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Black History Month: Forging a Path for Others to Come

By Ian Saunders, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Global Markets, Western Hemisphere, International Trade Administration

Black History Month provides us an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing struggle for racial justice, and I took this time to think about my own journey as a Black man. As a native of Washington D.C., a predominantly Black city, I never expected that I would someday work in a powerful environment just a few steps away from my childhood home.

My journey into federal service started with a family who emphasized the value of hard work and education as “the great equalizers.” I had teachers who saw my potential, invested in me, and gave me opportunities to cultivate my interests. I had benefactors, including the late Carl Rowan, who made my university education possible. I was fortunate to attend Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, always knowing that I wanted to work in international affairs. And in years following graduation, I worked for some time to help bring other prospective students from diverse backgrounds into the Georgetown community.

This path has brought me ultimately to my current job at the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration (ITA) as Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere. In this role, I help U.S. businesses achieve international success across the Americas. I’ve always had an interest in international affairs policy—an area I was able to grow in through jobs at the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The United States private sector is second to none in many respects, to include a business environment that fosters innovation and is underpinned by a world-class workforce. The world looks to us not only to conduct business, but to help further their own marketplaces. Through international trade, we can enable greater economic activity to “lift the tide” and help everyone rise.

While diversity and inclusion are inherent in my externally facing work, my role as a team leader also gives me the responsibility and opportunity to forge a path for and “set tables in hospitable places” for people who will follow, as my mentors did for me. I’m privileged to work with a diverse array of professionals, and to do what I can to help them do the best work possible. I also take seriously the need to solidify the future of our organization by recruiting a diverse workforce who can help us navigate the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Black History Month gives me a chance to step back from the press of daily business to think about what has enabled me to be where I am—to be alert to the responsibility to my forebearers, to not squander their efforts, and to reflect on the work that still needs to be done to ensure that future opportunities await for others to come. It’s an approach I hope to be able to take into a new arena, as I stand as the U.S. candidate to be Secretary General of the World Customs Organization. The lessons I’ve learned and my experiences, I hope, can bring benefit to a truly global community.

This blog post is part of a series showcasing the diverse African American leaders from across the U.S. Department of Commerce in honor of Black History Month.