On a sunny Thursday, at 2pm sharp, three OWN alumni took off for a small weekend adventure in Washington DC. They were excited to learn more about careers with the government and professionalism as youth of color. The next evening, they were joined two more OWN alumni. This is their reflection on the conference, written by Alumni and Leadership Co-facilitator Andrea Vielma.
On Friday morning, Alums Kat, Maria and I participated in a full day training that focused on writing strong opinion editorial pieces, lead by The Op-Ed Project. The aim of this program is to encourage underrepresented voices to step up in key commentary forums, which are largely led by men. The GAP conference aims to bring together professionals and students from diverse backgrounds for seminars on foreign policy, professional development, global skills-building, international career opportunities, networking and mentoring.
Kat, Maria and I loved the Op-Ed training, hosted by previous trainee (and now published!) Zeba Khan. Zeba, like us, participated in these trainings as a young professional. She wrote a few op-ed pieces, then entered a national op-ed contest, where she ultimately received second place. Her goal was to lead us women on a similar path; empowerment. She took us through all the components of a well written article and as each component was discussed, we jotted down a note or two for our own personal op-ed. We also broke-down the word expert (when you’re the go-to person in a room for a particular topic) — though it made us uncomfortable to use the word, we learned that we’re all experts in some field, and the more specific our description, the better!
In the end, we each walked away with a skeleton frame for our own op-ed piece: a hook, thesis, three pieces of evidence, counter-argument response and conclusion. We also learned a little bit about effective pitching — writing an op-ed is only half of the work, convincing editors to publish you is just as important. I’ve been working on a piece about modern-day segregation and gentrification in Seattle. Kat wants to use her op-ed to argue for why better sex education in developing countries is essential. Maria is interested in writing about the effect social media posts have on your professional and informal image in the real world.
On Friday evening, we attended the reception and keynote speaker. This year’s keynote speaker was Kalpen Modi, an actor turned public service worker. He has appeared on House and How I Met Your Mother, before making a major career move to work at the White House. In his speech, he talked about his career path and how diversity played into it. Kalpen not only talked about the need for ethnic/racial diversity, but also diversity of values and thinking processes in foreign affairs and diplomacy. His overall argument is that diversity leads to higher levels of safety. He raised up topics like racial profiling, violence extremism/terrorism (focusing on southeast Asia), and national security.
“It was an honor to represent One World Now! at the conference. My favorite part was seeing keynote speaker, Ken Penn. It was nice to see a famous actor getting involved in foreign relations and politics. He is very articulate and intelligent and I had no idea he cared so much about diversity and global issues, I only knew him from Harold and Kumar. It was also eye-opening and refreshing to talk with everyone who attended the conference. Although I am an undergrad and was one of the youngest people at the conference, I was treated with the utmost respect. I thank you so much for allowing me to attend this conference and granting me my first trip to Washington D.C.!”
– Kat Pierce, reflected OWN alumni and conference attendee Kat Pierce.
The next day, we jumped into the plenary sessions and rotating workshops. The first plenary session was on Gender and Violence Extremism, which talked about female suicide bombers, particularly in Nigeria. Though we recognized the weight of the topic and the expertise of the speaker (who had not only spent years on research but had also lived in Nigeria), we couldn’t help but note that once again, we were listening to a white male speak about the tendencies of colored women. We wondered how different the plenary would have been, if a Nigerian were to speak of her experience.
The second session was titled Making a Difference: Opportunities in International Relations. The main speaker, Ambassador Ruth Davis, was hilarious but also kept things very real. Sometimes, it felt like professionals downplayed ignorance or obstacles linked to systematic racism and microaggressions. Mrs. Davis, however, was very upfront about them.
Our favorite quote was her response to the question on challenges of being a colored woman in the field, “I see them reacting to me and I have to think to myself…is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m black? Or is it because they’re stupid?”.
“[What I most loved was] the atmosphere. Seeing diverse people in government positions is not something that’s advertised and to see people like you who are doing what you’re interested in and also open to mentoring and talking to you about it was really cool” – Alumna Lissan Tiebe
For the most part, we all attended the same workshops (Reflections from the Field and Virtual Branding) minus Kat, who attended more environment/science focused workshops (Ebola/Zika and Water Conservation) given her biology background.
In our first workshop, we got to learn about how professionals of color obtained their positions, the different paths they took to arrive there, and what they did and observed in their positions. Some public officers were stationed all over the world for different terms, such as Dubai or Nicaragua. Others worked in a variety of sectors throughout their careers, such as public or political. In the workshop about virtual branding, we learned about harnessing social media for professional means; not only in terms of self-presentation but as a career as well. For the majority of us, these workshops helped us envision a fruitful future and the steps we could take to obtain it.
“The GAP Conference showed me the importance of having diversity in government work. It is necessary to have officials and diplomats who reflect the face of America, especially in a time when the demographics of America are changing to be more diverse. After witnessing people of color in positions, such as foreign service officers and USAID workers I realized that I can also serve my country through public service in those same positions” – Alum Kevin Lam
“My favorite part was the conversations I had with other participants and mentors as well as creating a supportive network with them. It was eye opening knowing other people, who were at different stages in their lives and lived in different parts of the world, dealt with similar challenges that I face as a person of color in the US. It’s also reassuring knowing I am not the only one having difficulty deciding between working in International Affairs, which is my dream, and working inside the US because of all the conflict and hate that has risen due to certain presidential candidates. All in all, it’s comforting knowing you’re not alone – you’re not the only one who thinks this way and you’re not the only one being impacted.” – Alumna Maria Ortiz
Probably the best part about the entire experience was the opportunity to bond with fellow OWN alumni. Saturday night we all hung out in a single hotel room and shared our stories about marginalization and identity — what does it mean to have immigrant parents, and to be half American and half something else? It’s been so long since I’ve had a conversation like this, and we all grew much much closer for it. After this weekend, we’ve all promised to keep in touch, and I look forward to keeping that promise.
The GAP conference was unanimously an amazing experience for all of the OWN alumni that attended. We all agreed that it was inspiring and motivating to see highly respected and professional people of color.