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Interviews

An Interview with Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, Founder of Women of Color Advancing Peace Security and Conflict Transformation

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins is the founder of Women of Color Advancing Peace Security and Conflict Transformation, an organization working to promote diversity in the fields such as security and nonproliferation. She is the former Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs at the US State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. She has served as the U.S. representative to the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (WMD) and chaired the Global Partnership in 2012. She also played a key role in the Global Health Security Agenda in 2014.

Could you begin by telling us a bit about your past work at the Department of State (DOS) and also where you are now?

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins: I’ve have a long history working in government. I started working in government in the 1990s. Then I came back in 2009 because I was asked to join the Obama administration. I came back and went to the State Department, where I was an ambassador, and my title was Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs. What that means is that I was a coordinator for a US DOS program to prevent weapons of mass destruction terrorism.

The first few years, I focused mainly on chemical, nuclear, biological, and radiological security issues. Towards the end of my time in government, starting in 2014, I also started working in the area of infectious disease. That’s mainly because the US government decided to look at the issue of infectious diseases more holistically, and to create an understanding of how we prevent, detect and respond to infectious diseases by having a multidisciplinary approach. So that means bringing in different parts of government to work together on combating infectious disease both domestically and globally. The work that I did previously on biosecurity incorporated into that larger government effort, on the side of prevention, ensuring that bio-pathogens cannot be stolen or taken by people who want to do bad things.

Right now, I am the founder and executive director of an organization called Women of Color Advancing Peace Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS), and the main goal of this organization is to increase the voices of women of color in foreign policy, peace, and security. I am also a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

I’d love to talk about WCAPS and the work you do on promoting diversity later on in the interview. But to start off, let’s talk a bit about biosecurity. It’s such a huge topic, but could talk about what you think are the key challenges in biosecurity that we face in this century?

Some of the challenges we are dealing with now haven’t changed from what we faced before, and some challenges are new. One of the basic challenges is to ensure that [labs remain safe and secure]. Unlike the nuclear area, where you need to have highly enriched uranium or plutonium to make a weapon, in the bio-field, so much of what we care about, bio-pathogens that can be used to make a bio-weapon, is dual-use. In other words, much of what can be used to make positive things, like vaccines, can also be used for something negative. So, the challenge in the bio field remains: how do we make sure that these pathogens be safe and secure? And that concern won’t change in the future. . The thing is that bio-labs are all around the world. Unlike nuclear, where not every country has nuclear facilities or materials, every country has biologists, labs, and pathogens. Trying to ensure that pathogens are all secure is a big challenge. We don’t know what every lab is doing. We have a number of programs to help countries that can use assistance and the US, Canada, France, the UK, and other countries do provide financial and other assistance. But there are a lot of labs that we don’t know about, so we can only hope that they’re all secure.

It’s always a challenge to help individuals and scientists understand why we do the things we do and why they need to [focus on security]. Unfortunately, not all schools teach biosecurity culture at their universities. That’s a gap that exists in terms of increasing awareness before students leave and go work in bio-labs. So, we have to keep being focused on safety and security and doing what we can to help scientists understand why they have to be safe and secure. So that’s a traditional concern.

The second more recent and increasing concern is biotechnology. There’s a lot of new research and technology being done now for instance nanotechnology. Whenever there’s a new technology in the bio-world, it’s great because we can do new exciting things; you have cloning and all the stuff that’s going on there. Because so much of this research is dual use, the concern is that you always have to worry whether some kind of new technology, that can be used for something positive, can also be used for something negative. This is another issues that we now have to constantly focus our attention on and so we must keep teaching safety and security culture. This concern will only get increasingly i challenging the more the technology develops.

So, you want to avoid accidents, but also deliberate misuses and things happening because of outright nefarious intentions.

Right. That’s why you have to worry about biosecurity culture because it’s the scientists who can make sure that nobody gets in. So, [you want] the people who have access [to the labs] to understand that there’s a reason why we have to lock the doors, why we have to secure the windows, why we have to do background checks on people who work there, etc. The reason why you do that is to make sure that people cannot get in. You can do what you can, you can build a wall or a fence and you can do all these things to make it secure, but if the individuals are not aware or don’t care enough, all those efforts won’t be enough to prevent access to pathogens by those who are not supposed to have access.

You played a really central role in the launch of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). I’ve read some great praise of your work in that context. Could you talk about what that was like and what the goal of that was?

Thank you. That is nice to hear. The goal of the GHSA is to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious diseases. And the initiative was started because there was a recognition in 2013 that countries are not prepared to deal with infectious diseases. This was based on the fact that we have all these new diseases –we have H1N1, H1N9, bird flu, etc.–and they seem to be increasing. And you combine this with the fact that people travel a lot more now, so diseases can spread. And then we were worried about something called antimicrobial resistance, which is another big issue. We also witnessed the disruption that t happened with the U.S. anthrax attacks, and all the money we spent responding to that.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has the International Health Regulations, where countries must note whether they are able to deal with infectious diseases, and less than 30% of countries in 2013 could. This was self-evaluation, so it could be less. In 2013, all of these [factors] led to a decision in the US that we needed to do something to really strengthen the capacity of countries to be able to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious diseases.

And this was all before Ebola. We launched [GHSA] in February 2014, and right after that Ebola hit, or at least what was happening in West Africa was identified for what it was. [Ebola] really gave credence to why we did what we did. It really made people say, “We really need to do something, because there are a lot of countries out there, and only 30% are able to say that they could deal with infectious disease threats.” West Africa had countries that really did not have strong infrastructure and capacity to address these issues.

So, that’s why we started the GHSA, which now has over 60 countries as partners – it’s really to help countries strengthen their capacity to deal with infectious disease threats.

What is most exciting about the GHSA initiative that you have seen in recent years?

Well, one of the best parts of the GHSA was that it has been able to help countries focus on strengthening their own health infrastructure and to have their internal departments and ministries work together. There’s been much more of a connection between animal and human health and more recognition of the many diseases humans get from animals, and why veterinary science is so important in terms of human health. It’s raised the level of attention globally and strengthened the role of infectious diseases at the WHO. It’s strengthened the role of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in terms of what they do on infectious disease issues. It has just overall raised the level of attention and has gotten countries to focus and work together, because part of the GHSA is that participating countries meet once a year. In between that, 20 countries that are part of the GHSA Steering Group have three meetings in the year. So, [the GHSA] has really set up an international structure for working on this issue of infectious disease with the assistance of the WHO, OIE, FAO, and the World Bank. It also has a number of NGOs and private sector companies that are involved, so it has set up this overall structure. Now, we need to continue this structure and make sure that there’s still funding being put into this effort to make sure it is successful.

So, that is obviously a really promising initiative and a step in the right direction. What would you say, on the other hand, are some of the more worrying developments you’re seeing, either politically or maybe just in terms of security culture, or things like that?

I think the most worrisome thing would be funding, making sure that money is still being put towards [the GHSA], as it’s not a cheap venture.

More generally, sustainability is an issue. You have new political parties coming in, not just in the US but also in other countries, that may have different priorities. So, [it is important] to try and help countries understand why the GHSA and issues of biosecurity and infectious diseases remain important. Successive leaders, whether in the US or elsewhere, may not see it as important, so there should be constant [pressure] about why we need to keep doing this.

And I imagine that it’s difficult to maintain that political will, when something, say, Ebola in 2014, starts fading from memory and other things receive attention. You need to maintain the effort but that could be difficult politically.

It is difficult politically, particularly when something is expensive and countries want to put money towards something else. Overall, we don’t do a good job at prevention. We’re very good at responding. That’s just in general: I think it’s maybe human nature to just say, “I see something that’s concrete, I can put money towards it, let’s do it,” but if it’s about trying to prevent something, it’s a more difficult case to make. So that’s why it’s good to have numbers, so you can say, “look, we calculated that if something did happen, it’s going to cost this much money, but if you prevent it, it’s not going to cost as much.” Then people have something concrete. But it’s always a challenge to do that in terms of keeping things sustainable.

Right. So, what is the most exciting part of working with biosecurity and nonproliferation and what is the most challenging?

What I like the most is that there are important issues. I like working with different communities whether it’s scientists, lawyers, or politicians, diplomats, and people from other countries who are all involved. Just working on issues of such importance, in terms of national security and health or in terms of them being global issues and being involved in something of that scale, is exciting. It’s always been exciting to me, whether it’s weapons of mass destruction or other issues overall.

I guess the most challenging part is that, as I said before, these are big issues. We are not always aware of how many vulnerable facilities exist. We tend to fund work where there is a combination of vulnerability and terrorist activity [nearby]. If there’s a facility sitting in the middle of nowhere that’s not secure, that’s a problem. But with limited amounts of funding, you’re going to lean towards [helping the facility] that’s sitting someplace where we know there’s a terrorist cell or something nearby. So you have to make those kinds of choices, because it’s impossible to help everybody – which is why you want people to help themselves.

So, I’d like to ask some questions about the work you’ve done on promoting diversity in this field. I should begin by saying that I think it’s really awesome and inspiring. So, maybe you could start by talking a bit about your personal process of realizing that this was something you really wanted to make an effort towards improving?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a number of years, because in the areas that I work in, which is hard security, there were never many people of color or women. Because I was always the one who was different for so many years, I thought it would be nice to bring in some young people. You know, when I leave this field of work, it would be nice if there were a bunch of others in the next generation working these issues and who are also people of color because. However, I didn’t really see anybody behind me.

So that’s one of the reasons why I initially got interested in launching the organization. And I’m happy to say that I’m seeing a lot more young, diverse people coming up in peace and security overall, not just in hard security, but the other areas.

What do you think are the biggest benefits of increasing diversity and inclusivity? Or, the flipside, what are the biggest risks and dangers of having too much homogeneity in a field like this?

I think the problem is that you need to have people to test your ideas, to challenge what one thinks is the best way forward. You need people to say, “That sounds good, but maybe you should try this,” or better yet, “If you’re going to do this in that country, let me give you some advice, because my ancestors came from there, or I came from there, or my mother came from there, and this may not work that well in this part of Africa, or this part of Asia, or Latin America or the Middle East.”

One issue is just having different voices. It’s important to have voices from different viewpoints and cultural perspectives. Since so many of our foreign policies affect people from many parts of the world where you have people of color, it would be good to have people of color as part of deliberations on what will be our foreign policies. So, if you don’t have people who can test theories or push back and say, “I really don’t think that’s going to work, or I can tell you that’s not going to work – believe me”… I think you just have better policies if you have different people.

And it’s interesting because the business sector has kind of realized that. They have already come out and said that they realize their bottom-line is improved when they have diverse voices. It’s been a little slower for foreign policy and government to make a connection between diversity and improved policies.

I guess another thing that comes to mind is that you’re going to lose out on so much valuable, raw talent, if you have whole groups of people who are less encouraged or find the environment less hospitable.

So, could you briefly summarize what WCAPS is all about?

So, Women of Color Advancing Peace Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) is about trying to increase the voice of women of color. We do that in three ways. One is by empowering young women through mentorship programs, podcasts, webinars, and a number of other things we’re doing. The second step is to bring the mid-career women–the hidden figures–out of the shadows, so that people can see there are quite a few women of color who are doing this. And the third thing is to work with institutions to try to help them put more women of color out there and having discussions about these places where you traditionally don’t have a lot of women. So we kind of do everything through those three pillars of work. The website is full of all kinds of things that we do, in terms of podcasts, webinars, Woman of the Month, a Young Ambassador of the Month, a Young Ambassadors program, a Mentorship program, and media training. It’s all about empowering women. But we also have allies. We have members who are not women or people of color because you need allies, you need people out there who support you, so we have that as well.

Okay. So, what would you say if you had an organization or agency or a business or even a student group looking to increase inclusivity and make it a better space for more diverse people to be in? What are some concrete things that people should think about?

One thing to think about is how to welcome other people and make them feel comfortable. There are two steps: one is diversity and one is inclusion. So, diversity is bringing different people in– different [genders], different races, maybe different income levels, different parts of the US. That’s all diversity. But what you also need to do is inclusiveness, which is making people feel like they are part of something.

I would recommend that if you really want to do that, to find ways to attract people to come in the room in the first place. But then, if you want to keep them there, if you don’t want them to say, “Well, I’m just going to leave because I don’t feel included” or “I’m going to leave because I don’t feel like anyone is really listening to me,” that’s the second step.

And a lot of people have a problem with that. They think, “Oh, I’ve done enough now,” but if you want to keep it diverse, you have to take another step.

So how do you move beyond, you know, just tacking one sentence about diversity onto the job application? What are the things you do when you’re in that room, say, hosting a talk, what are the things that people can do to avoid being off-putting? Anything in terms of how to communicate?

Language is important. And also the things that you don’t say. [It’s about] just being conscious of what you’re saying in the room. Sometimes people can say things and not really realize how others might be hearing or interpreting it. So, just being aware of what you’re saying and how one is acting. That just takes time and practice. And listening! Not just speaking, but also listening to what people are saying, what the diverse people in the room are saying, and just taking that in as well.

Right. On a similar note, do you have words of advice or encouragement specifically to different minorities looking to enter this field, maybe specifically to women of color, that you would like to put out there?

First of all, look for role models. It’s always good to have role models and to hear from people who are already there. One of the things I know my organization does, and others do as well, is try to provide role models and to say, “These women did it, [you] can do it too.” If you look on our website, we have a list of experts who work in different areas, so people can go and say, “I want to do STEM,” or “I want to do climate change,” or peacekeeping or something You may not know any women of color who are doing it, but you can go [to the website] and see, “Oh, look at all these women who are doing this.” I would say that’s very important. Do research into the field that you want to get into and look for role models. It’s such an important thing. Mentorship is so important as well. And just finding others who are interested in some of the things you are– who can help you find role models and things like that.

Okay. To wrap up, let’s do some rapid fire questions. Who’s a living person whom you really admire and why?

I would say Cicely Tyson. She’s a good role model because she seems to be solid. She seems to be proud of her heritage, proud of being a black woman. She’s obviously an amazing actress, and she has lived a life– a real life.

What’s a book that really influenced you while growing up or while in school?

The Catcher in the Rye. For some reason, that gave me an understanding of the value of independence. I use to read it often when I was young. I would like to read it again now after all these years.