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Susan Rice Defends the Value of ‘Diversity’ in Commencement Address to International and Public Affairs Grads

fiu susan rice

fiu susan rice

In Commencement Remarks, the US National Security Advisor, a product of immigrant parentage, defended the Value of “Diversity”, a word that has grown to have negative connotations in American politics and life

Diversity is a dirty word. It is also a highly charged and political word. It conjures up feelings of pride among some and disdain among others. It is an ideal to aspire to in some circles and something people in certain parts of the country feel is “being crammed down our throats.”

Irrespective of what one feels about the term, there is little to no doubt that diversity in thought, experiences, backgrounds, opinions, and perceptions is what makes America great. Diverse work forces are the most innovative and yield higher returns than monolithic ones where everyone hails from the same or similar backgrounds and have experiences limited to their echo-chamber.

It was quite wonderful thus to learn of National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s remarks to the 2016 graduating class of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at the Florida International University this week, Wednesday, May 11, 2016.

Rice is a product of Jamaican immigrant mom and a Tuskegee Airman veteran dad who grew up in segregated South Carolina but rose to become an accomplished economist and a governor of the Federal Reserve.

“Because my parents refused to accept the limits society imposed — and because my grandfather bent over a broom — I stand here as the National Security Advisor to the President of the United States,” she told the graduates and their family and friends. 

 She acknowledged that the immigrant story is one that can be told generation after generation.

“That is the incredible power and the enduring promise of this great country,” she said.  “It is the insistent tug of hope that has drawn generations of immigrants and refugees to our shores.”

 Rice reminded the audience of the anti-diversity sentiments that are popular nowadays in politics, policy and some elements of society and culture. 

Rice noted:

Now, there are voices out there that disparage our diversity—that question whether America should welcome people of all races, religions, and creeds.  Those voices can be loud.  They can be intimidating.  They can make us feel like we don’t belong.  But, you know what?  Let fear be their problem, not yours.  Shake it off.  Ignore the haters.  And, don’t you dare let them slow you down. 

She called out the contribution of immigrants to American life, businesses and innovation: 

Because here’s the truth.  What distinguishes us from so many other countries is not just the might of our military or the size of our economy.  What sets us apart is our people.  It’s our innovation, our fearlessness, and our diversity.  We see it in America’s businesses, where many of our most successful companies were started or grown by immigrants—think Apple, created by Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant from Homs.  We see it in magnificent poets like Richard Blanco, a Cuban exile and two-time FIU alum, reminding us that we all live under “one sky.” 

But while acknowledging the “profound importance of our diversity in the realm of foreign policy and national security,” Rice also recognized that diversity in the upper ranks of the armed forces and among national security jobs is still lacking. 

To those who deride our diversity, my answer is:  I see why it matters every day, in those who protect this country and grapple with the toughest global issues we face.  I’m privileged to work with brilliant and dedicated professionals across our government.  But we must acknowledge that our national security agencies have not yet drawn fully on the strengths of our great nation.  Minorities still make up less than 20percent of our senior diplomats.  Less than 15 percent of senior military officers and senior intelligence officials.  Too often, our national security workforce has been what former Florida Senator Bob Graham called “white, male, and Yale.”  In the halls of power, in the faces of our national security leaders, America is still not fully reflected.

She also noted the value of diversity. Diversity is not about quotas and giving people who are undeserved and unqualified jobs and positions and spots in college admissions. But in fact, there is true value in it and denying large swaths of people the opportunity to compete and be represented is harmful:

Why should we care?  For starters, a diverse national security workforce enables us to unlock all of our nation’s talent.  There are some 320 million people in the United States.  Nearly 40 percent are minorities, and an increasing number of them are earning college and graduate degrees.  As America becomes more diverse, so do our best people.  The next Colin Powell or Madeleine Albright or Bill Richardson is out there.  Our country—and our policies—will be stronger if we can bring them on-board.

Indeed, as noted above, work and classroom culture where everyone think the same or alike are limiting for all involved. We miss out on opportunities for growth and making new strides or discoveries when we ignore the voice of others. Rice continued:

By now, we should all know the dangers of “groupthink,” where folks who are alike often think alike.  By contrast, groups comprised of different people tend to question one another’s assumptions, draw on divergent perspectives and experiences, and yield better outcomes.  Whether we’re confronting ISIL or Ebola, cybersecurity or climate change, solving today’s multifaceted global challenges demand more varied viewpoints and experiences than ever.  Intelligence analysts, diplomats and military officers who are native speakers may pick up subtle nuances that might otherwise go unnoticed.  Diplomats who can read cultural cues may better navigate the political and social currents of a foreign nation.  In sum, leaders from diverse backgrounds can often come up with more creative insights, proffer alternative solutions, and thus make better decisions. 

 And then there is the value of diversity in having those you serve be able to relate and accept the service providers because the forces reflect their experiences too. 

Moreover, we want our national security leaders to reflect America’s best self to the world and inspire others to follow our example.  Not by preaching pluralism and tolerance, but by practicing it.  Think of the LGBT person in Bangladesh who knows that someone at the American embassy understands who she is.  Think of the Iraqi soldier, learning to fight alongside Iraqis from other religious sects, who takes inspiration from America’s own multi-ethnic force.  Think of young Haitians drawn to converse with a Foreign Service officer who has dreadlocks like their own—or our Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, showered with rose petals when he visits his grandmother’s ancestral home in Punjab.  That is how we build bridges and deepen partnerships in an increasingly globalized world. 

 She ended the speech by challenging the graduates to get out of their comfort zones, go after the tough assignments even if it would mean long periods of time away from family,then mentoring others when they rise to the pinnacles of success.

It was an inspirational and inspiring speech. You can read the entire address HERE. t

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