WASHINGTON — Ten months after the role became vacant, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has appointed a new chief diversity and inclusion officer at the State Department, according to a statement seen first by NBC News.

Zakiya Carr Johnson, an experienced race, social inclusion and diversity expert, will be tasked with building a workforce which “reflects America,” Blinken said in the statement. 

NBC News spoke with around a dozen representatives and officials from various State Department employee organizations and groups, a number of whom were surprised that it took Blinken so long to fill the position that does not require Senate confirmation. 

Although most supported Blinken’s efforts to elevate issues of diversity and inclusion, a number also said that they would have liked the opportunity to share their thoughts ahead of Carr Johnson’s appointment. 

Chief among the challenges facing Carr Johnson will be  “a massive retention issue at the department,” said Merry Walker, president of the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association. “Especially at the mid-levels.”

Representatives from other State Department employee organizations expressed similar concerns about keeping staff on board. 

“We disproportionately see women and minorities leaving,” according to a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Not in high numbers, but they add up over time and they harm our pipeline.”

But Blinken said in the statement that Carr Johnson, who served at the State Department between 2010 and 2017 before going on to start several organizations that work with historically marginalized communities, would bring “international expertise and a fresh perspective on how we build a workforce that reflects America.”

“Her previous work promoting entrepreneurship and access to opportunity for underrepresented populations, as well as her commitment to inclusive leadership make us stronger, smarter, and more innovative,” added Blinken, who set up what he called a “retention unit” shortly after entering office to better understand and address the issues that may be causing people to leave.

Her work may be cut out as an internal survey conducted by the State Department in 2022 found that 44% of respondents reported that they had experienced discrimination and 27% reported harassment, including sexual harassment. 

And last year, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that the majority of federal employees who experienced harassment did not report it. Singling out the State Department, the report said, its management training did not clearly state that reports will be taken seriously and investigated or that retaliation would not be tolerated. 

“What we’re finding is that employees didn’t trust the system or don’t trust the system. So they’re looking for somewhere else to go,” the senior official added. 

Among senior diplomatic ranks, several State Department officials said Arab Americans, Black Americans and Hispanic Americans were among communities that were underrepresented. Among the reasons, according to several officials in various organizations, are ongoing issues related to assignment restrictions, which can prevent diplomats from working on issues related to the countries of their families’ origins.

However, there have been some wins for Blinken. By the end of the last fiscal year, the State Department exceeded hiring and retention rates of employees who identify as having a disability. 

And a board member from GLIFFA, which represents employees from the LGTBQ community, said that there had been progress in same-sex spouse accreditation for foreign service officers abroad, although there was still work to do. 

The State Department has also been collecting demographic data for three years in a bid to track employee trend lines.     

For her part, Carr Johnson said in the statement that she was honored to serve her country and the talented professionals at the State Department. 


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