Foreign Policy

Racial Injustice Protests Spark Assume Tank Range Push

Hundreds of Washington think tank and policy professionals, including some directors and CEOs, have signed a letter advocating for more diversity in their profession after nationwide protests against racial injustice shook the country this summer. 

The letter, signed by more than 300 current and former employees from 43 think tanks and research organizations, provides a detailed blueprint for reforms in the largely white Washington policy scene, recommending that think tanks make public their diversity data and work harder to recruit and retain people of color by adding human resources staff and paid internships, and by interviewing more diverse candidates. 

“The lack of diversity amongst decision-makers across organizations has severely hindered the ability of these institutions to promote and retain people of color, particularly Black Americans,” the letter says, building on an initial push for greater diversity in the think tank community led by Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation, a Washington-based advocacy organization. 

“As long as the boards, leadership, and research fellows at think tanks remain overwhelmingly white, the work they produce is a product of the white experience alone, along with the very fabric of these organizations themselves,” the letter reads.

Prompted by nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis earlier this year, the pledge includes among its signatories current and former staffers from the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, and New America. 

“Our industry largely focuses its efforts on promoting innovative policy ideas, but inadequately promotes its own staffers of color,” the signatories add. “What a loss for the United States when organizations cannot see that stifling the latter actively hurts advancement of the former. Our industry must do better.” 

One of the organizers of the letter, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity and was not authorized to speak to the media, said the issue had long been on the radar of employees “but there hasn’t really been a means of channeling those criticisms and making any change.” The letter also calls for name-blind recruitment to address biases, and higher salaries and tuition reimbursement as a means of improving retention.

“The pipeline only works if the pipeline doesn’t break down once it feeds people into an institution,” one of the organizers said. “If you’re focusing on recruitment and the pipeline but you’re not focusing on retention, there’s a big discrepancy there as well in retaining your female talent and your talent of color.”

One signatory of the letter, Cynthia Romero, said think tanks had few people of color in senior-ranking positions and tended to pay their white scholars more than others. A former U.S. Agency for International Development official and Atlantic Council employee, Romero said the imbalance in diversity in senior-ranking positions and pay disparities convinced her not to return to the think tank arena. “Coming out of government I chose not to go back into the think tank space because I didn’t have any confidence that I would get paid equitably or I would get promoted equitably,” she said. 

“You do feel like you carry the weight of your community on your shoulders when you’re the only person there,” she added. “You just don’t find as a person of color that they invest in you in the same way.”

Former think tank employees who spoke to Foreign Policy said that a lack of diversity has also hampered the way policy organizations have tackled the U.S. role in Latin America and Africa. In one instance, Romero said, a Washington think tank set up a Latin America center with an advisory board that failed to include people from the region or fluent Spanish speakers.

Another former Washington think tank employee told Foreign Policy that the lack of diversity at the institutions where she’d worked, including the Council on Foreign Relations, was reflected in how teams would approach issues. The employee described the impact of an overwhelmingly white team working on a project concerning Nigeria. 

“Even the way that we approached it was from this place of, ‘Oh, Nigeria doesn’t know what they’re doing,’ or ‘Nigeria, what a developing country’—and I think that that is in part because [the team] was predominantly white people,” she said. 

She said think tanks often consider topics such as energy, labor, and women’s issues in a “really race-blind way,” even as the issues they seek to address, such as sufficient parental leave, disproportionately affect Black people and other people of color.

The problem is not just a lack of diversity in the think tank community, she said, but also an absence of proper sensitivity training and an unwillingness among higher-level staff to understand perspectives outside their own. 

So far, think tanks have not valued or prioritized diversity and inclusion, she said, citing her experiences of being tokenized as a reality for most people of color working in these spaces. “Unfortunately, I feel like many think tanks think the solution here is performative, and it really does need to be transformative,” she said. “We’re not going to change these systems unless we hire intentionally, unless we think about how we’re talking about bigger issues.”

The lack of diversity in the think tank world is not just an American problem. Oheneba Boateng, who has a Ph.D. in political science and currently works as a fellow at a think tank in Berlin, characterizes the issue as endemic in most Western countries. Boateng, who has worked at policy organizations in Canada, Germany, and his native Ghana, told Foreign Policy that, as a Black African man in the European and North American policy arena, he often feels that his colleagues “refuse to see [him] as an individual,” twisting the diversity mantra to anoint him representative of all Ghanaians or Africans and then check diversity off their to-do lists. 

Boateng recounts numerous discussions where he was asked to provide an “African perspective,” a prompt he found absurd. He says he also faces more scrutiny over his work than white colleagues. In one instance at an institute in Canada, a white female colleague subjected Boateng’s writing to three more rounds of proofreading than was the editorial standard. Asked why she chose to scrutinize his work, Boateng’s colleague said she wanted to ensure his work was of the highest quality. Boateng said he felt his “credibility had been undermined.” 

Meanwhile, two young academics who research peace and security issues in Germany, Sarah Bressan and Theresa Lütkefend, have taken it upon themselves to reform the system from the inside, launching an initiative called “Better Think Tanking,” which aims to make professional advancement more dependent on expertise than an adherence to a professional culture. They say the current think tank career ladder is “marked by unchecked biases, intersectional discrimination and a generational divide.”

Romero, the former USAID official and Atlantic Council fellow, said things would change only when people of color were represented at all levels of the profession.

“We should be having people in programmatic, policy, leadership positions that are people of color, that are women of color, and I don’t see that at all.”

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