Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the Mom + Social Good Event

Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
New York, NY
May 7, 2014


Question: Did you always know -- you had a career before you were a mother -- did you always know that you wanted both a career and to be a mother?

Ambassador Power: First, let me apologize for my voice. I thought in doing a mom’s summit, it was really important to represent the symptoms [Laughter] of being a mother to a sick child to the mothers everywhere who have lived through both acquiring whatever their child has and then continuing to go to work with it while their kid stays at home basking in the attention of others [Laughter]. But, I mean, I wasn’t a great planner in life, let me put it that way. So, I did not set out, certainly, to be – if you’d asked me – “Would you want to be the U.S. Ambassador to the UN?” I would have said, “Are you kidding? That would be the greatest thing in the world.” Probably even from a very young age. If you’d asked me, “Would you like to have two beautiful children? And do them both at the same time?” I would have said, “Sure, but that would be – that’s statistically impossible.” So, my kids came late, my marriage came late. And I’m very blessed to have all of them come at once, but nothing was very well ordained. I don’t think anything, sort of, destined, is well-plotted out -- at least of that nature -- well in advance.

Question: And as you – so here you are with this career and now you’re expecting – did you have any doubts that you can make it work? Or you just knew you’d figure it out?

Ambassador Power: Again, luckily, I don’t have time to do a lot of reflection on how it’s all going [Laughter]. I lead the quintessential unexamined life. So I don’t have extra thoughts about how I am doing, I will say. But it’s been – I mean, it’s a challenge. You know, the -- I’ve tried to bring my son in particular -- he just turned 5 a couple weeks ago -- and I’ve tried to bring him into what I do at work. And he’s, really interested in the globe and where the elephants live and where the Russians have taken territory [Laughter]. You know, it’s amazing. And I think in school, he has everybody else interested in Crimea [Laughter]. I’m just hopeful that that’s not going to present lasting psychological trauma [Laughter]. I think that’s the best way to do it, because otherwise he would just be like, “Where’s Mommy?” And so being able to explain in a way that becomes part of his world is at least the approach I’m taking for now.

Question: Well, I get asked a ton, how you do both -- how do you work and be a parent? And I imagine it’s a question you get asked all the time. And the way I picture – if I picture your work day, I think of you at a desk for some of the time and on the phone and doing email. But then, I – kind of assume that global crises don’t keep to American business hours and that you can really be tasked at any time with your work. And so I’m picturing, like, tying your toddler’s shoelaces while on the phone…

Ambassador Power: I mean, Velcro. This job requires Velcro [Laughter]. He’s going to be, like, 19 and in Velcro.

Question: Is that the reality? Is that your life as a series of just, juxtapositions of just this incongruous, you know, work and motherhood – the mundane of the motherhood – with the global tasks?

Ambassador Power: Yeah, I think. Yeah. I will say – because to not acknowledge this would be vastly overstating my own capabilities – I have an amazing nanny who moved with us from Washington. Her name is Maria. And so I say I have a formula, I have it all figured out. The algorithm is, colon, “Maria.” [Laughter] So, she’s transcendent and just a force of goodness, and love and life in their lives when I’m not around. But as anyone knows, that’s only – nannies can only do so much. And, again, blessed to have her and it is a lot of multitasking. And yesterday, in fact, Maria did the unthinkable: she went away [Laughter]. And it is, when that happens and there’s no fallback and she can’t be called,– it puts a wholly different strain on things, particularly when you have a temperature of 103 at the same time - so the balancing.

But the main thing, again, I think it’s like everybody else’s life. It happens to be national security, but it looks the same as everybody probably watching: in the juggling, in the sort of glorious art work that is plastered in your office when kings and heads of state pass through and you show them, like, my son’s amazing rendition of an elephant with Red Sox hat, and present it as if I’m literally presenting the president’s Nobel Prize or something. And they’re looking awkwardly as if this is something that they’re supposed to admire. So there’s bringing your kid and the spirit of your children in your office. And then there’s, you know, we – my son insists on three books every night. And occasionally I’ll get a call from the office about a book and a half in, and I’ll say, “You know, Declan, I gotta take this call. It’s Secretary Kerry and there’s a crisis.” And he’s like, “Nope. You said three. You said three.” And I’m, like, “No, no, Dec -- really, just, this one.” And he says, “Well, then, tomorrow it’s going to be four and half books…” [Laughter]

Question: He’s already learned his math --

Ambassador Power: “…and he better not call.” So, you know it’s, again, what everyone goes through. It’s just the names are a little -- like, Secretary Kerry is a well- known name, but everyone has the analogy of their partner or their boss or someone calling when they’re trying to steal personal time. So it’s just like that.

Question: Well, thank you. I am going to switch gears now just a little bit, about women in the developing world. There is a lot of research that discusses the positive impact that women working brings to a community. A report from the European Commission of Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities says – or concluded that more women in senior position is the key to economic stability and growth. And given your experience as a – in a senior position in the government, can you talk about women in the developing countries as they join government in leadership roles and add stability to their own communities? What have you seen? What have you seen happen?

Ambassador Power: Well, maybe stepping back a little bit – or stepping backwards – it all starts, I think, with education. You know, we are all heart-struck, as we were talking about, about these Nigerian girls and, you know, the women’s networks and the other networks are lighting up around the country and around the world about these girls. And it shines light on something profoundly important: how much girls want to seek out education. You know, in this case, their schools were closed because of the violence, and they just went back and willed it so they could take their exams so that they could move onto the next stage of education.

We’ve come a long way, I think, internationally, in equalizing – roughly equalizing – boys’ and girls’ attendance in primary schools around the world, even in some of the poorest countries. But there is a massive drop-off in secondary school. And I just read a statistic, in fact, in the last couple of days that says that for every 1% increase in the percentage of girls who are obtaining secondary education, there is a 0.3% GDP growth increase.

Question: Really?

Ambassador Power: So 1% to a third of a percent. And that is completely fascinating. And, again, that needs to be tested over time, and of course we need more data , because – with more girls in school we will have more data, as well as more educated girls. But to your actual question at the governmental level – and, again, it requires education to get more people into the job force, to get more people into the political pool –, I think we’ve made some, I mean, substantial progress, really, when you look back, certainly, twenty years. We’re still hovering around 20% in terms of women’s representation in parliament; heads of state, of course, very few. But when you have women heads of state, you have tended to see – and woman leaders and prime ministers – you tend to see the prioritization of issues that you would expect them bringing to the fore, like girls education, health, etc. You might call that playing to type, but we will take it, because it has profound socioeconomic effects that go well beyond the welfare of girls and the welfare of women in societies. There are some countries that have become exemplars, like Rwanda: 64% of the parliament is female.

Question: 64%?

SJP: 64%. And so imagine being a young girl -- like my daughter, I have a one year old daughter – you know, if my daughter was growing up in a world where the expectation was that the politicians would be women, right? You know, rather than – now more and more of a common occurrence, but I think in our case it’s around 20% in the Senate and a little bit less than that in the House. Imagine 64 percent. So, there’s a lot more that can be done. But I think as the glass ceilings get broken – whether in the private sector, in journalism, in the media, in NGOs – you know, you will then start to see people’s expectation change at a lower level. But, again, rendering this education point, I think, is really important so girls are prepared and have the capabilities to go forward.

Question: So, I am curious about -- what it is about women that stabilizes the community? Is it specific behavior or actions that women take that I am assuming men don’t take that have this effect? Have you observed anything like this?

Ambassador Power: You know, I’d be hesitant to generalize. I think what we have are a lot of correlations like the one I mentioned, right, which is that we see time and again, but again anecdotally – there may be new data out there – where women in these jobs are tending to bring, you know, public health – access to public health – to the fore. Many of the mothers who have been in the position of trying to get their kids vaccinated, or having to wait in long lines in order – or to pay large sums of money – in order to get access to health care. Again, girls education; another example. One interesting study – and, again, the data is nascent because we sadly don’t have a big pool to draw upon – but is when women are involved in peace processes, they are more likely to be successful and produce lasting peace than when women negotiators are not involved.

Yeah, so, again, we’re going to need more data to test that over time. But you could imagine, I mean, the theory of the case would be that women would be injecting into these discussions something more than who is moving where on the battlefield, who’s up or who’s down, but also what the root causes of grievances might have been, again, rooted in social and economic welfare. So maybe injecting some of those issues; also injecting conceptions of reconciliation and community healing, you know, that arguably, again, could correlate with women’s own and mothers’ own experiences.

Question: In your work thus far, is there any particular experience, any particular policy you shaped, anything that you’re maybe the most proud of, or that you felt had the most widespread effect?

Ambassador Power: You know, I think that one of the reasons that I am in the job that I am in is that President Obama reached out to me when I had written a book on genocide, on American responses to genocides around the world in history. And he reached out to me because he was really interested in thinking, you know, how can we do more – we, in the US government; at that time he was in the Senate, he had just joined the – had been elected to the US Senate – how can we, what are the tools that we have? You know, not necessarily to send in US troops here or there, but to look at the full panoply of things that we might have at our disposal: creating a commission of inquiry; you know, sending someone to an international court; putting in place travel bans, asset freezes; naming names, even; sending in peacekeepers, etc. etc. And so this idea that we have lots of tools in the tool box was very evident, if you look historically at what the United States has been able to do in other areas – not related necessarily to sexual and gender based violence and mass atrocities, but, you know, to nuclear nonproliferation and more traditional subjects for US foreign policy.

So, when he brought – I then ended up joining his Senate staff and working on his campaign and then taking these ideas that we had long talked about, you know, to the White House, very much on his direction. And so you saw, whether in Libya or Ivory Coast or in South Sudan; you now see it, certainly, in the Central African Republic, on Burundi – where we’re trying to prevent mass atrocities, which, again, one thing we know in 2014 is if there is ethnic violence or religious violence, it will include specifically the targeting of women, and specifically the recruiting of children. And if you know that, it gives you a hell of an incentive, upstream, to think about all of the tools that you can employ, all of the training, also, of troops who may deploy as peacekeepers, as is true now in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in South Sudan where there is horrible violence.

But basically, I guess, I would say that I think this administration has definitely made great efforts, and I think has pretty substantial results, in the realm of atrocity prevention. Now things like Syria and the ongoing violence in Central African Republic, of course, stand out as reminders that, you know, we can’t be satisfied and we have to continue to be looking under every rock and thinking what more can we do to bring crises like that to an end – again, recognizing that in Syria sexual violence is a tool; it’s like another weapon in the holster. It’s what they are using to degrade communities and try to bring about their destruction.

Question: You mentioned Central African Republic. You were just there; you have also just recently visited Rwanda and Burundi. You saw communities that were pend in by barbed wire for their own protection. As mothers in the US, we often feel so far removed from anything like this. But I don’t know of a mother that doesn’t feel like she wants to be anxiously engaged in improving the world or trying to fix whatever problem she can. What do you recommend to women and mothers that ask how to get involved? And what are action steps they can take to feel like their efforts aren’t wasted?

Ambassador Power: Well, let me say that, you know, right now in the world, the system is feeling a little overloaded, I think. It feels that way at the UN Security Council, where we’re meeting every five minutes on, you know, a large number of crises, now compounded by developments in Ukraine, by South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo – you know –Burma, Burundi; the list goes on – Darfur, as mentioned. So, you have all these crises and the first thing I would say is just to make a plea not to turn away, at this point, because it feels like something is in the air right now. That doesn’t mean that any one of us, whether a person in my job or your job or, even somebody at home with their kids can emotionally or practically focus on everything bad that’s going on in the world at one time. And so my first plea would be, I guess, don’t turn away.

And my second would be, there may well be only so much any one of us can do, but focus and I think, knowing something about something. You know, this Nigeria issue has really, as we talked about, kind of lit up. You can just feel the empathy of the American people and, I think – again, of mothers and women in particular. That is a beautiful thing. So now the question is, how can we do everything we can in our power to get these girls back? But more broadly, 37% of girls in northeast Nigeria are not in school at all. You know, are there things that each of can do in a way of raising money or in a way of sister schools programs or in the way of mentoring refugees who have come to this country, who might then go home to their countries? You know, most communities in this country have certainly immigrant communities, of course, but also refugees, who have come in. And so, I think there is always a way through the International Rescue Committee or through any kind of local refugee council to even reach out in one’s own communities in ways that could have lasting effects back home.

But I think the sky’s the limit. And the beauty of social networks and so forth is other people who maybe have a little more bandwidth to be thinking through the non-governmental approaches to these crises: all the ideas are out there. But it does require not turning away, not getting overwhelmed. And, I think, making choices and not feeling like, you know, you have to fix every problem to try and make a small difference on one.

Question: I like that. I like that a lot. The theme of this conference is “mothers as change makers.” You were a change maker well before you became a mother. So I’m curious to know, has becoming a mother affected the way you do your job, your role as a change maker? Did your views or opinions change on any particular policy? Have there been any other changes affecting your job?

Ambassador Power: Well, what I would say is that it’s impossible for any parent, father, mother – and frankly pretty hard for all people – but when they see children affected by conflict. For me, the Syria chemical weapons attack last August was just – to see these children just lined up, like they were just sleeping, trusting that they could go to bed at night. And to see their parents and the agony of both losing your child and then that sense of failure of not having been able to protect your child from this poison that some killer – horrific men, really – would put into the air, knowing that there were children living in these communities. So you see that, and to put it mildly, it’s an incentive, you know, in this case to take chemical weapons away from that regime that has used them and has caused these effects.

You go to Rwanda – I told the story yesterday, actually, publicly for the first time – but I was part of the President’s delegation to commemorate the 20 year anniversary of the genocide. And we were in this stadium with all these dignitaries – it was a very somber and, of course, very moving in its own way – but, you know, formal; it was a formal ceremony. And going through what had happened, a survivor got up to testify – the stadium was packed with ordinary Rwandan people, families and stuff – and this gentleman got up and had been asked by the president to speak about his 100 days – the 100 days of the genocide – and describe what had happened to him. And by virtue of him doing that, it unleashed in the stadium memories, particularly among the mothers and the daughters and the sisters, I presume – because it was women all over the stadium who just started screaming and wailing. And 200 of them had to be physically transported, you know, out of the stadium. It was one at a time; first over in this [inaudible] and somebody over here, and they were just reliving what had been done.

So, again, the human stakes of the decisions we make and those tools in the toolbox that can be an abstraction. But, you know, the privilege that I have in the job that I have to be part of a team that’s trying to think through, how do we help these people so 20 years from now, you know, it’s not a mother thinking about how they lost their child or their children. And so, certainly, as a mother, of course one has to think that, like, there but for the grace of God go any of us. I mean, we’re just privileged not to live in such vulnerability.

Question: This will be my last question. I’ll switch gears, so that we can leave on a little bit lighter note [Laughter]. This is very lighthearted but I – on my blog – on DesignMom, some of the most commented posts are about names. I have six kids, so I did a lot of naming. And I think as a parent, one of the most interesting things we get to do is name this other being, to try to come up with a name that is going to fit their entire future in their adult life. I feel like you have a very distinctive name. It’s very powerful. Samantha Power sounds like a superhero [Laughter]. And I’m curious to know if you felt like your name affected you, kind of pushed you in certain directions and people responded to you a certain way because of your name?

And the follow up will be, did you consider any of that when you were naming your own children?

Ambassador Power: It’s a completely fascinating question. The only time I’ve ever been asked this question. You should know that the word “Power” in Irish – I came to America when I was a child, when I was 9 my mother came over here and emigrated – and the word “Power,” its original Irish was “de Paor,” which means “of the poor.” So, it’s the complete opposite of power. So the British came in and suddenly we were “Power.” So, I never really thought about it. I will say, though, now that you’ve asked the question, my daughter, who is one – one and a half – her name is Rian, which is an Irish name. It’s not a common name at all at all. I mean, very, very rare. And it means, in Irish, “king.” But until you asked this question, I was not thinking that I was naming my daughter “King Power.” [Laughter] Which is like – I think that’s even worse than the PTSD that my son is going to get from too many atrocity bedtime stories.

Question: Well, that’s my final question and we can end on this lighter note. Thank you so much.

Ambassador Power: Thank you so much for having me. Thanks to all of you. [Applause]



PRN: 2014/103