Pulling Up A Chair to the Table: Interview with Bonnie Jenkins

Writer, student, and hospitality professional, Raeghn Draper studies at Northeastern University Illinois. Based in Chicago, her activism centers around blackness and other marginalized identities. She enjoys advocating for and around people and sharing their stories. Raeghn is a 2020 #FutureFirst Fellow.

As a queer Black woman, I never thought that working with an organization focused on nuclear threat reduction would align with my values. My volunteer efforts before Beyond the Bomb focused solely on the Black community and the issues plaguing them. Nuclear weapons were a white issue and not one I thought I should dedicate my time and energy to.

I was unaware of the long history of Black people working in the nuclear field; people like Ciara Sivels, Edwin Russell, George W. Reed, Moddie Daniel Taylor, and Hazel O’Leary. Harold Washington spoke out against nuclear weapons in his role as Chicago’s first Black mayor. The field may be dominated by people who don’t look like me but working with Beyond the Bomb has shown me that these issues will disproportionately affect people of color and that people like me are involved in this important work.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins: former U.S. Department of State’s coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs, Founder and President of WCAPs (Women of Color Advancing Peace), a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and George Washington University, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Schools of Nursing and Veterinary Science, and all-around badass Black woman working in the nuclear and security field. We talked about her work and why she thinks it is important for more women of color to take up space in this white, male-dominated field.

What exactly is a U.S. Department State coordinator?
It was actually a position that was created. It didn’t exist before, but what the job was basically I was coordinating programs that the U.S. Department of State and other U.S.  government agencies have to prevent weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological and nuclear weapons) terrorism. So my job was to coordinate those programs with other departments and organizations. However, I also led the U.S. at the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, which is a 30+ country initiative to coordinate programs to prevent WMD terrorism. I did a number of other things as a result of that. For example, I was one of the lead U.S. State Department’s representatives for the Nuclear Security Summits and I was very engaged in the Global Health Security Agenda, an effort to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease threats..

Why did you start an organization for women of color?
I started it because I wanted to find a way to get women of color involved in peace and security, national security and foreign policy issues and ultimately decision making. After many, many years in the field of international security, I hadn’t seen very many people who looked like me. I wanted to dedicate an organization to that very issue and to try and figure out how we can build a network of women of color in the peace and security field, which have such impact on women of color around the world. I wanted it so that there were not so few of us in the field, particularly when a lot of these issues are so important to us yet we’re not at the table or a part of the discussion.

What do you mean when you say a lot of these issues affect women of color?
If we look at everything from climate change, cyber security, food and water security, to infectious disease, all of these issues have their most negative impact on women of color. If we’re talking about climate change, a lot of the places that are already having immediate effects with people having to move are in parts of the world where there are vulnerable communities, particularly women and also children. If we talk about water security it’s the same thing. Those issues impact us here in the United States. Look at the issue in Detroit. Look at who’s mostly affected. If we are talking about infectious diseases a lot of the issues are happening in Africa and in Asia.

As we try to figure out how to deal with these issues we need to be at the table so that we’re not left out.
If we’re not at the table, we can’t have a role in making sure our interests are covered. These issues really do affect women of color around the world and in the U.S. more predominantly and we don’t have the political clout or the ability to affect how we deal with those issues.

What has been your experience working in spaces that are predominantly white, and male?
It’s taken time to get used to being the different person. However,  I’ve been in many white-dominated spaces for most of my life, since high school. You have to get used to being the one person and getting comfortable with that fact. You have to get comfortable with yourself and confident with what you have to say and what you do and not allow who you are to be a barrier in taking positions and speaking your mind. It takes time to find your voice and get comfortable in that setting.

A lot of times when people are young in that kind of environment there is a lot of second-guessing and wondering if they are saying the right thing and are second-guessing themselves. A lot of people who are not in the dominant culture have a lot of those fears. So it means you have to be confident in yourself. That comes with time and becoming fearless.

That Imposter Syndrome feeling is so pervasive, especially in women of color.
It is! It’s a combination of society telling young girls of color that what they are thinking is not good enough and also not saying anything about what you feel or see around you. It’s a constant bombardment of not feeling good enough and you never stop hearing it even when you get older. After a while, you just have to tune it out. If you keep thinking about it you’ll never get anything done.

What are some things that your organization does?
WCAPS.org does so much I sometimes forget things. We do everything from mentorships to having an amazing listserv where we exchange all kinds of information. We have podcasts, webinars, and working groups designated for people interested in different things; they focus on everything from cyber, climate change, infectious diseases, nuclear weapons, diplomacy, national security, to illicit trafficking. Some working groups host events. We collaborate with other organizations on panels. We have a pipeline pilot fellowship program that brings together junior high, high school, and college women of color. We have an art and policy initiative where we bring together artists who work in areas of peace and security and connect them with policymakers to have discussions. We do a lot; you should spend some time on our website.

Why did you decide to get your Ph.D. in International relations?
I was working at an agency at the State Department as a lawyer. I was doing legal work and finding out that so much of the work I was doing had a direct line to policy decisions. I worked on issues of nonproliferation and arms control. Part of being a lawyer was being asked by policymakers what they could and couldn’t do so that is why. I could see a direct connection between what I was doing and the policy that got implicated. As a result of all that I decided to get my Ph.D. in policy and international relations because so much of what I was doing related back to that.

I wonder what your thoughts are in our political climate with world powers threatening to increase arsenals and take action against one another.
Well, a lot of the rhetoric that we make is totally unnecessary. A lot of what happens is about money and who’s going to make a profit out of building weapons for a conflict. It’s kind of the base of what I see happening a lot. I have a background in the military but I don’t think the military is the way we should automatically deal with things. I’m more of a diplomat who thinks the way to deal with things is to talk about it. It’s not necessary to talk about building more arsenal when we really don’t need more. I can’t imagine why we would do that. We’re not in the same world we used to be in during the cold war. I see why it’s done; people feel like if they have more weapons then they’re more powerful. But it doesn’t really make sense right now. We are creating enemies where we don’t have to by having an arsenal that keeps being funded.

What values drive your work?
I am a believer in international law, peace, and security, diplomacy, respecting your fellow human, treating people the way you want to be treated, negotiation, public service, equality, and that all people should be treated well. Those are overall the things that drive what I do. There should be no feeling that anyone is better than anyone else. I’m all about people working hard and making money but I don’t believe that people who haven’t been able to make it should be treated badly because they didn’t have the same opportunities.

How do you celebrate Black History Month?
Like many others, I celebrate Black History Month because it is a chance to shine light on our contributions to this country, but I also believe that we should be celebrating black history all the time. So much of our history has not been told. My organization chose two Black women to highlight as the woman and Young Ambassador of the month this February. There are so many amazing Black women and other women of color who are part of WCAPS, and every month I highlight women of color who need more light for what they are doing. For me, I think the month should be for learning about the different things that Black Americans have done that we don’t know about.

One time when I was young there was this TV show and it had this guy walking around pointing to things in the room and saying “this was by a Black person….that was developed/invented by a Black person…” We have been left out of history books and we don’t have the knowledge of all the things we have created and developed. People have taken credit for our creations and we didn’t have the ability to do anything about that. For me, Black History Month is about educating us on all the ways we have contributed to this country. We should still honor the people we always honor but we should also honor the ones we don’t know: our hidden figures. I don’t think we have any idea of how much we’ve done that we don’t know about because the history books have not been fair.

What kind of books do you enjoy reading?
I’m mostly reading stuff for or around work so it’s been a while since I read for enjoyment. I like autobiographies and biographies about people, normally women and Black Americans and other vulnerable groups, who have overcome some kind of adversity or who are incredible. I like to read about people’s lives and how they accomplished what they did. I adore Harriet Tubman, but I also read about leaders, for example, like President Roosevelt or President Adams. I enjoy learning what decisions they made and how they ended up where they did.

Bonnie Jenkins is doing incredible work – not only standing out in her field but taking the time to create space for other women of color. Change and equality can only happen when we all get a seat at the table concerning how our world runs. No one will invite us; we have to show up and demand our chair. With the help of women like Bonnie and her organization WCAPS I am hopeful for a future where we are represented — no matter what field we are in.

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