As part of impactmania’s Women of Impact series, we are traveling to New Zealand in November 2019. A number of the women from the program will meet their peers for cultural exchange and to create economic opportunities and partnerships. The U.S. Consulate in Auckland, New Zealand is supporting 12 interviews and a special welcome reception at the U.S. Consul General’s residence. You are invited to meet and connect with the women from the program at the Women of Impact event, November 8, 2019, in Auckland, New Zealand.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
You have served in half a dozen countries for the U.S. government. What spurred you to become a career diplomat?
I started my career with the State Department right after graduate school. This came as a result of my good friend in college who had always known she wanted to be a foreign service officer. She said, “I really need your moral support,” and “I need you to drive me to take this test.”
So as a good friend would, I went with her. I took the test, which was free. I passed it.
I was called back for the oral exercise, which was in D.C., and my parents live in Maryland. I thought, well, I will make a weekend out of it. I passed the orals as well. At the time, I was not interested in becoming a diplomat.
I knew diplomats existed, like folks who work at the UN, but I did not really know how one got a job at the UN. After I passed the oral and the written test, I had to backtrack and research the State Department.
I could not believe that you could get to be paid to travel around the world, to interact and learn from other cultures, and to have engaging conversations around shared values and common interests. I deferred my entry into the State Department. I said, “I was on track to become a teacher.”
I was going to teach math and science, blow things up with kids in the inner city, and get them excited about the field. I said, “I really do not know anything about international borders; I feel like a big fraud.” They replied, “Get an advanced degree and come back to us.”
I got myself into graduate school. I went to Colombia to get my master’s degree in international affairs and joined. I have been with the State Department now for 19 years, going on near 20 years. I am now in New Zealand.
I have a story that I want to share with you about transformation.
As you know, in New Zealand, the biggest sport is rugby. I enrolled my daughter, Dahlia, who is 10, in rippa rugby. It is similar to flag football. The concept remains the same, except you hold a rugby ball and you have those tags that are tied to your waist, right? You pull tags off other participants.
Well, the first Saturday of the game, I am watching my daughter play, and I see exactly what is happening on the field. Dahlia is really fast and she would run up to the opponent, but she would pause. She did not want to rip the tag off, because she did not want to hurt the other girls’ feelings.
This is the same girl, who at cross-country meet would run fast, get to the finish line, and wait there until all of her friends make it to the finish line. Then she would cross the line with my husband looking at the watch.
This is a timed event, “Go cross that finish line!” And she is like, “Nope! Not going to do it until all my friends have crossed it.” Her value system is clearly different from the rest of the world and what we say is the right thing to do. I pulled her aside after that first game on Saturday.
I said, “Dahlia, the thing about touch rugby is that it is a game. It is a play and everyone is playing by the same rules. In life as you grow up and especially as a girl, you will find that life does not work that way. There will be times when, for your personal safety or when your values are being trampled upon, or worse when other people’s values have been taken advantage of or trampled upon, you are going to have to rip that tag off!”
Do it swift and quick, and do it clean. What better way than now, you as a 10-year old, to be able to learn through what it is like to push through that discomfort? I am not asking Dahlia to be that girl who is aggressive. Because there are some girls in their teens that not only rip that tag off, but also stomp on it!
She is never going to do that. For her, I knew the entry point to push towards to increase the wings of her leadership, her leader within, which was so Dahlia. Next Saturday, I want you to push yourself a little bit and think about your teammates, who are counting on you.
And she immediately got it. She said, “Okay, I’ll do it for my teammates, because they’re counting on me.”
That second Saturday, I saw her be quicker to pull that tag off, because she was thinking about her team. The next Saturday and the Saturday after that, she built the muscle memory to push through the discomfort of pulling that tag off.
She eventually was able to do it not just for her team, but for herself. But it took practice and practice.
Where do you think this is coming from? This pause, hesitating?
All the socialization of worrying about what people think of you. While I was telling this advice to my daughter, I was thinking about how I have also, as a manager, as a leader, stopped myself from pulling those tags off and speaking the hard truth that needed to be told to an under-performing employee or managing up.
Saying this hard truth is speaking the truth to power, right? And there were uncomfortable moments where I really also needed to stand up for myself.
I am realizing the entry point of unlearning those things that have been socialized is to consider what is at stake for my team, for my mission, for the values that I believe in, for the sake of other women.
I am also learning as I am being transformed, right? The process of transformation does not happen overnight. It happens from practice to practice.
Push through that discomfort.
You have been in this role for 19 years. What have you learned that most surprised you?
One surprising revelation is the power of authentic leadership, even in the world of diplomacy where you are valued around how polished you appear.
At the end of the day, even in the field of international diplomacy, it is about connecting with people and remaining authentic. If there is messiness it is about being real in that space as well.
To me the word diplomacy means being tactful, being delicate and sensitive—all those maybe softer power skills. We have moved to a world with hyper speed, more harsh directness, and a lot of games. How do you maneuver or how do your bridge the two? The world has evolved. Maybe diplomacy as I learned it in the 80s and 90s with collaboration and consensus, and all that is something of the past.
I think that what has happened in the world of diplomacy, it has become more about absolutism. It has become more about who is right and who is wrong. It is unfortunate, because I believe that the spirit of diplomacy is in order for me to be right, it does not mean that you have to be wrong.
That the spirit of diplomacy is at the heart of the matter. It is not so black and white. Rather than being a zero sum game, diplomacy is about finding the middle way. It is finding connections. It is about finding common goals and interests. It is so big, it is about both of us dealing with being heard and seen.
That is where I feel women, in particular, are gifted more intuitively to be able to find those connections, find those spaces that exist.
Do you think even the word “diplomacy” has a negative connotation in the United States? Diplomacy is not usually seen as positive, right? Connections, dialogue, consensus, those are all kinds of words that people no longer think are the way to go about solving social and cultural issues.
I think the word “diplomacy” or “diplomat” is associated as sort of elitism and lofty goals. We always represent something bigger than ourselves. You and the work you are doing, for example, represents the larger entity of the institution of your country, of your values.
I feel we all have an opportunity to be an ambassador, right?
For something we believe in, you represent a certain stake in the matter, right? It is more accessible, especially nowadays, with technology. I do not believe that diplomacy happens just at the UN building. I do not believe diplomacy happens just going to fancy cocktail parties.
Diplomacy happens every day and in ways a lot more accessible to every single person now.
The impact is on a grander scale and more systematic way where you operate. I do appreciate it, because I think a lot of people have more power than they believe they do, right?
A lot of people may not even know what it is that you do. What is your main mission as the US Counsel General in Auckland in New Zealand?
The main mission of the State Department is to protect and to advocate for the rights of the American citizens overseas. Our first and primary goal is to ensure the safety and protection, and advocacy of American citizens who are overseas, whether living overseas or visiting overseas.
That is our first mandate, and then after that, it is really about advocating for U.S. interests overseas. That may seem very Machiavellian in nature and yet, the way I understand it, I really believe America is still the power broker. The larger platform of the United States of America enables me to empower people, to create understanding, to help promote democracy, and all of the positive values around democracy, inclusivity and diversity, for example.
I was not even born in the States. I am a naturalized U.S. citizen. When I was nine, my family and I went to the U.S. Embassy in South Korea to apply for immigrant visas. I did not speak a word of English. I went into the public school system.
My first tour overseas as a diplomat, I went back to the very same Embassy, standing on the other side of the windows. I knew exactly what applicants went through to get to that window, because my family and I have gone through the same steps. To me, it speaks volumes about a country where we actually believe that America is no longer a white veil.
You represent a slice of America.
I love that and I feel so proud to represent the country that says, yes, we want you to go out there and represent us.
America has so much going for it, right? That is why sometimes it is frustrating when we see that we could do so much more. How do people or programs drive cultural, social, and economic impact?
Elizabeth Eckford. She was one of the original 9 students when the school district of Arkansas was first desegregated. She was 15 at the time and going to high school for the first time ever. You often see the black and white photo of Elizabeth walking into school for the first time. She is surrounded by white students and parents spewing hatred on her. She is now 75 years old.
We brought her to New Zealand.
How is she relevant to New Zealand? The relevance is that she now speaks about her experience of what it was like to be bullied at school, where she was not welcomed. Her personal safety was threatened. Day in and day out, she went to school where people physically tortured her.
They spewed hatred on her, but she stood for the values around educational access and equality. There were two students, two witnesses, who were the only ones who spoke to her and treated her with humanity. She named those two students. We took her to high schools across New Zealand to talk about U.S. history as it relates to the Civil Rights Movement. More importantly and relevant today, we had conversations around what it is like to be bullied and how she overcame that psychologically.
As educators, how do we cultivate students like the two white students who took the time to speak and engage with her, and saw her for who she was? I do not think we create leaders like that in our students. What was so unique about those two students who stood up with her?
And then, more importantly, addressing teenage suicide prevention. She also had to handle those thoughts, because of the mental, psychological hardship she endured. It was amazing to have her speak to groups of 200 to 300 high school students. She’s 75 years old and yet her experiences are still relevant today. And so, again, it is not me who asked will you come to New Zealand? It is an invitation through the platform of the U.S. government. The U.S. State Department would like the honor of having you come to represent America and to speak with students, educators and policymakers.
That is huge.
What were some of the ingredients necessary for the two white kids to stand by her side? What do you see in people to break the cycle? To make changes?
I think it has to do with moral courage, the moral courage that exists in the everyday. For example, one of the students would look Elizabeth in the eyes and say, how are you?
How is your day going? Just that and wait.
I think to me, it is about seeing someone in the eye and recognizing the humanity within another person. And boy, these days in the U.S.that discourse and sensibility is lacking. I see you, but when you are independent of your beliefs. I think it starts there.
The last few days, I have been where the fire is in California. The Marin County fire has forced a lot of people to evacuate and come into the city, right? I am in a café and using the outlet to power my phone.
Someone comes up and says, do you mind if I share that outlet with you? Sure! And then we got to talking, right? I had forgotten that in America people tend to be chatty. People come to random strangers, just come up and talk to you.
I find that to be unique in America.
The desire to connect is one of the key ingredients. The willingness to look stupid, to be rejected, to be looked upon like, you are a little strange, why are you talking to me? I do not know you. But you are sort of willing to throw yourself out there and saying hey, can we connect?
What do your children learn from the job you do?
I think the kids learn that there is no right way of doing things. For example, when they come to New Zealand, we drive on the other side. They do not say, you are driving on the wrong side!
I remember when we landed in Dulles Airport after our time on tour in Nepal and they were asking me where are the cows in the world? Why are we not sharing the road with cows? They were five at the time. So they have always seen the road where we share it with other animals.
You have lived in half a dozen countries serving for the United States. What are some of the things you do to integrate or to make it your home?
Gosh, I love that beautiful question. Our tour of duty is usually two to three years. I used to have the mindset of well, we are only going to be here in Nepal for two years. I went over to my friend’s house in Nepal, who was also there for two years. She hung up the most elaborate photos of her grandfather and her uncles, a family tree of photos. She also planted a vegetable garden. I realized in that process of her planting the seed and hanging up the photos, she was making a statement to herself and to other people around her. I am going to root myself here, even for two years.
That psychology has a role in how she cultivated lasting friendships and relationships with the locals. Even though she leads a transient life, she inspired me to say, I am going to make that root deep in those two years. Now every time I go and serve in a different country I hang up those photos and plant a vegetable garden!
It does something to my psyche.
Other friends in the service were visiting us. They asked, do you guys cut through all the small talk and get right to the meat of conversation?
We make friends very quickly, right? We only have two years, so we make the most of it. We start making plans very quickly. We do not have all the time in the world. We have a limited amount of time, so let us really get to know each other.
Is it true that you do not get to pick where you will go next? How does that work?
We can state our preferences. We joined the State Department to be worldwide available. For me anyway, it is about a calling. I read this quote: our calling is where your heart’s gladness intersects with the world’s biggest hunger.
We joined to be a public servant. We will go where I am needed most. Where I can be of best value, because of the strengths that I will bring. It is where my heart’s gladness intersects with the world’s.
So you have no idea what is next for you, right?
No, I do not know. The world is out there. Wherever I am called to, I will go.
Are there things that you will absolutely not waver on?
What I will not waver on… that is a tough one. I will not waver on my respect and kindness. If there ever was a time where I feel like my life’s work forces me to sail or step away from that value, that is when I will have to find something else to do.
Do you have any idea what you would do if you were not working for the State Department? Will you finally teach science and blow up stuff?
I do not know. I am a certified executive leadership coach. I could go into coaching. Coaching is all about helping people discover and live their highest potential.
I job-crafted my role. I get to do that every day with my staff and my team. And I love seeing them blossom and living to their highest and fullest potential.
When you move around, you work with new staff, right?
I get a new team wherever that Embassy or Consulate may be.
We always ask people who their impact maker is. I am sure you have had many, but who has left an imprint on your DNA?
Maya Angelou’s famous quote has always stayed with me. How I lead, how I live my life…People will forget what you have said. People will forget what you have done. But they will never forget how you made them feel. I live by that.
Is there anybody who has made you feel a certain way that you will never forget?
That is a great question. The person that comes to my mind immediately is my dad who passed away. My relationship with my father was precious: the way that he saw me, for the person that I wanted to become, as opposed to the person I was at the time. He saw the person that I aspired to be and he always operated from that perspective.
And that has made all the difference in my life.
Give me an example of what he did to help that move through.
When I was little, my dad would send me to camps during summer vacations or school break. I asked my dad, “Why are you always sending me away from the house?” I was a homebody, kind of a nervous and scared child. He said, this is how eagles build their nests.
They gather all these thorns and make the frame of the house. On top of that, they put all of the feathers around it. When it is time for the baby eagle to fly, the parents start taking away those feathers to make the nest uncomfortable and painful, in such a way that they would be forced to jump out of that nest and fly.
He said, Katelyn, there is a world out there and you are meant to fly. You are not meant to stay in this comfortable cocoon of a nest.
My job is to equip you, to feed you, and to nourish you, but when it is time to fly, I want you to experience that.
I just remember how unselfish and how profound it was for him to realize. I do not want to make a cocoon too comfortable so you never ever want to leave.
His desire for me is to experience the world and to experience why fate is taking flight.
That is what I was meant to do.
Meet Women of Impact New Zealand in Auckland, November 8, 2019.
impactmania’s Women of Impact program received a U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant. The grant supports 12 interviews with women in New Zealand who drive cultural, social, and economic impact. The Program also includes a week-long visit to New Zealand to connect and collaborate with those interviewed by impactmania.
For more information: [email protected]