House Democrats introduce bill to address diversity at State Department

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House Democrats introduced legislation Wednesday aimed at improving diversity at the State Department by establishing a senior post in the agency tasked with increasing the numbers of women, minorities and those with disabilities serving in the foreign and civil service.

The proposed legislation comes amid the national reckoning with race relations and calls from former senior State Department officials and diplomats for greater diversity in senior positions.

The bill, called the Diversity and Inclusion at the Department of State Act, seeks to establish a chief diversity officer within the office of secretary of State, elevating diversity promotion to the leadership level and calling for that person to be a member of the foreign or civil service, presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed.

The bill text also includes provisions for more concrete measures of documenting and reporting efforts aimed at increasing and promoting diversity; adding women and minorities to key entrance and promotional boards; and establishing a formal mentorship program.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.).

Castro, a second-generation Mexican American, is the outgoing chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, where he’s spearheaded calls for increased diversity in the State Department and among the diplomatic corps in the wake of summer protests against racial injustice that took place across the country.

“For years, the State Department has failed to look like the face of our country and the lack of diversity in the diplomatic corps is appalling,” Castro said in a statement. “The Diversity and Inclusion at the Department of State Act will increase accountability for retaining and promoting a diverse diplomatic workforce that both better reflects our values and also advances our interests around the world.”

Haaland, who made history upon her election to the House in 2018 as one of first Native American women in Congress, said she signed on to the bill to identify areas where progress can help elevate minority communities.

“Representation matters in all levels of government, but for generations, access to roles at the State Department have been reserved for well-connected elites. It’s something that communities of color, people with disabilities, and those who don’t have connections face everywhere and those struggles are only compounded in the promotion process,” she said in a statement.

“That’s why Rep. Castro and I are introducing a bill that will outline where the gaps are and ensure that our State Department can benefit from the vast experiences and knowledge that a diverse workforce brings to the table.”

Other co-sponsors include Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), outgoing chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus; and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

The bill has the backing of foreign policy and national security organizations and progressive and advocacy groups, including the Center for American Progress, Open Society Foundations, the Truman National Security Project, Foreign Policy for America and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security.

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a former U.S. ambassador to Malta, has also put her support behind the proposed legislation, saying the most important provision is accountability.

“With these changes, we can have the best of America at the decision making table,” she said in a statement. “We will finally put the foundation in place that allows the Department of State to achieve substantial success in its stated aims: Having America’s representatives look like America.”

The American Academy of Diplomacy, a nonpartisan and nongovernmental organization of retired State Department officials and diplomats, has increased its call for strong action to promote diverse representation within the agency, in particular since the racial justice protests over the summer.

Most recently, members of the academy wrote in an op-ed on Sunday that the U.S. foreign service “remains dominated by white males at senior ranks” and that failure to diversify senior positions undermines U.S. credibility abroad.

“Today there are only three African American and four Hispanic career diplomats serving as ambassadors, a shameful figure for a nation so rich in diversity,” the authors wrote in the op-ed.

“If we champion our values across the globe but do not practice them at home, our nation becomes increasingly less credible.” 

The members called for more accountability in laying out and achieving benchmarks of diversity and also called for establishing the position of a chief diversity officer.

President-elect Joe Biden has committed to elevating women and people of color to senior positions in his Cabinet, including naming Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman and 35-year veteran of the foreign service, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Tags Deb Haaland Dina Titus Diversity Joaquin Castro Joe Biden Judy Chu Karen Bass Linda Thomas-Greenfield State Department

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