(As prepared for delivery.)
Hello and welcome to a conversation on safety and security.
I am Jennifer Zimdahl Galt; I am the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
On Secretary Tillerson’s first day at the State Department, February 2, 2017, before he had even reached his office, he spoke to Department employees in the lobby.
Among the priorities Secretary Tillerson outlined on his very first day was safety. He said:
“When I wake up each morning, the very first thing I ask myself is: Are all of our people safe? The safety of every single member of our State Department family, regardless of where he or she is posted, is not just a priority for me. It’s a core value, and it will become a core value of this department.”
As Ambassador to Mongolia, a position I held before returning to Washington last November, I shared the Secretary’s focus on security, ensuring my community was safe day and night.
Safety remains a key focus now in my new position.
A year on, Secretary Tillerson has reinforced the paramount importance of safety and security as a core value; most recently he mandated sexual harassment training for all Department employees to reinvigorate a culture of zero tolerance for sexual misconduct in any form toward one another.
When Secretary Tillersons asks “Are all of our people safe,” he means employees, family members, exchange program participants – everyone.
Safety is Job #1 for all of us at the Department of State and it is a responsibility that my colleagues and I in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs share with you as sponsors of J1 private sector exchanges and implementers of our funded exchange programs.
This brings me to the purpose of today’s discussion, which is two-fold – to reinforce the importance with which the Department of State – from Secretary Tillerson, to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, on down to me and every one of my colleagues across ECA – take the safety and security of every single one of our exchange program participants, and to reinforce a culture of accountability across all of our implementing partners and sponsor organizations.
Ensuring the safety and security of more than 300 thousand exchange participants a year in our funded and private sector programs combined – including thousands of teenagers – is a weighty responsibility; it is one that I take to heart each and every day and that requires our collective, sustained focus.
Zero – zero incidents of violence, sexual abuse or harassment, rape, death, or even injury is and will remain our goal.
One incident is one too many.
We must continuously strive, working together, toward that goal.
I want to thank all of you for the attention and the thought you put into keeping every exchange participant well, safe, healthy, happy, and productively engaged every single day.
I know that many of you put in long hours, initiate difficult conversations with exchange participants, host families, and schools, help all parties cope with life’s most sensitive and painful situations – thank you for everything you are already doing in pursuit of our shared goal of zero incidents.
I want to recognize that what we all do is made possible by the openness and generosity of the American people.
It is a moving and impressive story that hundreds of Americans welcome citizens of other countries into our homes, schools, workplaces, playing fields and more.
It is also a story about adventurous and committed Americans venturing out into the world to gain new knowledge, serve as unofficial ambassadors of their country, and build lasting ties with people in every geographic region.
Our approach to safety is a spectrum of attention.
Safety and security considerations infuse every step of our program implementation process – beginning with grant competitions and sponsor designations where well-designed plans and processes are outlined, moving through to the careful selection and screening of participants, host families, schools, and worksites.
Safety and security continues through all phases of a program, including pre-departure and arrival briefings, monitoring and oversight, 24/7 hotlines, health benefits programs, and providing active, skilled and compassionate responses when emergencies arise.
I want every exchange participant who has a problem – whether it’s bullying behavior or unwanted sexual advances – to feel comfortable reaching out to their sponsor, to know that their concerns will be taken seriously, to report incidents without fear of retaliation, and to receive the best qualified assistance as quickly as possible.
Our safety and security measures must be comprehensive but they must also be customized.
A high school student who is injured while out riding her bicycle needs very different assistance from a graduate student who is being harassed for wearing a hijab.
Overseas, local context will matter when evaluating risk and ensuring resources are available for responding.
What is standardized, what is obligatory, is that every one of our participants knows where to turn and feels comfortable reaching out to get speedy and appropriate help; no exchange participant – wherever they are in the world – should ever be alone and without recourse.
I know you take safety and security seriously, and I truly recognize all you do to keep exchange participants safe and secure.
We can always improve, however, and so I would ask each of you to go back and talk about safety and security with your teams.
Look at the training you provide your staff and the protocols you have developed.
Revisit the information on your website and on social media through the eyes of an exchange participant.
Look at the information you provide to them and include in your orientations and elsewhere.
And ask yourself: Could it be clearer? Does it need to be more prominent? Are there other ways to reach participants with this vital information?
We also know that exchange participants want to talk to people they know and trust.
And we know they need reminders in multiple formats.
So ask yourself if that person exists in your organization to whom exchange participants in need of assistance or support can turn.
And ask yourself if you have presented safety and security contact information in a way that shows you truly care and will take each reported incident seriously.
For our part at the State Department, you will see us doing the same over the next few weeks, looking at our training, our protocols, our websites and producing new products that emphasize the importance of safety and security, including a social media toolkit to emphasize the importance of reporting and to remind exchange participants of our hotline number.
It takes all of us to make this effort work – again this is our shared responsibility – you are on the front lines; you are often first responders; you have the ground truth.
You are obliged to report each and every problem or controversy on or before the next business day and I will hold you to that standard.
Our regulations governing program implementation are a baseline for performance; I know that many of you go well beyond those basic requirements to provide extra support and security to exchange participants; I thank you for that and would encourage others to do the same.
As I said at the outset, security is our shared responsibility and through our J1 sponsorship and grants, we have delegated some of that responsibility to you.
I expect you to uphold all U.S. laws, to follow all relevant regulations, and to have the best interests of each and every exchange visitor as your highest responsibility.
When it becomes necessary, the Department has a series of sanctions that it can, and will, draw upon when regulations are not followed.
Regulations and sanctions do not exist for their own sake. They exist because our collective experience over the years has shown that they are necessary. There will always be groups and individuals who seek to exploit our participants or seek to shirk their responsibilities.
This will not be tolerated.
Moreover, certain incidents are not just unacceptable, they are also illegal; victims of sexual abuse and harassment and rape are protected by U.S. law and perpetrators can and must be held accountable.
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steve Goldstein and I have discussed this issue, and I can ensure you that he is also seized with the paramount importance of keeping all of our exchange participants safe.
He will be reviewing all of the Department’s procedures with fresh eyes, including possible new enforcement mechanisms and sanctions.
We understand that the number of reported incidents may rise as a result of this effort, and while a zero incident culture is the goal, it is also important that we get participants the help they need and ensure they know how to report incidents, and are comfortable doing so, should they occur.
Before I close my formal remarks, I want to underscore that we are partners in this process.
We cannot reach our goals alone or if we are not working closely together every day.
I look forward to your ideas and comments and questions on how we can all do Job #1 better.