Putting Community into Foreign Policy

June 3, 2014
Putting Community into Foreign Policy

Brooke Davis

Brooke Davis received a master of theological studies degree from HDS and a master of public policy degree from Harvard Kennedy School on May 29. In a short Q&A, she discusses the value of her HDS education and the ways in which her experiences at Harvard have helped to shape her life. 

What were you doing before you came to HDS? 

Before I came to HDS, I completed my undergraduate degree in international relations at Carleton College, where I focused on political economy, romance languages, and politicized religion. I then spent the summer working at the State Department in Washington, D.C.

There, my research office analyzed foreign public opinion from large survey data to brief policymakers, military personnel, and the intelligence community. We used the data to interpret trends in social conditions and views about the U.S. in various counties.

Although it was only a brief foray into sociopolitical data interpretation, I now recognize to what extent those assignments deeply related to my studies. The intelligence community and crafters of foreign policy consistently want to know about what others around the world think of the U.S., why, andin many caseshow to change it.

My HDS experience yielded a much broader appreciation of answers to those questions, as well as a healthy skepticism of the lens by which foreign policy-related departments view and understand their subjects of study.

Why did you choose to attend the School, and what were your initial expectations before you started?

When I was Carleton, I worked for the Chaplain's Office, setting up religious events, organizing student groups, and mediating discussions between students of different faith backgrounds or within the Christian umbrella. The crux of my position was to facilitate a vibrant and engaged multifaith community on campus so that any student could explore or expand his or her spirituality.

Around the same time, I received the Thomas Pickering Fellowship for the Foreign Service. As a result, I applied to several graduate programs with a focus on public policy, while also applying to HDS. Religion in study and practice was already a thread in my life that I still wanted to nurture.

What have been the biggest surprises you have discovered about HDS since you've been here?

I am still amazed by the lack of uniformity of HDS students, which is clearly by design. My classmates are from all over the world, across the country, are every age and religious affiliation, and have the most unexpected career backgrounds. This is specifically what makes HDS unique and, in my experience, prompts curiosity and yearning from some of the other Harvard schools.

Is there something you accomplished while at HDS that you're especially proud of?

So few accomplishments are obtained alone and this is no exception. I am most proud of my ability to articulate the value of theological studies to the audience I had always intended it for: the foreign policy community.

In early May, I attended the Religion and Security in World Affairs Conference held at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Among the attendees were scholars from Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, representatives from the U.S. Army and Navy, career ambassadors, military chaplains, the Council on Foreign Relations, and stakeholders from the Philippines, Nigeria, France, Oman, and Pakistan.

I was excited to find such a strong interest and respect for religion and relished the opportunity to speak to other attendees about how I planned to use my academic training in the State Department and beyond. I could not have asked for a better experience to culminate my time at HDS and HKS. It was definitely a conference I would have not been able to undertake at the beginning of my journey. 

Academically, what has been your focus?

My concentration at HDS has been in Islamic Studies and my focus at the Kennedy School has been democratic institutions and politics. However, my coursework planning and discussions with faculty have been part of a two-step evolution.

That first step was gaining all the historical, cultural, and religious context I could. In the second step, I needed to be competent to translate or articulate what I learned to audiences that may not have the knowledge, time, or openness towards hearing that context. I believe this is how more nuanced, reflective, and conscientious foreign policy is made.

What was the classroom experience like for you?  

The classroom was rarely subdued and sometimes a heated debate would continue after class or even over a potluck. I took a very enjoyable class with Leila Ahmed on twenty-first century diasporic Muslim fiction, and the latitude she gave us to express our interpretations gave the classroom a very intimate feeling that I will look back on quite fondly.

Some classes took themes outside into the field. I really appreciated the opportunities outside of the classroom because it would not have been easy for me to do field education within the MTS program and the constraints of the concurrent degree.

For example, Maritza Hernandez, Associate Dean for Enrollment and Student Services, and Professor Diane Moore's class "Religion and Immigration in America" gave some crucial historical context to both sides of the immigration debate, and I was able to go with a group to Tuscon, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, to meet with different stakeholders, reflect upon themes in class, and educate others about our experiences. 

Were you able to take advantage of the opportunity to enroll in courses at other Harvard schools or at the Boston Theological Institute?

Aside from my degree coursework at the Kennedy School, I also took some coursework at the Tuft's Fletcher School with professors Ayesha Jalal and Ibrahim Warde. With a short hike to Tufts, I engaged in two classes that seamlessly fit my concurrent degree focus.

People use the word "community" a lot around HDS. Does this hold any particular meaning for you and, if so, what?

Community does hold meaning for me in two ways. First and foremost, HDS is an ideal place to build community among people who will embrace you, challenge you respectfully, and share their whole selves.

I am so fortunate to have experienced this type of community here because I gained a stronger confidence, lasting friendships, and even an idea of discernment within my career context. I learned that seeking community is a worthwhile effort for personal happiness.

Secondly, I think about an HDS-styled "community" in the policy realm. Better policy could be achieved if people embraced the concept of community building and community interest. For community building, we would need to reach out to those on the margins of society and then curb those processes that led to their marginalization. Promoting community interest requires respectful debate and empathy for people of a different perspective.  

Can you describe a bit more about what's next for you?

Later this summer, I will start my initial training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia, and will receive my diplomatic post assignment in August. For new foreign service officers, the State Department has a ritual called "Flag Day" in which we get called in front of our families and colleagues in random order, receive a tiny flag, and learn of our new assignments together. After Flag Day, I may take additional language and culture training before starting at the post.