July 5, 2022
The need for more diverse voices in national security is not a new one. And while we’ve made significant progress in recent years, there’s still work to be done to ensure that the peace and security space is truly equitable and inclusive.
Recognizing this, the New Models of Policy Change Initiative at New America is proud to partner with several organizations working to advance diversity in the national security field — including Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS). Like us, WCAPS believes that issues of peace and security demand a diversity of perspectives and our institutions should reflect our society.
So, what might our national security strategy look like if more perspectives were at the table, if it truly centered racial justice and equity? Earlier this year, in partnership with WCAPS, we published an essay series featuring eight thoughtful responses to that question. Representing a wide range of experiences as international affairs practitioners and Americans, the authors discussed redefining security, decolonizing aid, baking anti-racism into foreign policy, and much more.
To build on this and highlight our special partnership, we spoke with WCAPS Executive Director Shalonda Spencer. In this Q&A, she discusses her work, and what it stands for.
You became Executive Director of WCAPS in 2021. Tell us about your journey with WCAPS and the organization’s origins.
My journey at WCAPS has given me hope because it’s rewarding to be part of an organization that's creating pathways for women of color nationally and internationally. When I was interested in the foreign affairs field, opportunities were limited. Frequently, I was either the only Black woman or the only woman in the room, so not seeing anyone who looked like me discouraged my career path in the foreign relations sector. After making a conscious decision to pursue international relations as a career, I'm delighted to say WCAPS was the door-opener for me and it has paved the way for many other women of color in the field. Being part of a network that focuses on elevating women of color in peace and security gave me a sense of hope for my future. WCAPS is a multicultural organization focused on ensuring all women of color feel included as members and leaders in our network. As professionals, our diverse perspectives have influenced foreign policy and impacted women's lives at home and abroad. As members of the WCAPS network, we focus on ensuring women of color get a seat at the table on peace and security issues and stay there. For us, this means building a welcoming pipeline for aspiring women of color practitioners and fostering their growth through leadership and development opportunities. My core principle as the executive director is to advance the mission and vision of WCAPS as my purpose on this journey continues.
The organization’s work is centered around developing a platform for women of color to cultivate strong voices and networks in international peace and security. Can you share more about the mission of WCAPS and its significance in the history of national security?
Historically, opportunities for women of color in diplomacy and foreign relations, whether in the private or public sector, were not always granted. Since WCAPS's founding, our goal has been to break those barriers to increase diversity at places like the State Department, the White House, and other institutions. Within my time at WCAPS, we’ve successfully seen over 10 members transition to the Biden-Harris administration and 17 members make the annual National Security and Foreign Affairs Leaders list released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies with the Diversity in National Security Network. Therefore, we have already started reshaping history for women of color and are dedicated to continuing these efforts.
Earlier this year, WCAPS and New America’s New Models of Policy Change initiative worked together to produce a series of essays on equity and justice in national security. Why is it important to talk about these issues in the peace and security space?
WCAPS was proud to partner with New America on this essay collection on equity and justice in national security. The essays revealed where we are in America today and how women of color frequently encounter adversity due to racism and a patriarchal system that rarely seeks them out as leaders. WCAPS empowers women of color to share their perspectives on foreign policy issues based on their expertise and knowledge. Our members' publications, which have allowed them to gain academic research experience while pursuing their professions, has contributed to our success in redefining national security to incorporate foreign and domestic policy. Suppose women of color are not addressing these issues: Who else will elevate our voices? Our perspectives matter in both research and practice.
What are your aspirations for WCAPS over the next year? And how can partnerships with organizations like New America help WCAPS reach its goals?
I aspire to continue creating more opportunities for WCAPS members to advance their careers and elevate their voices in the field. WCAPS is the organization that other NGOs and government entities reach out to for board nominations and employment recommendations. It demonstrates our credibility and commitment to bridging the diversity gap to ensure women of color are at the forefront and placed in significant positions to influence change. My role as the executive director is to carry on the legacy of WCAPS founder Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, building on what she started so that the pipeline will continue to grow. Organizations like New America and others who are great allies of WCAPS can become involved through our Organizations in Solidarity initiative, where we stand together against racial discrimination in the workforce and continue to encourage and elevate women of color in the field of peace and security.
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Is the National Security Field Actually Becoming Less Diverse? (Political Reform, 2020): Growing evidence suggests that we are moving backwards when it comes to diversity in the national security sphere. These trends can have grave life-and-death outcomes, as shown by events such as FEMA’s response to Hurricane Maria to nuclear weapons policy. Can inclusion and diversity better shape U.S. policy outcomes and actions?
Equity and Racial Justice: Where Do They Fit in a National Security Strategy? (Political Reform, 2022): The New Models of Policy Change Initiative and Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) present a set of eight essays exploring what a U.S. national security strategy focused on racial equity and justice could look like.
Diversity in National Security (International Security, 2020): When it comes to U.S. national security there is a clear lack of diversity. To address this growing issue, policymakers must take concrete steps to ensure greater women’s representation, and in particular women of color, in civilian and military leadership positions.
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