Shannon Thomas

Fundraising director | Amy for the People

CV in Brief:    Education:  BA, Middle Eastern Studies and Peace & Conflict Studies,  University of California, Berkeley  | MPP, International and Global Affairs Concentration,  Harvard University    Current Role:  Fundraising Director at  Amy For The People     Previous Jobs:  Fundraising Director, Writing Director, and Speechwriter at  Justice Democrats  | Belfer International and Global Affairs Fellow | Kennedy School Negotiation Project Fellow | IDEX Social Enterprise Fellow   Languages:  Moderate Arabic (Modern Standard) | Basic Hindi | Basic Spanish | Novice Hebrew  Find Shannon Online:  LinkedIn  |  Twitter    Exclusive interview by Clara Martinez November 2017

CV in Brief: 

Education: BA, Middle Eastern Studies and Peace & Conflict Studies, University of California, Berkeley | MPP, International and Global Affairs Concentration, Harvard University

Current Role: Fundraising Director at Amy For The People 

Previous Jobs: Fundraising Director, Writing Director, and Speechwriter at Justice Democrats | Belfer International and Global Affairs Fellow | Kennedy School Negotiation Project Fellow | IDEX Social Enterprise Fellow

Languages: Moderate Arabic (Modern Standard) | Basic Hindi | Basic Spanish | Novice Hebrew

Find Shannon Online: LinkedIn | Twitter

Exclusive interview by Clara Martinez November 2017

You are currently the Fundraising Director at Amy for the People. Tell us about what motivated you to join Amy’s team.

I joined Amy Vilela’s Congressional race because supporting strong progressive women has been the impetus for me getting into electoral politics. I work on the ground in a transformational race, which is an honor and privilege. Amy is someone I am proud to put my name behind. She knows firsthand how easily people fall through the cracks in our broken healthcare system after her 22-year-old daughter, Shalynne, needlessly died because she could not provide proof of health insurance. We need more people in Congress who will push back on injustice and stand up for the people who are not being represented in our broken system.

How would you describe your career path thus far? What initially sparked your interest in international politics?

My career path has been defined by a desire to bridge gaps in understanding between different groups of people, and particularly the marginalized. In conflict resolution situations, there are groups marginalized on both sides which are often excluded from the political process and left without a voice. Therefore, in some ways, focusing on conflict resolution is a way to elevate the needs of average people who often get stuck in political conflicts where the elites have no incentive to resolve them. Conflict resolution has always been a motivating force in my life. I started at the University of California, Berkeley as a double major in Peace and Conflict Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, and with a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After graduation, I switched paths significantly. I was planning on going to Jerusalem to pursue research on a Fulbright, but during that time in my life I was also engaged in Title IX activism on campus. Having been through a bad instance of sexual harassment, someone who was working on the Israeli-Palestinian community on campus used that forum to levy some political threats and rape threats against me. That experience spurred a fusion between my passion for gender equality and gender justice, and my interest in foreign policy. Instead of doing things in the Middle East, which had been my plan for all four years of college and why I learned Arabic, I ended up going to India for a year through the IDEX Accelerator Program for about 7 months in Pune, India. I worked with an organization called the Equal Community Foundation to help engage young men on gender equitable behavior and attitudes, and prevent sexual violence against women. I was responsible for their Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives, diversity and training inclusion, and outreach for organizations in India ranging from Deloitte to Uber. While I was there, traveling around India completely loving it, and having awful Wi-Fi reception, I applied to the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

Over the last few years, I was doing my master’s in Public Policy with a focus on International and Global Affairs at HKS, and sub-focus on conflict resolution and negotiation. It was an amazing experience. I still had the chance to focus on the Middle East and did my honors thesis consulting project working on networks of leaders and negotiations in Israel-Palestine. I had the chance to work with Former Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the State Department Nicholas Burns as his research assistant working on conflict mapping in Syria and looking at the stakeholders, and resistance and jihadist movements. I gained a multi-perspective lens on foreign policy, and focused on domestic politics, and learned how in the US domestic politics and foreign policy are inextricably linked in many ways. It has been an exciting and somewhat turbulent career so far with several pivots, but I have been able to use my interests to bring those pivots back together.

As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, you founded the Olive Tree Initiative. Tell us about your experience. 

I realized there was a lack of opportunity for engagement with the conflict in a way that was not extremely bias or tilted toward one side. For this reason, I started a group called the Olive Tree Initiative that brought Israelis and Palestinians, and Muslims and Jewish students, and non-affiliated students like myself together for experiential education and a three-week diplomatic trip to Jordan, Israel, Palestine which in this case was the West Bank as well as Washington DC and New York to talk to US foreign policy leaders. My first experience spending considerable time in the Middle East, and practicing my Arabic involved leading those diplomatic trips through the region.

I was responsible for 30 students, our collective learning, and making sure we were prepared to ask hardening questions because we were meeting with people who were chief negotiators for the Palestinian Authority and former Fatah leaders. We were meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spokesperson. We met with high-level diplomats as well as people on-the-ground. We had deeply emotional meetings with a father who had lost his daughter in the Second Intifada in a bus suicide bombing, and that same day, going to a refugee camp and talking to a mother whose son was a photographer our age and was shot and killed by the Israel Defense Forces during the invasion of Jenin. 

Having that experience of witnessing the conflict on the ground, debriefing in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and navigating that complexity reinforced the need for both justice-oriented foreign policy, making sure the US is not using its power to oppress and marginalize people, and the need for empathy and listening across borders. I do not believe it is possible to solve a conflict unless you understand the conflict, and I do not think you can get political solutions from people who you do not understand. The understanding component was a big take away from my experience at UC Berkeley.

Dealing with the intellectual and emotional aspects, and cognitive dissonance of going from an occupied territory to a relatively developed conflict society in Israel was difficult. It is emotionally painful to care deeply about people on the other side of this conflict and to see how its tearing both societies apart, and to have Israeli friends that I respect while deeply believing the occupation of Palestinian territories is fundamentally wrong, and perverse for any type of peace for those societies.

You specialize in the Middle East and conflict resolution. What travel and research have you done in the region?

Most of my time in the Middle East has been in the West Bank in Palestine and Israel. I have also spent time in Jordan and Turkey, and more recently, in Cyprus. I engaged in research about the region during undergraduate and graduate studies. My undergraduate thesis was about collective narratives of suffering and trauma. I looked at how the Holocaust has both informed Palestinian and Israeli identity and how those narratives necessitate the erasure of the other side’s suffering. I examined how monuments and history textbooks both promote one’s own traumatic history while leaving out the history from the other side in a way that is difficult to reconcile. I went back to the Israeli-Palestinian issue for my master’s thesis, it was a policy analysis exercise and you have a client organization and they present you with an institutional or organizational challenge that you need to confront.

I was working with conflict management partners in Boston, which is a negotiation and conflict resolutions consulting boutique. Their program runs top-level negotiation and leadership training for Israeli-Palestinian and international diplomats who are based in the region. They are mid-career diplomats who are established in their fields. The idea is to equip them with a set of relationships and negotiation skills, and a shared language and trust to communicate with one another effectively. I was presented with the following question: How do we build a sustainable, longstanding, and resilient network of leaders? For example, if we are talking about rightness theory, then maybe there is not space for a negotiated agreement in the region right now, but maybe there will be in ten years. If we have people placed throughout the leadership establishment of Israel and Palestine, and leading international diplomats who are connected to one another and have negotiation skills to expand the pie, then instead of viewing the conflict as a zero-sum game there is more likely to be a solution. Ideally, a solution that takes into consideration the needs of all the parties involved, and help people self-actualize within the post-conflict space.

I traveled to Cyprus to see ongoing negotiation trainings programs, and then I conducted interviews with former participants throughout the region. The experience was rewarding because I learned from people whose perspectives were deeply national and at the same time wanted to engage with other people with different perspectives. They shared a space for education that I felt was important.

In addition, I went with Harvard on a Palestine trek my first year, it was a good experience in the region, and Jerusalem is my favorite place in the world, but I did not see a lot of hope when I went back which was unfortunate. It was sad to watch the two-state solution become increasingly unlikely, and proponents of a one-state solution becoming more hopeful on both sides. With the reality that a one-state solution, in practicality and how its implemented will probably benefit only one of those sides, being the Israeli side, which is a terrifying future to think about. I was a bit more cynical when I went back the last time because of the muster in violence, and a downturn in any sort of room for peace building under the Netanyahu Administration. The Palestinian National Authority is falling to pieces. There are not great partners for peace on either side—at least in top leadership, but that is not definitive of the people. I do not believe the people are being represented by either government at moment. 

You mentioned having a great experience at the Harvard Kennedy School. Did you have a favorite graduate seminar or course?

Hands down, far and away, my favorite classroom experience at Harvard was doing Advanced Multi-Party Negotiations and Conflict Resolution. I attended and helped teach that class, which was exciting because part of the core curriculum at Harvard Kennedy School is negotiations, and some of us immediately fell into being negotiation buffs and creating a cult of oppression around the rather famous negotiation speaker Brian Mandell, who also had a two-week intensive advanced negotiation seminar over January Term.

January Term in Boston is not much fun, yet every year around 80 to 100 students subject themselves to two-weeks, 6 days a week, 12 hours a day and sometimes overnight classes to intensive simulation negations throughout the day. We had to implement and process these negotiations skills and evaluate ourselves. For example, I analyzed what I did wrong in one simulation in the morning about a trade deal in the pacific rim and then later in the evening figure out how to implement that in a ten-way negotiation about energy in Central Asia. The experience was incredibly invigorating, and as a model UN nerd throughout college it was fun for me. I loved doing the simulations and getting to practice negotiations, and speak to a lot of people and listen because that is even more important in negotiations.

They took the top performers from that class, and from the fall session, and we had the opportunity to intern with that professor over the summer and then teach the course next summer, which was amazing because I could write a lot of simulations or vignettes of my own some were published. I taught a seminar on how to engage in difficult conversations across difference, whether that be in cases like Israel-Palestine, gender dynamic or racial conflicts in the workplace. It was a really great experience to get to practice these skills firsthand and engage with them non-stop almost 24/7, and then bring it back out and produce something worthwhile that contributes to the field.

Previously, you worked on political campaigns with Justice Democrats. Tell us about it.

After the election of Trump, I had a moment of indecision, and that night I was madly texting everyone: “I’m moving to Beirut as soon as I possibly can!” My thought process was: I’m getting out of here, and I’m going to focus on finishing learning Arabic and work in the region, and work on conflict resolution and women’s empowerment in refugee camps. It was a feasible future, and a future I would like to have, I still want to go back to the Middle East. However, I had to think about urgency versus importance, and where I could make an impact and my return on investment would be highest. As an American seeing what is at stake, I felt that my impact would be stronger here, at least right now, than in the Middle East.

As a woman of color and survivor, I felt like this political moment calls for increased engagement from female leaders on the domestic level. I wanted to commit myself to electing progressive congress people, electing more women, and electing people of color. It has been a trying, but amazing experience.

I joined Justice Democrats in April 2017, which was a bit stressful because I was still finishing my master’s thesis, but I felt the immense need to get involved in politics domestically. We had worked on 32 congressional races across the country, mostly House but also some Senate races. While I focused on domestic politics and day-to-day operations of political campaigns, I continued to work on foreign policy issues ranging from ghostwriting op-eds about the need to end the US’s unauthorized war on Yemen to talking about nuclear powers and first strike capability and what that looks like in the Trump era, and how Trump politics in the current GOP affects our trade deals and our relationships with allies or enemies like North Korea.

I began working at Justice Democrats as a speechwriter. I enjoy shaping narratives and telling stories, and using stories to communicate policy. Personal experiences and narratives are the strongest movers of public opinion, more so than facts because people forget statistics, but they remember how they were made to feel. I switched gears slightly and became Writing Director for the organization, and in addition, I became Fundraising Director, which was stressful and exciting, and provided me with a new set of skills to work on, and figure out how to be effective as part of a political project that is not politics as usual.

We raised our funds from grassroots donations and we did not accept corporate pocket money for ourselves or any of our candidates. It was exciting and difficult trying to build a new model for fundraising, but considering that our base is working class folks, the populist movement should not be comprised of billionaire donors or corporate lobbyists. The question was how we maintained our competitive edge while still maintaining our values. 

The 2016 US General Election also speaks to America’s current foreign policy perspective. Trump in the White House is a national embarrassment as far as international relations are concerned, and the way the rest of the world views us. We lose edge and international leadership when we refuse to sign onto the Climate Accord. We lose the ability to influence international actors, allies, and enemies when we decide not to engage in any trade deals, people move on without us.

More terrifyingly, we have our system setup to engage in war. Congress in 2001 ceded war powers to the executive branch. The authorization of the use of military force essentially gives the executive free rein to target any group, anywhere, at any time without a bounded time limit in the future, which is tangentially related to the war on terror. It has led to a sprawling military architecture with free rein to conduct drone strikes, hold CIA block sites, and bomb countries without congressional authorization like we are seeing happen in Syria, Yemen, and Niger.

Being able to elect a Congress that demands a less imperialist foreign policy and human security centered foreign policy is important. I do not believe we are getting that from Trump and his Twitter battles with Kim Jong Un. In my case, shifting domestic politics is also about shifting foreign politics.  

As a woman in the field of international affairs, tell us about your experience trying to break into the field. What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?

Foreign policy is a very male-dominated space, and breaking into the field as a woman, as a young woman of color, has been difficult. In this field, young women these days experience a situation where you do not have the benefit of the doubt. You need to prove yourself before anyone trusts you and considers you worthy.

There is no assumption of intelligence, there is no assumption of competence, until you show it. That has been a challenge in feeling seen, at least in the beginning of my interactions with people, until I can show them: No, I do have fantastic product. I am smart. I am able to contribute.

The lack of female faces and role models in this field is deeply disappointing. I remember at HKS, when I was selected for the Belfer International and Global Affairs Student Fellowship, we had an orientation session and there was a table, there were 300 fellows in the room, and a table of eight up at the front of people who were going to present and it was eight 60-year-old plus white men and they were great, but there were no women at the head of the room and no people of color, which says something about who has defined foreign policy in the US and who has defined even how we think about foreign policy.

Knowledge production is political as is everything else. There were some of the most brilliant foreign policy female minds in the world just sitting in the front row at a table by themselves like Meghan O’Sullivan who worked in the Bush Administration, and the architect of the Iran deal and brilliant female diplomat Wendy Sherman, and none of those women were asked to be representative of the institution or given the platform to speak. I think that has been a big challenge as a woman in the foreign policy space.     

What career trajectory do you envision for yourself in the next 3 to 5 years?

I am flexible, and appreciate being adaptable and responsive to what opportunities present themselves, and where a need is greater. I would love to find a way to merge my passion for conflict resolution, international relations, and women’s empowerment together. My dream would be to work on negotiations and conflict resolution and leadership training for young women in marginalized communities across the globe, whether in refugee camps or impoverished areas in Kenya or school districts in Ramallah. I would enjoy being able to work with women on cultivating the skills to empower themselves as individuals and bring about successful peace building in post-conflict societies.

I have talked to women who work with UN Women, Peace, and Security and that is something I am interested in, but at the same time, I find the UN and State Department to be highly bureaucratic, slow moving, and reactionary. I am open to the idea of becoming an entrepreneur, if there is ever an opportunity to start my own firm. Alternatively, I could work with something that is innovative like Independent Diplomat to do some of these projects or find something like Echoing Green to fund similar programs.

Until the 2018 elections, I will be focusing on electoral politics. Afterwards its likely I will move back into the IR space. Then again it is possible that if we lose the house, and Trump stays in office, then I will continue to work in domestic politics for as long as it takes to feel like the fate of the republic is not in a critical state.

What advice might you offer to young women interested in politics and a career in foreign policy?

Do not be afraid to take up space. Women far too often apologize for making bold claims or apologize for being assertive or apologize for sharing ideas when there are superiors in the room who we think might be more seasoned, more informed or more trained or more expert.

My advice is stop doubting yourself. As women in foreign policy we occupy a minority. We also occupy a unique space, and a unique perspective that often is not heard.

The CIA uses a method called Team A’s and Team B’s. I do not want to imply that women are Team B’s because that goes counter to all my beliefs about gender equality. The idea is one group, Team A, works on what might be the likely scenario, and the CIA always has a second group, Team B, come up with alternative perspectives by asking questions such as: What if our initial analysis was wrong? Is this the situation on the ground? In many ways, I see myself and my role in foreign policy or domestic politics as playing that Team B role. I might get shutdown 99 times out of 100, but if during one instance of coming from a completely different perspective adds value, saves lives, or changes the trajectory of the organization, then it is worth having spoken up, even if it means being shut down a few times.

Never be afraid to occupy space and demand respect because you deserve it. If you are working hard and putting your best ideas out there, then you deserve to be heard. Standup for the notion that no one regardless of their age, gender or position has the right to tell you to shut up.

Women are often shut out of decision-making spaces, and as a result, different types of female leadership are not always valued despite being equal work. In conflict resolution, speaking persuasively and loudly is important, but just as important as listening and building empathy. I am not from the feminist tradition that believes women and men have inherently different roles or different qualities as determined by biology, but women have been consistently told to shut up and listen, which makes us damn good listeners.

If you can use your tools differently from the men in your space to be more effective by adding a voice, perspective or skill set that you do not see being represented, then we can carve out new spaces for ourselves and take over the spaces that men already occupy.

In mean time, there is a quote by Shirley Chisholm that I really like: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” I am bringing my own folding chair. I am setting up my own table and making people come to me, and you can do that, too.