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To Improve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Peace and Security Must Reckon with Class

As part of the Scoville application process, finalists meet with board members and host organizations to discuss their potential fellowships. One board member referenced the eclectic string of jobs studding my CV–nanny, laboratory assistant, soccer referee. “What was the appeal of those jobs?” he asked.

What the board member was really asking, of course, was what type of jobs they were. Were they internships, which is to say unpaid work that I did for class credit or networking opportunities or because entry-level jobs now ask for three years of experience? Or were they jobs, where I received money in exchange for labor? The answer, I explained to the board member, was that they were all paid jobs. There are a few tenets that underpin all my decisions, a few lines I will not cross: I don’t eat meat. I don’t support foreign interventions. And I don’t work for free.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains outside of Granada, Andalucia taken during study abroad in Spain that was financed through the jobs Tolany described.

This might be surprising to some, especially those working to place students with prestigious fellowships like Scoville. When I was an undergraduate applying for a scholarship, a career counselor looked at my resume and pursed her lips, remarking she didn’t see much evidence of “campus leadership.” I explained that I worked an off-campus job, volunteered at an elementary school, and had an eighteen-hour courseload. She suggested to be more competitive for the scholarship, I should become more involved in campus activities and apply to internships.

What remained unspoken was how many of these activities were pay-to-play. The things college and graduate students are told they must to do be competitive in the job market either require sacrificing time that could be spent elsewhere, like clubs and extracurriculars, or outright cost money, like studying abroad and unpaid internships. For many, these activities require enormous sacrifice or are impossible entirely.

A wall in the Kok Gumbaz Madrasa, outside Istaravshan, Tajikistan from funded language study.

I was fortunate to have family support for my education, so I worked to pay for luxuries—an apartment walking distance from campus, meals out, study abroad programs. But for many of my friends and colleagues, not having a job meant not having groceries or rent or having to rely on predatory student loans. Those same friends and colleagues honed time management and leadership skills as they juggled caring for younger siblings and jobs at fast food restaurants with a full courseload. Then, we watched in frustration as jobs they applied for went to classmates who were no smarter nor harder working, but could afford to pad their resumes with positions in student organizations and unpaid internships.

When unpaid labor was feasible for me, I had no interest in advancing my career on the backs of those without generational wealth. As a Scoville Fellow at the Stimson Center, I have drawn on skills I developed at these paying jobs, as well as the experiences the money I earned afforded me. Editing my students’ essays as a graduate teaching assistant prepared me to give feedback on submissions to South Asian Voices, Stimson’s online magazine. Caring for three kids at once who needed to be fed, have diapers changed, take naps, and play make-believe taught me how to balance competing priorities and tasks, a must for working at home during the pandemic. The money I saved allowed me to take classes in Spain and Cuba, helping me read articles in Spanish quickly to use primary documents to inform my research.

Tolany’s work from home view.

The lack of diversity in peace and security has received well-deserved scrutiny in recent months. Many organizations in the field have released statements and action items related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. While these initiatives are admirable, they ring hollow until an effort is made to adequately reckon with class and socioeconomic status in tandem with racial, disability, and sexual diversity. Peace and security cannot build young, diverse talent when only those who can afford to work unpaid are allowed to advance, when interning on Capitol Hill is treated as valuable experience and caring for family members is dismissed as irrelevant.

To promote a more inclusive field, organizations should end the premium on unpaid work over compensated labor, expanding their hiring practices to holistically determine what experience is relevant to a position. We should consider the way that class tinges workplace norms and the way these norms can be hard to navigate for those who have not been steeped in them. Organizations should offer health insurance to junior staffers and remember the ways family obligations and transportation restrictions might impact commuting times or working hours. And, perhaps most of all, any organization which claims to care about diversity should end unpaid internships. Through relying on generational wealth to subsidize work in peace and security, we lose valuable perspectives and fail to align our stated values with workplace practices.

Tolany is a Fall 2020 Scoville Fellow at the Stimson Center.