Have you ever daydreamed about what it would be like to be Vice President Kamala Harris’ Communications Director? Or work directly with President Barack Obama? To organize a lunch with Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama? Or be the United States Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs?
Well, Elizabeth Allen has done all that, and she isn’t anywhere finished. Buckle up, because we’re about to put an absolute trailblazer on your radar. Missing Perspectives spent an enjoyable afternoon chatting with Elizabeth during her visit to Sydney about all things civic engagement, foreign policy, her incredible career, and the best local cocktails and restaurants (breaking bread is the OG diplomacy). She was accompanied by President Obama’s former ROTUS (aka Receptionist of the United States of America).
Allen’s time working as Deputy Communications Director and Deputy Assistant during the Obama Presidency was formative. And while the overall flavour was certainly positive and hopeful, the baton pass to Trump taught a progressive like Allen that you still need to celebrate the fact that incremental progress is progress.
“I think his positive ‘Yes We Can’ type of messaging really resonated with people - particularly coming off the back of the 2008 financial crisis, and how the US had found itself in two wars across Iraq and Afghanistan. The information space was really starting to change. It’s crazy to think that the iPhone was only introduced in 2008,” Allen said.
“I mean, when we look back to think that the 2008 Obama campaign was not on smartphones, Twitter didn’t exist. It’s unfathomable to think about. But the moment in history was pivotal. The media space was starting to change. Social media had started to come into existence. I think it coincided with not just young people, but people of all generations thinking about how the vision we’d hoped for was possible. And I think [Obama] represented that. I felt compelled to get involved, and I’m glad I did.”
With any new venture, there is always a honeymoon period. Missing Perspectives asked Elizabeth whether the Elizabeth who left Obama’s Administration was different to the one who first joined off the back of what he so vibrantly represented to the American people.
“The Liz that went in was idealistic enough to still keep striving for change. The Liz that left remained idealistic but was a little bit more grounded in the art of the positive. And I think that was a really instructive evolution that I think a lot about now in my new position.”
“President Obama really viewed his presidency as a leg of a relay. And I think that’s the most instructive way to think about leadership. Passing the torch. Not everybody thinks like that - some people are going to think about leadership positions as opportunities for their own sort of self-fulfillment. I just think working under President Obama really instilled in a lot of us that we have to do our part when we have the baton,” she said.
Surely passing on the baton to Trump’s Administration was difficult?
“It was not the easiest baton pass that we’ve ever made. This may be relatable, but the day after President Trump was inaugurated, I flew to Mexico with my friends. Everyone had to take care of themselves and be grounded in their own friendships. I think it’s important for people to recognize they have a role to play in civic participation, making their voice heard, whether they're in or out of government. I will tell you, it was very sobering to work at the White House for seven of eight years with Obama, and then a week later, I was outside those gates, you know, in a way that I was just an American citizen trying to make my voice heard.”
Elizabeth’s passion for gender equality and mobilizing women started young - kicking off her career at the Office of Global Women’s Issues within the State Department. She’s seen firsthand the way that discussions of gender have evolved when it comes to the formation and articulation of America’s foreign policy.
“This administration’s foreign policy priorities certainly take gender equity and representation into priority consideration. Working in the Office for Global Women’s Issues when I did, it was under President Bush and the Afghanistan war had just begun. And so a lot of the work we were doing that I was doing as an intern was on the plight of Afghan women and trying to increase educational opportunities for African women at the time, who had been under Taliban rule. Sometimes issues of representation can feel political, when actually, they’re often just a matter of humanity. So yeah we’re really thinking about how to put gender and gender equality at the centre of almost every issue.”
Beyond thinking about the bigger global issues, Elizabeth doesn’t neglect the smaller ways of driving diplomacy and connecting with people from around the globe. And for her, that’s often just the simple art of sharing a meal - a notable one on her Australian leg included a Rockpool dinner featuring Indigenous cooking methods. And with that, she’s off from her afternoon at Missing Perspectives to tackle her next lively conversation.