To change norms we must change conversations. To change conversations, we must include diverse voices.
It is possible to shift U.S. nuclear weapons policy, but not without creating space for underrepresented ideas and perspectives. With a new U.S. administration that plans to address racial inequality, there is hope that even in the nuclear weapons space, and broader national security community, we can change the course of our policy discussions by acknowledging and welcoming diverse expertise.
Acknowledging Existing Expertise
The lack of diversity is commonly blamed on the absence of experts of color. This very notion, that these experts don’t exist in their fields, is problematic. It is why Katherine Johnson is remembered as one of many “hidden figures” who have made significant contributions across generations of women of color, whether it be sending mankind successfully into space or working behind closed doors, only to be denied credit and recognition for their efforts. The problem is not that these experts of color do not exist; it is that across generations we have failed to acknowledge their presence and expertise.
The problem is not that these experts of color do not exist; it is that across generations we have failed to acknowledge their presence and expertise.
While we must celebrate those that have worked hard to achieve their degrees in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and policy, we must also focus on how we can become better at encouraging others to join. While we must identify the contributors of color who are dedicated to making sure the world is peaceful and secure, we must also commit to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion across every stage of the pipeline. This means we must not only focus on eliminating the barriers of entry, but also ensure that the pipeline is healthy and provides opportunities for growth to those that have commenced and continue their careers in nuclear policy or national security more broadly.
Organizations like Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS), established in 2017, have developed a “Pipeline of Experience” highlighting women of color who are contributing to a variety of areas in peace and security, including STEM, diplomacy, and climate change among other topics. Since 2018, Diversity in National Security Network has published lists of next generation national security and foreign policy leaders from Black, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino, Middle Eastern, and North African American communities. These lists not only recognize the diverse expertise that exists in the field but can also serve as a means to get in touch with these experts for speaking, media, and other opportunities.
Welcoming Future Expertise
The national security community, and subsets like the nuclear policy community, must focus on why they want to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. Is this desired outcome the result of the momentum for change that was generated following the killing of George Floyd and other black men and women, or does the community appreciate the value in making the field more diverse?
While making the field more equitable is important, we must also recognize that the substance of our work is impacted by diversity and inclusion. Diverse perspectives would lead to more comprehensive and better-informed policy discussions, recommendations, and implementation. The lack of diversity and inclusion also directly affects the topics that are up for discussion and the priorities that are identified. I was first introduced to the concept of “redefining national security” by Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins which reshapes the contents of our national security discussions to better represent the security concerns of all Americans. While U.S. security strategy has seen shifts between identifying great power competition and non-state actor threats as its focus, we have lost track of the domestic security concerns of the average American which can range from Islamophobia to homophobia to gun violence to this latest pandemic.
It is only when our national security workforce better represents the demographics of the United States, that we can be successful at making sure that all Americans are secure. To encourage more interest and retention in nuclear policy and national security careers from minorities, here are a few recommendations for those communities to implement in their organizations.
1. Supporting existing initiatives: The nuclear policy and national security communities must self-reflect on why advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion is important, what success looks like, and how we can get there. To think through these questions, with particular emphasis on the action plans that need to be implemented across security organizations, WCAPS launched the Organizations in Solidarity project. This initiative kicked off after WCAPS issued a solidarity statement with 12 commitments to combat racism and discrimination and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion that to date has been signed by over 250 entities and individuals in the peace and security field. Organizations and practitioners who are interested in advancing these goals, can participate by joining here.
2. Branding diversity, equity, and inclusion: Messaging is highly important to encouraging experts of color to join. As a Muslim American, it has been difficult to digest the rhetoric from politicians, political candidates, and others that the Muslim community is integral to countering terrorism. Not only does this kind of messaging reiterate a stereotype that Muslim Americans have tried to break free of over the past two decades, but it also shows the problem of pigeonholing communities to specific security topics, without acknowledging that their reach extends beyond the boundaries that are drawn around them due to unconscious biases. It is important to make sure that the message on the need for diversity and inclusion is effectively delivered to these diverse communities and that they are welcomed along with their contributions of choice.
3. Establishing a safe space and culture: It is also important to create a safe space in the field for minorities, which has been modeled by WCAPS. The lack of diversity can be challenging for minorities in the field and discouraging to those who have not yet joined. Whether it be difficulties in acquiring a security clearance due to your diverse background, being the only person of color in a meeting, or carrying the burdens of the lack of recognition and representation, it is important to remember that the experiences of people of color differ from those who have not had to overcome similar obstacles in their personal and professional lives to pursue a career in national security.
While groups like WCAPS have provided safe spaces and mentorship for women of color to share their experiences with each other, it is important for organizations to also establish a culture that is safe, supportive, and trustworthy. As we promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, we must also combat racism and discrimination, and recognize how far we must go to get to an equitable field. Until then we must ensure the provision of a space where people of color can safely report any concerns, including incidents of harassment without fear of repercussions, given that minorities, particularly women of color, are more susceptible to falling victims to such incidents. We must also make sure that we don’t stop at diversity but also emphasize inclusion, by ensuring the voices of these experts are heard by not only disseminating their work on social media, but also confirming they have had a chance to share their thoughts before a meeting ends and are given credit for their contributions.
Defining metrics for success will be challenging because success is not limited to improving the quantitative numbers of representation but also the qualitative culture that exists in the nuclear policy and national security fields. The movement to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion is a long-term commitment, like a marriage between a community and an ideal that will be beneficial for all. It will be an imperfect process in which we identify where we have fallen short and try to make amends through new and changed ways to achieve our desired outcome. Given the bureaucracies that govern our field, we may face resistance and progress may seem slow. However, the issue of race in national security from problem to solution is people-driven. As long as the individuals in our community remain consciously committed to the cause, we will continue to remain hopeful for change in representation, conversation, and policy.
Wardah Amir co-chairs the Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) Working Group on Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Policy. She is on the Steering Team for the WCAPS Organizations in Solidarity Initiative combatting racism and discrimination in the peace and security field. Wardah was a member of the Class of 2019-20 National Nuclear Security Administration Graduate Fellowship. She currently works on nonproliferation issues at the U.S. Department of State but the views expressed in this article are her own.