Since 1978, the United States has celebrated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May. The month provides an opportunity to publicly recognize the achievements and contributions of Asian Americans that enrich our nation. As the daughter of a mother from Hawaii and a father from Hong Kong, being Asian American is not simply something I think about once a year, but rather, a daily reality; one that I carry with me as I work in the Department of State.
Here’s another reality: Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, with a current population of over 21 million. According to the State Department’s workforce statistics, Asian Americans represent 6.4% of the Department’s permanent workforce. Yet at the most senior levels, Asian Americans represent less than 3.75% of the workforce. These numbers are not disaggregated to reflect the differences in Asian American subgroups, and therefore mask which groups are disproportionately overrepresented or underrepresented. Representation of Asian Americans and other minorities at all levels of the Department matters for our image overseas and helps us project our democratic values and diversity. That same representation matters just as much at home because it serves as a motivator for and an inspiration to the next generation of leaders within the Department and our communities.
Employee affinity groups, sponsored by the Department’s Office of Civil Rights, are leading the charge in addressing diversity and inclusion, and advocating for a foreign affairs community that reflects the multicultural makeup of the United States. These groups aim to address some of the “realities” related to minority representation in the Department. I am proud to be part of the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA) — an association of Civil Service and Foreign Service employees, fellows, contractors, interns and retirees at the Department of State with the mission to improve recruitment, outreach, and professional development of Asian American and Pacific Islander officers within the Department of State.
AAFAA aims to build community through professional development and networking activities, such as informal conversations with senior department officials. AAFAA has also been a leader on issues such as assignment restrictions and preclusions that disproportionately affect Asian Americans, and has partnered with other groups to organize events such as non-partisan voter registration and bone marrow donation drives. AAFAA is one of the most active employee affinity groups at State, hosting two to four events a month and producing a monthly newsletter for its members in the United States and in all of our Embassies and Consulates abroad.
In mid-May, AAFAA hosted its annual leadership dinner, gathering over 120 attendees from across the Department and included guests from other federal agencies. Although it can be a challenge to find a high-level keynote speaker from among the small pool of Asian Americans in the senior ranks, we were honored to have Bob Wang, the former Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) senior official, address the dinner attendees this year. He gave an inspiring speech on his experience in the Department and the importance of leveraging Departmental expertise and diverse perspectives when setting and implementing foreign policies.
As part of its outreach efforts, AAFAA seeks ways to celebrate and promote Asian American culture, such as through the Lunar New Year potluck in January and an inter-agency Mid-Autumn Festival social event. Another example is AAFAA’s dragon boat team, “Diplomatic Row,” which I led as the captain. Dragon boat racing is a fun sport that embodies many of the leadership and management principles the Department promotes in fostering teamwork and communication skills. Every year, the team draws nearly 75% new team members who are eager to learn a new sport and its cultural heritage. Diplomatic Row competed at the DC Dragon Boat Festival this May for its fifth year. We engaged with the wider D.C. community, and even won a silver medal in the 250-meter races, setting a team-best record time!
Throughout my time serving on the AAFAA Board and interacting with members, I have broadened my knowledge of the range of positions and roles Asian Americans play throughout the Department in serving our country: policy negotiators, management experts, diplomatic security agents and public affairs specialists, among other roles. I have also gained an appreciation of the Department’s inclusion and openness in encouraging employees to celebrate, share, and learn about each other’s cultural backgrounds.
Diversity is one of America’s strengths. And it is also a strength of the State Department. Through employee affinity groups like AAFAA, the Department is able to tap into and leverage the diversity within its ranks, and encourage further growth and representation of Asian Americans and leaders from all backgrounds. That same diversity should also be celebrated. Personally, the Department’s celebration of diversity has certainly enriched my experience as an Asian American and public servant at the Department of State.
About the Author: Aldrinana Leung serves as the economic policy and partnerships advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.
Editor's Note: The entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.