Administrator Samantha Power remarks at USAID’s First Annual Virtual Hispanic Serving Institutions/Latinx Conference and Career Expo.

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Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Administrator Samantha Power remarks at USAID’s First Annual Virtual Hispanic Serving Institutions/Latinx Conference and Career Expo.

Administrator Power: Thank you. Congressman. I've never seen Dennis Vega so starstruck. I don't know -- I've got some serious leverage over him now that I know he's capable of this. I am so excited to be at this event. And thanks to Dennis, thanks to Kimberly, for all of the hard work done by her and her team to organize this event. What a performance. Thank you, Aymee, for sharing your talent with all of us and kicking us off. And Congressman, you know -- I've heard there are some things going on up on Capitol Hill right about now. I don't know it's just like, a little bird told me there might be something -- some really important negotiations underway. But you are here, and that is so typical of you living your values, just as I know you're living your values in those negotiations. But thanks also for your work day to day on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. We're so lucky to have you as an ally, having an engaged America, you know, in the Americas, but all around the world. And recognizing that our fates are connected to those of other people living around the world and our policies need to reflect that.

Congressman Castro and I share something else in common besides an interest in foreign affairs. And that is, and I'm going to go out on a limb here, Congressman. But we are both in awe of our mothers. So I am in awe of the fact that my mother --

Representative Castro: True.

Administrator Power:-- is a practicing physician in New York City. And she is still so full of love for her patients at 77 years old, that she says she practically skips to work. That's my mother. In Congressman Castro's case, his mother, Rosi, has been a lifelong advocate for equity and justice in San Antonio's Mexican-American community. And during Hispanic Heritage Month, it is leaders like Rosie Castro whose contributions we should reflect on and honor.

50 years ago, she ran for City Council, joining the Committee for Barrio Betterment in an effort to field Mexican-American candidates for city government. She didn't have a lot of role models. She didn't see herself represented, so she blazed that trail herself. She and the Committee for Barrio Betterment stood up against a system that denied representation to underserved and underrepresented communities. And through their pioneering efforts, they ushered in reforms that have made it easier for diverse candidates to run for office and win. Forever changing the racial composition of San Antonio's city council and giving future generations of Hispanic Americans a chance to see themselves in authority figures and a chance to have their voices represented every day. I see in Rosie's story, I'll go out on a limb again here, Congressman, but traces of a new story that we are actually hoping to write here at USAID today. A story about underrepresentation, about the need for reform, and about the willingness to fight for the seat at the table that you deserve.

Today is the first ever Hispanic serving conference that USAID has ever held. And on the one hand, that is something to celebrate, as I think we are. And I want to thank the Hispanic Employee Council of Foreign Affairs and the amazing team here at USAID for creating such an important event. But it is also something that we should pause to question. This year is actually USAID's 60th anniversary and this is our first conference. So, what's up with that would be one way to pose the question. And unfortunately, it's a question that has no good answers. Though diversity and equity have long been cherished values by the workforce here at USAID and the incredible people that we have working here, past efforts haven't recruited with the intentionality required to live those values that I think permeate the work that USAID tries to do. If I understand the history properly, I think when we have recruited, it has mostly been at graduate schools with fully fledged foreign affairs programs. And thus, we've attracted a group of mostly white, self-selected students who've probably known that they've wanted to work in development for years. They've probably themselves have been exposed to mentors, or professors, teachers, family, friends, maybe who are in this line of work. What we haven't done, before today, is what we're doing, which is going now to colleges to try to inspire people to pursue a career in public service and international development.

As a result of not doing what we're doing today before, and other factors, Hispanic people, who make up eighteen and a half percent of people in this country, make up just 10 percent of the civilian government workforce. So that's the government as a whole, and at USAID those numbers are even worse. Barely over 6 percent of our workforce is Hispanic. I'm excited to share that last year's class of Foreign Service Officers was the largest cohort in 10 years. And we needed it because there's even a fair amount of attrition. And almost half of that cohort was from historically underrepresented groups. So, you know, this intentionality is there now. But there's still so much more we can do to recruit graduates of color to our ranks. In our outreach to the Hispanic community, we aren't yet fielding a full team. And with us, we are denying us everything you know, you have to offer, I hope. The talent, the insights, the cultural competency. The expertise that has already contributed so much to America's promise right here at home. And so the gap between where we are and where we want to be remains really significant. And thus, I'm here to say that we are ushering in real reforms to focus our recruiting efforts in Hispanic communities. And Congressman, you and your caucus -- really eager to hear ideas from you all you know, who are so plugged in and can offer us such counsel as to how we can do it better.

For now, so far, we are working to deepen our relationships with Hispanic serving institutions many of which are represented here today, including Florida International University, California State University, Long Beach, and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Last October, we launched the Minorities Serving Institutions Partnership Initiative: a program that pairs each of USAID's bureaus with a minority serving institution. Allowing us to already begin to glean the benefits from the expertise of students, faculty, and researchers to tackle the world's toughest problems. And I hope in the Q and A, we can get into what some of those are, to sort of excite you about some of the substance of the work. We're also increasing support for entry-level programs that attract candidates from underrepresented groups, like our Pathways Internship Program. We know that underpaid internships, unpaid internships, are often a barrier to entry for underserved communities. Because who can afford to come and not earn money for work that you are doing? And therefore, we are significantly expanding our paid internships.

In the next two years, we also plan to double the number of Donald Payne Fellowships we offer for rising seniors and recent graduates. So that number will go from 15 to 30. And these are wonderful Fellowships. I hope those of you who are students, who are listening, will consider them. They help pay students for two years of graduate school before offering them Foreign Service appointments at USAID. And again, they have a focus on recruiting from historically underrepresented groups.

And finally, to bring all of this together, and do more and figure out what the ideas are that we haven't yet put in place. We are working with Congress to create a new Chief Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Officer, who will report directly to me at USAID. And so this will be the first time this position exists. And it's so important to complement and reinforce the work that our DEI teams have done at USAID, who are extraordinary individuals who’ve often felt, I think, that they were pushing water uphill in this agenda. We are taking these steps because USAID can't live up to its mission unless we center equity in our recruiting, our culture, and our work abroad. And this last point about our work is really important. By recruiting a more diverse staff, we don't just build an agency that reflects America, which of course we should do. But we bring in perspectives that help us do our work more effectively and more equitably out in the field, in the real world.

Hispanic populations in the U.S. have deep ties to, and a deep, deep, deep appreciation for the history, culture, and populations of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, which USAID is really proud to be serving. And if ever there were a region whose relationship to the U.S. could benefit from fresh thinking and new approaches. I think Congressman Castro would agree, new approaches grounded in that kind of deep understanding, it is this region of Latin America and the Caribbean. A region that has historically been viewed through the lens of America's fears. Fears back in the days of Communism, before the young people on this call's time, fears of drugs, fears of migration. Instead of viewing this hemisphere through the lens of our shared hopes for democracy and for dignity. But in order to develop those fresh perspectives and help fulfill President Biden's commitment. To usher in an era of relentless diplomacy and development, we need to do a better job of recruiting under-represented groups, embracing reforms, and giving all of you the seat at the table that you deserve. And that is what today, this conference, is all about.

Thank you so much. I look forward to taking any questions you will have for me on the back end. But in the meantime, I couldn't be more thrilled to pass the virtual mic to a friend, and such a great friend of USAID's, Congressman Joaquin Castro.

Representative Castro: Well, first of all, thank you, Administrator Power. And thank you for all the incredible changes that you're making at USAID. And as you mentioned, you know, in one sense, I'm disappointed that this is the first conference of this kind during Hispanic Heritage Month. But I'm not surprised that Administrator Samantha Power is the Administrator under whose term this got started. Because I think that not only is she sharp and passionate about her job, but also visionary, and willing to make the changes necessary, including creating a more inclusive administration, and a more inclusive agency. And also to Kimberly and everybody at HECFAA. Thank you for all of the work that you all do in organizing Latinos at the State Department, at USAID, making sure that they have a voice within the federal government. And, Dennis, congratulations on all of your success. And please know that you're always welcome back in Texas, no matter how long you're gone.

And to all the students and faculty members and everybody out there who has an interest in either perhaps joining USAID or guiding folks to join USAID. I hope that you will follow through on that interest. For those of you that are students. You imagine joining the federal government, our government, the United States government, and being part of doing something good for the people of the world, there is no better agency than USAID to make those dreams come true. This is the agency that tackles issues of economic development and humanitarianism that literally goes out and tries to solve the world's greatest challenges to humankind. Whether it's making sure that we try to alleviate poverty, or getting clean water, and making sure that people have clean air to breathe. And really taking on the challenges of economic development so that people are not starving in different places around the world. USAID is where people can do incredibly great things, and work on those things day in and day out. And so I've told folks in the past that I'm envious of the job that folks have at USAID. Because I get stuck in Congress, and I can't say the same thing about Congress. That we spend all day working on those things. So it's an incredible agency to be part of.

And as Administrator Power mentioned, Latinos make up now almost 1 in 5 Americans. But only about 9 or 10 percent of the federal workforce, and only 6 percent of USAID. So it's obviously incumbent upon USAID and the federal government to make a real vigorous effort to change. But as Latinos, it's also incumbent upon us to be helpful to the Agency, and reach out to folks, to students and others who may be interested in applying and spreading the word about the opportunities. And that's why I wanted to join you all here today. Because I think this is a wonderful partnership and I know it will be repeated now in the years to come.

So with that, I look forward to joining the Administrator in answering some of your questions.

Mr. Vega: Great. Thank you both so much. The first question just kind of picks up on what you both talked about, and the experience that the Latino community brings. And, you know, one of our recruiting challenges is just building a sense of excitement about foreign policy in the community. And one of the issues that we find is that, you know, I can just speak for me personally. I'm the son of Cuban and Salvadoran immigrants. That foreign policy has not always had the most positive relationship in our lives. And how do we change that dynamic and really work to have people feel like they can be part of the solutions we're trying to reach as a government? And also that the experience that they bring will be of benefit to us. And, Administrator, if you want to go first, or Congressman, whoever is ready.

Administrator Power: I can say, I feel so passionate about this question, and what that nexus can be. So I'd say a couple of things. First, if you think -- if you start with the premise, so bear with me here. But the premise, as we were just talking about a little bit, is the fates of people in our own communities here are connected to the fates of people living abroad. And if one didn't believe that before, just look at the COVID pandemic and the potential for new variants. And our need to do what USAID does, which is to tackle this problem all around the world. To try to get vaccinations, vaccination shots not only in arms here at home, but in arms abroad. And to try to ensure more vaccine equity by building vaccine manufacturing in developing countries, in whole continents like Africa. Where, you know, even before the pandemic, think of just routine vaccinations and immunizations that we get here. Only 1 percent of the vaccinations that African kids get are actually made on the continent of Africa.

And so we, at USAID, are looking to think, okay, well, how can we get more diversity of manufacturing, how can we have that in the Americas, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Asia. Not just in, you know, developed nations that have had that capacity for some time. But we're making those investments both because we care about those people. Because we live, at least I, you know, through the prism of, there but for the grace of God go I and what would I want the rules of the road to be if I didn't know where I was born and what privilege I had. And I'm an immigrant to this country, so I feel incredibly fortunate to be here. And, you know, even working in the U.S. government is an even bigger privilege. But just to be in the United States and having had these opportunities. But it may not have turned out that way for me. Right? I may not have ended up in this place. And so that privilege motivates me to care about those people. But I also care because I see, I have a family, and I have, you know, friends and loved ones. And I love my country here at home, and I don't want a new variant to come. And I recognize that the work we do overseas helps our own people. You know, just like Congressman Castro and the people he represents in San Antonio.

So whether it's COVID, whether it's climate change, where we're trying to help other countries curb emissions. If we don't do that, you know, the flooding of the New York subway, or the power outages in Texas, or the flooding in Houston, or the wildfires in California. I mean, this is just going to get worse and worse and worse right here at home. And so we have to make our changes at home. As President Biden and Congressman Castro are trying to do in this big negotiation that's underway on infrastructure, which includes a lot of climate components. But if we just did that, and we weren't working with other countries, again, the welfare of our own communities would be undermined. And so that connectivity is a key reason. And when you think about COVID, and you think about climate, just as two examples of the kind of work we do overseas, where are those effects most felt? Right? People talk about COVID as the great revealer. The inequities that predated COVID play themselves out every single day of this pandemic. You know, whether it's gender inequities and, you know, women who are bearing disproportionate, you know, burdens of childcare and other homecare and elder care. Whether it is, you know, black and brown communities, you know, who might have, you know, not had the resources available in the health clinics. You know, indigenous to their communities, and might have had to go further to get a vaccination.

You know, all of this, climate is the same way. You know, the effects are disproportionately felt on the communities that we are now trying to recruit into the enterprise of public service. Generally where we're dealing with these issues through, you know, domestically. You know, congressional leaders, like Congressman Castro and others, and your city council members, and mayors, and school board members who are dealing with the problems in your own communities. But if we just, you know, limit our emphasis on public service to that community, turns out we're not even going to serve our communities fully. So that's just a, I think, a huge -- there's a duality in that, right? It's just an intrinsic concern because of the fortune that we feel we have, and a compassion for people who may not yet have the resources that they need. Or the access to education, healthcare internationally. We want to help provide that. And then second, it actually matters here at home as well.

Representative Castro: Yeah, and I agree with Administrator Power. And I think one of the ways you could have the idea of foreign policy with the Latino community, particularly when it comes to USAID. You know, of course, USAID as part of our foreign policy apparatus and important to our relationship with nations around the world. But as I mentioned earlier, it is principally the way the United States government does good around the world. And, you know, I think of my own grandmother's story the way that my family ended up in Texas is that my grandmother lost both her parents around the time of the Mexican Revolution. And her mom had died, I believe, of tuberculosis, which was going around Mexico and other parts of the world at that time and killing many people.

And so, when we think of being able to help vaccinate against illnesses like that. And do other great things around the world that literally save people's lives. But also help to shore up their economies and make them more sustainable and make them more independent that's the kind of incredible work that somebody who that USAID can do, And it's essential to have folks from the Latino community who are part of that mission. Particularly when it comes to working in nations in Latin America, for example.

But not just Latin America, as you all know. We can work anywhere around the world as Americans but -- and I think when I talk to folks about why they should join an agency like USAID, I often make that connection to our immigrant history for many of us and the challenges that our families faced in other places. And the fact that now we can go take on many of the same kinds of challenges. Some of them the same challenges, or similar challenges that our family members faced years ago, through our work at USAID.

Mr. Vega: Okay, thank you both so much. Just turning to the workforce. You know, one of the things as we've, you know, as a country have begun to talk more authentically about, you know, racial and ethnic inequity. The truth is that, you know, our workforce doesn't have the diversity, and we haven't built the inclusive work environments that we need to have the impact that we want to have. How do you think about kind of building that workforce and what, Congressman, from a congressional standpoint are you all looking to do to really kind of, you know, move us in that direction? And then also, Administrator, you mentioned a few things and I know a lot of the things we're doing but just some of the things that we're looking to do is an agency to really kind of push that, especially at the senior levels where you see that lack of diversity most starkly?

Representative Castro: Sure, and you know, I kind of separate these things out into the formal role. Or what you can do statutorily or through appropriations through the Congress. And Administrator Power mentioned the chief diversity officer. We also -- I worked with Barbara Lee and others on a paid internship bill for the State Department, for example. So, you know, I think that should be applied across the federal government. Paid internships, Congress in the House of Representatives at least, has taken that on over the last few years. Because there are a lot of Latino and Latinas who can't afford to move to Washington D.C. and work for free for three months during the summer to get their foot in the door.

But as we know, over the years, that's become an important credential to getting a permanent job in many parts of the federal government. And quite honestly, in other parts of the American economy and industry. And so, we can work on formal things like paid internship legislation and appropriations. And also the Chief Diversity Officer over at USAID and one at State, as well. And then there's what we would call the soft power. And that's things like this that are also important in having people fan out across the country, Hispanic-serving institutions and in Latino communities across the country.

By the way, it's, of course, the big states of Texas and California, New York, Illinois, Florida. But as you all know, there are burgeoning Latino communities in places that we didn't often think of as having Latino communities. In states like Nebraska, and Georgia, and South Carolina, and other places. We should make the rounds in those areas as well.

Administrator Power: I can pick up on this also.

Representative Castro: Yes.

Administrator Power: As you've indicated, we've touched upon a few of the issues. I mean, let me, if I could just say one thing, picking up on a point that Congressman Castro made earlier, which is if by putting myself -- very hard because I'm old now but if I put myself in the shoes that I was in 30 years ago, when I might have been, you know, at an event where somebody was trying to tell me there was a place for me in some organization. I mean, my thought bubble would have said, "Well what the heck do I have to offer in curbing emissions and then vaccinating people? And you know, what can I bring? And I think that's something that in addition to our recruitment that can hold people back and it can hold people back again, because, like we were talking about earlier, there may not be somebody in your community or in your family who sound, it's kind of like it might just seem like going to the moon. It's just absurd. Like, I wanted to be a professional baseball player growing up. You know, that might be what this feels like to some people. You know, that was extremely unlikely to happen. It was extremely unlikely that I have the tools to make that happen. Maybe this is what that feels like.

And so part of what we need to do, Dennis, and I'll come to our shortcomings in a second, as that's the core of your question. But we really need to find a way to meet people where they are, and not kind of blow past that experiential difference and find a way to build those bridges with people's families. As Congressman Castro did in one of his answers, you know, and talking about the again, the experiences that, that the people came before us had. And the trails that they blazed and the communities they come from. And what an incredible privilege it is to have a chance to do something actually back in some of those communities, right? And to know how painful it was often for our family members to leave their countries and come to this. How they would have actually preferred to stay home and stay close to their parents. But it was conditions and the need for opportunity that that forced them to leave and to inspire them. As it is more an answer to your last question. But also, you know, meet them where they are and say, you know, you don't have to be an expert yet at drought resistant seeds and how we plant them. You know, in places that are really struggling right now to deal with climate change. You don't have to know how to build back a health system better than how it was built before in the wake of a pandemic. You don't have to know how to fight corruption yet.

That's why we're here. That's why there's an agency that recruits people at a young age. I can tell you that people like me, who were in the colleges, who were taking the classes, we were -- like we were much less prone to those, to those doubts. And our teachers are telling us, "No, you can do it. You can, you can, you can." And it doesn't feel like going to the moon if you, if there are certain universities and programs and you get those exposures. And you know, the truth is, it's just us, like it's just a bunch of young people with, you know, ideals, with the willingness to do hard work, with the willingness to invest in that kind of learning. To give us those kind of technical skills to actually be able to help people in their hour of need, which is such an incredible privilege.

But one doesn't start thinking that about oneself. I certainly didn't. I mean, I definitely thought, was like, "What does this have to do with me?" And I think that's true of a lot of people in terms of our own shortcomings. Dennis, I think we just we have to, be really upfront about them, like we're trying to be here today. We have to -- there's a lot of talk and there's been more talk, luckily, since, you know, the killing of George Floyd. But we've had the ebb and flow of talk for a long time. And, you know, as I used to play -- where the crowds used to say. When I used to play sports, you know, they'd say, scoreboard, scoreboard. You know, this is really about what we achieve and it's very measurable and we have to hold ourselves accountable to very specific improvements and very specific benchmarks.

So on my first day, I signed the diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. And we are spending these months and we'll spend more time filling out what does that look like? What are the benchmarks? What is our theory of change? What is our barrier analysis and what is standing in the way, not only people coming here you know, which is they have to be reached with this message, which is you are welcome you have what it takes and it's worth it? But also people staying here and creating an environment where people feel like they are welcome and that they are valued. And that their inputs are being received in the same way as their counterparts from other communities. Because sometimes people just haven't felt that when they have not felt heard in the same way that someone like me might have felt heard. So, we have a lot of work to do. And in addition to the things that I've mentioned, we're also going to increase our support for what's called the International Career Advancement Program by 150 percent next year. And that's, again with the help of Congress. To build the skills of our staff from underrepresented groups so that to the degree that people are coming in and they feel they don't have the same background. Let's level that playing field ASAP and we know then what the talents are that will be unleashed.

Mr. Vega: Thank you so much. Something tells me that if you would have really thought hard about playing baseball, you probably would have been able to get that done too. Given the things you've been able to accomplish. You know, I think, you know, just building off of what you said. You know, too often people don't even realize that like using your baseball analogy that baseball is even a sport. And I think like for me, even I didn't even realize that USAID was a career path until I was in law school. And I don't think -- and I think that story is not unique. So I think that's just important to what Congressman Castro said about going out to the places where people are and what you said about people being where they are. I could talk about this for the rest of the day. But they are telling me that we can't talk about this anymore because we're putting their whole schedule behind. So I just want to thank you both for your leadership. And for taking the time to have this conversation and look forward to continuing this conversation going forward. Thank you.

Representative Castro: Thank you, all. Great to be with you.

Administrator Power: Congressman, thank you so much for making time for this. You're a great inspiration to all of us. But it's just awesome having you here thank you and thank you for everything you're doing. Thanks, everybody.

Last updated: November 29, 2022

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