September 1, 2020
Q. You began your career at Teach for America, serving the Miami community for three years as a public school history teacher. How did your teaching experience prepare you for diplomacy, and what lessons did you learn?
Teaching in Miami-Dade County Public Schools (MDCPS) made me well-organized and imparted on me the importance of good leadership. Over the course of my three years I taught 450 students across four grades and four social studies subjects. The variety of classes and student learning styles forced me to become well-organized and diligent in my lesson planning, unit plans, and long-term goals for my kids. In my most recent job at the United Nations, I spent a year assisting Ambassador Nikki Haley and a year as a Security Council negotiator. The jobs required sound organizational skills to ensure Ambassador Haley was prepared for her meetings, and later, so that I could balance negotiating several thematic issues simultaneously for the United States.
In Miami, I learned the importance of good organizational leadership. I had the privilege of working under Rebecca Fishman Lipsey who was Executive Director of Teach for America Miami at the time, and Principal Doug Rodriguez who was brought in to help turn around Miami Central High School. Both were visionaries who empowered their people to enact social change. My first Ambassador in the Foreign Service, Pamela White, had a similar approach. I’ve continued to seek out empowering forward-leaning leaders.
Q. You were at the US Embassy in Havana when Hurricane Irma hit in 2017. At that time there were mysterious illnesses affecting US diplomats, illnesses that eventually caused the Secretary of State to bring you and your colleagues back to the United States. How did you manage to lead during these crises?
In the days after the Hurricane it was vital that we communicate clear and consistent information on hospitals, flights, and hotels to stranded US citizens. I had built good relationships with some of the young Cubans and Cuban Americans through playing music weekend nights at a bar in Old Havana. Since most of the city, including the Embassy, was without electricity, I relied on my friends to help me identify which hotels and Air BnBs had power and running water. Phone lines were down for several days afterwards, but my Cuban friends helped me find a printer and copy service run out of someone’s home where I could type up this important information and make copies to distribute to U.S. citizens. In the days after the Hurricane my colleagues and I stood outside the Embassy providing this information, food, and a working cell phone to US citizens to help put them at ease.
The mysterious illnesses were in some ways more challenging because it was a protracted series of events. There are some parallels to the earliest days of coronavirus. We didn’t know how people were getting sick and when the illness would stop. The State Department gave us the option to leave during this difficult period. However, I thought it was important to remain in Cuba and continue to plug away. This helped ensure that the burgeoning US-Cuba diplomatic relationship could continue to develop.
Q. At the US Mission to the United Nations, you were the US’s lead negotiator for topics including advancing women’s participation in peace talks, UN peacekeeping, and the protection of civilians in war, working closely with France, among other countries. What have you learned about the importance of the Franco-American relationship?
I have a deep appreciation for France, America’s oldest ally. The French provided economic and military assistance in our fight for independence from Britain and we later supported the French in their liberation during World War II. I think one of the best Ambassadors of the American dream is the Statue of Liberty, a French gift to the United States.
Our alliance is durable, but it is being tested. We had some policy differences at the United Nations. There were difficult negotiations in which my counterparts had opportunities to lead, but allowed the United States to lead, and take some of the heat, instead. Despite this, we agreed on the need to mandate the highest standards and practices of UN peacekeeping, the importance of women’s significant participation in peace talks, and a host of other issues. I was always able to achieve more policy objectives in negotiations when my French counterpart and I worked together.
The United States has been rethinking our relationship with the world. I would argue that we’ve been in this posture since the 2008 Presidential election. I think that France, under President Macron, also sees its relationship with the world, and with Europe, differently. We are in a unique moment in the Franco-American relationship.
We will know later this year if this was just a unique moment or if this becomes a unique period. Our relationship could become more grounded in a shared belief in the international liberal order that’s served as the architecture for global affairs since World War II. I choose to be an optimist because as a pessimist you suffer twice, as Amos Tversky said. Ultimately, we share similar values and must continue our long-standing cooperation to ensure those values are promoted, particularly in the face of great power competitors.
Q. You’ve shown a passion for diversity and inclusion, whether as President of the Students of Color Association at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs to, more recently, helping establish the US Mission to the United Nation’s first Diversity and Inclusion Council. What motivates you to work on these issues and how have you brought about change?
I believe America’s diversity makes our country great and that diversity should be embraced. My diversity and inclusion efforts stem from a core belief in social justice and, aspiring to, in the words of a Spike Lee joint, “always do the right thing”.
I find that the more I enter privileged spaces, whether it be an Ivy League institution or the United Nations, the less I’ve seen people that look like me or my classmates from my hometown. My diversity and inclusion efforts have focused on working with administrations to recruit and retain people of color while also creating a safe space for us to share about our experience in the University or workplace. I had a lot of classmates and friends who could’ve become doctors, school principals, or architects, if they had a fair shot.
I’m encouraged by many of the conversations and demonstrations in support of racial justice this summer even though we have more work to do. I’m looking forward to exchanging ideas on these topics with my French counterparts and learning from them on how they view these matters.