Black federal executives have high hopes for the latest executive order on racial equity

Federal Drive got a look at the recent history and future of Black federal executives with the director of the African American Federal Executives Association, ...

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As this year’s Black History Month winds up, we take a look at the recent history of Black federal executives. Our guest has a more than 40-year career, and retired as a member of the Senior Executive Service. Now the executive director of the African American Federal Executives Association, Tyra Dent Smith joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Smith, good to have you on.

Tyra Dent Smith: Good morning Tom. Thank you for the invitation to join this morning.

Tom Temin: And I want to go back to those 40 years you did serve, and you made it to the Senior Executive Service ranks in those 40 years. And let’s say it ended a couple of years ago, we don’t want to give away anything personal about your age. But did you see progress in the ways that minorities, people of color, Black employees were treated and regarded in those years by the federal bureaucracy, if you will?

Tyra Dent Smith: I think over the span of the 40 years, I definitely saw progress, I saw movement in a very positive direction. I started my career like many as an entry level GS-4 with a college degree, didn’t understand why I was starting at a GS-4, but got my foot in the door in that capacity, and continued to pursue and go after opportunities that were out there, and eventually got into the Senior Executive Service. So definitely over that time, individually, I received support, I received mentoring, sponsorship opportunities to really develop and grow my skills and my competencies, and then to be in positions that allowed me to actually demonstrate and activate those skills and competencies in some very fascinating roles within the federal sector.

Tom Temin: Because you did specialize in the human capital function itself, so you got to witness how agencies went about this, while also experiencing it yourself.

Tyra Dent Smith: Exactly. And I do want to point out that it was varying, we are a large bureaucracy, and there wasn’t a one size fits all for every agency. Some agencies certainly were more progressive and more intentional about investments in professional development for minorities and women, and others for whatever reasons, resources or other priorities in the organization, can’t really speak to that, might not have had the same level of intensity and focus.

Tom Temin: And when you mentioned that there were people that did take an interest, did mentor you and so forth, help bring you along — were they white and black? Or was it only black people that were ahead of you?

Tyra Dent Smith: Absolutely white and Black and Hispanic, they were individuals that were committed to creating a workplace that allowed the full potential of the workforce to be realized. And so with that underlying basic philosophy or principle or belief, they created opportunities for that, and lead the organization in that way. So absolutely, it was a variety of individuals that I to this day appreciate and contributed to my growth and success in the federal sector.

Tom Temin: And as you got jobs with increasing authority and influence, how were you able to influence organizations to become more, I guess, mentoring, more open to this kind of activity, and maybe setting aside some of the prejudices they might have had, or maybe they didn’t know they had, but they were there until then?

Tyra Dent Smith: Well, I think, first and foremost, it was my attempt to set an example. Oftentimes, I was the only African American in a meeting, in the room, and the only African American woman, and/or woman. And so it was always important for me to set an example, to show others who might have unconscious biases or prejudices that there is talent in a diverse workforce, there is professionalism, there is knowledge and ability and contributions to be made to the whole of the organization. So it was always important to show up in that way. And then secondly, to use my voice. So as the only one in many of these rooms, I was not apprehensive about speaking up and presenting a point of view and advocating on behalf of other minorities and women, advocating different initiatives within the organizations that I went through to support and advance the development of minorities and women. And fortunately, that was a driver for me because I believed so deeply in that, just fundamentally that people show up with a capability and ability to serve those of us in the public service, and oftentimes are not placed in positions that allow that to happen. Now, I don’t want to suggest that this is one sided. I raised my hand in many instances and volunteered for this project or that assignment just because that is my nature, wanting to learn, wanting to grow. And so it’s a two way street. But I think over my career, leading by example or being the example and then advocating on behalf of those were the primary drivers.

Tom Temin: And the atmosphere is different today. It’s the middle or almost the middle of the 21st century, and yet we have a lot of racial discussion happening in the country. What’s your advice to someone young that might want to enter federal service and they are a minority? What’s your advice for them?

Tyra Dent Smith: My advice certainly is to pursue it. I say all the time that it is a very rewarding career opportunity, albeit be it the public sector is in the spotlight lots of times and not always favorably, but the work is rewarding. It touches every aspect of our nation. And so participating and having an opportunity to serve in capacities that have that level of reward, I think benefits everyone. Also the workforce and the people that you encounter in the public service have such a breadth of knowledge and experience and expertise. I mean, you’re surrounding yourself with so much and so many to learn from and grow. So I definitely encourage all that are contemplating pursuing employment in the federal sector or the public sector to go for it. There’s just so many opportunities and so many career paths. Over my years, I think I was surprised a few times that what folks didn’t really appreciate about the employment opportunities in the federal space with all of the cabinet level agencies and varying jobs that are available.

Tom Temin: Now President Biden has released an executive order, one of the first things he did regarding racial equity throughout the nation, but putting the government in service of that goal. What’s your takeaway from that executive order for what the federal government can do within the agencies themselves?

Tyra Dent Smith: Oh, I think there’s a lot that the federal government can do within agencies to realize the principles of that day one executive order. As you know, and your listeners probably know, it touches the foundation of that executive order, certainly touches all aspects, equity across the board, not just in employment, but in procurement and housing, in all aspects that touch our nation. And so the federal government delivers those services. And I think certainly one of the first requirements stipulated in the executive order are for agencies to do some assessment of their current policies and procedures and practices, and really establish a baseline to begin to examine where those opportunities lie to create more equity within the policy themselves that are driving these programs and services that we’re delivering to our nation to ensure that they can respond to all of our communities and don’t unfairly, I can’t find the word I’m trying to use..

Tom Temin: Discriminate.

Tyra Dent Smith: Discriminate. Exactly, thank you.

Tom Temin: And what’s your plan for the AAFEA in the next year or so?

Tyra Dent Smith: So we’ve got big plans for a AAFEA. For those in your listening audience that may not know, we exist to promote the advancement of African Americans into the Senior Executive Service. Membership is for GS-13 through SES or equivalent. And we, for the last year certainly since the pandemic, we have been responding to many requests from not only members but from agencies to support the ongoing professional development of African Americans. We will be rolling out an executive webcast series this spring, I certainly invite listeners to visit our website This webcast is going to offer a three part series of executive and leadership development opportunities. And this series is going to actually be open for GS-12 through SES. One of the series is dedicated especially for SES. But I do want to highlight that we’re opening it up to GS-12s because one of the things that we’re moving forward with this year is recognizing the need to really enhance building a bench within the federal sector, building that pipeline or strengthening that pipeline of African Americans that will assume leadership and executive roles and responsibilities over the next few years. So that is one of our newer efforts that’s underway. Annually, we host a three day leadership development workshop. This year, that event is September 20th through 22nd. We have in the past had quite an impressive keynote speaker lineup and plans are currently underway this year to bring forward the exact same. The theme for this year is empowered leadership. And then I also want to mention two of our ongoing programs, one newer than the other. We have a year long fellows program, which is a very intense executive development effort for GS-14s and 15s. It provides one on one mentoring, very intense leadership and executive instruction, mock interviews. Many of the members that have gone through our fellows program have in fact been appointed to SES positions. We don’t take full credit for that because we know that there are many parts and pieces that come together to equip an individual to step into an executive role. But we are proud that those that have come through the fellows program and been appointed to SES have that experience under their belt. And then just this last year, believe it or not, during the pandemic, we launched a career development program, which is for our GS-13. And that is a six month program, the participants meet on their personal time, but it is geared more towards preparing for senior management positions. So we’re really trying to create a portfolio where we are offering development opportunities in tiers, if you will, to ensure that one is building on the other, and that we are doing our part to certainly support and advance the preparation of a highly qualified and competent pipeline for leaders of the future.

Tom Temin: Sounds like a busy agenda. Tyra Dent Smith is executive director of the African American Federal Executives Association. Thanks so much for joining me.

Tyra Dent Smith: Thank you so much for having me.

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