Desiree Cormier Smith fights for social justice at home and abroad

Growing up in working-class Black Los Angeles, Desiree Cormier Smith was a smart Catholic schoolgirl who knew she wanted a career in public service, “but I didn’t know what was possible,” she said.

Now Smith is finding out, in high-profile fashion: She’s the nation’s new “Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice,” leading the Biden administration’s State Department campaign to make human rights of marginalized groups a foreign policy priority. .

The initiative grew out of an executive order issued by President Biden on his first day in office, requiring each federal agency to “recognize and strive to correct inequities in their policies and programs that constitute barriers to equal opportunity.” odds”.

For the State Department, this means addressing the plight of racial and ethnic minorities in areas where they have been consistently oppressed and assessing whether US policies are contributing to this.

What he does not means imposing our judgments on other countries, or grabbing the microphone when we should be listening.

Smith understands the tensions inherent in this. “We need to talk to people about what they need and how our embassies in their countries can help and support them,” she said.

“It can’t be us trying to apply the American lens on racism to what is a global issue.”

I was relieved to hear Smith acknowledge this, because our American lens has been marred for centuries; cloudy, cracked and blurry beyond recognition by toxic distinctions of race and class.

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Smith is realistic about the challenges she faces. She may not have the typical pedigree of a diplomat, but her social conscience grew naturally.

She hails from one of Black LA’s most notable clans, an extended family of public servants, artists, and activists. His late grandfather, family patriarch Larry Aubry, left such a legacy of civic activism – on education, job training, fair housing and police accountability – that he was known as the “godfather of South Los Angeles” and the “conscience of Black LA”

Desiree Cormier Smith (middle) with friends

Desiree Cormier Smith, center, with friends Savannah Spivey, left, and Jade Threatt at a Young Black Scholars event at Loyola Marymount University.

(Cormier family)

As a child, Smith spent summers with half a dozen cousins ​​at her paternal grandmother’s house in South Los Angeles, where love was abundant but the budget was so tight lunch was sometimes sandwiches. with mustard.

The rest of the year, she lived with her single mother and maternal grandparents in an Inglewood home busy with comings and goings of relatives, and bustling with music and heartbreaking civil rights speeches.

Smith credits this upbringing with forming his big-tent thinking. “Growing up in the care of such a large, close-knit family taught me that I was inherently part of a collective,” she told me.

Smith was selected to head the State Department’s racial justice program in June, after several years with the department and advising international human rights groups.

I was curious about what brought her to foreign diplomacy, so she guided me along her fortuitous career path.

Her first trip abroad — a summer visit to France with her high school French teacher and a group of students — “really changed my life,” Smith said. “It made me realize that there was a huge world out there” and that even international tourism had racial dimensions.

“It was the first time people asked me where I was from,” Smith recalls. “When I said ‘America’, they said ‘Where are you really of?’” She was embarrassed by that. “Why can’t I just be American? Because I’m not a white American?

Smith left Los Angeles for Stanford the following year, with a full scholarship but no idea where his studies might lead. She was juggling part-time jobs to pay for her books when a friend told her about a Foreign Affairs scholarship that would cover all her school expenses and could open the door to a career at the State Department.

Smith received the scholarship, earned a bachelor’s degree from Stanford, with a double major in psychology and political science, and then a master’s degree from Harvard in public policy. His first foreign service assignment, in 2009, was a two-year stint in Mexico, followed by a posting in South Africa.

“My family was really excited for me – except for my grandfather,” Smith recalled ruefully. He had strong apprehensions about his involvement in foreign service. “Why would you go overseas, he asked, when there are so many problems here? »

Why indeed? Given our own longstanding racial inequalities — in housing, health care, education, income, and more — who are we to teach others about racial justice and equity?

We do it because our destinies are intertwined, Smith told me. As we work on racial issues around the world, we discover our own shortcomings. “We know that racism and anti-Blackness is an international phenomenon. I see the same problems in Inglewood and Ghana.

And part of its mission is to address systemic racism embedded in our own policies and programs. “To be credible human rights champions abroad, we need to be credible at home.

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The Race and Ethnicity Initiative is not the State Department’s only equity project. In fact, it took a while to get started.

The department had previously dedicated officials to deal specifically with LGBTQ concerns, international disability rights, global women’s issues, religious freedom and anti-Semitism. “There was a gap that needed to be filled,” Smith said.

Not everything on his agenda has the potential to make headlines. Her team also addresses fundamental changes that promote inclusion abroad and at home — things as simple as adding a non-binary option to gender choices on U.S. passport applications and as complicated as development of sophisticated “social inclusion analysis tools” that can identify problems and measure progress.

They also plan for the future by helping underprivileged students in the United States access study abroad opportunities, and they partner with countries in South America to encourage Afro-Latino and Indigenous students. consider careers in the foreign service.

Because Smith hasn’t forgotten what made his own career possible: the school trip that opened his eyes to the world beyond our borders and the camaraderie that prepared an Inglewood kid to make a difference international.

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