Bonnie Jenkins | In Her Own Words
by Bonnie Jenkins|January 1, 2019
Tell us about your professional journey working on nuclear issues.
I got started in this field in Washington D.C. while working as a Presidential Management Fellow. I’d received my Master’s in Public Administration and my Juris Doctorate degree. It was then that a mentor at the Pentagon in the International Law office asked me to a meeting where he was giving legal advice on strategic arms reduction.
It was my first exposure to anything about weapons of mass destruction and I was fascinated. I’d heard that if you wanted to work on arms control and nonproliferation for a U.S. delegation, you had to go to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, or ACDA.
So I joined ACDA and began working with a delegation that was negotiating a conventional weapons treaty. There weren’t a lot of women on that delegation and there certainly were not a lot of women of color. I was the only one in a substantive position in a room with more than 20 countries negotiating the treaty.
During my years at ACDA, I received my Master’s in International and Comparative Law. When I left ACDA, I worked on a few congressional commissions before returning to school to get my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. After completing my dissertation, I joined the Ford Foundation and was there between 2005 and 2009. It was in January 2009 that I received a call to meet with then Senator Clinton who offered me a job as an Ambassador.
You have led delegations to Nuclear Security Summits and you were the U.S. Representative to the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Mass Destruction. What was it like leading delegations and maneuvering in male-dominated international spaces like the Nuclear Security Summits?
When I started as an Ambassador in 2009, (it was a new position called Coordinator of Threat Reduction Programs that carried the level of Ambassador), there were a number of women experts that Secretary Clinton had brought into the field of WMD within the State Department. There is still more work to be done in this arena and the field is still very lacking in people of color. Unfortunately, when I left government in January 2017, there weren’t as many women represented in U.S. leadership roles on issues of WMD as when I arrived in 2009.
As far as how I maneuvered, I didn’t have a specific strategy. I just went to work every day and did my thing. I recognized the situation, but it wasn’t always on my mind. There were certainly times when I would feel it more than others. Generally, if you’re the different one in the room, you’re going to wonder about what you say and whether you’re making sense. You’re likely to second-guess yourself more than if you’re a person from the dominant culture or you’re a man in the room. I think men will say things and not worry if it makes sense or if they embarrass themselves – they just keep moving. Women tend to hesitate more before speaking and question whether they’re making sense. That kind of stuff just happens when you’re different, but you deal with it and keep going.
Many times, I made myself worry more than I needed to. I finally realized that I was worried about things that nobody else was even considering. I carried this burden of, Oh my God – I said something five hours ago, and I’m still not sure if I made the right statement. You realize how much society has made women and people of color feel that we’re not as good and we’re not as competent, even when we clearly are.
How have you seen gender and/or race impact the conversation or rhetoric used in formal talks such as chemical, biological and nuclear negotiations?
I wrote a blog focused on diversifying the voices and perspectives of nuclear nonproliferation. Interestingly, I received push back from someone saying, “This doesn’t really matter. All that really matters is that you have certain positions that you take.” It totally passed by the fact that there may be perspectives that could be reflected within policy that we still have yet to understand because we’ve never had significant voices of people of color or women in policy development. We don’t know if we might have taken a different position on things or adopted a different policy. Even if the end result is the same, the path may differ, resulting in better or different kinds of relationships with countries afterwards. I say this because I think people can hide behind the fact that nuclear is a ‘hard security issue’ and say that diverse perspectives don’t matter, but I don’t know if we’ve ever had a real chance to see them.
With President Trump’s handling of the North Korea situation, from the very beginning it was very much a masculine approach. In terms of the rhetoric – the things that were said, the way they were said – it was like two young boys attacking each other. This was a clear indication of a process that was not productive and only stopped when they started acting more mature. The process might have been different had there been women involved.
Having said that, what do you see as the biggest barriers to having more women engaged in these issues?
Well I think it’s having a gender lens. I’ve gone to events in Washington and was pleased to see many young women there from think-tanks, research institutions, and NGOs. Not so much from government. I think the biggest barrier will be whether that can be translated into women moving up the ranks, staying in the field and at the table as they mature in this field. This relies on women staying engaged, but a high percentage of women at events will likely not stay. This is partly because they may not be interested, or they may have children and face challenges to get back in the field. Then there’s the other side – will the established culture be one that makes women feel comfortable and one where they can make a difference? Will there be opportunities for them? Is it going to remain a field where the predominant white male culture ensures that it stays that way? During the Obama Administration, particularly the first four years, you saw a lot of women (“a lot” is relative) but now you see that progress moving backwards.
Certainly, you’re picking up that torch, with the Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS), the organization you founded in December 2017. Why did you start WCAPS and what makes it so unique and important?
I’m thrilled to finally be able to do this work. There is such a need for hearing the voices of women of color in areas of peace and security, including nonproliferation issues. There’s a lot I can do to support that.
WCAPS is focusing on three areas: empowering young women – that’s the first thing. The second thing is strengthening the voices of women already in the field and giving them more exposure. The third is addressing the culture that limits the involvement of women, especially women of color.
Our mentorship program is a big part of empowering younger women. We also do podcasts and spotlights on women of color to give voice to women who are in this field. This also helps to empower young women because they get to see other women of color who are actually doing the work and are successful. These are women they would otherwise not hear about.
To address the culture, I host events with NGOs focused on really getting out there and letting other people, such as white men, see that there are women who work in this field and should be valued. Those events work to bring this discussion to NGOs that are still generally identified as “White Male Yale.” I hosted a conversation looking at women of color and peace and security and asking how can we redefine national security. I’m pleased with the way some think tanks and NGOs are making room for these discussions. It’s critical to bring these conversations to those who may not typically be having them.
How might your professional journey have been different, or had doors opened for you a bit more easily, if you had been able to have women of color as your mentors?
I’m a pretty driven person. Though I didn’t have the luxury of having women of color in my field that I could look up to, there were women of color in other fields that I saw as role models. There were also white men who were role models. I’ve been told by young people of color, not just women, that they shy away from this field because they don’t see people like themselves. They ask, “Why am I doing this when I should be working on civil rights?” or “I should be working on reducing police brutality.” There are things that might be closer to home for women and for people of color. If they’re committing to this field, it’s important to see that there are others in it who look like them.
That’s one of the reasons why one-third of my work is dedicated to helping people see and hear from women who are working on these issues. Folks can visit WCAP’s “Pioneers” page and read about the first African American or first Asian American Ambassador. This way, young women who I can’t reach directly can still be inspired.
There are many women who speak about applying a gender lens to nuclear issues or peace and security. Do you employ a gender and/or a race lens to your work?
I have two answers to that. I’m African-American and I’m also a woman. I grew up in the Bronx without much money and so I have a very different background from many people I work with. I am very conscious of who I am. When I approach an issue, I bring my identity with me. I don’t consciously say I’m going to apply a gender lens or a person of color lens because that’s naturally how I see things. I think that term applies more to people who need to actively incorporate that lens. For me, “gender lens” means that you’re looking at something and saying, how would this impact women differently than men. Or maybe suggesting we need to bring women in to include perspectives that are not just male.
You’ve been very intentional about working with youth. How do you view your role in supporting younger women looking to become meaningful change makers?
I feel very fortunate to have gotten where I am from where I started. I know that, particularly in my area of work, there aren’t a lot of women of color. There are, however, many women of color out there doing great things, but they’re just not getting attention. I feel it’s my responsibility to be a role model to young people, and to bring to the attention of young people, other women doing great work out there that go unseen. The mentorship program is very important, especially because I hear from women all the time that they don’t see people like themselves reflected professionally. For me it’s all about that.
We’re at such a speed change in U.S. policy regarding how we treat other countries, how we’re perceived by other countries and what we’re doing domestically. We’re making a lot of mistakes that are going to take a long time to fix. In addition to wanting to be a role model, I feel it’s our responsibility, as older Americans, to do what we can to make the right environment for the next generations. America is still great, but we have a lot of things we need to fix. Moving forward, we can be more realistic about who we really are as a country and stop trying to believe we’re so perfect. It’s okay not to have all the answers and its okay not to be the best in the world. You’re never going to fix yourself if you don’t know what your problems are.
This administration has done the exact opposite of what they said they would do. They were talking about “Let’s make America great again” and I think what they’ve shown is that America has always been great in some ways and has never been great in others. However, some people aren’t ready to hear it.
What were your keys to success?
Being open to new opportunities, being persistent, not giving up, believing in myself, being respectful to others, and being open but intentional at the same time. I’ve always said to myself, what is the next thing I want to achieve and how will I get there? Many things have happened that I wasn’t anticipating that have turned out great, but even then, I put myself in a position where things can happen, and I can see the unexpected as opportunities. Balancing the need to have direction with the need to be open to opportunities, and to be able to take those opportunities without being afraid to do so – that is key.
Bonnie Jenkins brings a world of experience to the field of Peace and Security. She is an expert on arms control and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. She served for nine years as legal adviser to U.S. ambassadors and delegations negotiating arms control and nonproliferation treaties during her time as a legal adviser in the Office of General Counsel at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. She has been a legal adviser on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, among others. She has also served as U.S. legal adviser on relevant treaty implementing bodies, such as the CTBT Organization (CTBTO), and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons(OPCW). She also has over 20 years of military experience, serving as an Air Force Reserves Officer before joining the Naval Reserves, rising to the role of Lieutenant Commander and serving her last post at the U.S. Central Command.
Today Bonnie Jenkins is beginning a new venture as the Founder and President of the Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS). WCAPS aims to inspire a new generation of diverse women leaders committed to having a role and a prominent voice in the field of Peace and Security – a voice that is needed now more than ever.