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Bonnie Jenkins, Founder and Executive Director of Women of Color Advancing Peace, shares her thoughts on starting her career at the Department of Defense, current risks and improvements in nuclear security and biosecurity, and her work to advance diversity and inclusion in her field.

Below is a transcript of a Q&A with Bonnie, which we’ve lightly edited for clarity. You can also watch it on YouTube and read it on effectivealtruism.org.

The Talk

Moderator: To start, I would love to hear a bit about your motivations and how you became interested in the work that you do.

Bonnie Jenkins: Well, I got interested in the work that I do — which mainly [involves] weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological, nuclear and rheological issues, and nonproliferation arms control — when I was a fellow at the U.S. Department of Defense. I had just received my master's and my law degree, and so I went to work there as a lawyer in the international law section. 

Actually, I did not have any idea of what I wanted to focus on. And one day at work I was a little bored, and so I asked my mentor if I could go with him to a meeting. At the meeting, which was what they call the “inter-agency meeting,” where there are a number of individuals from different U.S. agencies and departments, they were figuring out what instructions to send to a U.S. delegation negotiating a treaty overseas. It was on strategic weapons and nuclear weapons issues. And I just fell in love with it. I said, “This is really interesting.” 

That's how I got started — totally by accident. And I really liked the field, so I've stayed with it all these years.

Moderator: That's wonderful. I'd love to talk about both nuclear weapons and biosecurity, and then some of your work on diversity. 

On the nuclear weapons front, I was wondering: In considering the likelihood and severity, and how much can actually be done to reduce risk, what nuclear threats do you think deserve the most attention this century?

Bonnie: I think there are a few things. One of the things that I recently did when I was working in government was try to secure all vulnerable nuclear material. We were doing that because if you want to make a nuclear weapon, you need highly enriched uranium or plutonium. If you don't have those two, you can't build a weapon. And so a lot of the work that we were focused on was trying to make sure that any existing plutonium and uranium in the world was secure — that any such material was consolidated and wasn't unnecessarily sitting someplace. The summits that we had really focused on that. And we had about 50 countries that were focused on ways in which we could strengthen the protection of nuclear material.

The other thing that worries me is what they call a new potential arms race. We had the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which the U.S. withdrew from. We had the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, which the U.S. withdrew from. And we have another treaty called the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which will expire if it's not extended by the U.S. and Russia. And so a lot of the people who work on arms control are very concerned about a new arms race because we don't have the treaties that we used to have, we don't have the monitoring that we used to have, and we don't have the dialogue that the treaties used to provide between countries. 

Moderator: Do you think that we've made improvements overall in keeping weapons safe?

Bonnie: We have made a lot of improvements, and we continue to do so. We don't often hear about it, but there's a lot of work that's going on, and a lot of countries are involved, including the UK, in securing all types of weapons of mass destruction — not only nuclear weapons, but biological pathogens, chemical precursors, and radioactive material around the world and in vulnerable places. Countries are working collaboratively to try to make sure that these materials and pathogens — the precursors — are secure, and that non-state actors with intent to do harm do not get their hands on them.

Moderator: I have a lot of questions related to biological weapons, but just sticking to nuclear weapons for a minute and thinking about securing vulnerable materials, are there any approaches within this field that you think are promising but neglected?

Bonnie: Well, I would say that there has been a lot of promise with the four nuclear security summits that we had. I think the concern now is that the focus has shifted. Every new administration has different ideas and goals. And one of the major things that President Obama focused on was the prevention of nuclear terrorism. 

Whenever you have a new administration, of course, that issue may not be as important as others. So I think the problem now is that there's a reduction of focus on that, which also could mean a reduction of emphasis in policy and funding. 

This work has been going on for a number of years, regardless of who’s president. We've been working on issues like this since the fall of the Soviet Union, really. So the work continues. But there's not as much emphasis on it, and there's not as much leadership on these issues by the U.S.

Moderator: It sounds like less of an issue of research and more of an issue of political tractability. One thing that some individuals within the effective altruism community are thinking about is how emerging technologies will intersect with nuclear weapons — and particularly how AI might change things like automatic deployment. Is this something that you think about or explore in your work?

Bonnie: It is something that I think about. It's not something that I do personally. But I know a lot of colleagues who do, because there is concern over the capabilities that emerging technology will provide to countries — and what they will do. And we know that countries will always have an interest in digging into what other countries [are doing] and seeing what they can find out through technology. It's no different with nuclear weapons, [so there’s] strong concern over what is possibly being developed that will allow a country or an individual to get access to [technology that] can be used for nuclear weapons in the U.S. 

Moderator: Do you think that if automatic deployment becomes more commonplace in terms of nuclear weapons, that would, on balance, make the world safer or less safe?

Or maybe you think that's unlikely to happen in the first place?

Bonnie: I would think that automatic deployment would make it less safe. I'm not sure that's something that we would want.

Moderator: Yeah. One thing that some folks in the effective altruism community think about is the moral relevance not just of individuals who are currently living, but also those in future generations. And as a result, we also think about things that could have a disproportionate impact and change not just the world that we live in currently, but also significantly change the world in the future. 

Sometimes folks who are exploring this space are thinking about “tail risks,” or things that might be unlikely to happen but have very significant impacts. I'm curious: When you see folks talk about tail risks successfully within policy, are there ways that they generally approach that and avoid coming off like extremists or [doomsayers]?

Bonnie: It's interesting because a lot of people in the policy world actually think that way. In the area that I deal with — nuclear weapons — you could say that [a nuclear disaster is] not as likely, but the result would be very big versus something like radiological weapon use, which is much more likely. And so there's always some talk of these huge catastrophic results, even if they may not be likely. And sometimes that's used to get attention, because sometimes people won't pay attention to something unless they are shocked and scared into thinking about why it's important. 

So for policymakers it's not as big of a deal. It may be for other sectors, but that's how a lot of policymakers think, and showing how big of an effect [a disaster] could have is how they try to get something across to [others].

Moderator: Yeah. Do you think that there’s a possibility that nuclear and biological threats could kill a lot of people or even cause human extinction, or do you think those tail events are unlikely?

Bonnie: No one wants to say it's unlikely. I think we want to say that we obviously haven't had a nuclear-weapon incident since the 1940s. We haven't had a huge biological incident. People wonder why not, because it would be a lot easier to do. We've had little cases of botulism, or a few people getting sick because somebody threw something in a salad. But there hasn't been a big biological incident. 

So I guess my answer would be that there’s not as much [risk] in the nuclear field as in the biological field. But it hasn't happened in the biological field yet (knock on wood). So they're big [risks], but not as likely. Fortunately, it’s the case that countries have had these weapons for a long time in nuclear sites and have not used them.

Moderator: Why don't we use that as a way to pivot into talking a bit about biosecurity and biological weapons? I know that you played a central role in the launch of the Global Health Security Agenda. Could you tell us a little bit about what that was, and what it was like to work on it?

Bonnie: The Global Health Security Agenda [GHSA] was launched in 2014. In 2013, a colleague from the White House said, “We need to think about the fact that there are all of these infectious diseases and they’re happening much more rapidly.” We had H1N1, we had H1N9, we had SARS — they kept happening. And there was a desire to figure out what to do about that. 

So we decided that we would spend one day over the weekend in the basement of her place (it’s a very nice basement), have some wine, and just kind of talk about the situation. We [invited] people from a number of different departments. I was there from the State Department, we had someone from the White House, the Department of Defense, USAID (which works on global development), the USDA (which works on animals and plants). It was an “alphabet soup” [of departments represented by acronyms]: the FBI, FDA, the CDC of course (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and the HHS (Department of Health and Human Services).

We sat around and tried to [determine] what to do about it. We knew we needed to do something big, something global. We also knew that the World Health Organization has international health regulations that are legally binding obligations for all countries, and that they're supposed to be in compliance with them. And [being in compliance essentially means that they have] the capacity to handle an infectious disease outbreak. But we also knew that less than 30% of countries could say that — and that 30% was based on self-assessments. So it could be even less.

We knew that in 2014, countries would have to report to the World Health Organization on whether they actually had the capacity to deal with an infectious disease outbreak. We also realized that the anthrax attacks in the U.S. cost something like $1 billion — we’d seen the financial results of that. 

And then we had to deal with something called antimicrobial resistance, which is a big issue. Humans and animals are developing resistance to antibiotics, which is something that the international community and the health community are trying to deal with. And then, of course, there is the fact that 70% of the diseases that humans get come from animals, because people are living closer and closer to animals. And so there's this huge [risk of] animal-to-human transmission. All of these factors led us to realize that we needed to do something.

So we decided in 2013 that we would launch something global; like I said, all countries have to work on [this issue]. We knew we'd have to try to help countries strengthen their capacity to resist infectious disease and live up to their IHR [international health regulations] obligations from the World Health Organization. And we realized that we’d have to look at all aspects of the disease — from prevention, to detection, to response. So the goal of the GHSA is to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats. 

I was brought in on the prevention side, because prevention includes not just immunization and antimicrobial resistance issues, but also preventing bad people from getting their hands on pathogens. Because of that, I [joined] this effort that included different entities representing every country that we worked with. [Each country’s] equivalent departments were all working together to try to deal with the issue of disease. So when we think about biosecurity now, it's part of this larger umbrella of GHSA. 

The last thing I'll point out is that we launched it in Washington on a snow day. The government was closed. The only place open was the Department of Health and Human Services. We had about 20 people come in from different countries. They made it before the snowstorm. We had a video feed from Geneva with the director general from the World Health Organization. And then, a month after that, [the Ebola virus struck]. That really helped us understand why we need this global effort to build the capacity of countries around the world to address infectious disease threats. 

[That was] a long answer.

Moderator: No, no, it's fascinating. I'm curious how you feel currently about the Global Health Securities Agenda.

Bonnie: There's a lot that has been accomplished. If anyone's ever interested in some of the success stories, you can just go to ghsagenda.org, where there is a list of them. 

I was in Liberia the second time that they had Ebola. They had been Ebola-free and then there was another case. And they had taken a lot of steps toward getting much better at detecting the disease. But there's still a lot of need out there. It's a big effort for countries that have to deal with infectious disease threats, because it [involves] everything [associated with] prevention and detection — there’s laboratory strengthening, multi-sector response, getting new personnel.

In Liberia, they have hospitals that are not open all the time. They don't have water all the time. I mean, there are so many parts of this issue that have to be addressed. But there have been a lot of successes. 

And then [there’s the situation] in the Congo right now, which is a whole different scenario. The strife [there makes it] unsafe for people to work [on biosecurity]. The CDC from the U.S. is not able to work directly with patients — it’s the first time that has ever happened to the CDC, where they could not go to a country and work directly with the sick. They were told that they can't because the situation is so difficult; people are getting kidnapped. That’s a whole different side to this effort to combat infectious disease that we hadn't thought about.

Moderator: One thing that I've also heard folks describe [in regards to] biosecurity is the cycle of panic and neglect. When an incident like the one around Ebola happens, there'll be a lot of political support, but then after some period of time that's less on the radar — even though the importance of prevention is the same. I'm curious if that's something that you've observed in your work.

Bonnie: Yes, I think that's part of human nature. You get panicky about something that's right in your face, and when it's not in your face anymore, you kind of forget about it and go back to what's considered normal. 

In fact, in the U.S. we were able to dedicate some money to the GHSA, and a lot of it went to [help fight] Ebola in West Africa, but the rest was to help other countries. But then when Zika came along, they took money from [the GHSA] to deal with Zika. We kept saying, “Don't take money from GHSA because that's a long-term strategic effort to try to fix this situation.” But instead of giving money to [prevent] new diseases, they took money from the strategic effort, which made it less likely that we could do some of the work in other countries that we wanted to do.

So that's one part of the problem: We don't plan ahead. We're not very good at prevention. We like to respond. But it's always more expensive to respond than to prevent. Human nature is [such that when] something's out of our face, we forget about it. And it's also human nature not to plan and prevent something that we can't put our hands on because it's not concrete enough. And so we're always reactionary, and we can't really get ahead of it. It’s a problem.

Moderator: Can you tell me a little bit about tractable opportunities within the prevention space — things that you think could be effective and wish you saw more of?

Bonnie: I wish there was more effort put into securing pathogens. We did a lot of work on what they call “security culture,” which is trying to help scientists understand the importance of security. We've gone backwards on that, because as you know, scientists’ profession [is about] exploration — doing new research, finding cures, and writing and publishing about it. 

The bio field is totally different from the nuclear weapons field because everything is dual-use, so everything that you can use to build something that will prevent a disease, you can also use to create a disease. We've spent a lot of time talking to scientists to let them know that we're not saying that they are bad people. We're not saying that they’re going to do something bad. We just want them to understand why, when you walk out the door, you have to lock the windows and the doors. That is really important, and unfortunately we're not doing [work on security culture] as much. I'm not in government now, but I've been told that that work has taken a step back in terms of the education that we need to do. 

There will always be scientists who [need to be educated about prevention], always new diseases that come up, always nanotechnology and other technologies. Every time something new [emerges], it could also be used in bad ways. It's a constant thing you have to worry about, particularly in the bio field.

Moderator: Yeah. I'm surprised to hear about the step backwards. Do you have any sense of what factors influenced that?

Bonnie: I think it's just the change in administration. Different administrations want to focus on different things. It doesn't matter who it is; that just happens. I was fortunate enough to be in an administration [that focused on biosecurity]; one of the reasons why I went back [into government work] is I knew there would be a focus on the things that I care about. 

But the work always continues. You may not hear about it as much because it's not something that is a top issue, and might not get as much attention or funding.

Moderator: Is there a space for think tanks, research institutions, or NGOs that are operating in complementary circles to the government and can fill in some of those [gaps]?

Bonnie: Oh, yeah. One thing I did not talk about is the importance of the non-governmental sector. I did a lot of work for the GHSA with the non-governmental sector, which [comprises] think tanks, academic institutions, NGOs, philanthropy, and research organizations. There's a lot going on — so much that there's no way the government could do it all, because we can't touch everyone in the world. So yes, there's still work that's been done by NGOs. And philanthropic foundations continue to give money to NGOs, research institutes, and academic institutions to help with that.

Some NGOs are good [partners] because they're on the ground a lot more. They have different relationships with people. So we have always had the government give money to NGOs to do a lot of the work that the government can't do. And that continues now, because when there's less work being done by the government, then there's more work being done by the NGOs. It kind of [works] that way.

Moderator: My expectation would be that a lot of the funding streams would still be controlled by agendas within the government. But there might be a unique opportunity for philanthropies or private money to come in, especially if there is a change in political agendas.

Bonnie: Right. And the philanthropy continues. I used to work at the Ford Foundation, and agendas at foundations also change. But they like to fill in gaps as well. If they see there's a gap that's not being filled by a government, and it's an issue that the foundation cares about, then they will probably put more money in it by funding NGOs to do that work.

Moderator: Yeah, that makes sense. With biosecurity risks, I hear some folks talk about avoiding accidents or trying to reduce the spread of something that's naturally occurring — and then there are risks from deliberate misuse. I'm wondering how you think about prioritizing your level of concern related to some of these issues in biosecurity.

Bonnie: That's a good question. It depends on the circumstances. For example, in Nigeria, I know of an NGO working on securing pathogens in the area where Boko Haram is. So in that case, the major issue would be biosecurity. But Ebola was a naturally occurring disease. So it's not as if one always stays more important; it depends on the circumstances. If you're talking about being near Boko Haram and you have pathogens in the area, you're going to want to make sure that that material is secure. You're not going to be as worried about naturally occurring diseases or accidents. 

And when Ebola happened, for example, there was concern in West Africa because a lot of the Ebola samples were being taken out of Africa back to western countries, and people wanted to keep some of it in case they wanted to test it and possibly build their own vaccine in the area. And there were cases of missing Ebola samples that were taken to places that were not very secure. That's concerning because people can take a sample and use it for nefarious purposes. So we always want to make sure that samples are secure. They probably were taken by scientists who have very good intentions, but you just don't know that — and you don’t know where that person is putting the sample. So once again, [the priority is] going to be biosecurity, not because of the Boko Haram situation, but because you're worried about where those samples might be.

Moderator: Yeah, I remember exploring different aspects of the space. And one of the things that surprised me the most was concerns around accidents like air filters being turned the wrong way. I'm curious how much proportional effort you think goes into building up healthcare infrastructure, versus trying to prevent malicious actors, versus trying to reduce accidental situations.

Bonnie: Without having numbers, I would say that, in the context that I'm aware of, a lot of the work in the U.S. that the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Agriculture do is not necessarily going toward prevention. Some of it is, but not all of it. It's hard to say, but I don't think that even one-third [goes toward prevention]. I don’t think it’s [evenly distributed between] protection, detection, and response. But they're all important in terms of getting funding and things like that.

Moderator: Yeah. And are there approaches in biosecurity that you think could potentially be really impactful but are relatively neglected — things you'd like to see more folks doing in this space?

Bonnie: Just building up the workforce is important. For example, whenever you have a disease [outbreak], you lose a lot of your workforce — nurses and doctors. And so that's a constant thing: making sure you have enough of a [healthcare] workforce. 

Infrastructure [is also important]. In Liberia, I was at a conference with doctors, and right outside somebody had gotten sick. There was no ambulance for him because they didn't have any ambulances. So even though they are better at detecting Ebola after it had happened for the second time — and that's a great feat — [the lack of ambulances] just shows you how much of the problem is part of a bigger issue. Whether it's about infectious disease or something else, it really is about developing the country in many ways to deal with these kinds of threats. 

Moderator: Excellent. So changing topics a bit, I would love to hear about what led you to create Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, and what you do as an organization.

Bonnie: I established the organization two years ago, in 2017 after leaving [my] government [job] in January of that year. It's something that I'd wanted to do for a long time, because policymaking in the U.S. — and probably a lot of other places — is not particularly diverse. I've been in many meetings since I started working on these issues in the 90s. And I've been in many meetings where I was the only person of a diverse background — either the only woman or the only person of color, particularly in my area of hard security. 

That's changed a bit. There are more women in the field, and I'm seeing a lot of young women who are interested in the field and hopefully will stay in it. But in all areas of security, there are still very few people of color.

I wanted to find a way to help encourage more understanding about these threats, more of an appreciation [of their importance], and more of a desire to get into [the security field] and stay in it. Because even in my case, as I said, it was totally by accident. It wasn't like somebody came to me at an early age and said, “This is really interesting stuff. You may want to do it.” I just happened to go to a meeting and they were talking about it. I know many people who have stories [like] “I had a professor who said, ‘You should take this course.’” And so there’s not a lot of understanding early on about these issues. 

[Our organization] tries to [not only spark] interest, but get diversity at the table. The people who are sitting around a table talking about these issues are very homogeneous, even though these threats and the foreign policy around them affect people outside the U.S.

Also, when you talk about all kinds of security — whether it's the “hard security” topics or the “soft security” topics like climate change, oceans, or food and water security, it's women who, because of their role in the family and in the community, usually bear the brunt of the ramifications. That’s particularly true for women of color. And yet they're not at the table or part of the [conversation] around deciding the policies that are going to affect the U.S. and people outside the U.S. So that was really my catalyst for wanting to start the organization.

Moderator: What do you expect some of the biggest benefits of increasing diversity and inclusion to be? Or, to put it a different way, what do you think some of the biggest risks of remaining homogenous are?

Bonnie: Well, the biggest risk is you continue to have a dialogue that's the same as it has always been. We don't know what we're missing. We don't know what other avenues there might be if we had all kinds of different voices around the table. And we have a lot of really important threats that we're dealing with right now in terms of not just weapons of mass destruction, but climate change and all the environmental degradation that's happening. We need to have everyone around the table. We can't afford not to have people who may have a great idea. We might have missed six or seven wonderful ideas about how to deal with climate change. And we don't even know it because we didn't have an opportunity to hear the different voices who could have had some input.

So it's a situation where we can't afford to not have everyone who has a potential way of resolving these issues at the table because we just don't have that luxury — and we never really did. We just took it for granted. 

I like seeing more people on TV talking about these substantive issues. In Washington, policy is a lot of talk. But you have to be there, you have to be at the think tank discussions, you have to be at the academic discussions, you have to be submitting papers, and of course, you have to be in government. That's how you help change policy — just having these voices [involved in] different [ways].

I don't know how many of you saw the picture of Nancy Pelosi in the room in which she was pointing her finger at President Trump. If you look at that photo, there are two women in that room. There's Nancy and a woman behind her. I think there's a third woman; I couldn't tell because she's kind of covered by Nancy. So there might be three, but there's only two I know of for sure. There's no person of color in that room. And that's the first thing I saw. And I said, “Now I can see why our policies are so …” 

One of the biggest problems right now is our foreign policy. And there's just no diversity of voices. Everyone's saying the same thing. And they talk to each other. And everybody starts thinking they're right, because everybody says, “You're right, you're right, you're right.” There is nobody who can say, “You might want to think about it this way.” It's a disservice to all of us if we don't have that.

Moderator: Do you have examples [of times when] increased diversity at the table [led to] solutions or conversations that have gone differently — in a positive way?

Bonnie: There are a lot of studies that have been done on the role of women in peace negotiations. If women are at the table, I think there’s a higher chance of those peace negotiations being sustained. But also, just in my own circle, I did something called the Nuclear Security Summits. We had four of them, and they were led by the U.S. Other countries also hosted some of the summits.

And [these events] were run by a lot of women who were at the White House. And they were very inclusive discussions. We had countries that don't ever talk to each other in terms of nuclear issues around the table: Israel, Pakistan, and India. They would never go to nuclear nonproliferation treaty talks, because they're not part of [such treaties] — and because they just would not be able to talk to each other. But we had a number of countries from the Middle East that were there, because we were able to find a topic that was much more important than the issue they normally fight about. So we had Armenia and Azerbaijan there. And even though they tried to fight with each other at times during their discussions, we kept that [to a minimum]. We were able to find a way to say, “Whatever your other issues are — religious, scientific, nuclear — in this space we're talking about nuclear security, because nobody wants a nuclear weapon detonated on their country or territory.” Everyone was able to rally around that. 

And that's why we were able to do it. It was very successful, partly because you had people who were helping to plan [these sessions] and had a very inclusive way of looking at [problem-solving]. It was all about the carrot and not the stick. It was about “how do we work together?”, which is partly a trait of women in how they approach diplomacy.

Moderator: Could you tell me a little bit more about what about that experience made it [possible] to bring together unique folks? Why was that an exception in terms of how the setting was put together and who was invited?

Bonnie: Why was it the exception?

Moderator: Yeah. Or what made the space more unique? Was it the person who organized it, who was involved, the attendee list? 

Bonnie: I think it was because the people who were putting it together just approached it very differently from the very beginning. And like I said, [they were] very inclusive. We wanted it to be successful, and to be successful, we needed to at least have the countries that possess plutonium and uranium and that don’t necessarily like each other. We didn't have North Korea at the table, so we didn't have everyone. But we had a lot of those countries. We also had countries there that don’t have [plutonium and uranium]. 

And I think having a lot of women plan the events from the very beginning through the end was very important, along with the people representing [their departments] — for example, I was a State Department representative. The Department of Energy representative was a woman [at one of the summits]. There was a woman who was running part of [the summit]. So there were just a lot of women involved.

Moderator: Thinking about this from a different angle, something that we think about at the Centre for Effective Altruism is how to create welcoming spaces for people from diverse backgrounds to come together and share examples of what they're doing well. And when we do that, sometimes folks in dominant demographic groups also ask us what they can proactively do to be allies who create more welcoming and inclusive spaces. So I'm wondering if you have examples or specific stories of what this has looked like in your field.

Bonnie: It's interesting because in the field, and in Washington, D.C. where I've spent a lot of time, it's very much a place where [you are viewed as someone with] gravitas based on how many times you've been on a think-tank panel, how many articles you've written, how many op-ed pieces you have. What makes you important is different from, say, New York, where I'm from. In New York it's about money. It doesn't matter if you're going to [an event]; what's important is who will be there with cash. And in D.C., it's about who has gravitas in terms of what they've written and what jobs they've had. And so being an ally is different in different environments.

In D.C., for example, it’s about knowing how to step aside and give space to other people to talk about other issues. Since people are measured by how many panels they've been on, they don't necessarily want to give the space to somebody else, because that means they can't be there. Everyone wants to soak up the panel space and the op-ed space and [it’s about] who wrote the op-ed first. And so it's not a place that allows for space to be given to others, unlike in the business sector, which has a different bottom line that’s about money. 

[The business sector has] been much better at incorporating diversity because they have come to realize that more diversity at the table means they make more money in the end.

So they're much happier to do it. Whereas in some spaces, like in the Washington policy space, for example, it's been a lot more difficult to get the concept of being an ally by moving over and [incorporating some space for] others into that environment. 

So being an ally is obviously being supportive, promoting the goals of those who may be different from you, but also giving them space. 

Moderator: Yeah. It’s super interesting to think about the incentive structure in different industries. I hadn't heard that framing in the policy space before and some of the incentives that make it more difficult. Are there examples that come to mind or stories that you have where someone has done this really well?

Bonnie: Yeah. On my website I have a page called “Down with the Cause.” I put individuals who I think are good allies on it, because they just get it. They get it, they understand it, they're not threatened by it. They're happy to give space to other people who are not like themselves. They don't necessarily see everything as a zero-sum game. They understand that there's a bigger cause that can be achieved by having different people around the table. And because they feel secure in themselves, they're just much better at being allies because they don't see things as a threat. 

So for example, I have individuals there who promote the goals of my organization. They're always asking, “Do you want to host an event here? Let's host an event together. I want to let you shine, or let your organization shine, or let the people from your organization shine.” And you can tell they're good allies just because of the way they act. It's not fake. It's real.

Moderator: I would love to hear a bit more about your organization and its theory of change, or the key programs that you focus on and why.

Bonnie: The organization really focuses on the pipeline and the institutions. So we focus on bringing in young women and mid-career women, and we work with institutions to talk with them about the culture that's always the barrier to change. We try to think through ways to make change that's lasting, and what you can do to change culture, because culture takes a long time to change. And that's what keeps things from being diverse. 

We do a lot of things like trainings. We build our network, we help with jobs, we do podcasts, we do webinars. We have several working groups that focus on different substantive issues — from cybersecurity, to climate change, to global health, to weapons of mass destruction and national security issues. And that provides opportunities for people who want to focus on specific areas. 

We also do joint programs with other organizations. We have a pipeline program that we're starting. We have a mentorship program. We do a lot of things to help empower women, people of color, and allies.

Moderator: Can you say a little bit more about the culture and how you would hope that it changes?

Bonnie: The culture could change by people just realizing that they have to change, which is the first part. Culture makes people comfortable, particularly if you're part of the dominant culture. So people who are in a dominant culture want things to stay the way they are, because why would you want it to change? You have all of the advantages, you have all of the privileges. And so part of it is trying to help them recognize that a problem does exist. There’s a problem when the culture does not allow others who are not as privileged, who are not part of the dominant culture, to be [included in] whatever's going on. 

And so we try to talk about culture and leadership, because leaders can help change culture faster than anything else. You can take a bottom-up approach, but if you have a leader who says, “We're going to do certain things, and we're going to do them now,” it helps to change the culture.

So talking to leadership is a very big part of [what we do], but it's slow. It's slow because there are a lot of people who are comfortable with the way things are and they see a threat. And like I said, it's more [prevalent] in some cultures than in others. So like I said, in the business culture, for the most part it's less of a problem because they want to make money. And it's like, “Okay, I don't care who's sitting there, we're going to get more money.” That's the bottom line. And so it's going to be different for different [types of] cultures.

Moderator: [Does it entail] things like pointing out microaggressions, inviting a diversity of different perspectives on an issue, or trying to change how important it is for someone to consistently have the op-ed space?

Bonnie: Yeah, it's all of those aspects. All of those are active things that people have decided that they want to do. So when you have allies who have said, “We want to invite you in. We want to share the space,” that's one way to help change the culture. And the more individuals who say that within a culture, the more likely it is that the culture will change. And there are always going to be some who say, “I don't want it to change” — some who are always going to be against it. 

I mean, this discussion of diversity and equity is happening all over Washington. But there are still entities that are resistant, and you just have to deal with the fact that there are going to always be those who understand the privilege that they have. They don't want to give that up.

Moderator: To end on a bit of a positive note, what keeps you going or inspires you as you do your work?

Bonnie: I just enjoy what I do, even though I spent my life working on weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and infectious disease. And now I teach a course at Georgetown, where in every class we talk about a different global threat. But I like to focus on the solutions. Last week was about the oceans and biodiversity. And next week is about human trafficking. And we always end by talking about the solutions. What can we do to try to change it? 

I think that's particularly important for the younger generation. I think they get bombarded with [messages about] how the world that they will inherit has environmental problems. And I think letting them know that there are solutions, and helping them think through those solutions, is really important. So I enjoy focusing on that and the positives. 

You know, when I was working on my dissertation, it was about nuclear weapons. And [at the same time] I was working on a 9/11 commission on terrorism. That was my day. Every night was about nuclear threats, and during the day it was about terrorism. And people would say, “How do you sleep at night?” I would say, “I sleep quite well, because I spend my time trying to figure out how to stop things. I dedicate my life to trying to get rid of the weapons, or make sure no one else gets their hands on them who shouldn't have them.” And that's my life. And I think that's all you can do. You can worry about it, but if you try to fix it, that can help you sleep at night.

Moderator: Thanks so much for coming.





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