When I landed in a position that put me in the room with national security experts and presidential administration alumni, I didn’t know anything about nuclear weapons. (After seven long years, I’d graduated with an associate degree. Not your typical Washington story.) What I did know was how to organize people and convince them to take action — the skills that had earned me my seat at the table.
There are days it feels like the air before a storm. Soon, it will rain. Soon, everyone will know I don’t belong here. Imposter syndrome isn’t uncommon even in the most accomplished among us, but the argument could be made that I am an imposter. What qualifies me to work with students and adult activists, and ask them to fight for checks and balances on our nuclear system? Little more than experience and passion. But it is this lived experience and its relationship with the imposter syndrome we all feel that should cause us to ask: What if no one is a fraud?
Recently, Beyond the Bomb — the grassroots organization I work for — held our annual training conference where one of those presidential alumni I work with told a room full of college-aged activists, mostly women, that he too had felt imposter syndrome. What struck me over the course of two days was how many of us had felt like we didn’t belong, and how many of the people speaking on panels and leading sessions had landed there by accident. Executive Director Cecili Thompson Williams put it perfectly the next week when she said, “we’re allowing accidents to dictate who lands in the non-proliferation field, instead of making conscious choices to attract the best and brightest.” Rather than creating an environment that intentionally channels diverse backgrounds into the field, we are still struggling to decide who belongs in the room in the first place.
In a field that has been ‘pale, male and stale’ for decades, we cannot expect to recruit from the same pools and find new results, and we cannot afford to turn new faces away.
In a field that has been ‘pale, male and stale’ for decades, we cannot expect to recruit from the same pools and find new results, and we cannot afford to turn new faces away. Even the Pentagon has come to recognize the necessity of venturing outside DC’s normal hiring pool, shifting to allow civilians with specialized experience to take positions at a higher pay-grade than they may have been eligible for if they joined the military in order to do the same work. This plan (put in place by the first Secretary of Defense to allow women in combat positions, Ash Carter) allows for experts in fields such as cybersecurity and foreign language to enter the force.
The reality is that higher education is becoming more expensive — it’s risen as much as 36% in a decade while the median income has only grown 2% — making college education less and less accessible for students like me. If students can afford to attend in the first place, they’ll enter the workforce with no promise of available jobs that will pay enough to allow them to chip away at a mountain of debt — the average balance borrowers carry hit $35,000 in 2018. Despite lip-service to the idea of bringing more diverse viewpoints into foreign policy, if we ignore those that the upper echelons of academia have ignored, that diversity will never manifest.
I’m far from the only one who finds higher education inaccessible — and this is, by no means, a diatribe against higher education. Rather, it is a diatribe against a system that perpetuates empty academic superiority and values it above progress. Without experts to digest and analyze information, we would all suffer. Yet, movements for everyone must be by everyone. Behemoth problems like the existential threat of nuclear war cannot be solved just by experts. These conversations must include all stakeholders, and in the case of issues like nuclear weapons, that is the entire planet. “The notion that expertise is critical in order to have a place in the discussion is simply not true,” says Ward Wilson. “Nuclear weapons [are] far too important a subject to be confined to a small group of hand-picked, overly trained “experts.”
We are not the elite, nor the well-educated, but we are the change-makers. The march toward peace and security cannot be led merely by academics — it must be led by all of us, and to some degree, that means regardless of credentials. Complacency and elitism has governed the national security pipeline for decades and created an environment where few feel they belong, and bright minds often look for an exit. Until we recognize the importance of empowering a chorus of voices and not a select few it is difficult to imagine the conversation will change. If everyone, at every level, feels as if they don’t belong to this secret club of deserving professionals, why not open the dam and allow the best ideas to rise to the top?
Tristan Guyette is the National Field Manager for Beyond the Bomb, and a proud 2017 graduate of Owens Community College.