Administrator Samantha Power at the Swearing-in Ceremony for Ken Yamashita, Interim Agency Counselor

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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Thank you Paloma for kicking us off, and good morning everyone. It is a pleasure to be joined by you all as we welcome back a familiar face to serve as our Interim Counselor, Ken Yamashita. Just when you thought you were out, Ken, we’re pulling you back in. Please, let me start by extending my profound and sincere thanks for returning to USAID during this pivotal moment—and for setting an Agency record for swearing-ins.

A constant presence at all of these events has been his lovely wife, Viviana. She has been by his side for forty-three years, and we are pleased to have her with us today. Ken and Viviana have two children, their daughter Yuri and son Seiji. They also have two grandchildren, Aodhán and Liam. When they are not spoiling those grandkids, Ken and Viviana have been spending their recent retirement traveling around the U.S. After working all over the world, they are finally getting the chance to explore their home country. Viviana, we appreciate you delaying a trip out west for another couple of months so Ken could come help us out.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few former counselors tuning in. Welcome to Susan Reichle, Tom Stahl, Bambi Arellano and Dave Eckerson. And it’s always a pleasure to see our most recent counselor, Chris Milligan. During his time with us, Chris oversaw a reorganization that made USAID more efficient than it’s ever been. He also led the implementation of a transformational support system that strengthened our leadership in the field and made our Agency more responsive to the needs of our staff.

I’m thrilled that Ken has such an illustrious and decorated group of counselors that he can use as a resource to help us maximize our impact in the world and usher in—and deepen—our reform agenda at headquarters and in the field. I’d also like to highlight two of Ken’s longtime colleagues Stacy Rhodes and Aaron Williams who are joining us today. They have supported him throughout his career and are both former distinguished Foreign Service Officers with resumes as long as Ken’s.

Like so many of the people who feel the call to serve their country, myself included, Ken is an immigrant to the U.S. He was born in Kobe, Japan, where his father worked for a Japanese trading company. His father’s job took their family all over North and South America and after finishing high school in Peru, Ken came to the United States to attend college at Johns Hopkins University.

Once he arrived in the U.S., USAID became a seemingly inevitable part of his life. In his junior year of college, he attended a conference that highlighted population growth and development, a subject that sparked his interest in development issues and happened to be hosted in part by USAID. After his interest was ignited, Ken stayed at Hopkins where he earned his Ph.D. in Public Health. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he received a fellowship funded by USAID that helped pay for grad school.

From there, Ken held nearly every position there is to have at USAID. Early on, he worked as a USAID contractor, then joined as a Foreign Service Officer. From there he became a Deputy Mission Director in Peru and then went on to serve as Mission Director in three different countries, Kosovo, Colombia, and Afghanistan. He also worked in multiple high-level positions here in Washington including, the Director of the Office of HIV/AIDS—coordinating the Agency’s work with the PEPFAR program, and the Acting Administrator for Europe and Eurasia.

Regardless of the role, Ken’s time with USAID is characterized by humble leadership in the face of crisis. While serving as a Foreign Service Officer in South Africa, HIV infections swept through the country and much of the continent. Ken and his team worked tirelessly to slow down community transmission and provide access to antiretroviral drugs. A colleague who worked with him first hand said, “During the HIV outbreak, Ken took on the crisis in a calm and stellar fashion. He became one of the most well-equipped people to deal with pandemics and infectious diseases.”

From South Africa, Ken became Mission Director in Colombia, working with the Government of Colombia to strengthen relationships and secure peace with people who previously lived under the control of the FARC guerilla movement. Ken went to newly liberated communities and asked the people one simple question: “What do you need?” They told him their children needed an education and safe places to play. And under his leadership, the Mission implemented programs to build schools and playgrounds.

After his stint in Colombia, in 2011 Ken then took on the role of Mission Director in Afghanistan. Typically, our Afghanistan Mission Directors serve one year terms, given the danger and hardship of the post. But after one year, Ken felt so dedicated to the team and the Afghan people that he wanted to stay for another––the only person to do so since 2002. As one colleague said, “He was so committed to the problem at hand, that he gave his all, way over, above and beyond what anyone was asking of him.”

His dedication to the mission led to the creation of Promote, the Agency’s largest women empowerment program, and the first-ever in Afghanistan. Through economic activities and technical training, Promote offered leadership skills to over 75,000 Afghan women and girls. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, like so many others in our Agency, I’m sure Ken has been overcome with concern about the fate of the Afghan people. But thanks to his work and those of his team, many of the women in Afghanistan currently on the frontlines, fighting against oppression to maintain their rights, do so with the tools they developed with USAID’s support.

Ken actually ended up staying yet one more year in Afghanistan. After his second stint as Mission Director, at the request of the Ambassador, he stayed in Afghanistan for another year as the Embassy Coordinator for Economic Assistance, Rule of Law, and Law Enforcement. In this role, Ken coordinated policy and operations between thirteen U.S. agencies and offices. As the main liaison to NATO and U.S. military assistance, he frequently represented the U.S. government in planning and negotiations with the Government of Afghanistan, as well as to other governments and international agencies.

In every role, his calm and collected persona made him the perfect person to lead during some of the toughest crises. One colleague called him: “the eye of the storm” and said, “In a crisis, he is always the calmest person in the room.” Ken’s esteemed reputation and level-headedness garnered the attention of the White House. In 2015 he was appointed by President Obama to be the Director for Global Operations for the Peace Corps.

In 2016, after 40 years of service to his government, Ken decided to retire. By that time he attained the rank of Career Minister, the highest civilian rank at the Agency for a Foreign Service Officer. He also received the Presidential Rank Meritorious Award and the Administrator’s Outstanding Career Achievement Award.

Ken devoted decades of his life to public service; yet when we came calling, he decided he still had more left to give, and agreed to step in as interim Counselor. Ken’s colleagues have been awed by how much time and energy he gives to his family, so we know, to give up time he could be spending with his grandchildren is no small favor. I asked Ken to take on this role not only because of his years of institutional knowledge and indispensable experience, but because every person I spoke with celebrated his leadership, character, and warmth.

Multiple colleagues described Ken as: “someone who makes everyone in the room feel heard. No matter if he is talking to the lowest ranking employee, or an Ambassador, he can relate to and communicate with anyone. He is the first in the room to inject humor, and often directs it towards himself.” Another colleague said: “He is the finest development professional I’ve ever worked with. He has the clearest moral compass and is driven by principles in everything he does.”

Since his very first day at USAID years ago, Ken understood the need to listen to partners on the ground when making decisions and shaping policies at the highest levels. He recognizes the need to strengthen and support our Foreign Service, Civil Service, contractors and Foreign Service Nationals, not just with the praise they deserve, but with tangible action to help them grow and develop in their careers. And he is committed to making the people we recruit to this Agency more reflective of our nation, one where all races, ethnicities, and cultures can come together and serve our mission. We are very excited to have Ken, and his hard-won wisdom, with us in the front office as we take on these reforms.

Today we are thrilled to welcome back the “eye of the storm” to our Agency. As former Deputy Administrator Steinberg said: “Ken is the perfect person for this because of his compassion and decency, he has a remarkable ability to relate to people on their level, he is an incredible person who draws you to him.” Ken, we missed you. Welcome back. With that, it is my honor to administer the Oath of Office.

Last updated: May 23, 2022

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