February 23, 2021

Around the Table with Bethany McGann

Three Questions with the Make Room Email Newsletter

Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.

Bethany McGann is a program officer for violent extremism at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of USIP.

How did growing up in a Foreign Service family affect your view of the world?

Growing up a Foreign Service kid was an invaluable experience. In Nairobi, (I felt) we were Americans first, regardless of the color of our skin. However, once outside the walls of compounds and private clubs, I also was a Black person. Seeing the economic and social divides between foreigners and our hosts, I grew up acutely aware of how identity functioned, and the privileges that come with U.S. citizenship. Growing up abroad reveals the world for what it is. Beautiful, vibrant, human…but just as often hard, and sad. I vividly remember the night violence broke out in one of the nearby communities, and my favorite security guard, John was rescued by our driver Nelson and brought to our compound for safety. I was always proud to be an American, but I remember feeling especially proud that night, that we had the capacity to do Good Things in the world. For that and other reasons, the myth of America was something I carried with me perhaps longer than most other little brown children living in the States. It wasn’t until we returned to America that I learned that I had a hyphenated identity, that it mattered, and that where difference and diversity was a strength abroad, at home it was a potential cleavage. Being a third-culture kid often means being a foreigner wherever you are, but gives you the skills to be a bridge builder. Those skills helped me navigate the social terrain in the U.S., and ultimately led me to follow my parents’ example in pursuing a career in peace and security.

What advice would you give to young professionals of color?

I share what my Dad told me when I went through a challenging time. The first racial incident you experience at work is just that—the first. Until the whole of society comes to terms with the multitude of ways a workplace can be hostile to people of color, it will be an experience we face in large and small ways throughout our careers. The first one always hurts the most, but how you respond to it will set in place a mental practice that helps you manage the one after that. Always, but especially at times like this, some of the most important relationships you’ll have in the workplace are your mentors—both at your level and those above you.

My advice for any young person starting out in this career field is to enter this space with humility, curiosity, and a service-first perspective. Humility, because there is so much you do not know and will never know about the experiences and motivations of the people your policy and programming decisions will impact. Curiosity, because by actively seeking information you are better able to critique your own analysis and operate with an openness to new sources of knowledge that might arrive from unsuspecting avenues. Service-first, because it is always clear to others whether your motivations are self-serving or mission oriented.

You say the best way to ensure peace is to know each other. Can you expand on that?

Peace is a process that requires finding common ground. At the root of every act of violence is dehumanization of the other. In my research on violent extremism, a common narrative running across projects is the importance of sites of social interaction for violence reduction. Trade relations, marketplaces, cultural festivals, roads connecting communities—the more these exist and are protected, the more connected communities are to one another, the more they share common goals and conceptions of collective security. As these sites are destroyed due to widening insecurity, trust is often one of the first casualties.

We see the same dynamics playing out in the U.S., to a certain extent. Contestation of who belongs, who gets to claim Americanness, and the widening livelihood gap are reminiscent of the divides we see in fragile or conflict affected societies. The pandemic has only accelerated the lack of cross-communal interaction. We no longer convene in shared spaces, and if we do, those gatherings have an undercurrent of fear and anxiety. Online, the divergence is even more pronounced, represented by social media echo-chambers and fragmentation in our information environment. We must know each other, humanize each other, to recognize and reaffirm shared values and common goals.


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