Representation Matters (An essay)

I grew up the only person of color in an all-white family, in an all-white town, in a very white part of the country, upstate NY.  I recognized very early on that I was “different” and not like everyone else.  Being the only person of color in this environment was not easy, especially as a young impressionable child.  Being the “only” of anything (only woman, only person of color, etc.) carries a certain sense of responsibility and pressure as you are sub-consciously (and sometimes consciously) and socially perceived as a “representative” of your race or gender as the case may be.  In my case, I felt I was being held up to stereotypical societal standards of what a black woman is supposed to be and as a result I became an overachiever and stereotype breaker.

I became an overachiever in part because I didn’t want to be seen and treated as merely a stereotype and more importantly because I wanted to challenge the status quo and create my own definition of what a “black woman” is.  As a result, I was always on the honor roll, was the safety patrol captain, was first chair in the clarinet section of my high school marching band, held office in the student government in high school and college, was captain of the soccer team, began working before I was of legal age and have been working ever since and much more and this was only during my childhood years. 

Despite my best efforts to be a stereotype buster and narrative changer, I became “tokenized”.  All I had done was change the racial commentary in my life circles from “all black people are x, y, z” to “all black people except Lia are x, y, z”.  That was and still is frustrating! In response, I decided to double down and pursued numerous degrees in college from Social Work and African American Studies, to Public Administration and International Relations, netting a bachelors degree with honors with double majors and three masters degrees from elite institutions.  This academic preparation coupled with a family history of international affairs and travel led me to pursue a career in public service to the American people as a Foreign Service Officer (Diplomat).  However, this decision also led me once again into a field (foreign policy/foreign affairs, national security), populated by people who were not like me. I knew the scrutiny and pressure I would face would be tremendous … and I went for it anyway.


What big FEMALE names have you heard of in the foreign policy and peace and security spaces in recent decades apart from Madeline Albright, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, Nikki Haley, and Condoleezza Rice?  The sad reality is not many, which is unfortunate as there are countless women working in these sectors and doing amazing things. Traditionally national security, peace, and foreign affairs/foreign policy tend to be white-male dominated industries but in the last few decades things have changed so significantly that for the first time in the last five years, there were more female Foreign Service Officers in the newly appointed Foreign Service Officers orientation classes in the U.S. Department of State than males.  More and more consistently, women are rising in the ranks to senior leadership positions in these sectors, yet despite this progress their voices remain largely marginalized and even worse regularly overlooked and ignored, especially if you are a woman of color. 

It is exhausting being an army of one in the crusade against changing perceptions and I knew in order to keep up the fight I would need to surround myself with a network of like-minded individuals. Enter the Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) organization to my life, where I found the exact network I was looking for.  WCAPS stated vision is, “To advance the leadership and professional development of women of color in the fields of international peace, security, and conflict transformation.”

The founders of WCAPS decided enough was enough and created a venue/platform for women of color to meet and network with the stated aim of igniting these perspectives and voices and developing strategies for engaging in policy discussions on an international scale.  WCAPS isn’t waiting to be invited to the table; instead they are kicking the door open and claiming a seat for themselves.

The WCAPS website states, “While the global community is faced with issues related to worldwide health security, peacekeeping, weapons of mass destruction nonproliferation, and the intersection of other areas of international security, there is no significant or sustained voice from women of color who are often the most affected and who are also community leaders in many parts of the world.” 

This statement couldn’t be truer and is why Representation Matters. Since there is no “one size fits all” solution, the broader the diversity of perspectives that exist in these sectors, the more insights, experiences, and knowledge that are brought to bear, will in turn only bring about better and more appropriate solutions for everyone because they will be created by people who understand the people we are ultimately trying to serve. 

As a self-proclaimed over-achiever, stereotype buster, and change maker, I had found my fuel to continue fighting against racial and gender stereotypes and the status quo and I immediately became involved in the activities of WCAPS.  From speaking at various institutions around the DC Metro area as a policy expert, to offering online webinars and training for young women who want to break into these fields, to finally being recognized and named a Regional Foreign Policy Expert by WCAPS and a Black American National Security & Foreign Policy Next Generation Leader by the Diversity in International Security Initiative and the New America Foundation, the time has come for true representation in these fields and beyond. 

No longer are we waiting for the “establishment” to recognize and value our voices and contributions, we are making space for ourselves and showing the world what we can do.  My early preparation as an “only”, which led to me becoming an “over-achiever” has now made me someone who is “seen” and respected by the very people and institutions who only a couple of decades ago would never have acknowledged my worth, my contribution, my service, and my talent or in some cases wouldn’t even have let me in the door. 

My goal now is make sure the door stays open and that the field is flooded by a diverse cadre of new voices, experiences, and perspectives that will only strengthen our reputation as a country, lend credibility in the eyes of the global community to the United States for “practicing what we preach” and not merely paying lip service to the ideals of social inclusion, diversity, and equal representation.  Representation Matters because “if you can see it, you can be it”.  What people see around them positively or negatively shapes their expectations for themselves and others.  When people are exposed to someone like themselves their idea of what is possible changes and the perceptions of broader society on “who” can do what changes with it. Representation means that all stories are told, it’s realistic given the direction our country is moving in demographically and because everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in the widest way possible.  Representation matters.