Secretary Antony J. Blinken At an Event in Honor of the Anniversaries of the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program, Donald M. Payne International Development Fellowship, and Foreign Affairs IT Fellowship Program

08/17/2022 03:11 PM EDT


Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

George C. Marshall Conference Center Washington, DC

Burns Auditorium

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good morning, everyone.

AUDIENCE:  Good morning.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Okay.  (Laughter.)  Now, I think we’ve already learned a few lessons today.  Lesson number one: Never follow Tom Pickering.  (Laughter.)

But also I think we’ve learned some other lessons: Never follow Jared.  Never follow Melanie.  Never follow Krina.  Never follow Hermes.

Tom Pickering, as you heard from Samantha Power, is for very good reason one of the most revered alums at this institution – revered by me, by Samantha, by so many others; looked up to for guidance, for wisdom for so many years.  And you’ve heard today why he’s such an effective diplomat.  A hundred percent, okay.  (Laughter.)  We know where we need to go.  So, Tom, thank you.

But this is really remarkable, because – again, I want to come back to something that Tom said.  We’re looking at 30, we’re looking at 20, we’re looking at 10, we’re looking at 5.  And to the ambassador’s point, not that many things actually survive institutionally in this town for as long, but not only survive, thrive.  And this is the evidence of that.  And it’s incredibly powerful.

If you go anywhere in the corridors of this department, AID, around town, the halls of Congress, and you hear the names Pickering, Rangel, Payne, and now FAIT, you know what people are talking about.  This has resonated throughout this town, and it’s resonated not simply because we have these extraordinary programs, but because of the extraordinary people that have been able to participate in them and that have enriched our institution, enriched our foreign policy, enriched our development work in ways that are, quite frankly, immeasurable, but so incredibly powerful.

So for me, this is an easy thing to celebrate these anniversaries, but also to dedicate, dedicate ourselves to doing even more, going even further, digging even deeper, because it makes a profound difference.

Milestones like the ones we’re celebrating today are reached because a lot of people work to make them happen.  So our program partners at Howard University, the Washington Center, thank you, thank you, thank you.  Thank you to Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, Kim Churches, president of the Washington Center, for joining us today.  And I have a special affinity for the Washington Center; my uncle Alan was long a participant and supporter of its efforts.

Sam I think had to go on to carry out her work day, but she has been remarkable as a supporter of the Payne Fellowship – a fierce commitment to making our nation’s development workforce even stronger, even more capable, even more resilient.  And I see that every single day.

And a huge thank you to the team here at the State Department who run these fellowships, starting with our great director general of the Foreign Service, Marcia Bernicat.  Marcia, my thanks to you.

We also have, I think, with us today the – I think the word “legendary” is appropriate – Ambassador Ruth Davis, who’s done so much to champion these fellowships not only in her time as director general, but later, too, as a member of the Rangel selection committee, a mentor to quite literally generations of fellows.

And I want to come back to the trailblazers whose names adorn these programs and who really have blazed an incredible trail for this department and for our country.  Tom, a legend here at the department, but as you’ve heard, and this – there really is something to getting your name on something when you’re still able to lead, because you feel a sense of responsibility; you don’t let us forget it, every single day.  (Laughter.)

Congressman Rangel.  There was a special pleasure I’ve got to say I took in hearing his voice across the video.  It’s a voice that resonates with me powerfully.  I’m a native New Yorker.  (Laughter.)  Charlie Rangel – wow.  This is someone that I’ve looked up to and revered for so many years as an extraordinary leader.  And that voice gets you every single time, and it was really great to hear it today.  He has been a leading force for so long in making us more diverse.

And the late Congressman Don Payne, who, as we’ve heard, set an incredibly powerful example in his dedication to equality, and we’re lucky to have his son, Congressman Don Payne, Jr., here with us today.  Thank you so much.

Now, in my experience, devoted public servants like these don’t actually think about their legacies.  They’re actually focused on doing good work, and that’s what becomes their legacy.  These fellowships represent living legacies for these remarkable people.  And then, as I said, we heard from Melanie, we heard from Krina, we heard from Jared, we heard from Hermes about how these programs transformed their lives and careers.

I don’t think you need any better evidence of the incredible power and impact and value of these programs than hearing from the four of them.  They are the powerful living evidence of why this has been so important, why this has added so much value to what we do.  So thank you each for your testimonies, for sharing with us, and thank you for what you continue to do every day to make us better and stronger.

We heard how the fellowships have transformed their lives.  We’ve also heard how these fellowships have transformed our department.  If you look around – and I see this every day; not a day goes by, and this is almost literally true, when I don’t come across a Rangel or Pickering Fellow here – we see them advancing our work in critical roles around the world, from special assistants to ambassadors.  Payne Fellows are advancing the work of development, creating tangible change for communities.  When I visit our embassies around the world and I’m with colleagues from USAID, I see the incredible work that they’re doing every day.  This is where the rubber meets the road, actually making a tangible difference in people’s lives.

And our FAIT Fellows, they’re making sure that we have the technology we need to actually carry out 21st century diplomacy.  When I started at the department and Tom was one of the people I looked up to, technology was not exactly a hallmark of this institution.  (Laughter.)  I inherited an office in the front office of the European Affairs Bureau that, as I’ve said before, its previous occupant had been a very large safe.  Then I took the office and the large safe was gone because they needed to make room for me, and there was a very large – remember these, Tom? – Wang computer on the desk.  Well, we’ve made a little progress since then, but we need to do more and FAIT Fellows are making sure that we have the technology that we need to carry out diplomacy in this century.  Without them, quite literally so much of what we do would be a heck of a lot more difficult if not actually impossible.

And here’s the thing that I really want to focus on for a few minutes today.  Our fellows deliver for America; they reflect America.  Secretary Powell said back in 2002 when he announced the then-brand new Rangel Fellowship, our diplomats, and I quote, “send a powerful, positive signal around the globe that differences do not have to be divisive, and that freedom works.  They send that message not just by doing what they do … but also being who they are … personifying America in its beautiful diversity.”

So you’ve heard, starting with Marcia, why we’re so focused on this.  We used to talk about our foreign policy after the Second World War as being animated by enlightened self-interest.  Well, this, too, is enlightened self-interest.  It is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.  You’ve heard from all of our speakers how diversity, how inclusion makes our foreign policy that much stronger, that much more innovative, that much more effective.

We know, simply put, that in a diverse world it would be to penalize ourselves not to draw on our full diversity.  It simply makes no sense.  But for decades, American diplomats pretty much all looked the same.  Many came from the same parts of the country, even the same schools.  Just about everyone else – people of different genders, different faiths, different racial and ethnic backgrounds, nations of origin – they were relegated to supporting roles if they could find a place here at all.

Generations of public servants worked diligently, determinedly to change that.  They faced a lot of headwinds, sometimes very, very strong.  We’ve heard how Congressman Rangel and the Congressional Black Caucus fought to pass legislation creating the Pickering and Rangel Fellowships; how dedicated leaders inside the department moved these programs forward, like Ambassador Edward Perkins, who implemented the Pickering Fellowship as director general of the Foreign Service.  Even after leaving office, he continued to watch over the program, including threatening to go to Congress himself when he heard that funding might be cut.

I think you can get a sense of how cherished the program is, how much good it’s doing, by how hard people are willing to fight for it.  Many people have fought hard for these fellowships because they know how vital they are.  They know how important they are.  They know what a difference it makes for our diplomacy and for our standing and effectiveness in the world.

So, as you heard, just the last two years these four fellowship programs together have increased their numbers by 50 percent or more.  In total, we now welcome more than 100 fellows a year between the four programs.  Thirty years ago, when all of this started, we had eight exceptional people.  So that’s progress, that’s moving forward, but I’m inspired by Tom’s – (laughter) –  admonition that we’re going to do more and do better.

Today – and this is remarkable.  Think about this for a minute – one in nine – one in nine – active Foreign Service officers participated in Rangel or Pickering.  Thanks to them, the number of generalists from underrepresented backgrounds has increased by 33 percent.  Among Payne Fellows, 75 percent are racial or ethnic minorities; 75 percent are women.  And 65 percent of FAIT Fellows come from underrepresented backgrounds.

So this is progress.  These numbers represent progress.  But – and this is what I want to focus on and finish on – we still have a lot of work to do.  We still have a lot of work to do to create a department that truly reflects the people that we’re here to represent, that’s truly as diverse and inclusive as it needs to be if we’re going to fulfill our mission on behalf of this country and on behalf of its people.

So in that spirit, I do have some good news to share today, and I’m happy to announce that we have two new fellowships to put forward today.  Next month we will launch the Colin Powell Leadership Program to recruit college students.  (Applause.)  This program will recruit college students and recent graduates to the Civil Service.  (Applause.)  These participants are going to join fellowships and internships that lead to full-time employment with the State Department.  They’re going to get training, mentoring to prepare them for the world of diplomacy.

We’re also creating a new fellowship for something that is very near and dear to me, and that is our Diplomatic Security Service.  (Applause.)  Graduate students from underrepresented communities will receive scholarships, professional development training, and mentoring.  And after completing the program, they will enter the Foreign Service as DS special agents.  (Applause.)  Now, this fellowship is going to be named for another exceptional public servant, William D. Clark, Sr.  He was the first member from Diplomatic Security to achieve the rank of ambassador.

So beyond these fellowships, we will keep driving progress on diversity, on inclusion, on equity, on accessibility.  We’re going to be driving it across the department, working with the leadership of another remarkable person, Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, our first chief diversity and inclusion officer.  Gina has been leading an extraordinary effort from almost day one.  We created this office – it was one of the very things that I did as Secretary – reporting directly to me to make sure that every single day we are driving the work, driving the agenda of building a department that reflects this country.

There has been a lot of good work done over the last 18 to 20 months.  I won’t rehearse it all.  But simply put, standing up this office, having senior leadership in every bureau at the deputy assistant secretary level reporting to and connecting with this office, having a senior advisory board across the department working together to make sure that we are advancing this agenda.  We have for the first time ever a remarkable data set where we’ve disaggregated data, and we have a picture of virtually every single office in the department, where we are, where we’re not, where we need to go.  We have a five year strategic plan that will soon be published – it’s at the White House now – that reflects commentary, ideas from almost a thousand Foreign Service officers and civil servants.

Together, we’re looking at every single aspect of how we need to carry this – forward this agenda, from recruitment, which is vital, and particularly reaching out to communities that have been underrepresented here in high school, in college, opening hearts, opening minds to the idea that this could be a career – this could be a place where they want to spend their working lives.

But we know from experience that even as people come through the doors of C Street – and thanks to these fellowships more and more have done so – that that’s not enough.  Because if you don’t have a genuinely inclusive workplace, then people won’t stay.  We’ve learned that and we’ve learned that the hard way.  So even as we’re focused on opening the doors wider and bringing more people in, we want to make sure that we’re building a culture at the State Department that makes everyone not only feel welcome but genuinely included and convinced that they can aspire to do any job in this department.  There’s a lot of work that goes into that, a lot of effort, and it’s not like flipping a light switch.  It is moving an aircraft carrier, but we’re moving it.  Relentlessly, it is moving.

I want to close with a shout out to one particular Pickering Fellow, who I happen to work with every day, and this is one of my special assistants, Bryan Furman.  Bryan, where are you?  (Applause.)

So – and a group of us had lunch just yesterday and catching up and learning some of the stories.  And the question I’m always asking people, especially the younger folks among us, is what brought you here; how did you wind up here?  So in college Bryan studied languages.  He studied psychology.  He also practiced martial arts.  So when he thought about his future, he thought maybe I’ll keep studying languages, maybe I’ll go into the health field, maybe I’ll open a martial arts studio, which tells you a little bit about the multi-talents that he brings to this job.  And by the way, having some background in martial arts is extremely helpful in the work that we’re doing every day, and it makes me feel a lot better.  (Laughter.)

But then Bryan spent a year in Tajikistan on a Fulbright and saw all of the extraordinary work that our embassies and our diplomats are doing.  So he applied for a Pickering.  He was accepted.  He joined the department, and now we travel the world together, and he’s making sure that this office – the office of the Secretary – runs smoothly, which, as you can imagine, is not necessarily a job for the faint of heart.  So Bryan, thank you.  It’s just one more powerful example of how wonderful these fellowship programs are.

When you ask Bryan what Pickering meant to him, he says that it helped him break into this world of diplomacy, learn to navigate this bureaucracy – something I’m still trying to figure out – and to hit the ground running when he became a Foreign Service officer.  But perhaps even more important, the Pickering Fellowship showed him how diplomats at their best spot problems and then work together to fix them.  And that’s exactly what these fellowships have done.  They’ve taken on a serious problem, and they’ve helped us make real progress towards solving it.  So we will keep working together in the days to come, in the weeks to come, in the months to come, in the decades to come, to make sure that this department is a place that genuinely reflects our values, that looks like America, and that is equipped to do the best possible work on behalf of America.

Thank you all so much.  (Applause.)  Thank you.