“The promise of our Nation is that every American has a fair shot and an equal chance to get ahead, yet systemic racism and persistent barriers have denied this promise to far too many immigrants throughout our history and today.” — President Joseph R. Biden, A Proclamation on National Immigrant Heritage Month. 2021
In recognition of World Refugee Day on June 20 and Immigrant Heritage Month, I want to share my experience as a member of the Foreign Service and explain why efforts to expand diversity and inclusion are critical to American diplomacy. Two years ago, when I first joined the Foreign Service as a Regional English Language Officer (RELO), I was surprised to learn that I was one of only a handful of people of color in our orientation class. I observed that while the Department of State advocated for equity and access and worked to implement solutions to ensure diversity, people of color remained in the margins and often lacked representation.
As an Afghan refugee who grew up in immigrant neighborhoods across Southern California and worked as an educator advocating for similar communities in the Bay Area for over 20 years, diversity has always been part of my lived experience in the United States. When I decided to become a RELO, I assumed that the Department of State would reflect America’s diversity. Indeed, it was a shock to learn that my new workplace was predominantly white and that I had become the first female RELO of color since the inception of our office over 50 years ago.
This representational disparity propelled many of the initiatives and outcomes of my work to ensure equity, opportunity, and access for minorities and people of color. My hope is that by sharing some of my accomplishments, others will also be inspired to dedicate their time and efforts towards cultivating diversity and also recognize the responsibility we have to undertake these efforts as diplomatic representatives of the United States.
With the support of my office leadership, I led a committee charged with improving diversity in our exchange programs. The committee analyzed data, asked challenging questions, created and agreed on a definition of diversity, identified goals and actions, and created sub-committees to take action.
When George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, I collaborated with another colleague to start an initiative focused on “Constructive Conversations about Diversity.” The goal of this group was to provide a critical space to express thoughts about systemic racism and its impact on colleagues’ personal and professional lives.
As trained and dedicated diplomats, we felt that it was incredibly important to be able to talk about ‘charged’ and ‘sensitive’ issues on our own soil so that we could learn how to navigate potentially difficult conversations abroad. Racism exists and persists everywhere. So, too, does human empathy. It was this conviction in building empathy that led us to moving forward with the hope that our colleagues would be willing to join us in an open dialogue.
Since the group’s founding, we have met with six to 10 colleagues every other week for one hour to engage in readings and dialogue about racism, stereotypes, implicit bias, accountability, white supremacy, and other issues of equity and access. Some of our colleagues have attended every conversation; others come when they can. We have established a set of shared values, and have agreed to avoid shaming and blaming. We accept silence when it occurs.
The important work of diplomacy often involves the ability to reach across the aisle and offer an olive branch to peoples, ideas, and ways of existing in the world that might differ from your own. As a refugee who has traversed across many ‘foreign’ lands, I have learned first-hand about the power of diversity in cultivating human understanding. My family fled the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s and after a year and a half of living in exile in Pakistan and Italy, we were granted asylum in the United States as political refugees. In each place we landed, people showed us empathy and compassion and helped us reach a safe environment. The color of our skin, our religion, nationality, gender, and background were inconsequential to those who willingly helped us – despite these fundamental differences.
As a Foreign Service Officer, I cannot think of more important values than of human understanding and compassion to guide my work and purpose. As a diplomatic representative of the United States, I carry with great pride the charge to treat others with respect, kindness, humility, and empathy – the same values that Americans shared with me and my family when we first arrived to this country.
About the Author: Dr. Nabila Massoumi is a committee co-chair in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Diversity and Inclusion Council. Nabila is also a Regional English Language Officer headed to her first overseas post in Kathmandu, Nepal next month.