Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
United States Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
May 9, 2013

Ambassador and Mrs. Yousef Al Otaiba, Chairman West, President Jim Marshall, Executive Vice President Kristin Lord, Cheri Carter, Kathleen Kuehnast, thank you all for making today’s event happen, and for all you do for peacebuilding. I also want to recognize a hero with us today, Melanne Verveer, former Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues.

I am proud to be part of this program and honored to join Noura, Margot, and Abigail.

Although I can’t stay for the panel, I just want to express my deep appreciation for these three women whose work is extraordinary, and who have changed lives for women. As a recovering journalist, I love storytelling. So I’d like to bookend my remarks with two brief stories about two young women.

The first one was me. As a girl, I dreamed of playing a role in the wider world beyond where I was born—in Brooklyn, New York. But I had absolutely no idea how that was going to happen.

In college, two courses brought that dream into sharper focus. One was in Russian literature, taught by Professor David Maxwell; the other in Yiddish culture taught by Sol Gittleman.

As I read the books, listened to my teachers, and thought more deeply about those subjects, I could feel their weight and power—how they carried forward the aspirations and spirit of entire peoples. I knew immediately that history, culture, language, and international relations had to be a part of my life somehow.

Last September, life came full circle when I met up with my former Russian literature professor. David Maxwell today is Drake University’s president where I came to speak as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

I had come to the school to give a speech on U.S.-Japanese international education. As he introduced me, we shared a smile and a hug of mutual understanding: that life delivers benefits to those who dream, work hard, grow and change.

Which brings me back to the United States Institute of Peace. This is where dreams are also shaped and fine-tuned. This was where I was given an opportunity to show leadership as a woman, as a peacemaker. I was proud and excited to be part of a building project that would include the International Women’s Commons, donated by Sheikha Fatima—a space dedicated to international women and education.

What a unique time and place. What a powerful symbol of the importance of convening women around peace. What a great home for the “Messengers of Peacebuilding.”

There is no simple phrase, no easy sound bite, no bumper sticker that can define the relationship between women and peace building. It is innate, just natural, and simply understood that no peace anywhere is possible without a full sky. By that, I mean a sky that encompasses everyone, including women and their talents, instincts, and diverse life experiences. This idea goes back as far as Adam and Eve. Both must have equal access to the sky above their heads.

My theme today is straightforward: The road to peace in the world will, and must, be paved with the handiwork of women and men. We have no other choice. The alternative to working together towards peace is violence fueled by hatred, intolerance, and misunderstanding.

The U.S. Government has incorporated women and girls into all aspects of its foreign policy—and that is undergirded by a simple truth that is confirmed by studies everywhere: The rise in the status of women lifts all boats.

We could be talking about global health and nutrition, the growth of our economies, the strength of our communities, or the depth and diversity of our business leaders and scientists, our politicians and our peace negotiators. To address the toughest challenges of our time, we need all the talent of the 21st century. We cannot afford to leave out half of humanity’s problemsolvers because they happen to be women.

This Administration, from President Obama on down, are committed to making this idea a reality. We are working to implement the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, as we know that women are powerful agents for peace, security, and prosperity.

In all of my work in the field of international relations, conflict prevention, and today, public diplomacy, the bottom lines are the same: All people matter. People drive policy and policy drives people. Without due consideration to the rights and responsibilities of all individuals, including women, we are lost.

Without attention to their basic needs—to food, water, clean air, information—and the freedom to think and achieve their positive ambitions and without attention to the person, we are flying blind.

But when we reach out, when we connect, when we listen, when we act with our values and principles firmly rooted in the common good, and when we find space for women at the table, we will find grace.

There is a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that makes me laugh when I first hear it. But a moment later, the truth emerges and becomes powerful. She once said, “A woman is like a tea bag. You can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

I close my remarks with a story about that second young woman. It’s a more difficult story to tell—and to listen to.

Her name was Anne Smedinghoff—and perhaps by now, you have heard of the Foreign Service officer who recently lost her life serving her country. She believed in helping people, so she joined the Foreign Service and focused on public diplomacy and global education.

After her first tour of duty in Venezuela, she took an assignment in Afghanistan. On April 6th of this year, Anne was delivering books to first, second, and third graders through a Scholastic program we had developed for Afghanistan, when she was killed by a bomb blast. She was 25.

Last week at her memorial service, I kept thinking about the young girls in Afghanistan she was working so hard to help. I thought about books, about education, and about Anne.

This tragic tale leaves me sad, but inspired. We have to share our knowledge and education with the young girls and the young women of today so that all of our tomorrows are safer and more secure. We need an international women’s commons where we can share best practices and our insights and education. We need light—the kind of light that comes from knowledge.

Thank you for allowing me the privilege of being part of this event—and let’s recommit ourselves today–to the path of progress, knowledge, and the courage to bring peace.