Letter from the AAFSW President Joanna Athanasopoulos Owen, PhD

The State of AAFSW: Looking Back, Looking Forward, June 1, 2020


As we approach the summer 2020 AAFSW election, during which a new administration will take over the leadership of AAFSW, I would like to take this opportunity to remind you how great our organization is. Indeed, over the last 60 years, since its inception on March 1, 1960, AAFSW has tirelessly worked for the benefit of the American Foreign Service community and has spearheaded new efforts to advance the needs of the American Foreign Affairs family.

Since I was elected AAFSW President on August 8, 2016, many initiatives and changes have taken place. AAFSW has accomplished a great deal and has effectively advocated for its members. During the very first AAFSW Board meeting I chaired on September 27, 2016, I distributed a few small note cards and I asked the AAFSW Board Members to answer in writing to two questions: 1) “What each person present would like to achieve as an AAFSW Board Member or an AAFSW Committee Chair?” and, 2) “What each AAFSW Board Member or Committee Chair would like AAFSW to achieve?” I have kept all of the various answers I received back that day and, as I review them now, I am happy to let you know that the 2016-2020 AAFSW Executive Board and Committee Chairs have achieved most of its targets.

For a long time, AAFSW had worked with the Professional Ethics Committee (PEC) on issues involving Foreign Service family ethical matters and a preliminary “Code of Ethics.”  During the fall of 2016, I suggested that AAFSW should lead the way for the mandatory and proactive education of both the Foreign Service Officers and their spouses to become aware of issues regarding pension shares for divorced spouses and survivor benefits options. For that, I was in touch with the leadership of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and the sister organizations of the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) and initiated a dialogue of how my idea could become a reality with the Center for Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience at FSI. 

During the 2016 Art and BookFair, the AAFSW Board accepted my advice to offer a 10% discount on purchases to all the buyers who became AAFSW members during the 10 days that the AAFSW Art and BookFair lasts, a suggestion that we have enacted annually since then. While officially opening all the four Art and BookFairs during my presidency, I have reminded all our buyers of this initiative, which has helped increase our membership, and the number of our volunteers.

Looking for other ways to raise funds to support AAFSW’s projects, with the voting approval of the AAFSW Board, on December 13, 2016, I created the new “Fun For Funds” Fundraising Events Standing Committee to hold fun events, mostly harnessing AAFSW’s members’ own talents, to help fundraise for the benefit of the Family Crisis Fund, the Scholarship Fund, or the general AAFSW Fund. Since 2016, the Fun For Funds Fundraising Events Committee has successfully held many events and raised funds for AAFSW as well as planned the 60th Anniversary Gala which was scheduled to take place at the Westwood Country Club on Saturday, May 9, 2020.

 Believing in successful publicity, I worked closely with our AAFSW team to promote all that we do. For example, ahead of the 2017 Art and BookFair, together with many AAFSW volunteers, we created a fun advertisement seeking volunteers (“AAFSW wants YOU”) and later, I helped design the new AAFSW stand-up posters, which are used during all our events, and our new colorful AAFSW Membership Forms. I also made sure to work closely with all our Foreign Affairs Council sister organizations throughout the year.

AAFSW has met with all the other FAC members quarterly to discuss updated information on issues affecting the Foreign Affairs community and lend a helping hand to each other on workable solutions. Therefore, representing AAFSW, I had the opportunity to interact with representatives from: American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), Foreign Service Youth Foundation (FSYF), DACOR, American Academy of Diplomacy, Council of American Ambassadors, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST), Nelson B. Delavan Foundation, Business Council for International Understanding, Una Chapman Cox Foundation, Diplomacy Center Foundation, and the US Diplomatic Studies Foundation. During one of my meetings with ADST, the possibility of volunteer work for the AAFSW spouses was introduced upon completion of Foreign Service Officers’ oral history interviews. Opportunities such as this could eventually lead to eligible family member (EFM) employment as well.

Knowing how crucial positive feedback is for all our volunteers and members, as early as May 25, 2017, during the annual AAFSW Volunteer Appreciation Lunch, I confirmed the AAFSW Board’s gratitude by instituting the presentation of “AAFSW Volunteer of the Year Award” certificates to thank our invaluable volunteers for their hard work and dedication throughout the year. In November 2017 and, then, in November 2019, during the annual AAFSW Award Ceremony, I presented the AAFSW Lifetime Achievement Award to two longtime AAFSW volunteers who had gone above and beyond their duties to support all our members and our organization. 

As an organization, AAFSW continues to work on being able to best serve its members. At a recent Board meeting, for the second time, we discussed the possibility of giving the Foreign Born Spouses (FBS) Chair and the Spouses-in-Transition Chair a vote, due to the high percentage of FBS in AAFSW and the recurring problem of divorcing spouses inadequately supported by their employee spouses. The Board was reluctant to do this without more discussion. I believe that in the near future the Board should grant these two Chairs a vote, because the FBS Group and the spouses-in-transition issue are two of AAFSW’s most important missions.

 With the collaboration of one of our volunteers, during the spring of 2017, I formed the “EFM Employment Working Group,” which worked on concurrent and past statistics of EFM employment, resulting in a letter to Congress addressing the EFM hiring freeze issue. We received input from all our members around the world and, when things improved, AAFSW received praise for its consistency in focusing and tackling concerns of the Foreign Service community. Later, in February 2018, when the Foreign Affairs family was faced with uncertainty over the Special Needs Education Allowance (SNEA) and other benefits that Foreign Service families with children with disabilities receive, I asked AAFSW to help in a different way. I proposed a new kind of annual scholarship, called “AAFSW Twice Exceptional Merit Scholarship,” specifically designed to reward academic excellence of Foreign Service students with disabilities. Since 2018, AAFSW has received many nominations and has granted two such merit scholarships every year to eligible high school seniors, gap year, and college students (freshmen and sophomores) with a current Individualized Education Program (IEP) or equivalent program (504, etc.) set in place. At the same time, I urged the Board to increase the amount of money awarded with each one of our six annual AAFSW scholarships. 

Early on, I realized that although AAFSW had already existed for over 55 years at that time and had greatly benefited the Foreign Affairs family in many ways, AAFSW was not universally recognized as one of the main organizations of the Foreign Service community. With the help and advice of our sister organizations, and especially of the Foreign Service Youth Foundation (FSYF), in February 2018, I met with the Chief Labor Management Negotiator at the Department of State Bureau of Human Resources / Office of Policy Coordination and formally applied for AAFSW to be considered a recognized Employee Organization by the Department of State (under 3 FAM 5300 regulation and 5 CFR 251). The Board voted to make the necessary changes to meet all requirements and AAFSW’s application was officially approved on April 11, 2018. Recognition as an Employee Organization allowed AAFSW to continue using State Department facilities and work closely with the HR/PC to coordinate its cultural “soft diplomacy” events, the annual AAFSW Art and BookFair, and the daily operation of the AAFSW Book Store.  

Soon after that, as President, and on behalf of AAFSW, I forged strong relationships with all the unions, Employee Affinity Groups, and Employee Organizations of the Department of State. Many representatives of these groups have accepted my invitation to our various AAFSW events and especially to the annual AAFSW Art and BookFair (AAFSW’s main annual fundraising effort), as well as the annual AAFSW Awards Ceremony.  In turn, AAFSW was invited to participate in events of other organizations such as the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA) and the PEPFAR Executive Leadership Strategy Session (US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), and more.

AAFSW now has strong ties not only with AFSA, but with AFGE, NFFE, Arab-Americans in Foreign Affairs Agencies (AAIFAA), Asian American Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA), Blacks in Government, Carl T. Rowan Chapter (BIGCTR), Council for Career Enhancement and Professionalization (CCEP), Disability Action Group (DAG), Executive Women at State (EW@S), GLIFAA: LGBT+ Pride in Foreign Affairs Agencies, Hispanic Employees Council of Foreign Affairs Agencies (HECFAA), Presidential Management Fellowship Advisory Council (PMFAC), Returned Peace Corps Volunteers at State (RPCV), South Asian-American Employee Association (SAAEA), Thursday Luncheon Group (TLG), Veterans at State (VETS), Balancing Act, Civil Service Association, Japan Exchange Teaching @ State, Native American Foreign Affairs Council, UP: State International Dance Collective, National War College Alumni Association, Working in Tandem, and FS Families with Disabilities Alliance.

AAFSW is fortunate that, in 2018, the spouse of the Secretary of the Department of State accepted my invitation to become our Honorary President. I also felt very proud when, after my invitation, during the 2018 Foreign Affairs Day, the Secretary of State met with our members present by the AAFSW dedicated plaque and wreath in the Department of State and paid his respects to the Foreign Service family members fallen abroad. Later in the year, in November, for the first time, and then also in November 2019, a day before the annual AAFSW Awards Ceremony, the Secretary of State offered a one-hour “meet and greet” with all the winners, including the SOSA, Tragen, CCE-EFM, and Dorman awardees. At the same time, our Honorary President graciously agreed to speak at both the 2018 and 2019 AAFSW Award Ceremonies, while Under Secretary Bulatao accepted my invitation to open the 59th Art and BookFair at the Department in October 2019. 

During the four years that I have led AAFSW as its president, AAFSW has successfully organized many international cultural “soft diplomacy” events, engaged many Ambassadors as keynote speakers, fostered relationships with many Embassies and International Missions in Washington DC, and has worked on joint projects with FSYF, ADST, AFSA, and DACOR. With our consistent efforts, AAFSW currently has an ongoing relationship with organizations such as the Sustained Dialogue Institute of DC, Army and Navy Club of Washington DC,  National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), Pathways to Safety International, Passport DC, Alliance to End Human Trafficking, and with the Dept. of Labor on issues regarding child and forced labor as well as the World Bank Group regarding issues of Domestic Violence.

Besides helping EFMs to find work, AAFSW and, personally, I have promoted all EFM efforts and ideas. Every year, many of our members and I volunteer to help judge our own AAFSW Scholarship Awards, support AAFSW member nominees for the Una Chapman Cox Foundation Fellowship, be panelists at the SOSA selection committees, submit articles to the State Magazine or the Foreign Service Journal, and more. AAFSW has shown the strength of its volunteers when we gather together to welcome and assist the evacuees from countries such as Russia (2018), Venezuela (2019), China (2020), etc. During one of many AAFSW’s successful collaborations, in May 2020, AAFSW worked together with the Junior League of Washington to assist more than 100 Foreign Affairs Evacuees. 

While AAFSW is celebrating its 60th year anniversary since its inception this year, AAFSW also salutes the 42nd anniversary of the Family Liaison Office (FLO) as well as the 31st anniversary of FSYF. Recognizing the need for such entities, both the FLO and the FSYF were the product of two of the most successful AAFSW initiatives. In 2019, AAFSW also took part in the Founding Ambassadors Concourse Dedication at the Dept. of State and, since then, AAFSW members attended events that highlighted Sports Diplomacy (2019) and Dance Diplomacy (2020) organized by the National Museum of American Diplomacy. Thanks to the invaluable service of its volunteers, during its 60-year existence AAFSW has effectively advocated and promoted rights, programs, services and benefits for Foreign Service families. In the era of the internet, being the first “AAFSW Zoom President” to hold virtual Board Meetings and other AAFSW events via Zoom, Google Meet, or MS Teams, I look forward to an even brighter future for AAFSW and its remarkable volunteers.

The best is yet to come. 

Joanna Athanasopoulos Owen, PhD

2016-2020 AAFSW President

AAFSW Fun For Funds Fundraising Events’ Committee Chair