Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Q&A with Desirée Cormier Smith

| Mar. 13, 2023

In honor of International Women's Day and U.S. Women's History Month, Erika Manouselis, Manager of the Future of Diplomacy Project, spoke with Desirée Cormier Smith, the U.S. State Department’s first ever Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice.

Erika Manouselis: So you graduated from the Kennedy School in 2009 with an MPP. Can you describe what led you to public service and how that experience informs your work today as the first ever Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice?

Desirée Cormier Smith: I always had a love of public service even as a child. I grew up with my grandparents, and my grandfather was a very well known civil rights activist and writer in Los Angeles. As a child, he instilled in me and my brother an importance of giving back to our community and of public service.

I went to Catholic school growing up, and there was always a requirement to do community service. I was a Girl Scout. But there was something in me that felt that it was insufficient. It felt like we were putting a bandaid on problems that continued to be persistent, systemic problems, if you will.

So while I continue to believe in the importance of community service and giving back to community, you also have to deal with the source of the problem. For me, a career in government service was my attempt at dealing with the source of the problem, addressing the systemic issues that led to the pain.

EM: You were appointed in June of last year. It's almost, not quite, but almost your one year in the role. What's been your proudest accomplishment so far? What has been one of your biggest obstacles and what goals do you have for the next year?

Desirée Cormier Smith: Ooh, tough question. One of the things I'm most proud of is the creation of a cable tag. That sounds really wonky, but it's incredibly important to institutionalize the work. So we now have a tag that our colleagues around the world can use to report on issues of racism, issues of ethnic discrimination, indigenous issues, issues impacting people of African descent, impacting Roma people, and that will get disseminated around the world and flagged for people who cover these issues and care about these issues.

And that is really powerful and very special for me as a former reporting officer. Because the creation of those tags is also a reflection of the [State] Department's value of these issues.
There are major tags like human rights, trafficking. Now have a tag specifically for racial, ethnic, and indigenous issues. I think that's just incredibly special and something that, again, is wonky, but is a meaningful thing to make sure that this work is embedded in the State Department.

In terms of challenges, there are plenty. I think one of the biggest challenges to this work is the fact that you cannot, and I will not, apply a one size fits all approach to it. That makes it very difficult. Because how we approach this issue of racism, of discrimination, of xenophobia in Southeast Asia is going to look completely different than how we approach it in Latin America, in the Caribbean, in Africa, in Europe, in Asia.

And that means that it's much more difficult to do, and it just takes a lot more thoughtfulness. But I believe that, in being more thoughtful and ensuring that our approach is not only tailored for the specific country, but critically informed by the marginalized racial, ethnic, and indigenous communities themselves, I believe the work will actually be much more impactful and we will see more sustainable results.

Desirée Cormier Smith at left facing Erika Manouselis at right, both seated on either side of a crimson banner with the Belfer Center word mark.

Desirée Cormier Smith, left, with Erika Manouselis.

EM: On that note, I'd like to ask you a little bit about one specific partnership you have. You recently met with Anielle Franco, the Minister of Racial Equality in Brazil, and you discussed the U.S.-Brazil Joint Action Plan to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Discrimination and Promote Equality [JAPER]. I'd love to learn more about your work there with her and more about your thinking on strategic partnerships as a whole.

Desirée Cormier Smith: Brazil is a great example of a country where we have a lot of shared challenges. Because of our similar histories with colonization and the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the legacies thereof, we continue to see communities of African descent and indigenous communities really struggle in terms of their economic outcomes, health outcomes, access to basic services. That has not only harmed these communities, but it has harmed our societies writ large.

This is why on his first day in office, President Biden signed a historic Executive Order [13985] mandating a whole of government approach to advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities because he acknowledges that when entire communities are prevented from living up to their full potential, society overall is worse off. This is true in the United States, but it's also true in Brazil. So I'm really excited about the prospect of reinvigorating JAPER under the leadership of Minister Franco. And I want to underscore the importance of noting that we are reinvigorating it. This was something that was created decades ago actually. And this is how longstanding the acknowledgement is.

EM: 2008, right?

Desirée Cormier Smith: 2008. Exactly. And it is because again, this is not a new issue and it is not an issue that is unique to the United States. JAPER, I think, is going to be a really exciting opportunity for us to really make progress on some of the shared systemic challenges that are plaguing both of our societies. It includes health, education, climate change and its disproportionate impact on indigenous communities, on communities of African descent. I am looking forward to that partnership and that exchange of ideas.

EM: That's great. You talked a little bit about the Executive Order that President Biden signed, I think on his first day in office.

Desirée Cormier Smith: Yes.

EM: I'd love to have you describe a little bit about how your role and your office fits into the larger picture of the State Department's modernization and equity reforms.

Desirée Cormier Smith: President Biden signed Executive Order 13985 on his first day in office. Last month he signed another Executive Order to build upon that: 14091 and the title is Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities. This Executive Order builds upon that day one Executive Order, but really underscores the point that this is not a one-time exercise. That this really does have to be a whole of government, but a generational change as well to really address deeply rooted inequities in our policies and our programs.

That's not going to be easy work, and it's not going be quick work, but we know it's necessary work in order to allow people to reach their full potential. That will lead to a more robust economy. It will lead to a more inclusive and resilient democracy. It will lead to more safety and a more stable, inclusive society. That's good for everyone.

As you noted, I am a part of the State Department's efforts to pursue a more equitable and human rights centered foreign policy. It is an acknowledgement that for marginalized peoples, the unfortunate reality is that their human rights consistently seemed to be violated. I joined the ranks of plethora of other Specials and Ambassadors and Offices focused on other marginalized populations, including women and girls, LGBTQI+ persons, persons with disabilities, religious minorities and persecuted groups, and Jewish people given the unfortunate rise and persistence, frankly, of antisemitism which I very much view as the other side of the same coin of racism.

Desirée Cormier Smith

Desirée Cormier Smith speaks with students during a Q&A session sponsored by the Future of Diplomacy Project in honor of International Women's Day and U.S. Women's History Month.

EM: You talked about a human rights centered foreign policy. In your recent speech to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva, you acknowledged this gap between America's ideals and its lived realities for marginalized communities. And you made the case for how reckoning with this historical legacy builds US’s credibility on the world's stage because we are leading by the power of our example, not the example of our power. Are we succeeding in that right now?

Desirée Cormier Smith: I would like to think that we're making progress, but these challenges were not created overnight, so they are not going to be solved overnight. I think it's important to acknowledge the fact that this is going to be, as the President said, a generational exercise. I very much believe that the work that I'm doing is building upon the generations before me and my ancestors who fought for equality and justice and dignity, and now is simply my turn to have the baton and run the race. I am just hoping that by the time it's time for me to pass on the baton, that we are a little further ahead. But I do, as I tell my team all the time, remind myself that this is a marathon, not a sprint.

EM: So what would you tell the future generations of leaders that we're training here at the Kennedy School?

Desirée Cormier Smith: I would tell them that it is important to focus not only on the challenges, but on the victories as well. Because sometimes, and I hear this a lot particularly from young people, particularly from young people from marginalized communities, that the enormity of the challenges, the hugeness of racism, can seem so daunting that they often don't even know where to start. Or they feel hopeless, or they feel like they won't be able to make a difference. I think that's really dangerous.That's why it's important for me to acknowledge the wins, even the smallest wins. Because it's a reminder that you're moving in the right direction. And again, as long as you're moving in the right direction then that's progress.

One thing I often remind myself because I tend to get frustrated with the pace of change because of “the fierce urgency of now” and the fact that this is people’s lives. It's impacting their lives everyday. Some people are literally being killed because of their race or ethnicity. For me, it's deeply personal, but I have to remind myself that if we want to go far, we have to go together. If you wanna go fast, you go alone. And the goal is to go far and make real sustainable lasting change. Not quick change, because quick changes can be quickly undone.

We want to make real progress so that we are living up to the ideals on which this country was founded, of equality and dignity and justice for all human beings.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Manouselis, Erika .“Q&A with Desirée Cormier Smith.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 13, 2023.

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