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Ambassador Samantha Power Shares Laughs, Lessons Learned From Her Time in Leadership

The ambassador provided the keynote speech at Fletcher's fifth annual Conference on Gender and International Affairs

“What was extraordinary to me when watching her as the ambassador and as the permanent representative to the U.N. was I always felt… that she had a face that never lied.” This is how Dean Rachel Kyte introduced the keynote speaker at The Fletcher School’s fifth annual Conference on Gender and International Affairs.

Fletcher Dean Rachel Kyte in conversation with Ambassador Samantha Power

Ambassador Samantha Power was indeed as honest and candid as Dean Kyte indicated, rousing many laughs, gasps, “oohs” and “aahs” around the crowded auditorium.

Power opened her address by commending the Gender Conference leadership for “gathering such a range of students and scholars for panels and workshops.” She said, “The ambition and diversity of programming at this conference and the blend of practitioners and academics––it’s very Fletcher.” The Ambassador continued, “I’ve really seen the impact [of a Fletcher education] both in the U.S. government and at the United Nations around the world.” 

The organizers of the entirely student-run conference said they were very proud of how the conference turned out. “Packed auditoriums and rooms for the workshops and panels, a standing ovation for Ambassador Power… it was exciting to see ten months of hard work come to fruition, a true labor of love,” said Emelia Williams, the conference team’s marketing chair and a second year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy student.

“It was great seeing Fletcher students, students from other universities, alumni, and faculty engaging with gendered issues that still need to be highlighted in each field of study at Fletcher,” said Williams. “Shining a light on the activists, practitioners, and scholars who made these issues their lives is the least we can do. The next step is actively incorporating an intersectional gender analysis into the work we do here at Fletcher and after graduation.”

Power provided a springboard off which the Fletcher community can jump into this next step. The ambassador focused on three key lessons learned from her experiences working in journalism, activism, and government. “One: What we see matters. Two: Look out for other women. Three: Shrink the change.” She illustrated these lessons through colorful and relatable personal stories about everything from an infamous “reply all” fiasco during the Obama campaign to “nursing [her] daughter while on the phone with John Kerry discussing our Russia policy.”

Amb. Samantha Power with student organizers of Fletcher's CGIA 2019

To demonstrate how “what we see matters,” Power showed a series of photos of lawmakers and leaders that featured few or no women. Power shared a photo of Jeane Kirkpatrick, the first woman to serve as United States Ambassador to the U.N., in which Kirkpatrick is the only woman amidst a sea of (mostly white) men. Power spoke of the impact this image had on her as a young woman and how she too “was often the only woman ambassador who sat on the U.N. security council.”

Reflecting on the 2016 campaign to select a woman for U.N. Secretary-General, in which Power was heavily involved, the ambassador made light of the institutionalized sexism. As they searched for the new secretary-general, her male colleagues would warn, “as long as she’s competent.”

Power quipped, “How do people think some unqualified woman is just going to slip through the cracks and become U.N. secretary-general? Are they afraid some woman’s going to say, ‘well I was going to get my hair done today, but I thought, ‘let me just become secretary-general instead.’”

Power remarked that she was very intentional throughout her tenure at the U.N. about staying very open regarding “the juggle” of life, work, and parenthood. Her philosophy was to err on the side of oversharing, “believing that opening up about what goes on behind the scenes will make people feel less alone.”

“Fletcher’s own political scientist [Professor] Dan Drezner described women in our field as facing what he called a ‘gender tax’ that our male counterparts don’t shoulder,” Power said. In her own leadership, Power has made a concerted effort to eliminate this intangible tax. She slowed down hiring processes to better involve working mothers, systematically amplified the ideas of her female colleagues, and met with young women and girls across the world. 

Ambassador Samantha Power stands at the podium in ASEAN auditorium.

When the ambassador turned to her third point - “shrink the change” - she commented on its relevance for Fletcher students. “I’m seeing a lot of nods out there,” she said. Power introduced what she calls the “incommensurability problem,” the overwhelming nature and seemingly infinite scope of so many global challenges. “You can just feel so small,” she said. Her remedy, she suggests, is to “take a big problem and turn it into something that is manageable.”

In the face of what Power termed “the human rights recession,” the decline of freedom worldwide according to a variety of metrics, Power and her colleagues decided to “shrink the change” back in 2015. They created a campaign called #FreeThe20, advocating for the release of twenty female political prisoners around the world. While success was small-scale and gradual, Power noted that to the women and to their families “[#FreeThe20] was everything.” Sixteen of the twenty women have since been released as a result of the campaign’s efforts.

Closing her remarks with another dose of inspirational good humor, Power switched the slide to a picture of a protestor from the Women’s March. The man’s sign read, “Not usually a sign guy but geez.” From there, Power implored Fletcher students and other conference attendees to find out “what are each of us not ‘usually’ that these times require us to be?”