When Mia ter Haar spoke to ninth graders at Holmes Junior High, in Davis, Calif., she had hoped to give back to her hometown and inspire the next generation to think beyond the bounds of where they live now and engage with the world outside California. She never imagined, however, that her speech would inspire one of those students, now in college five years later, to consider a career in foreign affairs. However, that is exactly what happened. According to ter Haar, results like these demonstrate the power and effectiveness of the Hometown Diplomat Program and the importance of connecting with American audiences.
The secretary of state’s Hometown Diplomat Program recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Founded under the leadership of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the program’s goal is to make foreign policy, and the Department of State, accessible to the American public. Since its inception, more than 2,300 employees have engaged with local community organizations, university, and student groups in communities throughout the United States. These individuals take an active role in upholding the Department’s commitment to make foreign policy work for all Americans, by bolstering security, growing the economy, and promoting core values like freedom, democracy, and universal human rights.
As one of the program’s earliest participants, Mark Johnson, recalls thinking while serving in Madrid early in his career, that sharing the story of American diplomacy—of the specific State Department employees do—with the American people was of vital importance. It was so vital, in fact, that in 2001 he wrote an email to the embassy’s public affairs officer proposing a program very much like what is now the Hometown Diplomat Program.
Johnson remembers meeting Spokesperson Richard Boucher on Powell’s trip to Spain and asking him, “Who started the Hometown Diplomat Program?” Boucher responded, “You did.”
While Johnson believes that the program’s founding was the result of a confluence of events rather than a single note written by a junior employee, he interpreted this comment to mean that it is the responsibility of all Department employees to take ownership of the program and make a commitment to connecting with the American people.
Sarah Wardwell, a foreign service officer who served in the Hometown Diplomat Program in Oregon, agrees with Johnson’s perspective. “We have an obligation to serve the American people and they are interested to learn more about what we do. It’s also a win-win because we can use our time to talk with people in our hometowns about what we do, and we feel more connected to those communities,” she said.
“Many Americans don’t understand the work that the State Department does, or in some cases even realize that the Department exists,” said Jeffrey Willey, a diplomatic security special agent. “I think it’s important that we highlight our role in furthering American interests across the globe in a way that demystifies foreign policy, provides a personal connection, and ultimately leads to a stronger interest recognizing the sacrifices that the men and women of the U.S. Foreign Service are making on behalf of their country.”
In addition to speaking to schools and community organizations, Hometown Diplomats also engage with local media. Whether calling into a morning radio show, or being interviewed by hometown newspapers, participants share their career experiences and ideas about how foreign policy not only affects events abroad, but why it also matters in the United States, in effect making foreign policy local.
Recently, while in Hawaii for official business, U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia Richard Buangan’s schedule included not just a full slate of foreign policy meetings, but also engagements with local students and media outlets. Having spent much of his childhood in Waipahu, Hawaii, Buangan seized upon the opportunity to speak to the local communities and the next generation of leaders to encourage them to think beyond the islands. Bringing the spirit of Aloha to his engagements, he shared about his life and work as a career foreign service officer in a talk story with local students and even shared his love of the Hawaiian comfort food, spam musubi, during a .
The Hometown Diplomat program has evolved as technology has made the world a more interconnected place. Department employees at home and abroad can now easily connect with local communities, increasing opportunities to share foreign policy priorities virtually. This evolution has allowed the program to reach new audiences and to engage a broader range of Americans. These developments have the potential to further Department goals of increased diversity and equity, and expand outreach to underserved communities.
“Talking to my community gave me a sense of pride,” said Olukemi “Kemi” Lombardo-Yai, a peace and conflict resolutions advisor in the Bureau of African Affairs, “It reinforced the essence of the American dream. As an immigrant who now works for the State Department, and who represents the United States government abroad, I can truly say I am also an ‘ambassador’ to those communities that are underrepresented.”
Diplomacy and the work of the Department affect the daily lives of all Americans, even if it takes place in languages, cultures, and corners of the globe that feel distant. Department employees and leadership are eager to serve the American people and engage with domestic audiences across the country. In the coming weeks, months, and years, the Hometown Diplomat Program looks forward to continuing its work with schools, colleges, libraries, and community organizations nationwide to tell the story of American diplomacy to the nation’s own people.
Learn more about the Hometown Diplomats Program.
Maura M. Pfeifer is a Foreign Service officer in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs.