Sunday, June 23, 2019

"Acting": Not Entertainment, But Plenty of Improv

One of the reasons I haven't blogged in a few weeks is because I was Acting Public Affairs Officer (A/PAO) for several weeks. In the Foreign Service context, "Acting" means you're formally serving in a higher role in someone's place. This is why, between Secretaries of State Tillerson and Pompeo, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan became "Acting Secretary of State". Unlike simply covering for your boss in his or her absence in other fields, serving in an acting role is a bit more formalized in our work. You make the decisions that fall to someone in that position and assume their responsibilities. (And for our acronyms, you can add "A/" to the beginning to designate "Acting".)

I had served as Acting Information Officer (A/IO) and Acting Cultural Affairs Officer (A/CAO) before, but this time I was asked to be the Acting PAO (my boss's boss) for almost three weeks during the absence of the PAO, IO, and at the very end even briefly the CAO. I'm not going to lie - this was a real challenge! I had to figure out a lot of things on my own, but thankfully I had great mentors to encourage and support me. For example, I had to lead a murder board session to prepare the Ambassador for tough questions for an upcoming live interview, but I had never even sat in on or contributed to a murder board before. All I have to say on that is that the following is true: you have to fake it 'til you make it.

To get an idea of how many levels up I was working, you can see the Foreign Service salary table (which includes class, also known as grade, in the left column) here. Counterintuitively, the lower the grade number, the higher your rank. Like other Foreign Service Officers who have not yet been tenured, I am currently a grade 4. When I have served as A/IO or A/CAO, I've been filling grade 2 jobs - this is called a "double-stretch" because I "stretched" from grade 4 up two levels to grade 2. The A/PAO role I filled for a few weeks is actually one level above this chart in the Senior Foreign Service, which made it a quadruple-stretch for me!

I was delighted to receive my boss's text that she had returned to Kenya, which means she can now be A/PAO and I can focus on covering the many other portfolios of those who are out of the office. At the same time, I was grateful to be afforded this opportunity to take on a lot more responsibility than I have previously. As the PAO put it before he left: "We're giving you the keys to the car, so don't crash it!" I learned a lot by attending senior meetings, fielding and following up on inquiries from Washington, and trying to keep the car from crashing. Despite the extra stress and pressure, I'm glad I had the challenge and the chance to grow. (Plus, now I'm looking forward even more to the break of home leave just around the corner!)

Saturday, June 8, 2019

How to Donate Money

I've gotten a lot of questions from well-meaning loved ones back home asking how they can help and even where they can donate money when I share with them some of the poverty challenges we've seen among our friends in Kenya. To be honest, this is one of the hardest things to answer. A lot of the root causes of poverty are systemic, and one-time cash infusions aren't going to bring about systemic changes. I've also seen a number of families get a temporary influx from donations, only to return right back to where they started a few months later.

That being said, there are plenty of opportunities to make a massive impact in others' lives through charity in general. There are a few schools of thought when it comes to giving, too, that I've found helpful in considering when I'm trying to decide where to put my charity dollars each year. The first and most obvious one is to donate to causes that resonate with you personally. This was our logic when we donated to the Lung Cancer Alliance in lieu of favors for our wedding - we had both lost family members to lung disease. Most people have some issue they are passionate about, and it's almost guaranteed there's an organization working in that field that would be happy to receive your support.

Another line of thinking focuses on the idea of "lifting where you stand" and benefitting your geographic community as much as possible. Proponents of this argument say we need to fix our own neighborhoods before seeking out opportunities to improve lives halfway around the world. No matter how privileged your area is, there are certainly people in the region who could use your help. In the very well-off northern Virginia county where M and I were, for example, there are a number of people struggling with poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. Nonprofits like Britepaths help individuals and families around our hometown get back on their feet with short-term support and an eye towards long-term stability. It's definitely worth looking to see what opportunities there are to donate where you come from or where you live.

Last but not least, there's a practical philosophy called effective altruism. The idea behind effective altruism is that the most ethical way to spend our limited resources (including charity money) is to maximize the benefit to humanity. This seems to be typically measured in the literal number of lives saved. If this appeals to you, I highly recommend checking out GiveWell's list of recommended charities, all of which have passed through a very stringent analysis process. Every one of their top charities would benefit substantially from additional donations and are demonstrably saving lives. It was through GiveWell that we found and donated to GiveDirectly, an organization supporting cash transfers to a subset of those living in extreme poverty in Kenya and Uganda. It's one of the most thoroughly researched charity programs I've ever seen, which gave us confidence that our money would make a difference.

Regardless of where you decide to donate, I do recommend taking a rigorous look at the recipient organizations you're considering. Do they monitor and evaluate their programs? Do they report honest results to the public? Do they terminate programs or cut off recipients when they find fraud or abuse? Do they keep administrative overhead minimal? Do most of your dollars go to the intended recipients or to advertising and other indirect costs? Do the leaders get huge paychecks? These are the types of questions I've found the most crucial. (In the United States, Charity Navigator can provide answers to many of these, especially for prominent charities. And Charity Navigator will take donations, too, to continue their work helping people give. How meta is that?)

There are so many hardworking charities changing lives around the world every day that could really benefit from the donations of those of us who are privileged enough to consider it. I hope this post has been helpful in illuminating some of the ways to start thinking about what might be the best way for you to give. If you have any other thoughts or tips for things that have helped you decide how to donate your money, please feel free to share them in the comments below!

(P.S. I can't discuss this topic without sharing one of my favorite hymns. I still remember what a huge impact it had on me the first time I heard it, and it so perfectly symbolizes the deep love, care, and concern we should have for all of our fellow human beings. You can check it out here.)

Thursday, May 30, 2019

We Did It! Our #30under30

Have you heard of the #30under30 challenge? The idea is to try and travel to 30 countries before the age of 30. M and I have each already been to 30 countries, but last year we realized we had been together long enough that we actually had a shot of making #30under30 together - in other words, going to 30 countries together as a couple before either of us turned 30 years old.

We didn't count transits or mere airport stops; we both had to go to the country with each other at the same time and spend a night (or spend a day if we were on a cruise ship spending the night at sea). It was so fun to try and see so many different places in such a short period of time. Let's just say we've taken a lot of international vacations in the past two years.

We recently wrapped up a trip to Benelux: Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. I didn't originally believe M when he said the word "Benelux" was a thing, but Google proved him right. These were the last three countries to push us to 30! I've sprinkled a few select photos from our Benelux vacation throughout this post so you can get an idea of some of the things we did. The countries were so close together and transportation was so convenient (we drove, but there were plenty of train options), that it's not only doable but truly enjoyable as a combined trip in our view.

Here's our total list of 30 countries we've traveled to together below, in order of when we went there.

  1. Trinidad & Tobago
  2. Jordan
  3. Jerusalem
  4. Italy
  5. Vatican City
  6. Switzerland
  7. Spain
  8. France
  9. Monaco
  10. Qatar
  11. Kenya
  12. South Africa
  13. Ethiopia
  14. United Arab Emirates
  15. Australia
  16. New Zealand
  17. Uganda
  18. Tanzania
  19. Slovakia
  20. Austria
  21. Czech Republic
  22. Hungary
  23. Germany
  24. Lesotho
  25. Eswatini
  26. Rwanda
  27. Burundi
  28. Luxembourg
  29. Belgium
  30. Netherlands

To be honest, it's pretty funny that we made this happen without ever visiting Canada or Mexico. We missed entire continents (looking at you, South America), too! Thankfully, there's still plenty of the world we have left to see, and we're excited to explore it together.