Vicenza, Italy -- Robin Smith became a diplomat with the U.S. State Department 31 years ago hoping to fulfill two lifelong dreams: serve others and see the world. While each of her assignments as a foreign service officer fulfilled these goals, her last position as U.S. Army Africa's foreign policy advisor brought her career full circle serving the people of Africa while living in the country that inspired her to become a global citizen.
Smith's desire to make a difference in others' lives could be considered genetic. Her ancestors include Robert Smalls, a Civil War hero who delivered a commandeered Confederate ship to the North and went on to serve in the U.S. Senate, and Amelia Boynton Robinson and Bruce Boynton, extended family members who were civil rights movement trailblazers. Robinson was a leader in the voting rights movement in Selma, Alabama, and Boynton won a case against the state of Virginia that went to the Supreme Court, resulting in outlawed segregation for interstate passengers.
Inspired by their examples, Smith has taken the opportunities her career has provided to share their stories with people throughout the world, illustrating how individuals can act to improve their own lives and the lives of others.
"It is a privilege and an honor to come from such a family and to be able to share the story," she said.
Concluding her career in Italy was fitting, Smith said, because a childhood desire to live in Italy with relatives was her inspiration to pursue a career that would allow her to see the world. (Oh, Italy. Maybe I'm just a slow reader)
"I said to myself, 'I will find a way to come back to Italy,'" Smith said. "Then, sometime later, I hit upon the foreign service as a way to make a career of traveling and making a positive difference in people's lives. I never thought that I would actually be assigned to Italy, because my career took a different path and I served in Africa, Europe, Latin America, Afghanistan, and had a brief tour in Iraq. So coming toward the end of my career, I just kind of forgot about Italy and never even expected to be chosen for this job and lo and behold, here I am at the end of my career -- where it all started."
Smith agreed to participate in a question and answer session about her time as USARAF's foreign policy advisor, as well as about her foreign service assignments.
Q: How long were you assigned to USARAF?
A: For two years.
Q: What were your day-to-day duties?
A: Essentially, I advised (the commanding general) and the command on foreign policy issues; how to best shape our support to the ambassador and our African partners; and I also provided geopolitical, military, economic, cultural, social and other non-military advice relevant to the activities and responsibilities of the command. I also analyzed events and matters of international significance affecting the command.
At USARAF, I saw my primary duty as raising awareness of the role of the State Department. Because we all say and we all know that working within and amongst ourselves in the interagency is important. The USARAF mission cannot be done in isolation. The military needs us, us meeting U.S. embassies, meaning the diplomatic platform, and we diplomats need the military. So, it's like a symbiotic relationship. One cannot prosper without the other. So, I brought those skill sets to the command -- my 31 years of diplomatic service serving in embassies, (with nearly half of those years) serving in Africa or working on African policy.
Q: Can you give an example of something you advised on?
A: I was involved in the exercises, the accord series, and (the African Land Forces Summit), advising the senior leadership and exercise planners on any matters that might affect the successful undertaking of the exercises and the leadership seminar.
Q: How do you feel that those experiences contributed to your desire to come here or the work that you do here?
A: Well it's all about the partnership and capacity-building and that's part of USARAF's mission, to provide that assistance, principally through security assistance to our African partners; to help them build capable and credible Army forces and to contribute to the long-term security and stability in their countries. So, it's whatever I could do through the command to provide the connections with the embassies, for example, or link them up with the right people in the State Department, and to provide analysis and commentary on activities and actions that help us achieve the theater campaign plan objectives of partnership and capacity building.
Q: Have you ever had a similar assignment before? How was it different from other positions you've had?
A: This is the first time. It is what we call an out-of-cone assignment. My specialty is public diplomacy and public affairs.
Q: How was this assignment different from a public affairs assignment?
A: I was not actively out there working with the press, soliciting interest by the press on activities. It was very different in that way, nor was I doing the cultural information and educational exchange programs that I usually managed in previous assignments.
Q: Could you give me an idea of what some of your previous assignments were?
A: Previously to USARAF I worked in Afghanistan. I've also been a public affairs officer in Mozambique and Swaziland. I also worked in Nigeria. Overseas assignments have included Mexico, Haiti, Paris and Iraq -- just a brief stint there. Domestically, I've worked at the State Department, at very senior levels, including special assistant to the undersecretary of public diplomacy and public affairs, and special assistant to the head of what was the U.S. Information Agency. I also worked in the Africa bureau and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
I think serving in Africa and in other places that are less developed, the work is much more satisfying because I feel like I am making a difference, which is why I joined the foreign service in the first place, to make a difference in people's lives.
For example, I really thoroughly enjoyed the activities the programs that I had to support women and children because they tend to be the most vulnerable in our society. I tried to do what I could with the resources I had on hand to help them achieve success in their communities.
For example, in Afghanistan, education is really the key there. Unfortunately, in some families they don't value the girls' education, or they don't see the value of girls' education like they would in their boys' education, so they needed help.
We had English language programs that included other skills we thought of use, like computer literacy skills, to help the girls to level the playing field. Because, at a much higher level, we were trying to recruit qualified females for university studies. In order to do that, you really have to start at a very lower level, so I was happy that we were putting into place structures to help -- bridging efforts -- to help young women fulfill their dreams. So when you hear these women say, "I want to be president one day," or a doctor or an engineer, you're there really helping them fulfill those dreams, in a way.
Q: Throughout your career, you have shared your family history of activism with audiences around the world. How did you present their accomplishments to non-U.S. audiences? What do you feel the benefits were?
A: I've had receptive feedback from audiences. I tried to tailor (the message) to the audience. For example, in Ethiopia, I highlighted freedom of the press, the role the press -- especially that, during the 1964 Selma to Montgomery march, were it not for the press being there and showing the world the circumstances that that many people of color had to endure, I don't think they would have been as successful as they were in the end.
In South Africa, I highlighted the branches of government, especially the role of the judiciary, because there are discussions there in South Africa on how important it is to have an independent judiciary. So, I mentioned especially my cousin Bruce Boynton and Supreme Court ruling. I think the story resonates.
I gave the speech in Afghanistan as well, when I was there. They were going through their historic voting process, and so I thought it was important to highlight voting rights in general and naturally the role of women -- my great-aunt being a leader and having to face down brutality.
Because in some countries, I want to say, no two countries are similar, but she too had death threats and was beaten, but she stayed in her country and just pushed on and persevered.
Q: What would you say the most challenging thing that you've experienced and overcome in your career, either here or somewhere in the state department?
A: I mentioned pursuing education for women and girls. It was a challenge to pursue my own education as well, balancing that with work. I got my master's degree at American University, but I decided I needed to take a leave of absence to do that. I don't know how these people do it and still work. It's a much more supportive environment now, I think, for State Department diplomats to pursue master's degrees and many more opportunities, including at the war colleges. That wasn't so much the case when I first started.
I decided I really wanted my master's degree. I didn't know really where to turn to, so I decided I'll just take a year off. So that was hard; it was a financial hit. I paid out of my own pocket, and American University is not a cheap place, by any means. It's really expensive! It was difficult.
I think that was the most challenging thing -- having to take a leave of absence, because I really think education, trying to better yourself, is important. I preached that to these women way before I could tell them the sacrifice that I had to make.
Q: What would you say has been the most rewarding part of your career, and in your time with USARAF?
A: I mentioned already the work I did with women and girls. I think that was the most rewarding.
Here at USARAF, I think it's rewarding to see the culmination of all the hard work that the engagement teams put together for ALFS. To see everything come together -- all the African land force chiefs networking and speaking to each other, sharing ideas and lessons learned -- just seeing that and knowing that you had a small part in that collective team effort is very rewarding.
Q: What would you like to be your legacy?
A: I hope the legacy is that there is awareness of the role of the POLAD and the POLAD's office and that the office remains an essential part of the command here and that that person remains a key adviser not only to the commanding general, but to the command as a whole.