Natalie E. Brown

Chief of Mission | U.S. Embassy Asmara

CV in brief:  Studied: BSc with a concentration in comparative studies of Africa and Western Europe from Georgetown University’s Edmund E. Walsh School of Foreign Service Find Natalie online: Follow her on Twitter | U.S. embassy profile | Job can be dangerous, but diplomat with Omaha roots is embracing new role in Eritrea | LinkedIn Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, January 2017

CV in brief: 

Studied: BSc with a concentration in comparative studies of Africa and Western Europe from Georgetown University’s Edmund E. Walsh School of Foreign Service

Find Natalie online: Follow her on Twitter | U.S. embassy profile | Job can be dangerous, but diplomat with Omaha roots is embracing new role in Eritrea | LinkedIn

Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, January 2017

What do you do?

I'm the Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Asmara, Eritrea. I am the senior US representative to the government of Eritrea and I look for ways to strengthen bilateral relations between the United States and Eritrea.

How did you become charge d'affaires in Eritrea?

It was a complex vetting process. I've been with the State Department for 26 years, so I have accumulated experience through various assignments domestically and overseas that involve both policy and managerial issues. For this opportunity, I was selected by the senior State Department committee that recommends career diplomats to the White House for ambassadorships and recommends candidates for  chief of mission to the Secretary of State.

What kind of mission have you carried out at the State Department in those 26 years?

I've done a little bit of everything, from ordering supplies for the embassy to managing assistance funds. I've spent the past three years working on food security issues with the UN agencies charged with increasing agriculture production and reducing hunger.  I have spent other parts of my career working in the Middle East and Africa. My expertise is political affairs, which includes women's issues, human rights and labour, but I also spent three years in Jordan working on economic and trade issues. I've had policy jobs in Washington and crisis management experience.

What's your favourite thing about working at the State Department?

I love the variety of my work and I like meeting new people and getting to know them. The media does not always portray Americans in the best light. I meet people who might never have the opportunity to get to know an American and I appreciate the chance to show them that we're compassionate, that we're concerned about the world, and that we want to make things better for the generations that follow us. That means something to me. I want to make sure that I leave them with a good impression of what the United States is all about.

What would you advise to a young woman who would like to join the State Department?

I recommend you be adventurous, that you challenge yourself, that you be open to new opportunities. Some of the best jobs I've had were not the things that I wanted, but I thought, "Why not?" Those have been the most interesting jobs.

I mentioned that I worked on economic issues in Jordan as the Embassy’s economic counselor. I studied economics in college but I failed one semester of it; that was devastating, and I thought I'd be a failure in life. For many years I had a fear of anything having to do with economic issues. I took the job because I realised that I needed to know trade and economic issues better if I was going to continue to advance. My character is one where if there's something that I don't do well I want to challenge myself to see if I can learn it. The three and a half years in Jordan were some of the best in my career. I got to work on really interesting issues and with wonderful people. I'm really glad that I took that opportunity.

The other thing is to learn a language and learn it well. I studied two languages in high school. We don't do foreign languages well enough in America. Being totally functional in another language makes such a difference.

Has being a woman of color impacted your career?

It has in both positive and negative ways. I joined the State Department shortly after Alison Palmer won her lawsuit.

Palmer was a diplomat who filed a lawsuit which turned into a class-action lawsuit against the State Department for discrimination. She won. The State Department had to think about how it hired women, how it assigned them and about their promotion opportunities.  Around the same time, African-American officers filed the Thomas Lawsuit for discrimination. That lawsuit was settled.

In my early days of my career, both of those lawsuits had an impact on my career because they gave me opportunities that otherwise would have been denied to me. At the same time, people would say "Oh, you’re a twofer; you got in because you're a woman and you're black." The presumption was any successes I had were not because I was a good student, passed the Foreign Service exam, and worked hard. I had to deal with people thinking I only had opportunities or assignments because of my gender and race, but at the same time my gender and race afforded me these opportunities because in the past they had been denied to both woman and minorities.

Fortunately over time, that's become less of an issue. In the past 15 years I haven't personally experienced overt bias, but I know that there are still people out there that question the abilities of both woman and people of color, or any minority group in the State Department.

How do you deal with people who assume that you got the job because you're a woman of color rather than because of your abilities?

In the U.S. context, as a person of colour, I've grown up with this. As a child, my parents told both me and my sister to be the best that we could be. They let us know that sometimes you're going to have to work twice as hard to get half as much as what a white male might have. That's the reality and you deal with it.

I made sure that if I was going to do something, I did it well and that people couldn't say "Oh, this didn't work because of your skin color or your gender."

How can the State Department can encourage more woman of colour to join?

This is part of a long-term recruiting effort. The Department must think seriously about where it recruits. Over the years, it has made more of an effort to not just focus at the elite universities on the East coast but to go to the Mid-West, to go to the South, to go to the West Coast. Promotional materials are also highlighting the diversity of the State Department.  It’s easier to imagine a career in foreign affairs if you see someone doing it who looks like you or who has a similar background.  There is also Diplonoire, group that some officers of colour have started on Instagram and Facebook to highlight that there are people who reflect the whole of the United States out there representing the United States.

What is the most useful thing you have learned in your career?

I am quite resilient. I don't back down from a challenge and I will keep working at something. That has served me well over the years.

During my first assignment, I had a supervisor who everyday called me into his office to tell me what I had done wrong the previous day. I was not going to let him be right and drum me out of the foreign service. I doubled down and made sure that I did the best that I could.

When I was assigned to Tunisia, our embassy was attacked, and there were people who depended on me. I needed to be resilient so they could do their jobs.

If you could go back, is there anything you would do differently?

Before joining the State Department, if I had the resources, I would have done a little travelling between university and starting work. I come from a middle-class background and didn't have the resources for me not to work. I'm from Nebraska and I went to school in the Washington area. My parents supported me through university and were supportive of my hopes and dreams but they also made it clear that once I finished school, they couldn't afford to support me if I chose to stay in the Washington area so I had to get a job.

Foreign languages are clearly important to you.

I speak French, I've studied Arabic, German, and Amharic. I speak a little bit of Italian from my time in Italy. Right now I'm trying to learn Tigrinya.

I've spent three years in Rome working in a multi-lateral environment. Many of my colleagues, for example from Sweden, Germany, Japan, and Norway, operated in English and in French at a degree of proficiency that I think that few Americans have in a foreign language. I was quite envious of their ability to switch so effortlessly between languages, to use idiomatic phrases, to quote poetry, and to talk about complex issues. In each language that I have studied, there are a range of topics that I can handle quite well, but if you veer off into something new, I don't always have the necessary vocabulary.

What got you interested in foreign affairs?

When I was very small, my mother and I spent a lot of time looking at the atlas. I still have the atlas from my childhood -- a National Geographic children’s atlas that sparked that interest in the world. I remember when Jeane Kirkpatrick was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. I remember seeing her on the news as a child and looking at her operating in that multi-lateral environment and the influence that she had and thinking, "I want to do something that like!"