Skip to content
mentorship ally national security women of color in national security foreign policy

On Allyship and Mentorship in the National Security Sector

Words: Jeesue Lee & Brittney Washington
Pictures: Hannah Busing

After writing our article on women of color in national security, we met with Bishop Garrison who wrote a piece on supporting women of color in the sector. As young professionals, we wish to see more diversity represented in the leadership that helps maintain our safety. In addition to more representation, we thought about what leaders and mentors can do to cultivate a more inclusive environment and be better allies for young women of color like us. Here is what we came up with:


There is something inherently different about being an ally in name and an ally in practice. We’ve made the following list of actionable steps in which people can be better allies to women in the sector, and particularly to women of color:

  • Amplification: To amplify someone is to simply repeat her ideas and give her the credit for those thoughts in front of other colleagues. You are not just doing this for the benefit of the female colleague who offered her opinion, but you are also doing this for everyone in the room to ensure that they hear her idea, give her credit and benefit from her insight. If a colleague’s thoughts are not acknowledged, you can simply say “Marie’s thoughts on X are significant because ________.” Practiced by female staffers during the Obama administration, amplification is essential to ensuring that female voices are heard, especially in male-dominated spaces. Acknowledging a woman of color, her value as an expert and as an individual can manifest in ways as simple as attributing her remarks, or better, giving her the space to weave her thoughts into the present conversation.
  • Advocacy: You can amplify and you can advocate. When you amplify, you are making sure her voice is heard, when you advocate, you are making sure her actions are seen. Point out good work. This might mean giving an intern credit for the work she did on a major project or praising a junior colleague for meeting a tight deadline. Give praise where praise is due. Make it known.
  • Providing Opportunities: Sometimes, in projects or in day-to-day tasks, higher management might exclude women of color. This is not always on one’s radar — well-meaning people do it all of the time. Time is a commodity in Washington, DC. But, there is something to be said about helping women of color know that they are allowed to ask for substantive work. Want to take it one step further? Encourage her to try new things. Need someone to present on a topic or serve as a panelist at a conference? Help her find new ways to build her skills and flex her subject matter expertise.
  • Workplace Culture: There is nothing worse than working in a toxic environment. Being cognizant and providing an open space can go a long way. Also, being aware of both overt racism and microaggressions is key to shaping an inclusive space. Ask yourself these questions when assessing your workplace: Is my workplace diverse and inclusive; do all of my colleagues have the opportunity to express their ideas openly in meetings? Are these opinions valued? Is our leadership diverse? Are our workplace policies helping create an inclusive environment? Are entry-level staff given opportunities to practice their leadership skills in some capacity? Does our environment provide the space for staff to give feedback on how good we are doing in professional development? If you answered ‘no’ to some of these, consult your leadership to deliberate on how you might work together to remedy the situation. These are all important questions and senior staff members, in particular, should ensure that they are doing their part to mold organizational culture to be inclusive, uplifting and career-building.
  • Posturing: Everything comes down to how you, as an ally, present yourself to peers and to younger staffers. Many of our peers have a superficial understanding of what allyship means, so being an example helps. Being an ally might appear to mean just being open to having women in male-dominated work environments (focusing on numbers), but it is actually about making an effort to reshape the organizational culture so that everyone’s work is valued and everyone’s voice is heard (see ‘workplace culture’).


Mentorship is strange because it is a friendship. Mutual respect and understanding is key in this relationship because sustaining a mentor-mentee bond requires trust. The mentor trusts the mentee with stories from his personal journey and he invites her into his network. Likewise, the mentee has to trust the mentor with her vulnerabilities and believe that he will amplify and advocate her strengths. Further, it needs to be so much more than a transactional relationship. Sure, there will come a point where she may ask you a favor (i.e. a recommendation or a phone call), but that is absolutely not where the line should end. This young woman has come to you for guidance and for support. So, here are some ideas for what to keep in mind when mentoring, and especially when mentoring young women of color:

  • Recognize and be sympathetic to the hustle: What’s that? You have to work twice as hard to get half of what they have? Remember this truth, especially when there is struggle and career frustration. Being sympathetic, understanding, and willing to listen will help her a great deal and strengthen your relationship.
  • ‘Check’ the reality box: Allies and mentors should spell out not just the rewards of working in national security, but the challenges as well. Keep it real. Career advice can often center on opportunities, which makes sense. People don’t want to talk badly about their work. But hearing about the hard stuff is key, too. We can all benefit from ‘real talk’ We all face difficulties in career entry and career mobility. We need to know that we are not alone. We want to hear your story.
  • Share and Learn: Don’t just tell your story. Listen to hers. Try to hear what she’s really saying, listen to how she responds, and discuss. You two are talking for a reason. Your paths to success may be different, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from each other.
  • Be there when she fails: Inevitably, we all miss the mark at some point. If she bombs a Q&A after a presentation doesn’t meet an important deadline, or gets a rejection letter — help her evaluate her setback, put things into perspective and prepare for the next round. Do more than say ‘It’s ok.’
  • Let It Grow: If it’s a mixed gender mentorship, or a different-race mentorship, or both, realize it may take time for her to vocalize some of her issues. That’s because some matters are just hard to talk about when an experience isn’t a shared one between mentor and mentee. Workplace issues, especially those things that are rooted in race/gender biases, or diversity and inclusion can be really difficult to talk about. One of the things we’ve both found is that a difficult feeling to convey is ‘imposter syndrome’ – that feeling of not belonging that occurs when you are the only woman or the only woman of color in the room. A part of the sharing process is learning how to articulate those feelings and frustrations.
  • Research: You have a better network than she does, so put out feelers to see if you can find anyone who has a similar background or portfolio. Ask them their experiences. Or, go online and Google. What is the job market like for people her age these days? What are the qualifications? Being thoughtful and knowledgeable helps because it shows that you are trying to understand the unique challenges associated with her career path.
  • Cognizant: When mentoring a woman of color, this is the most important and simple, but a lot of people will forget: remember that she is a woman of color. She’s going to have some things that she uniquely has felt and that you just don’t know about or didn’t think about. Don’t press – that’s just awkward — but know the signs. Is she quiet when it comes to one thing or another? After the honeymoon phase of a new job ends, is she still forthcoming with her ideas and confident about sharing them with her team? Think again about organizational culture here — how might her environment be impacting her resolve? Might issues happening in the world around her be impacting her, as well?
  • Openness: You are mentoring her. Try to foster a relationship where she can say something when things are wrong. The #MeToo movement has revealed how stifling and damaging silence can be. This comes from a social practice. Women are conditioned not to say anything. Why? Because we worry we will get fired or ostracized. Fostering an openness where she can speak her Truth and you will respect it is crucial.
  • Sponsorship: You want more women of color? You must bring more women of color to the table. Help them get hired. Help them continue to get hired. As you ascend, you may want to “pluck” several and take them with you.

This is by no means a sure-fire roadmap, but we hope that our insight on what we believe are helpful approaches to mentorship and allyship contributes to the effort to build an empowering network for up-and-coming women, and especially women of color, in national security. Each woman of color has her own unique challenges and story, but we can all benefit from allies and mentors who genuinely want to invest in our growth as young professionals and emerging experts.

If you’re reading this and are wondering how to be a ‘good’ mentor or ally, know that you took the first step. And now, go take the next.

Jeesue Lee is currently a Congressional Intern. She has contributed to projects on military personnel reform, veterans’ issues, and counterterrorism.

Brittney Washington is a program assistant at Sasakawa USA. She enjoys researching and writing on Indo-Pacific Security issues.

Jeesue Lee & Brittney Washington

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.