Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hidden Treasure of Black & Latinx Culture in DC

During training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), we visited the Anacostia Community Museum. Although it's a Smithsonian museum, it's located outside the main part of DC - away from the other Smithsonian institutions on the National Mall. I was struck by their "Gateways/Portales" exhibition, which focuses on Latinx* migrant and immigrant experiences in the U.S.

The striking artwork above highlights the Dominican hair salon culture that spread beyond New York and is extremely popular throughout the country today. There were many pieces in the museum that featured Black and darker-skinned members of the Latinx community from a range of origin countries.

This second photo focuses on the part of the exhibit devoted to the Day of the Dead and the associated rich traditions immigrants brought with them and still practice in many parts of the U.S. I was impressed by the quality and variety of the displays despite the small size of the museum. I'm a little ashamed that I never visited the Anacostia Community Museum before in my many years of living in the D.C. metro area.

I couldn't leave without getting a picture next to this beautiful mural created by Rosalia Torres-Weiner, a self-taught, self-described "artivist" (activist + artist). This was only one of several pieces of hers housed in the museum's current exhibit.

As a final note, I'll add that the whole museum was heavy on social justice and left-leaning on related issues. For instance, one of the pieces was called "Uprising Against ICE" (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and depicted migrants suffering under the threat of deportation. There were many components praising the struggles of undocumented immigrants, but the whole presentation was fairly one-sided. I still found the trip meaningful and would recommend it, but I thought the slant worth mentioning.

*Latinx is a gender-neutral term increasingly used to describe those of Latin American descent.

Friday, May 26, 2017

My First Celebrity Selfie

This is Joanna Lohman! She's a professional soccer player (for the Washington Spirit) and sports diplomat. She shares her love of soccer with people around the world by running programs to support girls' empowerment, cultural understanding, development, and more.

How can sports do that? Here are a few (non-exhaustive) ways:

  • Sports can break down barriers. Race, gender, social status, and other factors that might separate participants off the field don't matter while they play. That means people who otherwise would never talk or even interact can come together for something like soccer.
  • Sports can give you skills to succeed in life. To excel in soccer you need to know how to be a leader and part of a team. You need confidence and an ability to get back up when you fall down or make mistakes. You need to be creative, especially when you lack the resources that a typical U.S. soccer league might have.
  • Sports can challenge assumptions. In many places, meeting an accomplished female athlete like Joanna Lohman is a game-changer. She provides a role model that certain groups - especially young girls in certain areas - might not otherwise encounter over the course of their entire lives.
  • Sports can be a source of safety. As in the U.S., sports can help keep at-risk youth off the streets. Sports can provide people with deeper, more meaningful connections with peers and mentors. It can provide them with goals to work towards in an environment where they can trust that others will play by the rules. It can help make them more resistant to the temptation of resorting to crime or violence or extremist ideologies.

Joanna is one of the most inspiring speakers I have heard during PD (Public Diplomacy) training or at FSI (the Foreign Service Institute) in general. When she talks, you can feel her passion not only for soccer but also for all those she has served. By the end of her presentation, all the cultural affairs officers in the room were basically fighting to convince her to come do a program with their post! I'm proud to have her with us representing the U.S. abroad.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Poem I Like

One of the things I'll do overseas as Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer is promote and raise awareness of U.S. culture. Of course, U.S. pop culture - from Hollywood to Top 40 music to burgers and beyond - is often already well-known and popular in most countries around the world. Yet, diplomats like me can add value abroad by sharing lesser known facets of U.S. culture, highlighting our cultural diversity, or connecting well-known cultural references to our deeply held values.

As part of my Public Diplomacy (PD) training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), I heard many of my classmates talk about aspects of American culture that are meaningful to them. One of the things that exercise reminded me is that American society and culture are so vast that no person can know everything. Everyone has cultural knowledge gaps, but it's our job as diplomats to strive to break out of our own cultural bubbles because we have to do our best to represent all of America.

As a result, some of my favorite cultural insights are ones that I didn't grow up with or know about before. Here's one of my favorites - a poem, presented by one of my peers:

"Allowables" by Nikki Giovanni

I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn't
And she scared me
And I smashed her

I don't think
I'm allowed

To kill something

Because I am


I learned from my colleague that Nikki Giovanni is a legendary poet from Tennessee and professor at M's alma mater, Virginia Tech. As an African-American, she has inspired black arts and willingly tackled some of America's thorniest racial and social issues in her work. You can learn more about her at her website here.

I look forward to broadening my own perspective in this career while sharing as much as I can of the inspiring and complex culture of my country with others.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Sleep, Socialize, Get Stuff Done, Don't Neglect Your Family

I went to a pretty nerdy, high-pressure high school. A common refrain there was "sleep, socialize, study: pick two." I can't help but be reminded of this mantra while training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). All you have to do is replace "study" with "complete your academic and administrative homework" or, more simply, "get stuff done." I can't even imagine how much harder it is for those with children at home, but I'm sure you could round out the catchphrase with "don't neglect your family," as well.

During A-100, it seemed like there was some kind of social event planned at least four nights a week. Between happy hours, bonfires, trivia nights, artistic performances, community sports, and even a roast, the list of possibilities seemed endless.

It's so important to set boundaries and some type of routine as early as humanly possible. There may be some who attend every Foreign Service-related social event and some who attend none, but for most there's a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. For me, I've found that attending events a few times a week still leaves me enough time to hang out with my local friends and see (or at least call) my family weekly. I'm also (usually) getting enough sleep every night and cooking my own meals, which I've found makes a huge difference.

Of course, there are sacrifices. For all the talk of work-life balance, I've found the workday consistently creeping into my lunches, evenings, or weekends as I need to check my work email or complete paperwork outside of training. I'm not exercising as frequently, and I cut some things out of my daily routine (like Duolingo).

I also thought I might magically find more hours in the day after A-100, but that is sadly not the case. Although the professional social events have decreased, more time outside of training than ever is required to complete all of the administrative grunt work required to make our first move overseas. On top of that, we are trying to see as many friends and family as possible before we leave.

I'm constantly re-evaluating and re-prioritizing my schedule, as I repeatedly find myself unable to accomplish everything on my daily to-do list. Yet I'm sure I'm better off learning this skill sooner rather than later in this lifestyle. After all, I'll never be able to attend the same gym, party with the same crowd, or eat the same food for more than a few years at a time. There's no time like the present to start getting used to that!

This reality has taught me to cherish the slower, quieter, and lazier moments in my life so much more. Whether I'm out enjoying nature with family, as I was when I took the photos included in this post, or lounging on the couch with a hot cup of herbal tea and a good book, I'm no longer taking those experiences for granted nearly as much as I did.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Gems from Diplomat School

So what do they teach us in Diplomat School, more correctly known as the Foreign Service Institute (FSI)? I'm getting training on Africa, public diplomacy, cultural affairs, security, and more in preparation for my first tour. I thought I'd share a few gems I've absorbed in the first part of my training.

  • Africa is fascinating. It's so important for so many reasons and insanely diverse, to boot. I'm honored to have the opportunity to serve my country there.
  • "A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in a way that makes you look forward to the trip."
  • "It's not about who you know. You should know right off the bat that's wrong because it would be, 'it's about whom you know' anyway."
  • "Live somewhere two weeks: write a book. Live somewhere two months: write an article. Live somewhere two years: don't write anything." This seems to be a pretty eloquent way of referencing the Dunning-Kruger effect (where the less you know, the more you think you know).
  • I love one admittedly apocryphal story of George Shultz as Secretary of State. The story goes like this: Secretary Shultz would call each new ambassador into his office after he or she had been assigned to a post. He would present the new appointee with a globe and say, "Point to your country." After the ambassador pointed to his or her country of assignment - Finland or Japan or Peru or wherever it was - Secretary Shultz would turn the globe and place his finger on the United States. He would remind them, "This is your country."
  • Finally, I have a Public Diplomacy-specific quote from the former Director of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA, or PD before it was integrated with the Department of State) to then-President John F. Kennedy: "If they want me in on the crash landings, I’d better damn well be in on the takeoffs." In other words, PD is so much more than crisis management and cleaning up mistakes. It's a core part of all aspects of our foreign policy.