Race, gender and power with Kali Jones

Boitshepo Balozwi - BG correspondent
Tuesday, 19 March 2019
Race, gender and power with Kali Jones

Kali Jones is a first. She is the first African-American woman to serve as the Deputy Chief of Mission here at the US Embassy in Botswana. Notably, she now joins a distinguished group of women; women who serve as ‘Deputies’ in Foreign missions based in the country including at the Embassies of the United Kingdom, South Africa, Germany, Zimbabwe, European Union, Kenya and France.

The US diplomat arrived in Gaborone in 2017 and has been working dual roles for the past seven months until the recent arrival of her colleague, Craig Cloud, who is the new Ambassador of the US to Botswana. Before she arrived to serve in Botswana she was slightly nervous, and feeling a certain pressure only to find that her team is supportive and wants her to lead and succeed making her transition all the way easier.  Her leadership style involves empathy and respect, and not backing away from making the tough decisions. “As a leader you have to be very aware that people are people. That they have outside pressures, issues of family finances, and personal goals of their own. You need to understand what brings people to your team,” she shares.

At the top of her management list is being able to make the difficult decisions. “There are over 200 people working for the Embassy, not everyone will agree. Being comfortable in a seat of disagreement is hard but necessary,” she adds. Jones, is on a three-year standard term and is aware that as a woman the expectation to perform is levelled a notch up, and doubly so because she is also a black woman. It is only during “weird circumstances” like when she is the only woman in a room full of men that it hits her.
“Being the only black woman leads to a lot of responsibilities. I have this talk with my sisters too,” explains Jones. This is partly why it is a conscious decision for her to provide mentorship and create time to do it; even though it gets difficult the higher she goes up the ladder “with many things pulling at her time.”

To this degree she is also part of a close-knit, low-key ‘Badass Women’s Brunch’ group, comprising of six other women dedicated to supporting each other professionally, women whose career trajectories she has learnt from. Jones uses an example in the US to indicate how concerted efforts are needed to instigate change and increase the participation and inclusion of women in the economy. Back in 1972 the Foreign Service she now works for got rid of a rule which prescribed that women had to exit work if and when they got married, a rule which had a major negative impact on whether women stayed in the diplomatic corps or if they rose up the Foreign Service ranks.

This prohibition would have applied to Jones who met her partner and now husband, Nicholas in 1999 and got married last year. Thanks to the eradication of such laws, and making entry or base exams gender neutral the department, years later is now gender balanced with 50 percent female and male employees. A similarity she has observed between the women’s movement here and in the US is the unjust sexual assault women face. Jones has since had numerous conversations with Batswana women in politics, and women at the helm of businesses and what concerns her is the aspect of “social change and gender balance” an observation she extends and clarifies as the need for women to have the “power to step forward.” As for Gender Based Violence (GBV) Jones shares that it is important that the shame and stigma attached to GBV is removed so that survivors can be free from the “quietness of being a victim” as has been the case in the US where the cause now has many outspoken faces representing it.

She also senses a “culture of quitting, which I don’t like” when it comes to GBV locally; sure enough it is important to have partners such as UNICEF and UNDP fighting GBV but she does find it imperative that more businesses, institutions and schools have sexual harassment policies and overall legal frameworks that will also help protect and support people. She was therefore pleased to hear the first family, the President Dr. Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi, together with his partner and First Lady, Neo Masisi championing the chorus against GBV and the abuse of children, “I have met awesome leaders here who are moving Botswana forward,” she adds. 

Although there are different disciplines in the Foreign Service her focus today is on the “economic track” and “all things that deal with economics”. These range from conservation of wildlife to the more hardcore macroeconomic issues such as how to build economic trade. According to Jones critical steps forward include the focus on “shared prosperities” between Botswana and the US, such as the interest by both President Trump and President Masisi in developing the trade and investment sectors. She observes Masisi as invested in bringing in Foreign Direct Investment and curbing youth unemployment. “Even HIV and AIDS is an investment in human capital.” One of the focal areas for the US Embassy, as well as the WHO, who provide normative guidance - is supporting Botswana with HIV prevention, treatment and care strategies.

This is largely facilitated through PEPFAR Botswana which has partnered with the government for the past 15 years and is now working to get programmes and policies to help reach HIV epidemic control. “What is important is the effective use of the funding,” she says as she reminds that Botswana in this partnership actually commits 60 percent of funding to HIV. In respect to local politics and that Botswana together with other African countries will be hosting elections this year Jones observes that Botswana is a democratic country. “What is great is that people are involved and talking. People are engaged. And that is what you want to see. Democracy survives when people are engaged, that is critical.” Jones says Botswana still has a good story to tell, and that “people in the West still perceive it as a diamond of Africa, the place that is unlike the others” hence US tourists are the number one consumers outside of Africa of tourism in the country.

She observes that Botswana indeed has all the right indicators - it is well governed, transparent, and has diamond reserves. With no hesitancy the US diplomat explains that the resolution to the current furore and debate on Batswana and her elephants lies with Botswana citizens. “The elephant story is best left to Botswana citizens,” who she expects to comply with all international standards and requirements as to the solutions they will take. Jones was born in Louisiana, in the south part of the USA, a country with a history of slavery. As such race is a factor for her but not one she bares unnecessarily particularly because she is aware that, “The way people view race is so dramatically different in every country” and has also observed that even when people tell her that race is not an issue “There is always a component of race. I have seen race everywhere,” she says.

Two years ago there were huge protests in the South of the US with states like Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida; demonstrations for and against the “taking down” of Confederate statues or such similar monuments which were created and mounted in several US states during heightened periods of the implementation of the Jim Crow laws, laws with a sole and symbolic purpose of segregating the black population from the white citizens of the country. Such policies bore similar intent and spirit to that of Apartheid in South Africa. These debates on the removal or not of the Confederate statues easily rebirth and bring into vividness the countries’ slave history. “I grew up with race. It’s a very emotional issue. It helps me understand that everyone has a motive. But I don’t take it (race) with me,” explains the diplomat. 

Jones chokes up when speaking of Dr. Condoleezza Rice, a globally acclaimed US political figure who has been her epitome of a black woman holding her power, and respecting her authority and responsibility. Rice was also a first, the first female African-American US Secretary of State. Jones recalls wondrous moments of privilege when working “close enough” to Rice while she was the Secretary of State. Jones was “very junior” to Rice and serving as one of 35 ‘Watch Officers’ in a Unit called the Operations Center.
She remembers being close enough to be “corrected and guided to the right decisions” by Rice, and close enough to appreciate the “discipline” Rice had. “From my seat I could see her (Rice) schedule. And she was always on time,” she says. “She was decisive. She listened to all opinions. She asked for opinions from all around the building, and was open to dissenting opinions. She was wicked smart too. The way she was able to process information,” adds Jones, “When you have a leader who makes decisions you can get on with the business,” says Jones of Rice.

Beyond female leadership Jones’s favourite US Presidents include Abraham Lincoln who despite being “well before my time” had leadership principles that she subscribes to. She has read his book Lincoln on Leadership and notes that he talks of simple steps like “going outside or taking a walk” but when Jones strides the office halls here people are quick to ask “If there is anything wrong and where she is going?” she says with a giggle. John F. Kennedy is another former US President she admires for his idealist character, which looked beyond the US and stirred him to create the Peace Corps. And of course Barack Obama, from an African-American vantage point Obama was a “wow” moment of intense pride which had even more impact on her older family members, the ones who were in the civil rights movement.

“I know how hard it is to get there,” she says of Obama’s presidential win. She has “absolute respect” for the first African-American President of the US for then hiring his opponent Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State during his tenure.

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