UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

A Conversation with Ambassador Susan D. Page

By Tina Maglakelidze, UNA-NCA Research Assistant

The words ‘US Ambassador’ may still conjure the default image of a male for some, but today more and more people can imagine both men and women in the position. This cultural shift, a product of the gradual fight for representation in the State Department, chips away at the structural issues at the root of gender inequality around the world, including unfair social norms and lower levels of political participation.

In essence, serving as an Ambassador means representing your country; therefore, the fight for equal representation within the State Department and other foreign ministries is inextricably linked to the representation of women around the world and their visibility as participating members of the global dialogue.

“A lot of women were happy to see me, a woman with power and in a relative position of authority,” Ambassador Susan D. Page reflects on her time as the United States’ number one representative to South Sudan, “but the reality was, I mostly dealt with a lot of men because those were the people that were in the local ministries and government positions.”

Susan D. Page was confirmed as the first-ever US Ambassador to the Republic of South Sudan three months after the country secured its independence on July 9, 2011. During her career, Page also served as U.S. Chargé d’Affaires to the U.S. Mission to the African Union, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Special Representative of the Secretary General to the United Nations Mission for Justice Support to Haïti, and head of rule of law programs for the UN. Read her full bio here.

Unlike many of her peers at Harvard Law School, Page was not interested in pursuing a lucrative track in corporate law. A longtime advocate for justice, Ambassador Page recalls that she chose the legal profession because it complemented her ability to write well and think critically. Laughing now, she admits that she never actually wanted to practice law; instead, she remembers searching for a way to transform her interest in public international law into a sustainable living for herself. It was a serendipitous campus visit made by a representative from the Office of the Legal Advisor in the U.S. State Department that inspired the entwining of Page’s legal career with her eventual diplomatic career. “Finally, I learned that the job I dreamed of actually existed.”

“A light bulb had gone off” she said, describing the moment she was presented with a way to integrate public international law and her desire to live and work overseas.

After graduating from Harvard Law, Page won a fellowship to conduct legal research in Nepal on women’s and children’s rights. Upon her return to the U.S. in 1990, Page was offered a position in the Office of the Legal Advisor — marking the beginning of her career at State. She first served as an attorney-advisor for politico-military affairs and later as regional legal adviser for USAID in Kenya and then Botswana. It was when she became a political officer in Rwanda, she recalls, that she began to realize that she was perhaps more suited for a career in political affairs than she had previously considered. In working with the defense attaché and analysts from a variety of U.S. government agencies, Page was impressed by their collective capacity to influence tangible outcomes.

“I started realizing, I’m actually pretty good at this. I’m good at getting people to tell me things that they really should not be telling me,” she laughs. Page has a talent for making people feel at ease and this, she explains, allowed her to be incredibly effective for the rest of her career — whether this meant gaining information about the inner workings of a particular rebel group or forging trust with the local societies in which she served.

“I traveled all over the place, out in the countryside visiting far-flung villages. I went to IDP camps when the war broke out, I prayed with people, spoke to them. The people in these areas had never seen their own leaders let alone a Black, female ambassador who was coming to them concerned, wanting to hear how they were doing. Because I was highly visible people knew me and I used that role as effectively as I could to try and advocate for change.”

Before becoming the U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan, Page was instrumental in negotiating and drafting key provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) — the central, 250-page document that resolved Africa’s longest-running civil war between northern and southern Sudan. Upon reflecting on this time, Ambassador Page identifies a specific lesson learned when it comes to peace-building and peace processes: you have to use what you have.

“In peace-building, one thing I’ve learned, is that you have to use what you have. Find what works for you and use that to your advantage. Find what brings you closer to the people.”

Q: Can you describe a time when you found your gender to be an asset to your career?

A: My gender, I think, has mostly been a benefit to my career. When I was working on the Sudan Peace Process as part of the mediation team, my son would come and visit me from Nairobi to spend time with me during the weekends. It was then that I realized how much of an asset my motherhood was, not just that I was a woman.

Here [in South Sudan] I was in this very male-dominated environment where side deals were being made between the men of the different Sudanese communities in the sauna. I mean, of course, women were excluded from those, but it really helped when my son [Marius] visited me — they began to see me as much more than just an American interloper, they saw me as a mother.

They all saw my son riding his bike around the compound in Naivasha [where several of the chapters of the peace agreement were negotiated]. As a young child, (he was five when the Rejuvenated Peace Process began in 2002), he had no inhibitions in speaking to all of the Sudanese, except that their native tongue was French, and he was only beginning to learn English. But Marius met everyone and really helped to bridge gaps. Seeing my son, the vice president of Sudan at the time, Ali Osman Taha, started bringing along his boys, too. And so, one Friday, my son asked if he could go to the Mosque with the other boys. And I said, Sure, of course. Completely unintentionally, he became this sort of mascot for the peace process and it actually helped my own star to rise.

The implicit acknowledgement by the Sudanese that I am a multi-dimensional person, that in as much as they appreciated that I am Black and a well-educated lawyer, they began to see that I, too, was making sacrifices by “governing” my family from a distance while working to help the parties reach a peace agreement to end their civil war. Once they began to see me more holistically, I think they were able to accept that I was invested in a holistic peace for the whole country. But, truthfully, it all really came from I don’t, can’t, and wouldn’t want to take a break from being a mother, so the only option I have is to bring my son to visit me here. More than anything I could have said or done, my son demonstrated to the government of Sudan that I was not an American with an anti-Islam/anti-Muslim agenda, but rather someone who wanted a fair and equitable agreement for the people of Sudan.

Q: During your career, did you ever find yourself having to be mindful of what it means to project your authority as a woman?

A: Yes, I think so. There were huge challenges to that, and I was definitely aware that I might be criticized more than a man would be if I expressed anger or got upset. When being reviewed, women tend to come out scoring lower than men do in leadership positions. In one instance while I was ambassador, they actually decided not to use the evaluation because, almost uniformly, the female ambassadors were scored by their embassy colleagues significantly lower than the male ambassadors. A lot of these outcomes, I think, happens at a subconscious level. A lot of the people thought they would have handled my job differently but all I could say to myself is that they can do it their way when they become ambassador, but right now, guess what, I’m the ambassador.

I like to remember one of the Fourth of July speeches I gave as Ambassador. I think I said something along the lines of here I am a descendant of people who were enslaved, who weren’t even considered full humans, a Black woman ambassador appointed by a Black president — all of the things that were never envisioned initially in our country’s constitution and yet, here I am. There are just some moments that are transformational.

— —

“I stand before you today as an African American female ambassador, appointed by America’s first African American president. It is true that progress can sometimes be slow, but this moment, right here, right now, with me standing before you, a person whose ancestors were not considered equal to white land-owning men, whose mothers and sisters, as women, could not vote and were also not considered equal by that great Declaration of Independence, demonstrates that even slow progress is better than standing still.”

-Excerpt from U.S. Ambassador Susan D. Page’s July 4th Speech (2013)

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Q: What advice would you give young people considering a career in international affairs and diplomacy?

A: Looking back, I wish I had studied sociology and human behavior, anthropology maybe. My mother was a social worker and taught social work and sociology; I think I would have benefited with a basis in sociology, a better grasp of the study of people and behaviors in the areas of conflict resolution and mediation.

It is important to step outside Western precepts and go beyond our natural reactions to certain rituals or traditions that are “just wrong.” When we try and understand the other’s underlying motivations, we start to better understand our own motivations and dig deeper into how we came to certain conclusions.

Of course, it’s impossible to learn everything — but you start with a willingness to know and understand. We have to put ourselves in their shoes. Think about what they have sacrificed because they’ve never been heard. Often times conflicts erupt because people feel as if they are not treated as humans, as worthy of dignity. Not to say that conflicts are not compounded by water resources or land disputes, etc., but a basic root cause is often “My voice is not being heard. I don’t get to participate in the workings of my own society, of my own government.”

Ambassador Page admits that her foray into the US Foreign Service was not exactly traditional. Never having taken the Foreign Service Officer exam, she instead made her inroads through the civil service of the State Department, through the Office of the Legal Advisor and then through the Office of General Counsel at USAID as a foreign service regional legal advisor. Ambassador Page’s path to joining the US Foreign Service may not be easily duplicated, but it illustrates the advice she offers young people now: “There’s not just one path; you need to explore all of your options. There are various fellowships out there and there are also opportunities outside of the State Department, too. If your goal is to dip your toes into the international arena, the Foreign Service is but one way to do that, and the State Department is only one of the foreign affairs agencies.”

A trailblazer in her own right, Ambassador Page says, “Don’t limit yourself and remember that no experience is too small. Meet people, make those connections, and don’t be afraid to create your own path.”

While constructions of gender may socialize women into becoming effective peacemakers and diplomats, this is not rooted in biological truths. Women should not be appointed to leadership positions in this field because they embody some sort of natural proclivity towards peace. Women belong in these leadership positions because they deserve to represent their societies just as much as men do. With Sustainability Development Goal 5, the United Nations aims to empower all women and girls by ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

Click here to learn more about SDG 5: Gender Equality.

Click here to read about more women’s lived experiences serving as US ambassadors.

Ambassador (ret’d) Susan D. Page is a member of UNA-NCA’s Advisory Council.

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UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to shayna@unanca.org.

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