Good morning everyone. Although we are just meeting virtually, it’s a pleasure to celebrate Women’s Equality Day with a group of young female Timorese leaders.
Women’s Equality Day was established in the United States to recognize the 19th Amendment to our Constitution. The nineteenth amendment granted American women the right to vote. Although it took several more decades—and the civil rights movement—for all U.S. women to be legally allowed to vote, the 19th Amendment was a big step toward equality. This year is very special because it is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Today we recognize the sacrifices of women leaders that have brought us closer to equality. We remember people such as Susan B Anthony who the late 1800s led the American fight for women’s right to vote. She faced all kinds of accusations and was arrested for trying to vote, but she continued to fight and traveled the country giving up to 100 speeches every year. She also established U.S. and International Women’s Rights organizations that still exist today. Around the same time period African American Harriet Tubman was risking her life to help hundreds of slaves escape to freedom. She devoted her life to African American and Women’s rights. In the near future, the face of the US $20 bill will change from Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the U.S., to Harriet Tubman. So here in Dili we will see Harriet’s face every time we use a $20 bill. Another of the most prominent women in American history is Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt who served during the Depression and World War II. After World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt led the international effort to adopt the UN Declaration on Human Rights. She did not let skeptism or opposition deter her from what she knew was right.
The push for Women’s Equality in the U.S. continues to be led by American mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers. Just a few years ago women in the United States organized the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. This group of women leaders advocated for changes to legislation that strengthen human and women’s rights and many other issues such as environmental conservation, racial equality and freedom of religion. There are so many inspiring stories from the women’s movement, but I know you all have some questions for me today, so let’s start the discussion!
(1) When did you start to dream about becoming a diplomat and an Ambassador? What motivated you through your career?
I actually first wanted to become a journalist – a foreign correspondent. But as a student I had summer jobs in the Department of State (our Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and learned about the work of diplomats overseas, including the writing, analysis and persuasion aspects, and travel and languages. So I decided to try to join the U.S. diplomatic corps, what we call the Foreign Service.
(2) How did you start you career?
Joining the United States Foreign Service is a very competitive process and a lengthy one. It involves taking a written exam, then an in-person interview and in person tests and exams. And then even if you pass it remains competitive to actually receive an offer to join the Foreign Service. About 17,000 people a year take the exam and maybe 300 or less are accepted. I went to graduate school and studied political science and international relations, which helped my chances of being accepted. On your first assignment in the Foreign Service, you do not have any choice about where you go. I was assigned to our small Consulate in Antwerp, Belgium. It was a great job because I actually ran the Consular section. Most Foreign Service Officers on their first tours do not have any kind of supervisory responsibilities. I also learned the Dutch language for that assignment, which I enjoyed greatly.
(3) What are you passionate about?
I love learning languages and learning about other countries and people, which is good since my job is all about connecting with people. Professionally throughout my career I love to respond to challenges by developing a vision about how we can make things work and leading teams to implement that vision. I also am passionate about supporting equality for women, not just in name only, but real equality in which women are given professional respect and provided the same opportunities for growth and advancement as our male colleagues. I am passionate about democracy. And I love my family, politics, travel, theater, cooking and working with young people to help them achieve their goals.
(4) What do you like about your job?
I love being in Timor-Leste, especially interacting with the Timorese people. I enjoy my trips and seeing and showing all of the great collaborative work that the US does with Timor-Leste and the Timorese people. I have loved meeting the families that our Peace Corps volunteers live within the districts, meeting the farmers who work with our agricultural programs – like the one in Maubisse. In Maubisse, because of US programs, the farmers now grow strawberries that are very popular here. And I really love working with the young people of Timor-Leste. I am very proud of my role in bringing Timor-Leste into YSEALI two years ago, and meeting Timorese who have studied in the U.S. and to learn from them. Also I love looking at the sea every single day! That is such a joy for me.
(5) Do you think being a woman and a mother is a challenge for your career?
Yes and I think that it is important to be honest about how being a parent – but in our world, particularly a mother – is challenging when you have a demanding career. I have two daughters who are in their twenties now, both are students. I have been very lucky because my husband Richard, who is also an American diplomat, played a big role in caring for our children, sharing cooking and household chores. And he does this willingly. That has helped a lot. And my parents and Richard’s parents – who are now passed away – they helped us enormously. They visited us everywhere we were posted in the world and often helped us care for our children. But still, it is a challenge for the children to move so often and adjust to new countries. But it is also a great benefit to them. My two daughters both speak Spanish and love to travel and try new things. And in fact, one of my daughters found her own calling in life after visiting Timor-Leste – she decided to go to get her master’s degree in marine conservation and help preserve the beautiful waters and life of the oceans and seas. And if I had not been here for her to see the beautiful coral reefs and scenery here, she might not have discovered that passion.
(6) Have you ever felt disappointed in yourself? If so, why?
Well, I am disappointed that I don’t speak Tetum better after two and a half years here! I do need to study more. But I become disappointed in myself when I am not true to who I am as a person. When I lose confidence in my own point of view if I think that others will be critical or when I don’t follow my own instincts as a leader and adopt what others say works best, even when I know better. That is what happens sometimes to women leaders. We need to stand for ourselves and not be afraid to express our point of view. We need to see value in our own convictions and the work and ideas of other women. And we need to support each other, not compete with each other or tear each other down.
(7) As a person that has been living in many different countries, how do you deal with culture shock?
It is both exciting and challenging to adjust to a new environment. My family and I love to get to know a new country by travelling, trying to speak the language and trying to understand the culture, including the food. It is easier if you are working because you plunge right into your job, doing something you are trained to do. It can be harder on non-working parents – and sometimes the children who have to adjust to new schools and new languages.
(8) What was your first impression when you heard about Timor-Leste and what did you first think when you found out you would be the U.S. Ambassador to Timor-Leste?
First it is an honor to be selected to be an Ambassador of the United States. It is a lengthy and competitive process and all of the top leaders in the Department of State have to agree to select you. And then the President of the US formally nominates you – and then, and this is according to the United States Constitution, the Senate (part of our Congress or Parliament) must also approve your appointment. And to get Senate confirmation who have to appear before the Senators and give a speech and answer their questions. I enjoyed all of that actually. And learning about Timor-Leste made me proud to work in in a country that fought so hard for its liberty and became a democracy with respect for human rights and rule of law.
(9) What were your first impressions of the Timorese people, the weather, food and environment and how have those changed?
Love the Timorese people, love the weather, love the sea and the mountains, the tais – and the food. I truly love the sea and the ocean so this is a perfect place for me. What has changed is how much I have learned about the richness of the natural resources here – the beauty of the life under the sea and also how it is a challenge to preserve it for future generations. One of my favorite trips was to Atauro when we brought a film that USAID produced, called “The Sea that Sustains Us.” First I love the title. But it also showed the environmental challenges here – and the people who are working hard to preserve and protect Timor-Leste’s heritage.
(10) What challenges have you faced during your time in Timor-Leste and how did you handle those challenges?
The whole situation in the world regarding COVID-19 has posed the greatest challenge to many of us, even experienced diplomats. And that is true here as well. We respect Timor-Leste for its ability to control the virus here. Many of us at the US Embassy, including my Deputy and me, remained here the whole time. But some of of our Embassy colleagues traveled back to the US to their own families because of their vulnerability to COVID-19 and not wanting to be a burden on Timor-Leste. Thousands of American diplomats all over the world were sent back to the US during this time, so it wasn’t just those in Timor-Leste. We have a very close Embassy community and those of us here in Dili miss that camaraderie. My own husband is in Washington, DC with our daughters so that one of us would be readily available to help them if needed. And while our Embassy colleagues in the US are teleworking, we have fewer of us here to engage with the Timorese people and implement many of our new programs. But we are doing it! And I am very proud.
(11) What was the most challenging decision you have ever made as an Ambassador in Timor-Leste?
Again it is related to COVID-19. We want to bring our colleagues back to Timor-Leste but have to do so safely both for the employees and for Timor-Leste. The United States is very far away from Timor-Leste and airline travel is extremely difficult and challenging. So we have to make sure that those we bring back are ready and able and also that they are very important to our Embassy operations. And we are working hard to make sure we are complying with Timor-Leste’s requirements, which are very important to making sure the virus does not spread here.
(12) What is the most valuable lesson you learned being an Ambassador in Timor-Leste?
I have learned a great deal of respect for the Timorese people after what they have suffered here during the occupation and to achieve their independence. And about how the Timorese people value their families and their traditions. It has helped me value my own family and the traditions that we have in the United States that build community and mutual support. One of the most poignant moments for me was observing the elections in 2018. I went to about 7 precincts in Dili and saw people line up peacefully and willingly to vote. I witnessed at the end of the day how the election monitors opened up the ballot box in front of the whole community and reach each of the votes. It was true community democracy, without a lot of technology – just people who value their freedom and saw it in action at the end of the election day. This experience made me value our own democracy in the United States and reminded me of how important it is to preserve it through voting and community involvement.
(13) As a representative of the United States in Timor, what do you think about our development?
Timor-Leste has set its own goals for its development and the work that the United States does here supports those goals. The Timorese government recognizes the need to address poverty and some of our programs, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, are aimed at reducing poverty. There is also a need for diversifying the economy and to develop a mentality and the legal framework and opportunities for a private sector to thrive. And we are working with Timor-Leste on those challenges. However, Timor-Leste has a lot of positive characteristics. There is a small but thriving civil society and a pride and commitment to Timor-Leste’s democratic development. It is important for Timor-Leste to invest in its young people to provide them the education and job opportunities that will help them thrive. I hope you all have an opportunity to participate in our programs such as YSEALI and at UmaAmerika. I have met so many bright young Timorese leaders, such as you joining me here today, so I am excited about the future. We want to see a self-reliant Timor-Leste, one that achieves its goal of becoming a middle income country in the coming years.
(14) What do you think about the state of gender equality in Timor-Leste as well as in the United States of America?
The United States faces many challenges in bringing true gender equality. We are in many ways a more traditional society than it would appear if you just looked at our technological advancement. For example, we have not yet had a women president. White women have only had the right to vote since 1920 and Black women even later. We are only now beginning to understand the need for paid maternity leave and other support to working parents. But on the other hand, in the US more women than men are studying in our universities and there are women in high level business and government positions, so the situation has improved. But still not enough to make it truly equal. In Timor-Leste, I think you face some of the same challenges, especially in getting society to agree that women can be leaders and that women are competent professionals that deserve full support. I am a foreigner here, so I really defer to you all to tell me about the challenges you face. But I support you!
(15) What are your favorite things to do during your free time? How do you maintain your lifestyle while being an Ambassador?
I love to travel, read, listen to music, watch movies and going to the theater (plays and musicals) when it is available. And just being with friends and enjoying being together. I enjoy being by the sea so I like to go to the restaurants and cafes in Dili or other parts of the country that are by the water and watch the sunset. I enjoy travelling in the mountains. Also, I enjoy playing tennis but am not very good even though I have played for many years!
Thank you all for joining me today for this discussion! I hope to see you all again in person soon and I look forward to seeing you all progress in your careers. As I mentioned before, we women need to stand up for ourselves and not be afraid to express our point of view. Our ideas and work has a unique value, so we need to support each other. We have a right to be heard and included in all aspects of political, economic and social life. And any men who are watching this also need recognize and support women’s advancement. Thanks again and happy Women’s Equality Day!