As we renew conversations in the United States about what liberty and justice for all truly looks like, we must reflect on our past. At the State Department, these conversations have long been important to our diplomats; they have prompted many to speak up, to create changes that make the agency a more inclusive and diverse space, and to be advocates for equality abroad by challenging structures which impede justice.
There is still work to do. At a time of uncertainty about the future, we turn to the past to draw on the experiences of those who came before us.
The State Department has a history of a lack of diversity. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community have been under-represented within the Foreign Service. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019 women made up approximately 50 percent of the overall U.S. population. Yet, according to statistics published by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in 2019, only 41.2 percent of Foreign Service generalists were women. Similarly, African Americans (who make up about 13.4 percent of the general population) represented only 5.3 percent of Foreign Service generalists. The statistics for the Senior Foreign Service point to an even greater disparity: just 3 percent of senior-level diplomats are African American and only 5 percent are Latino (who make up approximately 18.3 percent of the overall population), resulting in a diplomatic corps that does not entirely represent the diversity of the American people. Despite these systemic gaps in hiring, records show countless individuals within the State Department taking a stand to report honestly on their experiences and promote positive change. For example, in his oral history, Mr. W. Garth Thorburn shares the challenges he experienced as the first Black professional to serve in the Foreign Agricultural Service; however, he also describes the improvements that he saw in the agency throughout his time there. Similarly, Mr. Leonard Robinson’s oral history recounts the fact that in the early days of the Peace Corps, many Americans perceived it as a “whites only organization.” Through his work as the Director of Minority Recruiting for the Peace Corps, it slowly but surely grew to look more like the United States.