Just a quick note that I’ve shared my Dos and Don’ts for civil servants during these difficult times over at Rebels at Work.
Two controversies this inaugural weekend led me to reflect on the challenges for federal employees during the incoming administration of President Trump: the retweets by the official twitter account of the National Park Service and the content of President Trump’s speech at the CIA. Both were wrong for largely the same reason: they injected partisanship where it does not belong: in the execution of the duties of federal government employees.
The issue of political activity by federal employees is the subject of rather important legislation–the Hatch Act of 1939, which prohibits almost all federal employees from engaging in most forms of political, partisan activity. Of course, when a new administration takes office, the directions and policies of cabinet departments will change, and civil servants are expected to carry out these new policies whatever their previous and/or personal views.
In the case of the National Park Service, its twitter account retweeted comments that had partisan implications, one comparing the size of inaugural crowds, and the other criticizing changes in the content of the White House web site. Although defenders of the Park Service would say the comments are innocuous, they really weren’t. They were not-so-subtle digs at the incoming Trump administration and as such just plain inappropriate. In fact, the Park Service has been prohibited by law since 1995 from estimating crowd sizes at events on the National Mall, in part because these estimates can become politically controversial.
The same general principles–federal civil employees should not engage in partisan political activity during work hours–can help us think about President Trump’s visit to the CIA on Saturday,. The fact of the visit is not a problem–but the content of the speech was a disaster. The President had no business suggesting that CIA employees overwhelming voted for him. A CIA officer’s personal views should have no bearing on the performance of her duties. I know this is a high bar and, in reality, impossible to reach. Cognitive science has shown that no human can be a perfectly objective being. But the future of intelligence activities in democratic societies depends upon every employee striving for this goal.
US law stipulates the federal employee oath of office:
An individual, except the President, elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services, shall take the following oath: “I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” This section does not affect other oaths required by law.
The Central Intelligence Agency has a problem recruiting minorities and advancing them into senior leadership positions, CIA Director John Brennan admitted last month. “There have been impediments,” Brennan told reporters, “to minority officers being able to rise in the organization.”
As a Puerto Rican woman who spent 32 years at CIA and nine of those years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, you might think my experience revealed a few secrets for advancing as a minority at the Agency. But during my career, I was struck much more by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) barriers to entry and advancement that the Agency presented to people who did not come from a Western European background. Not all of the affected were members of officially recognized minority groups—you can be a different thinker regardless of your heritage or experiences. But the information CIA released on minority representation suggests ethnic and racial minorities have had the most difficulty adapting to existing cultural norms, both when they seek Agency employment and when they attempt to advance in the bureaucracy.
My hunch is that any effort to increase both minority presence and influence at CIA will falter as long as the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural barriers to entry and advancement exist. As the recently published Diversity Leadership Study concluded, the CIA does not consistently promote an inclusive culture. In my view, constructing a more inclusive culture requires the Agency to reset some of its cultural precepts, including some long-held, treasured beliefs.
One cultural precept at CIA I think harms diversity efforts is an American/northern European-centric view of the world. This perspective expressed itself in many ways, most of them quite subtle. For example, I often heard the phrase “American Exceptionalism” at CIA. Senior leaders would use it frequently, never imagining, I would think, how that might come across as patronizing to a sizeable percentage of the workforce. Even now, I feel compelled to add—lest my patriotism be challenged—that I am a proud American who believes the United States contributes in a positive way to the planet.
But I think that’s generally true of all cultures—they make positive and negative contributions to the world. It is perhaps inescapable that an American intelligence agency would default to the West as its model and icon of goodness. But Agency leadership could usefully audit their common phrases and mental shortcuts to remove ones that are egregiously Euro-centric.
Another example is a phrase I heard with some regularity from CIA officers that went something like this: “Everything in country X has fallen apart since the [pick your colonial power] left.” Although I shared my discomfort with friends, I’m ashamed to say I never pointed out directly to a colleague how such a remark might come across to members of a minority group – especially one from that particular nation.
It’s probably not obvious how such under- and overtones might relate to the lack of minority representation among CIA leaders. What I think happens is many officers struggle with being true to their own beliefs and cultural heritage even as they seek career success at the Agency. I know I did. The Diversity Leadership Study acknowledges the subtle ways in which this culture can impede the advancement of people who are different:
The Agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, nor consistently promote an inclusive, “speak-up” culture where all opinions are heard, valued, and taken into account. Some officers disengage because when they share their thoughts and perspectives on mission or workforce issues they are not considered. [emphasis mine]
Read the rest of the post here.
I don’t know what my readers think of Catholic nuns, if they think about them much at all, but I bet very few of you see religious orders as women-owned non-profits having tremendous social impact. But that’s what I learned last weekend when I visited the Sisters of Notre Dame in Chardon, Ohio. The sisters trace their beginnings back to 19th-century Germany, where two women established the order as a way of continuing their care for poor neglected children. I was there to visit my good friend Sister Pat, who has been with the order her entire adult life, serving primarily as an educator. She is now the Treasurer of the Chardon Province of the order–there are four provinces in the US, and so she could fill us in on how the Sisters are working to preserve their legacy of good works even as their numbers decline.
It’s no secret that few women in the US choose to be nuns. The number of Catholic nuns in the US peaked at about 180,000 in the 1960s, when Sister Pat joined the order, to less than 50,000 today. Sister Pat told us that the median age of the Sisters in their province is in the 70s. And yet the Sisters remain a key resource for their rural community east of Cleveland. The sisters run an elementary school and high school–the largest meeting facility in the county is on their property. The order has always been active in educating and taking care of children, but they are now extending their mission into areas such as health care, water security in Africa, and human trafficking. Their calling card appears to be compassion for all humans and for the planet.
But one of their biggest priorities now is to sustain their good works regardless of the future size of their order. As Sister Pat described the initiatives they’re pursuing, I realized the Sisters have had to develop business acumen and clear-eyed strategies. They know that religious orders are being disrupted, but they’re ready to innovate, not to stay one step ahead of “competitors” but to preserve the value they provide to others.
There’s some lessons all of us dealing with exponential and perhaps even existential change can learn from the Sisters of Notre Dame.
It’s about the mission. I was struck by how focused the Sisters are on preserving their outcomes, not necessarily themselves. I wish the Sisters a glorious future, and I suspect that their outward focus is what will best ensure it. I can’t help but contrast their strategy with the actions of many organizations, who seek to preserve themselves first, sometimes even at the cost of their mission.
It’s about BOTH tradition and progress. Sister Pat took us on a tour of their buildings, where they have a lovely display of the history of their order. And just around the corner she showed us where their IT staff works and told us about how they handled the recent live streaming of a funeral mass.
Art and Nature are always part of the Mission. The Sisters are proper caretakers of a charming rural property and they have built a dedicated arts center for their students. Their buildings are situated to be close to nature.
Taking care of each other is God’s work. This requires no explanation.
My great-aunt Laura and her husband Felix visited me in northern Virginia the last week in April. My great-aunt is 83 years old, Felix a few years younger, and they live in Puerto Rico. She was the youngest and now the only survivor of a robust line of siblings of my grandmother, Doña Yuya. (Abuela died at 96 1/2 years old in 2003.) Laura and my mother, who turns 80 this summer, grew up like sisters in the barrio of Santo Domingo in Caguas, Puerto Rico. When they get together, they like to talk about the chickens who lived with them. When the chickens became sick, Abuela would burn tires. Most of the chickens would die, but the ones that survived were declared cured.
Like he does every time we see him, Felix talked about his tough childhood in Puerto Rico and New York City. His schooling ended in the third grade as a result of his mother’s death. His father sent Felix off to stay with other relatives, who put him to work at a restaurant of sorts in Puerto Rico, where Felix says he might as well have been a slave. He only had one shirt and one pair of pants, he said, and didn’t attend school. He was saved by an Americano who would come to the restaurant and who eventually offered him a better job. Felix ended up in a cold water flat in New York City. He had no idea of how cold water could get until he took his first shower in the winter.
Felix was constantly on the phone, checking on his network of friends and family in Puerto Rico. (It is unusual for Laura and Felix to travel anywhere now that they’ve retired.) Felix is the facilitator, the engineer of his social circle. His areas of expertise include car repairs, cell phone bills, and baseball, particularly the New York Mets. He also knows what most things should cost and was surprised that the Burger Kings in the US mainland charge more than the ones in Puerto Rico. He appeared to know to the penny what he should have been paying.
Labor Unions. Felix recounted his experience at his first job as an adult. He was working at a factoria in New York City and eventually ended up as the shop steward, even though he did not speak much English. (He still doesn’t.) During some kerfuffle he was fired and he filed a complaint with the New York Labor Commission. When they investigated, according to Felix, they discovered that the owner of the factoria was also the head of the labor union. Felix was always a union man; he believed companies always took advantage of Puerto Ricans and blacks.
Economics. Felix eventually became the treasurer of a social club in New Jersey, Amigos Unidos. He became frustrated by the endless hassle collecting annual membership dues, so he suggested to the club leadership that they drop the dues and rely on bar revenues for income. Most of his colleagues were dubious but, as Felix recounted, his plan worked. They made more profit from the bar than they ever made from membership dues. The club became so profitable that it eventually acquired its own building, which was an overstretch. They also ran afoul of the local liquor commission, which began to impose stricter conditions for a liquor license.
Cemeteries. Perhaps the highlight of Felix’ and Laura’s visit was when we visited Abuela’s and my father’s graves. Abuela is buried at a lovely cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. My mother grieves every time she visits but this time Laura was there to reassure her. My father is in Arlington National Cemetery, which always makes for an impressive visit. My mother is calmer when she visits my father. She only says the Our Father at his grave and omits the Hail Mary because he was a Protestant.
Felix loves to play cards and claims to be a successful gambler. One day I invited a friend who knew Abuela to come over and play cards with us. Abuela knew her as La Alta Flaca. We played Spanish cards–Briscas, and Felix was a good teacher of the game. He also won.
All in all, it was a good break for Felix and Laura. He left us with his favorite saying: Cuídense que de los buenos quedan pocos. (Take care, because there aren’t too many good ones left.)
I posted this tweet just about an hour ago. Like many of my tweets, it has a back story, and I thought I might share this one.
I’m in Puerto Rico with my mom for Thanksgiving, and that’s because we are Puerto Ricans–my mother born and bred and me born and sort of half-bred. We don’t have much immediate family left on the island, but one of our favorites who is still there and with us is my great aunt Laura. She’s my grandmother’s youngest sister–25 years younger than Abuela. Laura is 83 now–the only one of her siblings still alive. This is a picture of her from earlier today–she’s eating so that’s why her mouth looks a little funny.
The genetic material on that side of the family is choice. My grandmother lived to be 96 and her mother topped 100 by several years–no one really knows for sure because she never was clear in her own mind. She was born, she said, a few years before some horrible hurricane hit Puerto Rico and was a young woman when the Americans landed.
Almost all of my family in Puerto Rico were poor and not well-educated, at least through World War II. My grandmother only finished the first grade and could barely read and sign her name–although her command of financial matters was astute. She never learned to speak English except for counting from 1 to 75–the Bingo numbers.
And Laura wasn’t well educated either. She is not book smart. The modern world escapes her. She only ever worked as a laborer. She never learned to drive.
And yet as we drove back to the hotel from our last visit, I reflected on my great aunt Laura’s personal kind of smarts. She has no idea how the internet works or the economic fundamentals behind her electricity bill. Instead, she feels deeply the injustice in the world. “Ave Maria” is her most common phrase which she uses to register her sympathy with your plight–or anyone else’s. Her last story was about her neighbor’s dog, who is chained in the backyard and shown no love. “I cannot tell you how much I suffer because of him.” she said.
Compassion. That’s her form of intelligence. And it has grown through a lifetime of empathy for everyone she’s ever met.
So that tweet was for my great aunt Laura. She will never see it. She does not know Twitter exists. But now Twitter will know she exists.