STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Diplomats are gathering here for the annual meeting of the United Nations this week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is attending, backed up by senior staff at the State Department in New York and around the world. That staff no longer includes Uzra Zeya, who ended a long career in the department this spring.
UZRA ZEYA: The real question was - could I continue to do good, as I define it, in my role serving this president? And I reached the conclusion, simply, that I could not.
INSKEEP: She left because of policy differences but says it had an effect. Uzra Zeya describes herself as Indian-American and says she's one of many people of color who left the diplomatic corps under President Trump. She says that loss of diversity in senior positions matters. She recalls starting her career in the '90s, when the department was very white.
ZEYA: And all along the way, I ran into funny situations where, oftentimes, people would have a hard time believing A, that I was American, and B, that I was an American diplomat. What I would often get was a refrain - but you don't look American. Now, for me, I would have a small moment of joy hearing that because it was an incredible opportunity to explain what America is all about.
INSKEEP: So when people in the '90s expressed surprise that you would be an American diplomat, were they kind of right to be surprised?
ZEYA: Yes. That made sense. Certainly the foreign service that I joined in 1990 was a lot less diverse than what we see today.
INSKEEP: So a very white agency, very male agency when you joined in...
INSKEEP: ...The 1990s...
INSKEEP: ...How has it changed?
ZEYA: There was a real opening of opportunities for women, for people of color. There were new programs that were implemented. There were also landmark shifts with respect to LGBT diplomats. When I joined the State Department in 1990, you could be fired, summarily dismissed, for coming out. And it was President Clinton - it was an executive decision at the top which changed government policy that no longer subjected LGBT public servants to loss of their security clearances.
INSKEEP: Did diversity improve even under a Republican administration? You served all through the years of George W. Bush.
ZEYA: President Bush had two African-American secretaries of state, an African-American national security adviser. Those kinds of decisions - I mean, nobody would deny the absolute talent of all of those individuals. But having those kinds of shifts at the top, I think, do change mentalities.
INSKEEP: What changed beginning in 2017?
ZEYA: Well, certainly, the arrival of a new administration. I think there were a number of concerning events that, in succession, added up to what I would describe as a decline in female and minority representation at these top levels. In the first five months of the administration, you had the only two African-American assistant secretaries in the State Department either removed or abruptly resigned from their positions. You had the only assistant secretary equivalent, the director for foreign missions, also removed. You had the top-ranking Latino in the department, our director general for personnel, removed from his position. All of the persons mentioned were replaced by white successors.
INSKEEP: Isn't it true that a lot of different people, including white men, left the State Department upon the advent of the Trump administration? Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state for a while, wanted to shrink the department and wasn't very interested in what the professionals had to say. There were lots of people who went out the door.
ZEYA: Absolutely. Absolutely. This was not limited in any way to women and persons of color. But I think it's important to look at the wider impact of this exodus of career leadership. I would even call it a brain drain in terms of decades of experience that went out the door. And you need to acknowledge the impact and then hopefully make an effort to redress that.
INSKEEP: Did the political appointees who came in with the new administration just not trust you?
ZEYA: I think I never had the opportunity to even get to know them or make my case. But my own impression - if I had to sum it up, what I encountered during my 15 months working for this administration was what I would call a toxic mix of incompetence, indifference and bias. Incompetence in terms of the failure to fill key positions, which continues to this day - as of now, we're nearly at the two-year mark in this administration, and we have 25 embassies with no ambassador and no nominee even named. Indifference because I have seen a failure to appreciate the value of diplomacy but the value of the public servants who carry out this work every day.
INSKEEP: You also said bias.
ZEYA: Uh-huh. And I conclude bias because of the actions of this administration, quite frankly, in putting more white males in positions of authority and closing windows of opportunity for persons of color and women at the top level.
INSKEEP: You left in the spring of 2018, which is just as the State Department was about to change leadership and...
INSKEEP: ...Mike Pompeo was on his way in as the new secretary of state. Has anything changed as far as you can tell?
ZEYA: I would certainly give Secretary Pompeo credit for reversing some of the more destructive managerial decisions of Secretary Tillerson. Secretary Pompeo did not create the problems that I elaborated. But now, five months in, he has a responsibility to address them.
INSKEEP: We've heard that Pompeo has reached out to some of the people who left - people of color, women who've left and asked advice or talked about possible new jobs. Not that necessarily a lot of them have returned but there seems to be an interest in reaching out to different kinds of people.
ZEYA: Well, I had not seen that translate into any return of former officials in that category to the State Department. But I'd like to see something reflected in the actual leadership of the department.
INSKEEP: Uzra Zeya, former U.S. diplomat now at the Center for American Progress.
Though many senior people of color have left the State Department, the department told us that Secretary Mike Pompeo has begun adding some, nominating three people of color to very senior posts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.