While the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 formally ended slavery, the abhorrent practice continued until the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865. On June 19, 1865, this news reached slaves in Texas – who learned of their freedom. Juneteenth commemorates this important day. As many African Americans take this time to celebrate our history, we cannot help but examine the recent tragedies that have left us wondering whether progress has stalled. Juneteenth is a poignant reminder of the challenges that African Americans continue to face in America and in the Department, and we have an opportunity to address these issues.
In response to the horrific killing of George Floyd on May 25, millions of people around the world poured into the streets demanding justice for Floyd and countless other Black victims of police brutality. Floyd’s inhumane killing has renewed discussions on institutional racism and structural discrimination in America and abroad. Men and women have been filled with emotions, wondering when injustice will end. Colleagues of many different races and backgrounds have felt a tremendous burden to do something about the discrimination that African Americans face.
At the State Department, we have seen an outpouring of responses to the recent tragedies from employees at all levels. As Deputy Secretary Biegun stated, “together, we will continue to evolve our institution to reflect what is best about America. Despite these difficult days, [we have confidence] in our future because [of] our nation’s willingness to right past wrongs and seek out ways to be a force for good in the world.” We have seen our affinity groups and Bureau leaders come together to address racial inequality and diversity within the Department. Leadership at the highest levels have intensified efforts to address unconscious bias. Most importantly, colleagues have demonstrated support to one another by acknowledging the broader impacts and significant need to come together.
We know we have to move beyond simply having discussions and start taking action towards creating a better workplace environment, one that accurately represents the American population. Many employees have offered recommendations on how to effectively address the disparity between African American employees and their counterparts. Suggestions range from utilizing leadership programs to develop a pool of qualified, senior-level candidates, to establishing sponsorship programs for African American officers. These are legitimate concerns, and we should seize this opportunity to make a difference.
We all understand diversity in the Department should be a priority because it is one of America’s strengths as a country. Our diversity distinguishes us from the rest of the world and countries look to us as a model of equality. Our commitment to advancing the interests of the American people, regardless of color, their safety and economic prosperity remains strong.
To fellow colleagues who are feeling the pain of this tragedy, please do not be discouraged on this day of liberation. We are part of a Department that is committed to hearing, listening, and implementing the necessary changes to move the Department forward and fulfill this mission of equality.
About the Author: Shawanesh Underwood serves as a Member in the Secretary of State’s Office of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State. Victoria Orero is a Program Manager in the Bureau of Energy Resources’s Office of Energy Programs at the U.S. Department of State.