Diplomats of Color – Towards more diversity in the Federal Foreign Office

Diplomat Tiaji Sio launched the "Diplomats of Color" (DoC) initiative at the Federal Foreign Office in 2019. In this interview, she talks about her role models, working in different locations and the new DIVERSITRY network.

Fotograf*in: Genia Loginova

Tiaji Sio is a diplomat. In mid-2019, the 24-year-old launched the „Diplomats of Color“ (DoC) initiative at the Federal Foreign Office. Now the DIVERSITRY network has emerged from what started as an internal advocacy group. The network is committed to an overarching diversity strategy in all federal ministries, given that BIPoC are still underrepresented there – especially at management level.

It is 10 a.m. in Germany as we meet for a Zoom interview. For our interviewee Tiaji Maynell Sio, it’s already three in the afternoon. She is currently in Vietnam, where the 24-year-old works in the economic department at the German embassy in Hanoi.

A lot of moving around

The southeast Asian country is not the young diplomat’s first post abroad. Before that, she had headed the legal and consular departments in Senegal for two months each. She also worked at the German embassy in Mozambique and did a nine-month internship in Shanghai, China during her studies. There is a lot of moving around in the Foreign office. Once you are part of the permanent staff, the location is changed every three to five years.

About friends all over the world

Definitely, that can also be difficult at times: „When you make new friends, you have to leave them again and again. I now have a lot of friends spread all over the world. But because we’re all connected on social media etc, we keep in touch regularly. We just see each other less often.“

Needless to say that there are always good things about moving to a new city. “The most exciting thing for me is to really immerse myself in a different culture – to retain this flexibility, that you go somewhere else every three years and are thrown back into a completely new context. You definitely get to know a country better than if you’re just visiting a place briefly as a tourist.“

Foundation of the diversity network

South America is a dream location for Tiaji: „It’s the only continent I haven’t been to yet. I would really like to experience that.” Mainly because she dances salsa, even if she doesn’t have that much time for it at the moment. Between her job as a diplomat and her master’s degree in „International Development“ at the University of Edinburgh, Tiaji founded the diversity network „Diplomats of Color“ (DoC) at the Federal Foreign Office in mid-2019. Back then it was still as a very informal group.

They met for lunch every few weeks to network and share experiences. Today, two years later, their commitment to more diversity in the State Department goes on: Diplomats of Color advocates institutional changes against systematic inequality.

Planning of Events

With this end in sight, Tiaji organizes internal and public events with a planning team of seven, such as the series of talks “Rethinking Foreign Policy” in cooperation with the young DGAP (German Society for Foreign Relations). Like all other events until now, this one had to take place online due to corona. “We had even planned our first event in 2020 in the same way, and that was exactly the week when the early restrictions were introduced. We then made the first event completely digital. However, this also has the advantage that colleagues from abroad can join in from all over the world. We can record that and then make it available later.“

This way, Diplomats of Color has achieved a greater reach and people who are not in Berlin at the moment can also take part. In the meantime, 150 people in the Federal Foreign Office are already members of DoC who live and work all over the world. Additionally, there is a sister network – Diplomats of Color and Allies. „We also want to explicitly address white people who want to take part and actively support it.“

The higher the position in the hierarchy, the less diverse people are

It might in the beginning strike one as surprising that the Federal Foreign Office in particular, which consists of working with different countries, people and cultures, needs a diversity network. But „a study by the Federal Institute for Population  Research found that only twelve percent of employees in the federal administration have a migration background – compared to 26 percent in the general population“.

The Foreign Ministry is simply no exception. When Tiaji started studying “Public Administration” at the Foreign Service Academy in Berlin in 2015 after graduating from high school, she noticed that “compared to when I was growing up, the Foreign Office is more homogeneous. After all, the higher I looked in the hierarchy, it became apparent that it was clearly not yet so self-evident that this diverse society and this diverse environment, which I considered normal, are also reflected in top positions in administration. “

Home city Frankfurt

In her home city Frankfurt am Main, Tiaji had previously experienced things differently. “I was used to people growing up with many different languages and cultures. That it is actually valued. It didn’t even cross my mind that there might be some sort of structural impediments or something for me.“

She simply applied to the Foreign Office out of professional interest. Her first experiences with foreign policy had intensified her desire to go into diplomacy. While still at school, Tiaji was involved in the European Youth Parliament and attended United Nations-modelled meetings. “I found it thrilling to take part in meetings all over Europe and to have discussions with young people from different European countries. I thought that was super cool – I want to do something similar in my future job.“

The Study at the foreign service

Tiaji turned this wish into a reality by studying at the foreign service. She continued to get involved as an extracurricular activity-among other things- as a youth ambassador for ONE, an organization that strives to end extreme poverty and preventable diseases by 2030. In this capacity, Tiaji met Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former President of Liberia, in 2015. „I found her to be a super inspiring personality, because above all she campaigned for the rights of women and girls.“

The Nobel Peace Prize winner was the first woman to be elected head of state in an African state in 2006 – and is a role model for Tiaji, as is ex-Siemens CEO Janina Kugel, who currently works as a consultant and member of the supervisory board. “You can also learn a great deal from her, especially on the subject of leadership. She is a super big role model.”

Tiaji Sio as a role model

Tiaji Sio is herself a role model: In 2020 she made it onto the „FORBES DACH 30 Under 30“ list. The business magazine chose her as one of the 30 most successful entrepreneurs, founders, scientists, athletes and artists in Germany, Austria and Switzerland for her commitment to Diplomats of Color and the anti-racism discourse, which she is promoting in the Federal Foreign Office.

Enabling equal opportunities

In the meantime, however, it is not just about discourse, but also concrete actions, the overarching goal being a diversity strategy. “We want to check whether there is equal opportunity and if not, what measures can we take to enable equal opportunities in the federal administration. That includes different things, for example, looking critically at whether the selection process is fair: whether there is an unconscious bias and whether the same requirements apply for everyone.”

Other aspects include offering anti-racism training and further education, especially for managers, implementing guidelines for inclusive language and taking a close look at the permeability of the hierarchy. In terms of the proportion of women among managers, the Federal Foreign Office is at the bottom of all ministries with 23 percent. „Of course you can also consider: What about people with a migration background? Are there structural barriers?”

Quotas as a solution?

And what about quota? Would that be the solution for more diversity in ministries? Here, too, Tiaji draws the comparison to women: “There are legal basics. There has been the Equal Opportunities Act at the federal level since 2001. There are equal opportunities officers, and yet women are still underrepresented, especially in leadership positions. In other words, one can certainly ask whether a quota might help.”

But on the other hand, there is no such legal basis for people with a migration background. While for example equal opportunities officers or officers for the severely disabled are mandatory by law, there are hardly any diversity officers. “If you want to enshrine that in law, you can learn lessons directly from other areas. That would be a quota, for example.”

Other countries with which the German Foreign Office is in close contact are already further ahead: “Canada is particularly progressive. For example, they have a diversity champion and specific measures to promote the representation of social diversity. In the USA there is a fast track program, especially for Afro-American diplomats. And there is also a Fast Stream in the UK.” You can see what can be transferred to Germany.

Social diversity should be reflected in politics and administration

Diplomats of Color has the support of the federal government. The Foreign Office is particularly open. „I think that’s also why DoC was formed there first and not at the Home Office. I was actually surprised at how positively the initiative was received. We have a political leadership that is completely behind us and has also set this as a goal for itself.”

Opposition perspective

A portion of the opposition sees things differently. In a Bundestag inquiry, the AfD parliamentary group critically examined Tiaji Sio and the legitimacy of Diplomats of Color using suggestive questions that sought to establish a connection with left-wing extremism.

And on Diversity Day, the right ignited a storm on social media when Tiaji presented Diplomats of Color on the channels of the Federal Foreign Office. The diplomat was surprised by the large number of negative messages. “Of course it is important that you also listen to critical voices and try to enter into a dialogue. But for debates there must be a basic consensus that it is a social reality that we in Germany live in a diverse society in which more than 25%, i.e. more than one in four, has a migration background, that we are an immigration country.”

Network as a goal

The end goal is to establish a network with Diplomats of Color as a model in all ministries and to have diversity officers in each ministry, a diversity law, and, in the long term of course: „That we live in a world with equal opportunities, in which all this is no longer necessary.“ Diplomats of Color has now come one step closer to all of this, because the initiative has obtained funding.

The next project is now to be implemented: “We are currently in the initial phase of building an interministerial diversity network. That means DIVERSITY. We are currently in the initial talks in the Development Ministry, the Defense ministry and various other ministries. Things are already getting in gear.“ Thanks to the JoinPolitics grant, two people can work full-time for DIVERSITRY. Four others volunteer there – including Tiaji Sio, in addition to her job as a diplomat at the Federal Foreign Office.

Go for it!

It’s already late afternoon in Vietnam. The e-mails are getting fewer, the working day is coming to an end. Before we say goodbye, Tiaji once again encourages everyone who also wants to apply to the Federal Foreign Office: “Go for it. Just do it!”

In a representative democracy, social diversity should also be reflected in politics and administration. “Based on this, one can of course discuss which measures are best suited to working towards a more just society. But there are people who don’t even believe in an open, diverse society.“ Nevertheless, Tiaji believes that these are a minority in Germany which simply has a very loud voice. “The majority believe in an open, pluralistic society, and those are exactly the people we want to reach – and I think we’re going to do that too.“

This article was first published in German and translated into English by Manal Ismael.

Diplomats of Color – für mehr Diversität im Auswärtigen Amt


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