Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., June 17, 2014

Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
Washington, DC
June 17, 2014


Commentator: [Applause] Hi, everyone.

Ambassador Power: That’s all for you, so I’m feeling a little… she got way more applause than I did. [Laughter]

Moderator: [Laughter] So welcome to the 2014 Girl Up Leadership Summit.

Ambassador Power: Amazing group

Moderator: So happy to have you. So, my first question was you did a lot of journalism before you went to politics including taking trips to many developing countries such as Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Rwanda; did you ever meet anyone there that you truly connected with, that you called back, in your memory, when working on things at the United Nations that really inspired you?

Ambassador Power: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. I’m really honored that you all would want me to crash your meeting.

So very exciting to see so many powerful girls and women who are going to change the world, future women who are going to change the world, including you, of course.

I guess, for me, I had a very foundational experience right after I graduated from college. I went – I opened up the newspaper one day. This was back when we use to open the newspapers [Laughter] and there was these horrific images of emaciated men behind barbed wire; again in Europe, fifty years after the Holocaust. And I was so moved by it – it was about atrocities that were being carried out, as we say, in the former Yugoslavia and this country called Bosnia. And like many people here, I’m sure, who care and want to make the world different, I wanted to make the world different and I didn’t want that kind of thing to happen again. But I had no skills of any kind and I ended up going around and trying to get a job here in Washington and sort of saying, “I’d like to help these people if I can, the women, and children, and refugees.” People were like, you know, “You’re a liberal arts major. What good is that going to do

anybody?” And so, I ended up going over and becoming a journalist. And I mentioned that basically to respond to your question in two ways.

One, I think, the people that I interviewed – I couldn’t identify one single individual necessarily of the story I told that I think about every day, but, I mean, dozens of, you know, whether it’s a mother who lost her child jumping rope in a playground in Sarajevo who I wrote about later to Sérgio Vieira de Mello who was the UN, head of the UN mission there in Bosnia, who I used to fight with because I wanted him to be tougher on the people who were carrying out the atrocities and he ended up becoming an amazing UN diplomat who was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. The individuals, you know, like those that will stay with me forever.

But at the same time, and this is really important, I think, to think about in your career, the people who I’ve grown up with since then are the fellow journalists, principally women, who were then very young women, who were also covering the war in Bosnia and who were also figuring out how to be a journalist on the fly. None of us had any real experience before we got there and those to this day are still my best friends in the world – got me through all my romantic crises, [Laughter] to the altar and, you know, through thick and thin really. Because, I think it’s really important to have the inspiration to do the work that you want to do, and that’s where going out into the field or, you know, into your community here in this country and then keeping the faces like you’re suggesting and the stories and experiences of the people you meet in mind – that’s the first part of moving forward, I think. But the second is who’s going to be by your side? You know, who are your wing men or wing women who are going to be with you and whether it’s your family or close network of friends, that’s key.

Moderator: So, following your journalism career, you began your political career. You served at the top of politics for both here and internationally for years. So what do you think is the most important attribute for a politician to have?

Ambassador Power: Well, I would, just not to, I don’t want to give myself a promotion or demotion depending on how you look at it. I’ve never been elected to anything since I was class treasurer in the twelve grade in Atlanta, Ga. [Laughter and applause] Yes, exactly. It was a hard fought race [Laughter] but I emerged successful. So that’s the only thing I’ve ever been elected for.

So people who are elected, who are true politicians, you know, they go out into the community and they are elected by citizens and have to expose themselves all the time to that.

So, I went a slightly different route. I started as a journalist. I then, when I left after I got frustrated when I was in the former Yugoslavia because I felt like we weren’t making a sufficient difference. I was telling all the stories of these people who were suffering these terrible atrocities and yet the atrocities continued. So, I decided I’d go to law school as anyone who’s confused about themselves seems to do [Laughter] and I went to law school and then, while there, I kind of drifted both into human rights advocacy and then into writing more substantial pieces.

So, I wrote a book called “A Problem From Hell” about American responses to the major genocides of the twentieth century. And that book is the book that, then Senator Barack Obama read. He engaged me. He said, “I want to think about how we do better to integrate human consequences into American foreign policy,” and then I went to work for him in the Senate, and then in the White House, and now I have this, my dream job, to be American ambassador to the UN.

So I give you all that, not to – because you necessarily care about my biography, but only to say that I have had a lot of different incarnations always oriented around the same thing, which is how do you protect people? How do you protect their human rights? What is the U.S. role? How can U.S. interests be advanced, and how does that relate to our values in our foreign policies? So these are the questions that I’ve been grappling with, really, since I was just graduating from college and going out into the world.

And I think that there’d be two things that I’d say in terms of in the lesson of that journey, and that schizophrenia in terms of figuring out what I wanted to do, I guess. The first is stubbornness. And, you know, try – if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. I mentioned when I was seeking to go to the former Yugoslavia and offer something to these people that were suffering, pretty much everyone I talked to said, “You’ve got to get experience. You don’t have anything really to offer our NGO.” I went to – the place that I was interning here in Washington was in the same building as U.S. News and World Report, just by pure coincidence. So I started knocking on doors at U.S. News and World Report, and they were like, “How can you go be a journalist if you’re not a journalist? You can go into a war-zone and be a journalist.” And I was like, “I covered my college women’s volleyball team.” [Laughter] “I’m ready.”

And they were like, “alright.” So, I went and a little bit of stubbornness and a little bit of not taking “no” for an answer, I think, can go a long way. But the second thing, I would say, is it’s really important, particularly for those who really have the passion and want to go change the world, to know something about something.

A lot of people, I feel this with my students at the Kennedy School, you know, where I was before I went into government, they want to change the world, but they have a hard time focusing on a particular slice of the world. And, if you’re interested in foreign policy, learn a language and be the person who knows the language and knows the history of a place. You know, if you want to help people in your own community, know how the school system has evolved over time, or which teachers are the good teachers, and how they teach in a way that resonates with students. Dig deep, rather than wide.

And even if you say, “Well, but I don’t know if I want to necessarily be a schools person or international-human-rights, or violence-against-women person,” even just digging down on one of those – like, you don’t have – that’s not the decision you’re making for the rest of your life. But, becoming really knowledgeable about something, you’ll then get a set of skills that you can apply to a whole series of other things, if you decide to pivot and go on in a different direction. So, again, that would be my – be stubborn and know something about something.

Moderator: My next question was: as the Ambassador you’re required to speak out, to voice your opinions [Inaudible]. How did you find balance between speaking up and learning when to hold back and when to not?

Ambassador Power: Honestly, I don’t – there’s no formula, and you asked exactly the right question. You know, I operate now both within the U.S. government, because I, you know, part of this amazing team with Ambassador Rice who’s the National Security Advisor, Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel, John Brennan, amazingly capable foreign policy team, totally honored to learn every day from each of my colleagues. So, I’m in that organization, you know, part of my day, and all of my day, but working within that organization part of my day. And the other part of the day, I’m working with other countries trying to bring them around toward our particular human rights or national security objectives.

And, you know, sometimes, if I go out in front of a microphone and I sort of say, “This is the way the world should be and this is what we’re pursuing.” Depending on how I do it, but if I do that before I’ve gone and engaged privately, it can be counterproductive. People could say, “Well, you should have told me before you went out and said my country should do X or Y.” So, what you try to do is basically walk and chew gum at the same time. You try to work behind the scenes to build relationships, to get to know diplomats, to understand where they come from. You know, even just asking a fellow diplomat, let’s say from Mali, “How did you get into your job?” like, “Where’d you grow up? Who did parents do?”

You know, people are – they are sort of surprised that you are curious about this. But understanding what makes individuals tick, understanding often just through asking one of the ambassadors a story, you can get a snapshot into sort of the history of a country.

What could be more fascinating, right, than every day to be interacting with people who lived their country’s history? And so, it’s like reading little history books, or, or visiting art museums, or, you know, museums of national history, you know, every day. That’s what working at the United Nations affords you with. But by the same token, sometimes, as you build those relationships or as you seek to work behind the scenes, it just doesn’t work. They have a different perception of how their country’s interest should be advanced, or they just, don’t agree with my – the truths that I am speaking [Laughter]. And at that point, you know, it’s really important to come out and not internalize that kind of disagreement but externalize it, and put it before the court of public opinion. Because sometimes, you know, individual diplomats may be operating in a way that isn’t even good for the people back in their own country.

And sometimes it’s a personality thing; sometimes they just have a particular view on how things should operate. But I will say every conversation I have with a diplomat from another country, I’m likely to learn something. So, our understanding of also what the right policies are evolve over time. You know, if someone makes a good point, you’ve got to take that back to really think about how it shapes how you move forward. But bottom line is you never really are choosing between speaking out and working within. At all times, you’ve got to think about how to do both and how sequence both.

Moderator: You raise your voice here, in other countries it may seem some people [Inaudible] working at the United Nations. Do you think that women are criticized differently than men for speaking up?

Ambassador Power: You know, I don’t know, there’s some of that I’m sure. I think that the UN is a really interesting place to kind of ask that question—to ask all kinds of questions about the relationship between men and women because it’s the world, on some level. It’s 193 countries.

And when I first got into this job, one of the first people I called was Madeleine Albright, who was, of course, in the job that I have 20 years ago as President Clinton’s Ambassador to the United Nations. And one of the things she did when she got into the job back then, is that she decided to invite all the women ambassadors together to talk about questions like that, you know. And also, more importantly, to talk about substance and what they actually wanted to achieve. And the group of women ambassadors back then, there were maybe 185 countries, something like that, in the UN. and guess how many women ambassadors there were then? Seven. Seven! So, here we are 20 years later; so again, as a little bit of a microcosm of how things are progressing in the world, I did the same as she instructed me to do, and I called up all of the women ambassadors and we’re at 31 now.


Yeah, it’s something. But the number of countries has increased too; there are 193 countries. So, we still got a little work to do – 31 out of 193?

So, I think that what you’re seeing around the world is, you know, about 20% of parliaments are women, about 17% government ministers. So actually, the UN is proving, in terms of the number of ambassadors, a decent proxy for what’s actually happening around the world.

You know, I think that what’s – the more that women are in these positions, the less these kinds of stereotypes and caricatures will persist. I mean, just people’s prejudices will get worn down by familiarity and by interaction. You know, the UN has about a couple dozen, a little more than a couple dozen, peace missions around the world. That is the UN itself, the organization of the UN, and only four of them are run by women out of, you know, more than two dozen. That’s another example where the more you see women who are negotiators and who are mediators and who are at the center of bringing warlords together, you know, with politicians and community leaders to try to build peace, the less you’ll hear “oh they’re emotional” or “they’re”, you know, “not rigorous,” or some of the assumptions that you still kind of feel sometimes floating in the ether.

But, I think numbers is the beginning, and then of course achievements. As we are in these jobs, delivering real achievements for the people in our own countries and people around the world, ultimately, you know, that’s going to be the measure of our success and that’s – our objective is not to have, you know, just numbers, right, for their own sake? Our objective is for people to pool their resources and bring about real results for people who are struggling in the world.

Moderator: Do you have any piece of advice for women headed into the political fields?

Ambassador Power: Heading into the political field? Yeah, I think, again I would focus on the thing that you are setting out to achieve; I think that’s the best lodestar. I would seek out mentors. You know, if you see women who are out there doing amazing things, go online, you know, take advantage of the fact that you can learn a ton about them; listen to their speeches; read their story about how did they maneuver in this world. And you know, don’t start by any means thinking that you are at a disadvantage because you’re a girl. You’re not. You know, you’re completely kickass. Seriously!

You know, the fact that you’re here shows that, the network that you’re a part of, the tools that you have, the educations that you’ve received. And I think, when you’re in a position of influence, which will be very soon in most of your cases, you know, always looking over your shoulder and thinking who can I bring along, whether that’s in your own community, in your own family, or if you look to places, you know, we’ve all been captivated and enraged by what’s gone on in Nigeria – you know, these young girls who just want an education. That’s all they were doing was going to get an education – and if you were in a position, whether now through sister schools or if you’re graduating, thinking about how you can exercise leadership in your community, to raise money, or to provide textbooks, or simply to just be in email touch with people over there to show your solidarity and to be able to give a helping hand, that can make a world a difference.

So, my main thing is don’t be intimidated. You’re ready, you can go do it, you can bring it. But when you bring it, try to bring others along because not everybody has the privileges that we all have here in this room.

Moderator: Well thank you so much and I’ll be happy to grow up [Inaudible] ambassador [Inaudible] thank you for being here today and sharing all of your advice and powerful words.

Ambassador Power: Absolutely, absolutely. Thank you so much. Thank you!


PRN: 2014/138