Building a more secure nation starts with girls of color

Carey Wagner, courtesy of Girls Who Code

Not since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 has national security been so central to America’s public discourse. The COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest across the country, and lack of faith in the integrity of the U.S. electoral system have revealed the extent to which the United States’ national security priorities have failed to reflect the domestic needs of its citizens and the democratic ideals of our founders.

America’s national security strengths have long been its geography, economy, and democratic values, but its citizens are the most vital national security strength. Still, national security ideals, institutions, and strategies have not historically valued our nation’s citizens equally. Today, national security threats such as disinformation, deep fakes, and incels are gendered and racist and girls and women are on the frontlines. The United States has an opportunity to empower girls, and especially girls of color, in security toward a more secure future and a more diverse workforce.

Realizing a legacy of racism in America and its national security institutions is not a broad-handed indictment of its history so much as it is a diagnosis of ailments that continue to prevent America from reaching its required potential. As the recently declassified Nixon tapes reveal, racism and misogyny have done as much to shape the world order as they have America’s national security history. From President Woodrow Wilson’s racist assertions — including referring to African Americans as an “ignorant and inferior race” — to investigating civil rights leader Martin Luther King as a threat to national security to President Trump’s unwillingness to denounce white supremacy in the first presidential debate, our national security apparatus and strategy was and is informed by racism. 

Systemic racism manifests itself in how we select allies and make investments in predominantly Black and Brown countries, how our response to national security threats from nations like China or Iran translates to the treatment of Americans from those diasporas, how the current administration is advancing bans on people including banning students of color from predominantly Black countries and the lack of diversity among national security leadership.

All of the existential challenges of our era are exacerbated by racism and racial tensions and made worse by the weaponization of social issues. 

While important progress has been made with respect to broadening a public discourse about the need to build a national security workforce that reflects the diversity of its citizens, President Trump’s ideology and his policies risk undercutting important gains made to address the effects of systemic racism and sexism that undoubtedly ensure that America’s greatest national security asset — its diverse citizenry — thrives amid a rapidly changing security environment.

Empowering and giving voice to women and girls of color will be essential to reimagining and building a futureproof national security workforce able to confront the ways in which systemic racism impedes our ability to effectively secure our homeland and engage on the world stage.

At the intersection of race and gender, girls of color often find themselves isolated, unheard and advancing change unrecognized. The intellect and leadership of women of color, and Black women, in particular, was a silent hallmark of the civil rights movement, the hidden figures in our scientific advances and the stunted political leadership of women like Shirley Chisolm. Women of color continue to fight for recognition of their leadership in modern-day policy and politics.

This is not something we can change immediately — we need multigenerational commitment. That means building on the wins we have created so far, like improving the early career pipeline to encourage diversity in the workforce by championing direct investment in the most disenfranchised populations — girls and women of color. We need to embody that change through personal and collective commitments in our institutions to doing the tough work and stepping out of our comfort zones to build our national security foundation so strong no threat can rock us or divide us. 

Our adversaries have recognized that systemic racism, sexism, and bigotry as a whole are our Achilles heel. They are weaponizing our racial tensions and targeting disenfranchised groups to attack us. We cannot combat these challenges the same way we did when President Nixon was in charge. As we adapt to this future where national security challenges are more diffuse and the lines between domestic and international issues continue to blur, cultivating a discourse with historically underrepresented populations in national security — girls and girls of color — can yield new and innovative understandings and strategies.

Organizations such as Girl Security are working across cities in the United States, to bring the diverse voices of girls to our broader national security understanding through learning, training, and mentoring support. Girls make security decisions every day of their lives. Harnessing their problem solving, critical thinking skills, and creativity against the nation’s toughest challenges will yield innovative solutions. An important part of investing in girls is recognizing and catering to the unique voices of girls of color. Our national security strategy will benefit from the experiences, aptitudes, and leadership of a broader population.

Let us make the changes that we need in the national security field to not only protect our borders and our soldiers overseas but also every American that calls our nation home.

Holistic change will require bold and innovative reimaginings of modern-day systems that appreciate the lived experiences of all, incentivizing structures that promote and prioritize change, and prioritizing investment in the next generation.

While “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” remain vital principles of our democracy, certain truths must be made evident today where the historical record has amply shown that such rights were not in fact unalienable at our nation’s creation, when peoples were enslaved and others denied certain rights. In the same vein, modern national security ideals placed freedom of fear of foreign ideologies over the freedoms of its own citizens. Those ideals have been imbued in its institutions, which have failed to actualize the contributions of the entire nation and which only serve to weaken America against more pervasive threats.

Building a national security workforce for the future requires a critical eye to the past with a hopeful eye towards the future, one that cultivates and values young generations of girls of color who can embody a new vision of national security.

Camille Stewart is a Cyber Fellow at Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and co-founder of Diversity in National Security Network. She served as senior policy adviser for cyber infrastructure & resilience policy at the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama. She serves on the Board of Directors of Girl Security. Follow her on Twitter @CamilleEsq


Lauren Bean Buitta is Founder & CEO of Girl Security. She also served as a national security policy analyst with the Chicago-based National Strategy Forum and fellow with the Truman National Security Project. Her mentor was Albert C. Hanna, who spent 40 years fighting for civil rights in Chicago and who died in April. Follow her on Twitter @LBuitta

Tags Diversity Donald Trump foreign election meddling Institutional racism National security National Security Strategy political polarization Security social division

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