Strictly Business — Women of Influence
Juliette Kayyem — Former Assistant Secretary of Intergovernmental Affairs, United States Department of Homeland Security
“Are we safe?” A question we all find ourselves asking, regardless of our race, socio-economic background, or nationality. In today’s world, the question of safety has become as instrumental as the air we breathe. As we watch global current affairs unfold, the need for a strong, knowledgeable, and assuring voice to guide us through today’s uncertainty is important. But who exactly owns this voice?
Juliette Kayyem. As the former Assistant Secretary of Intergovernmental Affairs in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Undersecretary for Homeland Security in Massachusetts, Ms. Kayyem was responsible for developing statewide policy on Homeland Security, focusing on preventing, protecting, and responding to all critical incidents.
The evening before our first interview, we couldn’t help but feel nervous. The questions had been printed and arranged, the tables had been set, and the young women charged with conducting the interview were ready for action. Despite our careful considerations, we all knew that no amount of planning could prepare us for everything.
With this being our first interview of the series, we didn’t know what to expect. Would our questions be interesting enough? Would everyone be engaged? How do you address someone who has handled many of our nation’s biggest security issues? Would the lighting look good?
All of our research couldn’t have predicted how incredibly engaging, witty, and down to earth Juliette Kayyem would be. When discussing issues of national security, transparency is not exactly the first thing that one would expect from a government official, but Kayyem values transparency.
With all of us gathered around a conference table, notebook and pens out, Ms. Kayyem engaged us in a conversation that was both humorous and informative, giving us keen insights into unfamiliar fields.
“I was then asked to teach, study, be on TV and then go into government. The lesson is to take new experiences.”
Considering your academic background, we are curious to know how you ended up in the security field.
What I like to say about my career is, I have many jobs — but one career. They all sort of fit into public safety and issues around that… I actually started off as a civil rights attorney, and I went to law school. This is what happens when you plan your life too far in advance. I always thought I’d be a civil rights attorney, litigating cases, and that was true for five years.
For five years of my life, I was what they call a “line attorney” at the Department of Justice. I traveled the country litigating cases, mostly about education, and some of the remnants of the desegregation cases from the 1950’s or 1960’s and 70’s. I brought the first federal “peer-on-peer case,” which we now call “bullying,” but it was actually against the school district that was essentially ignoring the girls who were getting horribly harassed by the football team. Now there are a lot of peer-on-peer cases, but in ’95 that was very unique
So I was doing all that and was very happy in my life. Then a world away, a guy named Bin Laden, whom no one knew who he was, was found responsible for the bombing of two US embassies in Africa. At the time, President Clinton convened a commission who were a group of experts who looked at this particular issue. All of this happened before September 11th and the terrorist attack of September 11th. They wanted someone with a civil rights background because of all of the issues between civil rights and national security, like surveillance and privacy and profiling.
“In some ways, I was the product of tragedy. My career was somewhat a product of a national tragedy. As they say, you can’t write the script too far advance in life”
My parents are from Lebanon, which makes me Arab-American by descent. I served on this commission, which I thought of as kind of an aside, since I still considered myself a civil rights expert, but then we issued reports saying there’s this guy named Bin Laden who’s from Saudi Arabia but is hiding out in Afghanistan, and he’s a rising threat to the US, and then 9/11 happened.
There were just very few people who knew this world. In some ways, that part of my career happened to me. I was then asked to teach, study, be on TV, and then go into government.
The lesson is to take on new experiences.
I remember when the commission was formed, and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to go on it. It seemed too hard, too security focused and not liberal. I still consider myself to be very much a civil rights attorney. But the commission was that experience that led people to say, “She knows a lot about something that then impacted our lives.”
After 9/11, in some ways once you’re a security expert, you are always a security expert or terrorism expert. It was such a part of our national dialogue for so many years that once you’re in, you’re sort of absorbed by it. In some ways, I was a product of tragedy. My career was somewhat a product of a national tragedy. As they say, you can’t write the script too far in advance in life.
I’m here in Boston, in Massachusetts, because my husband got a teaching position at Harvard Law School, and he’s now a federal circuit judge just around the corner. I wanted to keep our family intact, so in some ways you also have to be flexible. He’s made sacrifices for me as well. But you also have to realize that your career unfolds based off a lot of those other issues that you just can’t control.
You create a legacy with your ideas, depending on whatever your field is, especially if it’s creative.
What was your initial impression as a woman in such a male dominated industry?
It still is.
I jokingly just said on my radio segment that I was just appointed by Obama to a new commission for now Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. I was commenting on who else was on it, and it was just like…sixty year old white males. That’s primarily my peer group and I’m used to it. It’s a very not diverse field; it’s getting better, but in some ways it’s also harder.
Civil rights movements tend to be very diverse, very gender equal. At that time in the Clinton administration, we were putting forward the first sexual orientation hate-crime laws after some horrible things had happened. That felt like the real world versus the world I experienced when you go into the security world.
So I have a couple rules that I follow, and although I am no longer young, I’m still the youngest in the room. When I was appointed to the commission on terrorism, I was 29. I always say you just have to be the smartest girl in the room. Sorry for the girl part, but just being really well prepared compensates so that you actually know what you’re talking about. I always tell young women, “Get your hands dirty for part of your career”.
The fact that I litigated and toiled in some ways is actually very good. It gives you background. I haven’t been in a courtroom in fifteen years, but it doesn’t matter. I have a philosophy, maybe it’s not the right philosophy — but you can spend your life, especially in government, wondering why you weren’t invited in, and this happens to men too. I have always said you can sweat it and get annoyed or whatever, but what I try to do is make myself indispensable so that there’s no question that you have to be in the room. Making yourself indispensable includes speaking up and people recognizing that your absence is detrimental to the success of the organization. I also have a lot of things in writing, which is also counter-intuitive to my field. In security, we tend to not put things in writing — for obvious reasons. If you have good ideas, I always tell people to send me a memo. You create a legacy with your ideas, depending on whatever your field is, especially if it’s creative.
You also get stronger and wiser. I don’t sweat the criticisms. Recently, I got some criticisms because I publicly took on Tom Brady and the Patriots for their deficient crisis management strategy during Deflategate; apparently you’re not supposed to do that in Boston.
For someone in crisis management, the critiques were so obvious. I got a lot of people being very mean to me, but I sort of learned to just be me and learned how to create a tough skin. In particular, being prepared in whatever field you are in, and this is true of artistic fields, of writing, of NGOs, or public interests, or government, or even the private sector, is instrumental. Just be prepared. There’s nothing like it. Also you’ll find that men are less prepared. Sorry men.
“I want to talk to people about security like we’re around the kitchen table, just like a mom would be talking about soccer.”
We’ve listened to your podcast and are curious to know how you came up with the title: “Security Mom.”
Yes! Please listen. Subscribe. Actually, people keep asking me that. I knew what I wanted to do with the podcast when WGBH and NPR asked me if I would be interested in hosting, but then whenever you have an idea you also have to brand it like everyone. So how do you brand me? Like that was sort of a question mark. I wanted to bring all this scary stuff down to earth and talk the way I normally talk, because people in my field can be very scary and make you scared and make everyone scared. They sort of make money making everyone scared.
My whole thing is — I want to talk to people about security like we’re around the kitchen table, just like a mom would be talking about soccer. So then there was this notion of soccer mom, so then it just became security mom, which actually ends up being a phenomenon, which I didn’t know about.
In elections there’s a voting demographic called security moms. It’s women who tend to be Democrats, but vote Republican because they’re nervous about the world. Yeah, that’s why Kerry lost. It was the female demographic of independent and democratic women who then voted for Bush in the post 9/11 election in 2004.
In my life, there is family, and there is career, and there was a whole lot of balancing. This is the first time in my career where I get to absorb the personal part of me, to make it part of my professional life. I can’t say I’m totally comfortable with it yet, but we’ll get there. People want me to talk about my kids and the family and what I think about cyber security or am I worried about Ebola or all this stuff. I’m still getting there.
“This stuff seems really scary — like ISIS and the flu and Ebola and hurricanes and tornadoes and all those and all that stuff. So I just try to bring it down to earth.”
I have a memoir coming out that had a different title that Simon and Schuster is publishing next year, April 5 2016. They’re also very interested in that mother aspect of it because it will also be released during an election. So as I said, I’m still bracing for all of this — I’m not quite prepared for it. We’ll see how the book does, but the podcast is just part of that whole branding part, which I’m learning.
I’m on a radio segment every Wednesday at noon with these two other hosts: one is like this more surly guy, Jim Braude, and then the other one is a woman named Marjorie Eagen and she tends to represent my demographic. She reflects the worries of the common woman/common man sentiment, in which this stuff seems really scary, like ISIS and the flu and Ebola and hurricanes and tornados and all those and all that stuff. So I just try to bring it down to earth.
“Getting people to recognize that there’s always going to be risk and there’s always going to be vulnerabilities is very important.”
You mention speaking to the public about security issues as if you were seated around the kitchen table, how do you think that candid transparency would benefit the general public with security issues?
Part of it is just to get people to realize there’s always at risk, right?
A world of perfect security is insane, it’s never happened; it’s never going to happen. Quite honestly, you wouldn’t want it to happen, because you’d have to give up so many liberties and freedoms. Getting people to recognize that there’s always going to be a risk and there’s always going to be vulnerabilities is very important. And that’s ok, because we like taking the train, even though there are total vulnerabilities there. You want your kids to go off and be free, and there’s a certain amount of risk, but if you keep them home all the time, they’re going to be deranged. My boy got a broken arm; it happened at home by the way.
Getting people to have a sense of their accepted level of risks is important for them to understand as well. People also should take security into their own hands in order to get some grip around it, because you can only worry or freak out or blame the government so much, but actually there are some things that you can do as a parent, or as a kid, to prepare yourselves in your community for whatever the risk is: Whether it’s preparing your house for potential natural disasters, having water, food and provisions, or having a plan if the electricity goes out or cell service goes out.
I tell parents to make copies of their children’s birth certificates, social security cards, and mail them out of state. You just want to be in a position where you actually have grip, where you own it.
The analogy that I have in the book is: imagine if someone tells you to hold a loaf of bread and they have the knife. They tell you to stop when you start to get nervous and they’re cutting. Well, you’re inevitably going to have them stop pretty far away from where your hand is holding the loaf of bread. Imagine if they give you the knife. Dangerous, risky, of course, and you start slicing. You are going to feel so much more power. You’re going to get a lot closer to the vulnerability, and I think it’s like taking ownership of it. We the experts sort of fail to do that, and I’m very honest about it. We sort of terrify everyone without giving him or her the skills to manage it.
“There’s no way I would have been appointed to the commission on terrorism given my background unless I were Arab-American. I know that.”
As a young Arab American woman, I wondered how has your Lebanese American identity influenced your work as a lawyer, a political advisor, and a high-ranking security official?
My parents or their families immigrated here. I was born in California, and they were part of an immigrant generation that completely absorbed and actually affirmatively neglected their heritage.
That was just what the immigrants in the 50’s and 60’s did instead of the notion that diversity and the immigrant experience is actually good to hold on to.
In some ways, my career advancement was because of my background in ways that I’m totally blunt about. There’s no way I would have been appointed to the commission on terrorism given my background unless I were Arab-American. I know that. It was important to the Clinton administration. I think it is important to have someone representing and quote “the community”. I’m not Muslim, I’m Arab-Christian. I represented the community of which I was a part of, even though I didn’t rise through the ranks of an “Arab-American” community, I sort of rose through the ranks of a civil rights community.
In other ways it has hurt me as well, kind of like the sense of a fox in the hen house. I think it’s particularly keen because I’m in counter-terrorism and security, and it so happens, that one of the major threats comes from that part of the world. Every time I’ve gotten a senior government position, there have been stories written about me, which you can find, that mention I am Arab-American. I always feel a tinge of, “ooh an Arab-American,” in counter-terrorism, that can’t be right, and then the article mentions that my husband is Jewish. I always think: is that a way of leveling the battlefield? I was the first Arab-American appointed to be a homeland security advisor by Deval Patrick. I was the highest-ranking Arab-American female in the Obama Administration, so that is always part of the national security apparatus.
Some of my critics mention it by saying I’m too soft because I’m against profiling, since I tend to be left of center on security issues. I’m against profiling, not because I’m Arab-American, but because it doesn’t work. It’s antagonistic, and you’re likely to alienate Arab-American communities because of it. My heritage has played different roles in my career — both good and bad — and I’ve always tried to manage it.
“However many times you can focus on what’s not right, the momentum is in your favor.”
Do you have any advice for me and others like me when dealing with stereotyping?
It depends on what field you go into and if it is going to matter. I think just given the way the world is — I’m not much older than you, but I do think twenty eight years does make a difference — I think you have a way to write your narrative in ways that even I didn’t have that opportunity. The world is much more accepting of all different viewpoints. If you look at where civil rights have gone, and just in my lifetime — it may not be perfect — but I think about my first hate crime legislation on sexual orientation.
I remember a room I was sitting in — this is only ’95, just to tell you how much the world has changed — in the Clinton administration, so we were all liberals. Deval Patrick is our boss, the civil rights head, and we are all talking about hate crime legislation, and someone says we have to add transgender.
A room of the most left people in the world were like, “what are you talking about transgender?” It didn’t even cross our minds that this would be an issue. Of course it’s an issue. Twenty-five years later you wouldn’t even think about talking about gay, lesbian, or bisexual rights without also talking about people who are transgender if you really believe in the issue. However many times you can focus on what’s not right, the momentum is in your favor. As I always say, anyone, in particular from the other party, is welcome to be on the wrong side of history. They should just know they’re on the wrong side of history, so you just see where the momentum is going.
It’s clear that you are very involved in your family and you spoke about how you have had to keep this balance. Could you elaborate a little bit more on how you’ve kept that balance and stay so composed?
Oh please. It’s all public image. Simply, I don’t sweat the small stuff with the kids.
They’re much more resilient than you think, and I say this quite honestly. The years I was in the Obama Administration, my kids were raised by a nanny, our babysitter, my mother, or David’s mother. He was also a senior official in the Obama Administration. My kids seem perfectly fine. We have the luxury of having that support network. I don’t have family here so it’s a little harder, but I live near Harvard, so I have a bevy of twenty-year-old girls.
There’s a lot about “leaning in” or “can women have it all” going on right now. I think we’re all just figuring it out as we go along and women make choices and men make choices and hopefully those choices are compatible with each other. At my age, I now think one of the issues that a lot of women are not talking about is returning to work. A lot of my friends who go off from work for some years to have kids want to come back. I think that’s the next feminist issue: How do you utilize a generation of very smart women who have these incredible talents, who left the workforce to do something very noble and had the luxury to do so, but now whose kids are 9,11,13 — like mine. My kids are out the house at 7:50, and they start coming home at about 4. So each generation is figuring out the new issue of their time. In terms of health, we’re really blessed. It’s the number one thing, it just is. My kid has a broken arm that’s temporary and I’m like a mess. The key thing is just sort of working it out day to day and making sure that, it may not balance out day to day, but it balances out over time.
Don’t sweat the small stuff; the kids are fine. The kids are going to be alright.
If you could give one piece of advice to these girls of just how to confront life as they enter their careers; anything as they enter this massive journey, what would it be?
I always think about this because my daughter taught me. My daughter is a big improv person. She likes Boston Improv, she likes comedy, she wants to be Tina Fey. That’s like her thing. It’s not great being her mother especially because she’s good so can focus her humor on me. So, to improv, there’s this acting skill that’s called “yes and.” In improv you’re not allowed to say, “No, I don’t like where you’re going with that,” because you’re on stage.
So everything is “yes and…” I just think that’s a great philosophy. You know, someone said you should think about running for governor, “yes and…” It didn’t work, but I don’t regret it; or my writing career, which ended up being really great.
I was a journalist and had really strong opinions and then came an email from a Boston Globe editor. I wasn’t working after I left the Obama Administration because I wanted some time with the kids. I remember the subject line said, Boston Globe? And it said, “Are you interested in being a guest columnist for a couple weeks?” and I thought, yes and… So that’s sort of a good philosophy if it works for you and then you see what happens.