A Peoria native, Natika Washington is director of global programs in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, where she leads social, political and economic initiatives aimed at empowering women around the world. Upon graduating from Richwoods High School in 1997, Washington spent a decade in active Air Force duty, including deployments to Kuwaait, Bahrain and Iraq, and four years as a special missions flight attendant on Air Force Two. This year, she was named one of The Network Journal’s “40 Under Forty,” following a flurry of previous honors, including the 2010 Franklin Award for establishing the State Department’s first small grants program to support gender equality, the Franklin Award for Leadership in 2011, the 2012 Superior Honor Award for mainstreaming gender programming within the State Department, and the Excellence in Government Senior Fellow award in 2013. Despite a packed schedule working in DC, traveling abroad and juggling MBA classes at George Washington University, iBi caught up with Washington to discuss her journey from Peoria to the global stage.
Tell us about your childhood in Peoria.
I was born and raised in Peoria, and my family still resides in Peoria. I graduated from Rolling Acres Middle School and went on to Richwoods High School. I participated in a variety of clubs… and I was a Richwood Royalette—I did dance the entire four years. I had a variety of student council positions and drama… there was a lot to do at Richwoods! My parents have been married for about 38 years. I’m the middle child of four… [my little sister] and I are the only ones who moved out of Illinois. My mom and dad’s families are also in Peoria… We’re a pretty big family and pretty close.
When did you join the Air Force and how was the experience?
I joined in 1998, right out of high school. I went to Lackland Air Force Base [in San Antonio, Texas] for training, and my first job in the Air Force was Security Forces. So I was a cop—military police. Then I moved to North Dakota… but I only stayed about 10 months, and then moved to South Carolina. I spent five years in South Carolina in Security Forces—that was the first opportunity I had to start traveling because I would deploy a lot. I’ve been deployed to Kuwait, Bahrain and Iraq… and I’ve visited a lot of different Middle Eastern countries on my way to those deployments.
I deployed to Bahrain in October 2001. That was the safe transport and refuel airbase for all of our fighter jets: Marines, Air Force and Navy. After I came back from that deployment in 2003—at the height of the Iraqi war—I deployed to Kirkuk Air Base, where I spent nine months as a radio/telephone operator. I was in charge of all communications on the ground for the Special Forces that were doing raids on potential terror cells… but also internally, because Security Forces’ job was to secure the base. I would… get the information from what was going on internally and where fire was coming from, and channel it to the base defense operations center in Baghdad. It was a very big job for a 23-year old girl! (laughs)
That was my last year as a Security Forces member… I cross-trained out of that field and became a special missions flight attendant, an active-duty Air Force position for members of the military to staff the planes [for] travel with the top five dignitaries in the United States. The president is No. 1; the vice president is No. 2; No. 3 is the secretary of state, then the secretary of defense, and then all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Whatever their business is… we travel with them to different locations to get them there safely and back home. It was much more interesting and fun than being shot at! (laughs) I flew on Air Force Two… so I flew with [former Vice President] Dick Cheney all the time, and also Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice, the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That’s when I really got the opportunity to experience the other side of the world. In four years, I traveled to more than 50 countries. It was pretty exciting.
How did your experiences shape your views and get you started along the path of helping other women?
It was not until 1988 that women were even allowed to be Security Forces members. I’m sure you’ve been watching the news and following the issues women face with discrimination and inequality in our military institutions... Well, I actually lived it. It was real.
When I first PCS-ed [Permanent Change of Station] to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, I was excited to be a law enforcement cop because I had never experienced that component of Security Forces. But my flight chief… was very racist, and very discriminatory towards women, and I was the only woman on his flight for a year. I deployed with him to Kuwait… and I was the only girl… It was kind of like a good ol’ boys club.
I’ll never forget this day: I had just turned 21. I was in Kuwait and had just heard word back from the U.S. that I gotten promoted early, and I was super-excited about it. He was pulling together our team— about 15 men and me—and announced that I won the opportunity to be promoted early, which is a huge, huge success... And he says, in front of all of the men and boys… “Well, guys, you know the only reason she got promoted is because she has big **** and everyone wants to **** her.”
I remember feeling embarrassed and heartbroken that my senior leader would be so disrespectful and sexually harassing. Of course, the entire room gets quiet, and everyone is looking at me, and I’m guessing they expected me to cry. I just remember… telling myself, “You are not going to cry. You are not going to let this man win.” And another senior NCO [non-commissioned officer] actually jumped in and said, “Sergeant, that was so disrespectful and wrong, and she has the right to file charges against you.” He looked at me and said, “Admiral Washington, if you want to go to EEO [Office of Equal Employment Opportunity] and file a complaint, I will support you.”
I said, “I’m not going to file a complaint, but I will say thank you to all my peers who voted to push me forward for this promotion”… and I said, “Sergeant, I don’t agree with what you said… [It] was very disrespectful… How would you like it if another man talked to your daughter that way? I was promoted amongst my peers because I was the most qualified.” I remember leaving… with all those men and boys staring at me and saying, “Congratulations, Natika, you deserve it.” And I remember going back to my tent privately and just crying, thinking that is not fair… women and girls should not have to deal with this type of man and these types of norms in the military. From that moment, in my own way, I was always stacking up for girls who were new to the squadron, new to my flight, to let them know they do not have to allow these boys to disrespect [them]… So, I was kind of pegged the feminist (laughs). Of course, I was just trying to speak out for what was right.
Is that why you left the Air Force?
After four years as a flight attendant—and I will say it was one of the best experiences of my career because I got to travel the world and rub elbows with some of the world’s top leaders—I knew… I needed a change. Luckily, I had the opportunity to meet then-Secretary Rice’s executive director in the Executive Secretariat [Carol Perez, current principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs], and whenever I would fly with her, she’d say, “Natika, you are so smart—you should come work for the State Department.” And I would think, “Why does she keep saying that?” (laughs)
The whole purpose of joining the military was to get my degree; once I got my four-year bachelor’s degree, the sky was the limit for me. So I reached out to the State Department and asked if they had any opportunities for military members. The head of the Student Programs division emailed back right away and said… “Would you be interested in an internship with the State Department?” As it turned out, I still had an entire year on my contract with the military. So I went to my senior leadership… explained the opportunity I had, and luckily, they saw great things in me, supported me and worked with me to get out of my contract a year early.
What was the internship like?
I was actually the intern coordinator, so I was responsible for coordinating all the leadership opportunities for the 1,600 interns assigned to the State Department. It was a very, very exciting time and position... The State Department at the time—this was back in 2008—was really trying to figure out how to recruit veterans… because we come from all kinds of unique backgrounds and experiences and bring a level of leadership and integrity to any position… I think they used me as a test to see if they could really be an agency on the forefront of change with recruitment for veterans… Thankfully, the laws have changed, and the government is really supportive of recruiting veterans.
From the moment I came to that internship, the head of the office that hired me was setting up informational interviews for me with some of the top leaders across the department, so I really got a holistic view of the department in the 10 weeks I was an intern. It was amazing because I knew this was the agency I wanted to work for.
What were your career goals at the time?
I was still active-duty military, so I was just waiting for my enlistment to end. I’ll be honest. At that time, I don’t think I had three- or five-year goals. (laughs) I was just at a point where I knew I needed a job, and this was the job I really wanted.
I was a sponge… I would really listen to what these leaders were telling me about the work they do. I knew that I wanted to be in the realm of foreign affairs, but I also knew it was a process. The majority of foreign affairs officers come from very long educational backgrounds—international relations and political science—and that wasn’t my background. I knew I had to be creative on how I was going to get into the career track that I wanted.
But you had already “lived” international relations for 10 years. That wasn’t enough?
You know, the funny part is I didn’t even put that together at the time! I think if I had set my resume up the way I had lived my life—based on the experience I had in the military—I probably could’ve come into the State Department in the foreign affairs track right away.
I ended up reaching back out to [Carol Perez]... She was like, “I have a job. It’s not a job that will require a lot of thought, but… it gets your foot in the door. Do you want it?” So I actually accepted that job. Whenever I talk to young women who are interested in this space, I always tell them, “Sometimes you have to take something that you may not necessarily be interested in, in order to get you to the path that you want.” For me, it was accepting this position... I knew I would eventually figure out how to navigate the department to get the career trajectory I wanted. You have to start somewhere.
So I did this job in the Secretary’s bureau, and in 10 months, I’d had enough. I had a conversation with my new boss and said, “I’m not challenged. I really want to make a difference and do a job that I’m passionate about.” And he said, “I don’t have a positon for you right now, but I do need some support with the Secretary’s’ travel.” At that time, it was Secretary [Hillary] Clinton… And I said, “Okay.”
Every weekend, I would fly with Secretary Clinton to New York City. She would be in Washington, DC, Monday through Friday; on Friday evenings, we’d go home to White Plains, New York, and then bring her back Monday morning. So… now I’m on a one-on-one, first-name basis with the Secretary of State, which was pretty amazing! (laughs) I will say that I worked my butt off—70 hours a week.
At the same time, I was approached by the chief of staff for this office… and she said, “I have a job for you. I work on women’s issues—you’re going to be great for this job. Do you want it?” And I said, “Wow—I just accepted a job! I don’t want to burn any bridges.” She said, “Don’t worry about it… I’ll work it out so we can transition you into this position.” She went to my boss and said, “I want her to work for me.” And so, it was a process for me, working full-time with Secretary Clinton and part-time for this office [the Office of Global Women’s Issues], which had just been created in 2009.
My flagship initiative—the small grants initiative—was a $5 million initiative that funded organizations in 57 countries to the tune of about $100,000 or less. The projects focused on political and social empowerment—health, education and gender-based pilots and a variety of different, exciting programs. It was the first time this office had ever received resources. I had no experience—I was terrified. (laughs) But I figured it out. It was very successful. It was the initiative I needed to get hired into the office, and eventually turn the office into the office that I wanted.
Was Secretary Clinton involved in the creation of the Office of Global Women’s Issues?
Absolutely; she led the movement. Women’s issues have been her passion since she was a First Lady. My boss at the time, Melanne Verveer, was the first-ever Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues… [She] was also Secretary Clinton’s chief of staff when she was First Lady… They both had a burning passion for women’s issues, so it made sense to appoint Ambassador Verveer to head this office.
In 2009, when President Obama elevated the office to this [ambassadorial] position, we really started the work of getting the word out about why gender equality matters. [We were] connecting it to the economic growth of a country and making the case for why it’s important to invest in the other half of your population… why women should have a seat at the table to talk about politics, education, health… For four years, as head of the Global Programs division, it was my job to take the policies Secretary Clinton was establishing as it related to gender equality and [those] Ambassador Verveer had created on how to implement those policies, and develop and design programs that were going to help achieve them.
Secretary Clinton had a vision of really tapping into private-sector investment and [believed] the private sector and government should be working together. At the time of elevating the office, they created a public-private partnership fund—the Secretary’s International Fund For Women and Girls… which gives the Department of State the authority to enter into partnerships with the private sector to move forward agendas that empower women and girls.
As I was developing and designing [these programs], we received $1.5-million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation… to develop a program called the Secretary’s Innovation Awards (SAI) that would scale innovative programs that were already empowering women in the developing world. So right after I spent the $5 million, I worked with the Rockefeller Foundation to create SAI. We identified three leading-edge organizations in Africa and India that were doing some amazing things… So, we scaled those programs—one across Kenya, another across Tanzania, and one across India. The work they’re doing is just amazing. And that started with the communication component—getting the word out that the private sector… could actually work with the government to move forward companies’ corporate social responsibility objectives.
How does your office target programs for funding?
We identify where we want to invest our interventions, and once we determine the area… we reach out to our embassies and consulates. [We’ll say], “We know that women in this portion of the country are experiencing extreme cases of violence—we want to eradicate that. These are our goals and objectives. What have you seen on the ground?” They work with civil society, across governments [and] with the private sector... It’s a very collaborative process. Once I get the list of organizations from the field, we have a variety of roundtable discussions on women’s issues and empowerment… and domestically, bring together civil society organizations, foundations and think tanks that are working in this space to say, “What is needed?” We take that information and design a program.
We want to identify unique grassroots organizations or NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that are doing interesting, groundbreaking work in that country, and give them an opportunity to receive these resources so they can scale what they’re doing. We give seed funding to organizations that would never normally have an opportunity to get those resources... and work with [them] from the ground up.
Which of these programs is nearest and dearest to your own heart?
The Women’s Health Innovation Program is an initiative that educates new and expecting mothers… through the book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. We partnered with the What to Expect Foundation to create a baby-basics training program for Liberia and Bangladesh, which have the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. It is a massive partnership across civil society, the medical/health society and the government to get information out to mothers on… the changes their bodies are going through and what the needs of their baby are to get to full term and deliver a healthy baby. This project is in its third year, and it’s so interesting to see all the work and sweat and blood and tears I’ve put into [it], [resulting] in a finished product. The president of Liberia is excited about this product for her country because… they can say, “We have a tool to educate our mothers, health practitioners and midwives on how to deliver healthy babies.”
If I could mention one more, it’s a public-private partnership called the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. [It’s] made up of about 50 public-private corporations, governments, artisan groups, artisans themselves and philanthropists who care about elevating the importance of the artisan sector to the world. We come together to tackle the barriers of women who are artists… and work together to elevate the importance of the sector, provide new market opportunities, and bring the message to countries on how they really should be investing in this informal sector. If you go to any country in the world, you see women selling a product, and [wonder] why [they’re] not making more money… It’s because they don’t have the necessary training and information. They’re not linked into the correct networks to bring them out of poverty. We use this as an opportunity to move forward women’s economic empowerment on a global scale through the artisan sector.
I hear you’re also working on your MBA. What are your goals for the future?
My goal right now is to graduate! (laughs)… Next December, 2015… I think I’m going to step out of the government and go private. I want to do CSR [corporate social responsibility] for a company and really work on women empowerment and entrepreneurship of some sort. I do like DC, and there are definitely a lot of opportunities here, but we’ll see where I end up in 2016. iBi