For almost two decades, the African American Federal Executive Association has been working to build a pipeline of talent for the upper ranks of the federal government. 

A leader of the association, established 19 years ago this month as February is Black History Month and open to active and retired federal employees at the GS-13 level through the Senior Executive Service (or the equivalent), is optimistic about making even more progress under the Biden administration. President Biden has made equity and diversity one of his administration’s core pillars for governing as well as appointment selections, signing an executive order his first day in office to advance racial equity and support underserved communities through the federal government’s policies, programs, procurement and regulations. 

“There is opportunity now, in particular, with the President’s Management Agenda, to address that in a more expansive way and to ensure that there is more equity and opportunities for advancement to the Senior Executive [Service],” saidTyra Dent Smith, the association’s executive director, in an interview with Government Executive. Also, “I think all of the principles that are embodied in the equity executive order, I think have absolutely pointed in the direction to support those outcomes.”

As of December 2020, 18% of the federal workforce was Black/African American, which was up from 17% in September 2006, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management. For GS levels 13-15, Blacks/African Americans represented 15.5% of the workforce compared to 12% in September 2006.

The Senior Executive Service, which is for officials above GS-15, was less than 11% Black, as of June 2020, according to the Senior Executives Association. George Stalcup, director of strategic issues at the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), testified during a hearing in October 2003 that about 9% of the SES pool was African American. 

Government Executive interviewed Smith, who has worked in federal government for over 40 years, to discuss the African American Federal Executive Association’s work to date and goals for the new administration. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you give an overview of your career in the federal government? 

I retired from the Department of Commerce as the deputy chief human capital officer a few years back and since then have been serving as the executive director for the African American Federal Executive Association. Prior to my serving as deputy CHCO, I served as the chief of human resources at the U.S. Census Bureau and was there during the 2010 Census where I led the HR policy development for the 2010 census.

Prior to that, I spent a good bit of time with [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the National Weather Service. I specifically was a program manager there for the NEXRAD joint system weather doppler radar program…At the time I was there, we were actually in the process, or I was involved in the program, that handled the acquisition and deployment of an x-ray weather doppler radar that we hear so much about in today’s news, that weather forecasters use to predict weather. So the large chunk of my career was in the Department of Commerce, but I also served a stint at the Treasury Department as a presidential management intern and that was right out of grad school.

I [did] over 40 years of federal service, as a career civil servant.

What are some of the goals of the African American Federal Executive Association?

The mission of the African American Federal Executive Association is to promote the advancement of African Americans into and within the senior ranks of the federal government…Our goals are to support our members in multiple facets, but primarily focused on their career development, professional leadership development, and preparedness and readiness to move into the executive ranks. 

We do that through several different programs. We do recurring monthly programs, webinars and coffee talks. We also have our signature program is a 12-month fellows program where we take roughly 20 to 30 individuals at the GS-14 and 15 levels through a rather intense and rigorous leadership development experience. They are paired with a mentor. They prepare a capstone project, they participate in mock interviews, they write their [executive core qualifications] and obtain review and oversight in the preparation of their ECQ’s with the intent that once they graduate from that program, which happens every September, they are ready to become competitive for any and all senior executive positions that, you know, fall within it within their experience or expertise. That program was started in 2008, so, we are now in about the 12th year of funding that program annually; we have over 100 graduates. 

Then our most recent career development program was launched last year, right at the start of the pandemic. It’s called the “next generation career development program.” And that program is for GS-13s and 14s, non-supervisory. So the goal here is to really help cultivate a pipeline of African Americans, who are ready to step into senior management positions, starting at the 13th through SES, and then of course, our SES members benefit from SES-specific thought leader discussions, forums [and] town halls. We do meet the needs of all of our members.

What are some of the themes you’ve noticed about employment of Blacks in the government over the years? 

Well, it ebbs and flows to some degree in terms of moving forward. While the latest field reports are showing some slight increases in the representation of minorities at the senior levels and particularly in the SES, it’s not significant. There is opportunity now, in particular, with the President’s Management Agenda, to address that in a more expansive way and to ensure that there is more equity and [there are more] opportunities for advancement to the Senior Executive [Service.]

Also with regard to professional leadership development, as you may be aware, training dollars are generally the first to be cut when organizations have to experience budget reductions or really spread their allocations to ensure that all priorities are met…For organizations, and I’ve had this experience as well, where new innovations and ways of doing business have emerged, we recognize that there are some emerging skill sets that are needed. We have a ways to go, in my opinion, in terms of developing or institutionalizing methods and policies and practices that enable organizations to do that in a very efficient manner.

What are some other hopes you have for the Biden administration in terms of improving diversity and representation in the federal workforce?

Well increases, for sure. [I am] certainly hoping that we will see and I think that they’ve already started to demonstrate some of it in Cabinet level picks and other appointments that have been announced.

I think that we, as an organization, would like to see certainly more support for development opportunities, re-skilling [and] preparing minorities for advancement opportunities. I think all of the principles that are embodied in the equity executive order, I think have absolutely pointed in the direction to support those outcomes.

What advice would you give to young Black individuals considering a career in the federal government?

I would advise them to seek a mentor within the federal government or some mentors, some contacts to establish a network, so to speak. And I would advise that they glean from that wisdom, that advice, those experiences. I would also advise that they be excited about opportunities in the public sector. There’s a vast array of career options and opportunities. 

And the one thing that I really resonate with and encourage young people to be mindful of is that public sector work touches every aspect of our life. It’s work that’s bigger than us. It’s very rewarding work; you get to see the results of your input, and your contributions, right down to the neighborhood level, almost in some instances, depending on what organizations you’re with. So the rewards are really great over the long-term to contribute really, to the health of our nation, the diversity of our nation and our workforce.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We host an annual leadership development workshop every September. This year it will be held on September 20-22. We have had a phenomenal lineup of keynote speakers in the past, to include Gen. Colin Powell. Our plans are currently underway to secure speakers and guest presenters this year, but it is a three full day workshop… [for] members and non-members.

We’re also launching an inaugural event or program, a federal executive webcast series. This is specific professional development training. We’re offering it as a three-part series and we will be opening this up to all of government…We’re really, really excited about this because again, this is for GS-12 through SES. 

Even though our membership [starts at] GS-13, we recognize in terms of building that pipeline, that we should reach the 12s. And we’ve gotten feedback from our colleagues and in the regions, in the fields that this would be very beneficial for them. So we’re excited about that, that’s going to roll out mid-April…[Lastly], our fellows application period, the one-year program, applications will be accepted beginning March 1 and that application period will be open for about 30 or 45 days.

We’re hoping to really attract a wide audience to participate in what we know are going to be very fruitful opportunities to advance one’s career.

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