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national security innovation and creativity

The National Security Community Needs Creative Intervention

We almost left the field. Here’s why we chose to stay.

Words: Laicie Heeley and Sara Kutchesfahani
Pictures: Khara Woods

When we were young, we dreamed of becoming doctors, lawyers — actors, even. Our dreams weren’t filled with spinning centrifuges and Selected Acquisition Reports. We didn’t even know what nuclear weapons were, let alone whether a person could have a career in the space we would eventually come to occupy. Today, with 30+ years of professional and academic experience in the nuclear and defense policy fields under our collective belts, we still have far too many unanswered questions.

Together, we have been very fortunate to have worked in a multitude of silos, including at a national nuclear weapons laboratory, in academia, at NGOs, and at various think tanks. We have been invited all over the world and on all of the major news networks to talk about our work, enjoying audiences big and small, “expert” and not. But DC’s national security culture has broken us down.

Upon arriving in the nation’s capital two years ago, with her years of experience in the field, a PhD, an author of two books and numerous published articles on the issue, Sara found herself ready to cut and run, and go and manage a book shop. 

She felt that she had nothing worthy to contribute to nuclear conversations which were often dominated by the loudest voices in the room – and not necessarily by the smartest. She developed an irrational fear of speaking up in meetings, of speaking on panels, and of speaking to the media. Family, friends, and colleagues couldn’t understand why she would turn down media requests or speaker invitations. 

It was a feeling Laicie understood well. She’d faced her own decision point just one year before meeting Sara. After a series of early successes in her career as a policy analyst, Laicie began to recede from the spotlight and search for a way out. She started a personal blog and spent her weekends baking and selling pies — escapes from a day-to-day that had become increasingly frustrating. It wasn’t the discovery that her male counterpart made 1.5 times her own salary that sent her looking for the door. It wasn’t the suggestion that her voice was grating or hard to follow. It wasn’t the pregnancy discrimination that drew an even brighter line between her own experience and that of her colleagues. It was the slow rolling of a ball uphill that never seemed to budge. The sense that no matter how many achievements she racked up, her perspective would never be as valuable as that of the already-established discourse, established by those who fit a mold she never would.

As we look back, we realize now that the early stages of our careers were missing something. And, that something was not necessarily the type of mentorship or career-building exercise the policy community has traditionally employed — which can be as exclusive, and exclusionary, as the field itself.

We are painfully aware that no matter the industry, sector, or topic-specialization, there will always be highs and lows. So, we aren’t here to point fingers or place blame. We are here to say that, a few years on, we’re still here. We didn’t leave to become bakers or book shop managers. In fact, we now feel like we belong… at least a little more than we did.

One cold snowy night last November in Providence, where we gathered for an N Square Innovators Summit at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), we sat down for a drink. Sara spoke of her frustration with how little she felt she was contributing to the nuclear nonproliferation space. “Why am I even part of this community?” she remembers asking. Laicie, surprised and relieved by her candor, shared her own story: “I was where you were a year ago. If you want change, this [N Square Innovators Summit] is where it’s going to happen.” And, this was the push that Sara needed to make it happen.

What we both needed was creative intervention. Forward-looking foundations and initiatives such as N Square provided us with that intervention. In Laicie’s case, the necessary seed money and a strategic partnership with Public Radio International (PRI) and PRX  helped her to launch Inkstick and Things That Go Boom — spaces that explicitly aim to create a community that is more welcoming and inclusive than the one she experienced over the first decade of her career. In Sara’s case, a job with N Square offered an opportunity to lead a new generation of creative policy thinkers into the next phase of their careers. 

As we look back, we realize now that the early stages of our careers were missing something. And, that something was not necessarily the type of mentorship or career-building exercise the policy community has traditionally employed — which can be as exclusive, and exclusionary, as the field itself. What we were missing was the permission to step outside of a box we didn’t build and create something entirely new. A space of our own. A space that looks more like us — and not like us, a space that is as diverse as the country we live in — and a space that can help the national security field move confidently into the future.

There are others like us. RISD has partnered with West Point and the nuclear laboratories to explore creative approaches to problem-solving in a range of complex scenarios. De-Cruit and programs like it use acting to help soldiers and veterans cope with post-traumatic stress. The Bombshelltoe collective uses art to convey complicated information about nuclear weapons to new audiences. But initiatives such as these are the exception to the rule in a community that too often falls back on business as usual. Institutions have been slow to embrace social media, let alone design. Panels and reports still follow the same structure they have for decades. Existing hierarchies promote standardization and prevent innovation. And approaches that stray from the standard are frequently brushed off as insincere or ‘soft.’

Today, having been given the chance to begin to carve out a space for something new, we are more determined than ever to stay in this critically important field. But it is time for the community we inhabit to begin to reexamine its existing structures and put some more cracks in the mold. More than that, it is time for the national security community to have a creative reckoning. Our country won’t truly move forward without one.

Laicie Heeley is Founder and CEO of Inkstick Media.

Dr. Sara Kutchesfahani is Director of the N Square DC Hub.

Laicie Heeley and Sara Kutchesfahani

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