea, right? (Laughs.)
And here’s my—let me give you a sense that there’s supporting evidence, right? It’s based on fact and it draws from my own experience. And here’s why I’m the right voice to tell this. Or I want to tell—and then, the last thing I’d add to that, is, like, what’s the right format for it, right? Maybe you think the most interesting argument is actually to hear the argument between you and someone else you disagree with. And you therefore want to come on a show called The Argument, which we actually host on—(laughs)—at New York Times opinion. But, you know, there’s different formats available also. And so I would encourage you to think about not just different publications, but different places.
And also ask the question, you know, if you—we’re not able to reply to so many of the incoming submissions. Which you’re able to submit ideas at newyorktimes.com/guestessay, I think will redirect you to the page, or search for the guest essay. But we don’t always get back. And, you know, I think in video at least we encourage you, if you don’t hear back within a week, to submit your ideas elsewhere. But if you do hear back from the editor, or if you, you know, have a chance to have a conversation, I’d ask, like, why wasn’t—you know, what would make that argument more interesting? Or, pay attention to what’s in the pages, right? What is getting published? What is interesting? Not that you have to do that, but what are the qualities of what you’ve reading or seeing or hearing that kind of could improve your own writing or making of the story.
Does that help at all?
Q: That does, very much so. Thank you both.
STARR: OK. Pierina, is that—Pierina, is that right?
Q: Yes. Can you all hear me?
RAZA: Great. Yes.
Q: OK. I need to keep my video off because I’m calling in from the car. But thank you all for this conversation. It’s been really insightful so far. My name is Pierina. I’m a grad student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and also working with the Global Campaign for Education-US.
And my question is really surrounding, like, political advocacy and movement building. A lot of the work that I’m doing with the Global Campaign for Education is centered on, like, trying to find congressional champions in the international education space. And so my question is: How do you craft, you know, pitches and op-ed ideas or guest essays in a way that—you know, Alexandra, you mentioned a little bit earlier in your statement that, like, you know, you were able to move the needle on certain issues. So how do you—how do you write with that end goal in mind?
STARR: Wow. Gosh, that’s such a good question. And it’s one I ask myself over and over again when I write. For me, I have found—you know what’s helpful? This is something I have my students do. When they’re reading, log what they’ve read. And then, like, two, three weeks later, what do you remember from that piece? And here I’m going to plug a friend of mine who is just a master at this, Katherine Boo, who has written for the New Yorker and wrote an incredible book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
But the things that I remember from her pieces, she embeds herself in someone’s life, and the detail is what strikes me. That requires a ton of work, right? And guest essays are not always a space—you know, they’re not going to offer you, like, five thousand words to really immerse yourself. But there is room for it. The extent to which you can humanize a problem or an issue with someone’s lived experience, I think you have a better shot of breaking through. Would you agree with that, Nayeema?
RAZA: Yeah, I think that—I think that the—I’m trying to think. We did a video essay, a group essay, so a number of different voices of diabetics in America, and one mother who had lost her son to—you know, the to the fact that he couldn’t afford insulin. I mean, that’s insane. And other diabetics were traveling into Mexico to get this. And we did a video essay kind of shot on iPhones. And, you know, not the best production quality, but a really important story, and about, like, why is it that the insulin prices are so high in the U.S.? And we—you know, we explained why that is. And there’s a whole series of kind of pharmaceutical middlemen that drive up prices and, you know, it’s not just the R&D argument that pharma companies would like to have you think.
I think that—I notice, I think it was Bernie Sanders or other senators were sharing that story. And what I think it was—it’s really about there’s a Stalin misquote, right? A thousand deaths is a statistic and a single death is a tragedy. I think that’s a misquote. But there is a veracity to the fact that having one story, right, can really—and, I mean, a mother losing her child, you know, in his twenties, to an inability to afford insulin is just an example of that. So I think that having a reason to care and being able to specify what the challenge is, and what the solution is, right?
And I think if you look at Steve Kerr yesterday, I mean, it’s not a—or, I guess, now it was two days ago. You know, it’s not an argument. It’s not an—but he came in with personal experience. This is a Golden State Warriors coach whose father had been killed violently. And he came out on the eve of the Uvalde, Texas, shooting, saying, you know, this is just—I don’t want to answer questions about the game. And started off talking about what happened. And really powerful—really powerful moment, right? He invokes some data which I can’t, like, attest to the veracity of about, you know, polling around background checks. But he says, why aren’t we doing something?
And he points the finger at the lawmakers in Washington. And I think pointing the finger is actually a really good thing. If you think that—you know, if you want to do accountability journalism or accountability storytelling, where you are, you know, in a fact-based way saying here are—here’s evidence that this individual has the power to do something about this situation and is failing to do something about a situation, that I think is really important. Now, of course, you can’t be lofty in that, right? Because, for example, you know, a good case would be humanitarian intervention. Like, there isn’t the resource, the political will, you know, to go to every single battleground. So you have to really construct, I think, an argument for why this case is different. Yeah, and name names, if you can.
STARR: Yeah. And that’s actually getting to a good point. I do notice in audio versus print, and video even more so, you can—emotion can be conveyed in a very visceral way by tone of voice and just pictures, that—yeah. And that, I think, does make certain stories better suited to those medium.
RAZA: Yeah. Though the best writers also write in a way where you can imagine it or you can feel it. I mean, I think that’s—the texture of writing can be really beautiful in that way. But, yeah, certainly formats can help you there. And especially with, you know, people’s desire to be informed and to share and to be part of something, right? Like I think Pierina’s original question was around community building, yeah.
STARR: Yeah. OK. So Lucy.
Q: Hi, there. Lucy Stevenson-Yang. I’m with the China-North Korea teams at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
I guess the issue with writing specifically as it pertains to foreign policy is that these longer form pieces—you know, ten (thousand) to twenty thousand words—really capture a lot of nuance and can be the product of a lot of research and time. But you risk no one ever reading that amount of writing. (Laughs.) And then with these shorter pieces, like op-eds and that sort of thing, they really capture public attention, but they might not really have the nuance that’s required for foreign policy. And so I guess my question is how do you balance those two interests? And when you’re writing for policymakers specifically, what do you think is the best medium to sort of appeal to them?
STARR: Those are all really good questions. I would not see the two as mutually exclusive, if you know what I mean. In my experience, it’s only after I’ve written a ten-thousand-word piece that I feel like, oh, I know what I want to highlight in a shorter piece, because you have a more holistic sense of what’s at stake. And then in terms of what people look for—so, you mean, like, affecting policy? Like, you know, that’s something we think a lot about at FA. And I would say we’re not very subtle about it. (Laughs.) If you read FA pieces there is, like, at the end oftentimes do X, Y, and Z. Actually, I think the Times gives more leeway in that, don’t they?
RAZA: I mean, in what sense?
STARR: In terms of providing prescriptions for policymakers.
RAZA: I mean, I think that can be—you know, certainly our editorial board—our editorials do often—you know, the Times will often, you know, take a position on something, or endorse a candidate, or something to that effect. I think that—I think the challenge of, like, nuance versus breadth is really—and depth, really—is, like, the question of our age, you know? And in a world of TikTok and, you know, YouTube, et cetera, like, how do you—how do you get the information that needs to be out there, and how do you move beyond the headline? I think that what I would say is, look, a story doesn’t have to be told just once, right?
And look at the example of the Elizabeth Holmes story, right? Carreyrou’s great reporting for Wall Street Journal that ended up in his book Bad Blood that was then made into a podcast called The Dropout, made into a documentary called The Investor, I think? The Alex Gibney documentary. Then into a Hulu series starring Amanda Seyfried. I think there’s another podcast that Carreyrou’s doing. There’s a lot of content about this one story. One might say too much content. I’m not saying that. But I think there—your story can find audiences at different ways.
And, like, one of the things I really appreciate in the digital world is, versus the physical print paper—which I still love to read the physical paper, especially on Sundays—is that you can click on links and hyperlink. And that encourages two things. I think, one, it’s like showing your work and showing your sourcing a little bit. And, two, it’s like, here, if you’re really interested keep reading. You know, and so collecting a body—and I think Vox does a really good job of that too, where they kind of stack their explainers. I’ve always really admired that, where you can go and kind of double click for more information.
So I think those things could be a resource to readers. I think they can also be a resource to policymakers, right? And I think once you have a piece—like, if you run a piece or you see a piece, I think there’s nothing that also stops you—I mean, I feel like all I hear is congressmen asking you to call them, or congresswomen. And so, you know, I think that you can also approach that indirectly if you want an audience with them, and see if they’re willing to have the conversation based on something that’s fact-based, that’s well-argued, right?
STARR: Yeah. Valery, you’re up.
Q: Hi. My name is Valery Leon Quintero. I come from Wheaton College, Massachusetts. And I’m also from Venezuela, so I’m pretty interested—yes. I have lived the whole Chavez regime, and Maduro, and all of it.
And I’ve got two questions. I’m a student of international relations and sociology. But I have discovered that my interests may not lay in those areas. However, I find it extremely difficult to tell stories about the things that I’m passionate about, because it’s not the interests of a lot of people. For example, when we’re talking about refugees, we often forget about the stateless people who are barely mentioned in any headline. But when I go to different people and try to present these things they are, like, sorry, this is not what we want. So how can we make sure that that is included?
And my second question is particularly to Alexandra, because there’s a—well, I mean, to both of you. There is a security concern that when you put your voice out there it’s similar to put a target on your back. As a Venezuelan citizen, the moment that happens—(inaudible). So how do you deal and navigate those responsibilities and duties within your profession, and then going as an individual? Thank you.
STARR: Those are great questions. (Speaks in Spanish, then continues in English.) My mom is Venezuelan, so I grew up there for chunks of my childhood.
So, for your first question, getting people interested in issues that aren’t going to find ready acceptance, or are not generally—they don’t find favor immediately with editors, right? Is that sort of the—yeah. That’s—you will—it will be hard to find a journalist who cannot tell you stories like that, right?
RAZA: Yeah. And I think it’s not necessarily a reflection—I mean, most ideas—like, as a general rule, like, most ideas don’t get made. And we say that all the time in Hollywood, right? Most ideas don’t get—most ideas are not TV shows, and most new TV shows the idea was already existing, but no one had greenlit it until the point. (Laughs.) So there’s—or, many, I should say. I think it’s not a reflection. I think this—for example, statelessness, right, which is the topic that you’re saying, Valery, you’re interested in. I think that it’s a really interesting question. Like, what does it mean to be stateless? I could imagine a really cool kind of graphic visualization, you know, of the faces of people who are stateless, or the stories of people who were stateless, just even—you know, or maybe something that’s, like, a visual plus and audio format.
And I think that if you’re, you know, not getting into the pages of a paper there is—you know, like is there an exhibition? Is there a short film? Is there a—you know, a series of kind of, like, an Instagram story or something that you can take? Is there someone who will help you amplify your voice in different ways? It’s not going to be—right? I encourage people to look at all kinds of opportunities. Is there a celebrity who cares passionately about this issue, or could? I think that I would just encourage you to be—to really think originally about how to amplify, because I think it’s really important, the story, actually. And we talk about the rights of individuals as, like, granted by states. And if you have a stateless individual, who’s granting them rights, right, in this world that we live in? And particularly as we think about, like, states kind of eroding in power, the loss of sovereignty—you know, there’s all kinds of questions. And how that trickles down to an individual level I think is a really—is a really compelling story.
STARR: Yeah. Those are all really excellent ideas. And I would also say—something I tell my students is something is better than nothing, because oftentimes they read the Times, a lot of them read the Atlantic. They listen to This American Life. And they want their stories to end up there. And I’ll tell them, you know, expand out. You want to build your portfolio, right? Look at, you know, this piece I ended up doing on Venezuela for the American Scholar, they put it on the cover. So that’s a—the American Scholar is not a high-circulation magazine, but it does not have a paywall. And then I started getting all these calls from people at the Times and the Post, like, hey we saw that. It explained a lot. Way to go.
So you just—you know, I would be expansive in casting your net. I would also—Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, who a great book called Random Families, told me once: Find stories that catch the editors’ ears. So if she had told them: I’m going to follow a family in the Bronx—a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx for ten years, that’s not going to be so much of it. But if she’s, like, I am going to write this multi-saga, you know, and this—these are the stories I can tell about them, that does capture interest. I know it’s hard, though. It’s so hard to invest of yourself before you have the yes. And that’s a balance, believe me, all of us deal with all the time. Like, how much do we invest in the reporting before we get a green light? But I would encourage you to do it because I don’t—you won’t regret it. And even if that story doesn’t pan out, it will help inform other stories that you do in a similar vein.
And to your second point about safety, that is something—you know, it’s also pretty scary to do it as a freelancer, right? Like the Times, I’m sure Nayeema could talk a little bit more about this, but you check in every day when you’re abroad. You know, they have systems in place. Freelancers, yeah, it is scary and dangerous. The one thing I have always done is I—when I go to more dangerous areas, I try to have a photographer or a producer with me and I let people know where I’m going to be. That said, I’ve had some experiences where I was like, oh, wow, I got pretty lucky there. (Laughs.) So it’s not risk-free.
RAZA: I think that, yeah. And also, even, you know, attaching your name to an idea. I’ve done a piece for the Times which I got a lot of hate mail. It was shared by Ben Shapiro and Sean Hannity and others. And, you know, it was interesting to see, and there was a lot of incoming. And it made me think about how I told a story. And I think, like, Memo is an example of telling a story that’s critical but actually positive. And there are stories that are critical and stuck here. And it made me think a lot about it. But, you know, I think that you—you know, I think there is a question about is it becoming—it certainly felt in the last four years that it’s becoming more dangerous to become a journalist in this country too.
And I grew up—I’m Pakistani. I grew up in Indonesia and Sudan. I feel like I’ve definitely seen, you know, the challenges of journalists who are operating in some of these environments in being able to speak their truth and being able to speak the truth of others, and in being able to go home to their own families. But I think that it’s—that’s the challenge of, I think, a maker as well, is what—you know, what’s the story we’re telling? And I think both this and your first question, actually, had me thinking, like, there are stories for which you want to be the byline or you feel like you’re the right author of that story, right? And there’s 100 ideas where you have—I will often have an idea and I feel like I’m not going to be able to make it, or I’m not the best.
You know, as an editor, you’re not necessarily the best voice but it’s about finding the best voice. And I think, Valery, to your question, if you feel—you know, like, have you collected material, could you be a good source? Like if someone like Sarah Stillman, who’s writing with the New Yorker, who’s done fabulous work, I think, particularly on all kind of things immigration, safety of children and women abroad, et cetera. I think, you know, can you reach out to them? Journalists are so, you know, excited to hear from you and hear tips, hear stories, hear thoughts. And so, you know, it might start with that. I’m not saying give away your ideas. (Laughs.) I’m saying, you know, there are lots of paths to make your idea into a story. And sometimes I found that ownership is not the right path or, like, feeling that I need to be the one to tell a story is not the right path to making the thing.
STARR: Gelila Yonas, you are next.
Q: Hi. My name is Gelila Yonas. Thank you guys so much for talking with us today. I’m a student at William and Mary. I do study IR and public health.
And my question is kind of really broad. I actually thought of it when Valery asked her first one. So, forgive me, it’s not very, like, succinct. But I was kind of wondering how you would frame stories in a way that’s not just passed along by the public. Because, for example, I’m Eritrean, so I really focus on, like, the Eritrean refugee crisis. And I feel like a lot of these stories are just kind of in the news and quickly, like, skimmed over. And I’m wondering how we really bring attention to these issues and not just make it seem, oh, this is a global south issue, once again?
STARR: No, that’s a good question. So here I’m going—so are you interested in journalism or, from, like, a policy perspective? Tell me what you’re aiming for, I guess.
Q: Yeah, for sure. So I think that journalism is—I do want to influence policy. And I think making the public aware is one huge way to do so. So I think that journalism is an amazing way to reach civil society and make that happen.
STARR: Uh-huh. OK. So I’m going to give you my—the pitch I give to my students. (Laughs.) Actually, maybe we can send the link later. There is a site called ProFellow, where they link a lot of—actually, it’ll be of interest to you guys more broadly. I always—I share with my journalism students, the ones that are journalism focused, but they’re broader than that. There are ways to finance trips to go to these places, because your point about making it a more visceral story, or capturing people’s attention, I think it would be very hard to do that if you didn’t go. And there are—and, you know, there’s a place called the Pulitzer Center. They do a lot of work with students. There are ways to do this. And I make my students look at—and invariably they come back to me and they say: Yeah, but it says I need five years of experience before I can apply.
I’m like, well, first of all, I think those things are always not as hard in stone as you would think. Second, I want you to have that in your mind, right? Because it’s going to—your notebooks is going to look different if you think in the back of your mind, oh, and there’s that fellowship I want to apply for. And here are some ideas that might fall into that rubric. I do think—now, again, I’m kind of betraying my background—(laughs)—which is as a print and audio journalist. But yeah, there are new ways to do it, right? Like video. And that’s—you know, Nayeema can certainly comment on that more extensively than I can.
RAZA: Yeah. And there is—so this is to, sorry, bring attention particularly to the plight of Eritrean refugees? Is that the kind of issue that you’re thinking about, Gelila? Yeah? So I think—look, I think that there’s this kind of—like, there’s a lot of reasons not to do things, right? And, like, one reason not to do thing is, oh, no one’s going to interested, it’s going to be seen as esoteric. And I think there is—like, there’s pragmatism that can come from that which is really healthy, and there’s pessimism that can come from that, which is really not going to be productive, right? And so, like, I would say, take the pragmatism, that the pessimism around it.
And I think there are stories—like, look at Nicholas Kristof’s career, right? Nick Kristof, who was a colleague for many years, an op-ed columnist. It’s like two decades at the Times, and we just had him on our show today. I think he’s done a fantastic job of cutting through the noise and making readers care about issues that they were not, like, predisposed to care about, and really impacting, you know, in the Bill Gates documentary, you know, Bill talks about this, about the impact of Nick Kristof’s reporting on the Gates Foundation and his, like, focus on malaria, right, to choose a needle to move. And there are a lot of ways to do that.
So and Nick runs this great—used to run this great thing when he was at the Times called Win a Trip with Nick Kristof. (Laughter.) I thought that would have been great thing to win as a young person. But I think he is a person who—and he spoke about this a little bit on the podcast today—about his optimism, right? And he’s, like, I don’t know if it’s something different in my brain chemistry, or—you know, but he really finds ways to tell stories. I find that so admirable about him and about his work. And I think that whether he’s telling, you know, the story of kind of the chicken we’re buying at Costco, or the reality of what’s happening in North Korea by going there, you know, I think that he’s really opening eyes.
And part of that is that—is the brand, is the trust in Nick Kristof. And part of that is just the really excellent reporting and the really excellent writing, and the really great ways into the story. So, yeah, I would say, you know, think of—I think it’s good to continue to be creative and stick to causes you think are important. And, yeah, as Alexandra was saying, find resources and ways to get out there and do your reporting.
STARR: Because they do exist.
RAZA: They do.
STARR: And my—hey, I’ll tell one last story about my students. (Laughs.)
RAZA: Yeah, tell one last one.
STARR: There was a girl in my class in NYU who was not my best student. But she won two awards when she was in my class. And it was because she was the only one who applied, entered those competitions. Now, she’s great, but it was actually—it was a lesson to me too, right? Like, always throw your hat in the ring. You just don’t know. Yeah. Part of the fun of being a teacher is you end up learning as much from one of your—the people you’re teaching as you’re teaching them.
RAZA: Yeah. I’m feeling bad about this conversation a little bit. I’m like, oh, maybe I should look into statelessness. (Laughter.) It seems like something I hadn’t really thought about. But are there other questions?
MR. : I think Yannick has a question.
STARR: Oh. Yannick, you have the floor.
Q: Hi, everyone. First of all, thank you for the riveting discussion. It’s super interesting.
My question is more sort of tied on how to pitch ourselves. So I think many of us in the call not only have our personal identities but our professional identities. Thinking about myself, I’m currently a Hill staffer, but I’m also a human rights lawyer. I serve on different boards. And I’m always thinking about that parenthetical after my name. How should I be branding myself? Should I give all of it? Is my identity racially, ethnically important to the story? What sort of considerations should I be thinking about, not just personally but to the particular company that I’m sending my story to?
STARR: So when you say—these are, like, op-eds, or this is—
STARR: OK. OK. That’s a good question. So I think it very much depends on the outlet you’re pitching. Look, I think I can speak to Nayeema too. Places really—they recognize the lack of diversity. Whether they’re doing something about it—(laughs)—is always a little—but I think there is at least this recognition of, like, oh, wow, we’re only featuring certain voices, and the same voices over and over again. So I think that is something you should definitely highlight.
But in terms of, like, it really depends on where you’re pitching. Like, if you’re pitching to Foreign Affairs, I think saying that you are—I’m going to make something up here—the House Judiciary counsel—(laughs)—like, senior staffer—
Q: That was a lucky guess, yes. (Laughs.)
STARR: OK. (Laughs.) So there you want to say, like, and I know something—I’m going to bring a perspective to this that you’re not going to get from someone else. I will tell you something that ends up happening sometimes with people in government when they’re writing for FA, is we end up pushing them to make more—less hedge statements, maybe, than someone—but, you know, it works out. There might be a fight with your editor, but it does work out. So, yeah, very much depends, right, if you are—if one of the boards you serve on has a particular cause that you’re pushing and highlighting, then I can imagine saying, hey, I serve on the board of this organization that has done X, Y, and Z.
So also, look, I don’t know if you guys are considering becoming term members. I’m going to make a plug for it. I was one. Nayeema’s one.
RAZA: I am one. (Laughs.)
STARR: I aged out. (Laughs.) It’s a great program. And I would also like those boards, see who serves on them, right, and do they have contacts at these places? Because, look, it’s unfair. It really is unfair. But so much of this ends up becoming, hey, you know, someone will write—a professor will write me who’s written for FA a bunch. And they’re, like, my graduate student who’s doing a postdoc is working on this particular issue that is topical. He’s going to send you a pitch. And then I look for the pitch. You know what I mean? So it's not fair. But it sounds like you’re pretty networked. So use those networks. That’s what I would say.
RAZA: I think that—yeah, I’m sorry, I think there are some questions in the chat coming in. But the program that Alexandra’s talking about is the Council on Foreign Relations Term Membership Program, which you can apply for. I think they—the applications are generally over the summer. Cooper can maybe chime into the chat. He knows more than I know about it. But, yes, I am a member. And it’s fantastic because I think, like I said about the kind of jobs I like, I love to come in here. And we’re finally having events again. I became a term member during the pandemic. But we’re having events again, and it’s been fantastic to kind of hear ideas and be challenged and meet people at the Council, certainly, and through the Council.
I think, for what is—I’m curious what your—Yannick, I’m curious what your Twitter bio says right now, if you’ll pull it up, or?
Q: I am going to delay as I pull it up. (Laughter.) But I know it speaks to my background within international human rights, speaks for—
RAZA: I can help you buy some time as you pull it up. (Laughter.) I think that—you know, how you identify yourself, your identity is—you know, it’s personal and it’s also—like, it’s important to yourself when you pitch something. It’s also important to the reader when they’re reading you or hearing you, right? So as you pull that up, one thing I think about is if you’re writing a pitch, of you’re writing a couple of grafs of a pitch, of you’re writing a whole, you know, op-ed/guest essay for consideration, maybe also write the blurb underneath, which is what you—what the author bio, right?
What we call the author bio. In the Times, so there’s a line—kind of a very short one at the top and a longer one at the bottom of each of our guest essays that explains kind of who you’re hearing from. And I think that contextualizes to the reader the whole voice. And so I would include things that are relevant for the purpose of that particular pitch. And you might have a couple of different ones for different, you know, pitches. But it’s consistent—you know, it’s kind of odd when you’re interviewing and you sound different in every interview. You want to, you know, have some consistency and some (staple ?) that I think is defined as your personal identity. And then everything on top of that is, like, why you should listen to me on this issue.
Q: OK. I’ll answer your question, then hopefully summarize what I’ve gotten back as feedback. The Twitter bio, which I didn’t think I’d be talking about this morning—(laughter)—says: Human rights advocate. Howard lawyer. (Inaudible.) Then: law, politics, immigration, and culture. And then ties that I’m part of NextGen Foreign Policy for America. So that’s the bio. That’s part of what I was discussing. I don’t include my Hill status, because I don’t want to speak for my member every time that I open my mouth. So that’s always that consideration. But it sounds like both of you are saying that it should be narrowly tailored to the outlet and the pitch. Is that a fair synopsis?
RAZA: Yeah. And I think that a lot of what you have on your Twitter bio is, like, how you identify when you’re sharing and expressing your views, is actually kind of—you know, there’s part of that that sounded more like interests, and there was a part of that sounded more like, kind of pedigree, or experience, or your seat. And I would lean into the kind of identity that you have already when you’re speaking. You know, kind of that’s your brand. That’s how you self-identify. You thought of that when you made your Twitter bio. You should refine it, but that’s probably your clay, you know?
Q: Great. Thank you both.
STARR: Well, if there are no more questions, I think, yeah. And we’re pretty close to our ending time too. So I will just say, it’s been a real pleasure doing this. I’m so happy to see, like, young people from diverse backgrounds, you know, interacting with the Council, which is my home. And just, you know, gosh, I’m excited for you guys. You’re starting out and there are so many cool things—so many cool stories to do, so many issues to work on, and increasingly different ways to convey your ideas. So don’t be discouraged. Persevere. And I look forward to seeing your names crop up soon.
RAZA: Yeah, same here. Thank you so much, everybody, for joining, for your great questions. And thank you, Alexandra, for guiding us through this. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you and to meet all of you. And, yeah, similarly, I’ll be looking out for these bylines. (Laughs.)
STARR: Yeah. Thank you, again.
RAZA: All right.
This is an uncorrected transcript.