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JHU SAIS Europe 66th Anniversary America is Woke: Can the Biden Administration Keep Us That Way?

February 22, 2021


Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, former US Ambassador to Malta; former Advisor to the Commander of U.S. Cyber Forces 

Moderated by Michael Plummer, Director of SAIS Europe; Eni Professor of International Economics 

Ever since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last May, America has been more “woke” than ever before to the legacy of harm white Americans have brought to Black Americans, with no expectation of accountability. Will we be able to maintain this culture of awareness in the Biden era? And, how can we work for meaningful change from the top down? In recognition of both Black History Month and SAIS Europe’s 66th anniversary, Johns Hopkins SAIA Alumna, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, joined the school for a conversation about equity and diversity in government leadership, in which she highlighted the Biden administration’s promises and progress, outlined ways to keep our leaders accountable, and shared her insights for a new generation of leadership to reach traditionally exclusionary offices. 

Abercrombie-Winstanley began by revisiting the extent of racial injustice within the United States today, from the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner by police to pay discrimination in culinary magazines, NGOs, and diplomacy – and even how the threat of police violence concerns her own family on a daily basis. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the need for equal access to healthcare, housing, and employment, as well as substantial reform of the prison industrial complex and the justice system, and the current president was voted into office to see these injustices made right. To that end, Abercrombie-Winstanley had no qualms about celebrating what progress President Biden has made in his first month in office. As early as his inauguration, Biden acknowledged the “cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making,” and signed four executive orders calling for agency reevaluation of government policies and practices. This has resulted in the foregrounding of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all branches of government, such that Biden’s own cabinet is now 50% nonwhite, opening the way for the next wave of inspired leaders of color. 

Abercrombie-Winstanley cautioned, however, that this work will need to continue further to substantively change the bias and inequity still endemic to government, and particularly in her field of diplomacy. In particular, Abercrombie-Winstanley recalled her experiences of targeted discrimination at international borders while in diplomatic service, explicitly on the basis of her appearance, and how a young diplomat, Tiana Spears, recently published an article attributing her resignation to the exact same experiences. In order to change these conditions, we will need to ensure that we continue to press organisations, individuals, and leaders to ever-higher standards of accountability, intentionality, and transparency in their advancement of equity and inclusivity. 

Abercrombie-Winstanley concluded by answering audience questions on her own professional journey and the importance of joining peer groups like Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security & Conflict Transformation (WCAPS), Diplonoire, and Sisters in Diplomacy to create opportunity, advance inclusivity, and promote meaningful change inside agencies and governments as a whole. More women of color in leadership is the most direct way to hold the new administration accountable to its promise of greater equity and justice, and there has never been a better time to get involved.