Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations | Obama Administration
What do you do?
For the last six years, I've served in the Obama administration.
I spent the first five and a half years working at the State Department as a member of the Policy Planning Staff, the internal strategy and innovation unit for the Secretary of State. I worked first for Secretary Clinton and then for Secretary Kerry. I have rounded out my tenure by serving as the senior policy advisor to Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
In each of these positions, my work has been a combination of advising on policy related to human rights and international law, and leading large strategic initiatives geared towards helping the State Department modernise its diplomacy so that it's more effective and people-centered. As a result, my work has been incredibly varied and exciting. I was a principal architect of the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. I have played a central role in shaping our policy towards global LGBT equality. And, most recently, I led an effort that raised $650 million from the private sector to aid refugees.
I'm a political appointee, which means I serve at the will of the President. January 20—inauguration day—will be my last day on the job.
How did you become a political appointee?
In the United States, most of the dedicated people who work in national security are members of either the career civil service or the career foreign service. But there are a small number of political appointees.
People come by these appointments in a variety of ways. They may have independent expertise, or have worked on or volunteered for a campaign, or have served in a previous administration, or some combination of the above. My route was slightly different.
During the early years of the Obama administration, I was practising law in New York, primarily commercial litigation and appellate work, with a heavy focus on complex international matters. My work was intellectually stimulating, but I felt compelled to public service, and wanted to get back to my foreign policy roots. Before practising, I’d earned a degree in international development and worked in a variety of related roles, including at a human rights organization, at the UNDP, and at the global strategy firm headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
I reached out to those individuals I knew who were serving in the administration to inquire about available positions and learned just how hard they were to come by. But I also learned about a program called the Franklin Fellowship, which allowed mid-career professionals to spend a year working at the State Department. After a round of interviews, I was offered a position as a Franklin Fellow on the Policy Planning Staff. When the fellowship ended, I was invited to join the staff, and later became a political appointee.
How is working at the UN?
Working at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations is remarkable. Ambassador Power is not only our Permanent Representative to the UN but also a cabinet official, and is therefore involved in all of the major foreign policy decision-making that takes place in Washington.
As a result, working for her offers dual challenges—one the one hand crafting sound policy in coordination with the National Security Council and, on the other hand, working to execute that policy through the UN system.
The work is demanding, but critically important, and I am lucky to get to collaborate with extraordinarily smart and dedicated colleagues.
Additionally, Ambassador Power is a truly inspirational leader, with a fundamental commitment to the idea that U.S. foreign policy should reflect the best of U.S. values. I am challenged every day to think about how we can use the extraordinary power of the United States to ensure the fundamental human rights of all people and to help the least advantaged the world over.
You’re currently on maternity leave after having a baby.
That’s right. I’ve been on maternity leave since my daughter arrived in late October. But U.S. family leave policies are radically different than they are in the rest of the world. Indeed, the federal government does not offer any paid leave at all. If you're a federal government employee, like me, you're permitted to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and not lose your job, but you're using your sick leave and any accrued vacation to compensate you for that time.
I mention this because sound family leave policies are critical when it comes to recruiting women to work in foreign policy and then retaining them when they decide to start families. I have watched many women leave government service on account of the family leave policies, or suffer setbacks in their careers because they have taken time off to care for young children. If, as a society, we truly value equal opportunity for women in the workplace, then our policies must reflect that.
What is your advice to young queer women working in foreign policy?
My advice to young queer women is this: above all else, be visible.
Recent history has shown that the visibility of the LGBT community is a central driver of equality. When people realize that they know members of the LGBT community—when they understand that LGBT persons are their neighbours, members of their family, their trusted colleagues, and their friends—it reduces stigma, increases empathy, and makes people more likely to support equality. So, whenever possible, I encourage queer women to be out in their professional environments, to, as they say, bring their whole selves to work.
I have been lucky during my time in government to have had the vocal support of our most senior leadership, to know that the President, Secretaries Clinton and Kerry, and Ambassador Power, are all advocates for the LGBT community. But even, and perhaps especially, in less supportive environments, it’s important that members of the LGBT community be visible, that they assert their presence. Doing so paves the way for others to come forward, and can pave the way for a more equitable working environment.
What we are hearing from the new administration is not as positive as what we've known under President Obama in terms of equality. What are your expectations for the next four years?
I’m approaching the next four years with a healthy degree of fear and also a healthy degree of hope. Let me explain.
There is a very legitimate concern that much of the progress that has been made towards LGBT equality is under threat. We should expect that certain policies that have been implemented by way of executive order will be rolled back by the next President, that discriminatory legislation may be introduced at the federal and state level, and that enforcement of existing non-discrimination provisions may be weak. And, more broadly, there’s a concern that the lives of LGBT persons will be affected by the tenor of our national dialogue—that the presence of senior government officials who espouse or sanction discriminatory views will embolden those who demonize the LGBT community and push people back into the closet.
At the same time, however, we know that views towards LGBT people, especially among young people, have shifted in our country over the last eight years. We know that more millennials than not accept and expect LGBT equality. And so, alongside the potential for regression, there is also the potential for the next administration to galvanize these young people to act—and to do so in coordination with other groups that are under threat, including women, religious minorities, and racial minorities. We are already seeing such coordination in actions such as the planned Women’s March on Washington, which has attracted a broad range of supporters. So, my sincere hope is that while the next four years may surface some of our worst fears, they may also surface some of our best tendencies, to band together and fight for the realization of the values on which our country was founded.
You're leaving your job on the 20th of January. What are your plans?
I'm still figuring out what my next step is. But I see this transition as a great opportunity to be thoughtful and considerate about where I am going, and how, in the next stage of my career, I can have the greatest impact. The professionals who I admire most are people who have had varied and diverse careers, serving in a variety of roles in a variety of sectors. Because ultimately, I believe that the ability to understand issues from different vantage points makes one a better policy-maker.
I'm looking forward to finding a place outside of government where I can continue to have an impact on the issues that I care so deeply about, whether that’s a mission-driven corporation, a non-profit organization, a philanthropic institution, or somewhere in the UN system.
Anything you’d like to add?
I firmly believe that our foreign policy improves when individuals with diverse voices have a seat at the table. We are better able to tackle today’s complex foreign policy challenges when we approach them with creativity and openness to new ideas, when we challenge longstanding assumptions, and when we leave ourselves open to fresh ways of thinking—and all of this is made easier when our decision-makers are as diverse as our great nation. So, to all the young women and LGBT leaders who want to work in this space, stick with it, seek a seat at the table, exercise your voice. Our foreign policy will be richer on account of your participation.