Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo November 5, 2021

The Complexities of Storytelling


One woman alone can't change 232 years of systemic and cultural exclusion, inequality, and neglect...

notebook and badge in hand
Reporting Fellow Kayla M. Smith arrives at the State Department for her interview with Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley. Image by Kayla M. Smith. United States, 2021.

I’ve always been fascinated with how history captures and remembers the agency of Black women. I even wonder how I will be captured and remembered.

When I heard the announcement of Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley’s appointment as the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the State Department, I was filled with many emotions, particularly assurance. As a young Black woman set to enter the U.S. Foreign Service in 2023 as a Rangel Fellow, the news of the Ambassador’s appointment renewed my hope that the State Department is invested in implementing sustainable measures to ensure all individuals can reach their full potential.

However, the renewal of my optimism in the State Department did not fully counter my skepticism. From reading Tianna Spears’ article in Politico to listening to the experiences of other Black diplomats, some of whom are my mentors, I am aware of the change-resistant, bureaucratic culture at State and the challenges many BIPOC (and women) Foreign Service officers have faced. This awareness made me both interested and hesitant to pursue this story. But I knew I wanted to be a part of the conversation and highlight the significance of this moment, especially when I noticed minimal reporting around her appointment. My goal with this piece was to show how the Ambassador constructs her vision for diversity and inclusion measures at the State Department.

As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!

It was a rainy, humid day when I met with the Ambassador at her office in Foggy Bottom. I arrived at Foggy Bottom on June 22 with my hair poofed up (thanks to the humidity), my feet wet (I wore my Birks), and my nerves on high. When the interview began, my nerves slowly faded as I got into my element.

The Ambassador was the embodiment of grace, poise, and intentionality. Everything she shared with me reflected her thoughtfulness, convictions, and hopes for a diverse and inclusive State Department. I left that interview full, inspired, and confident in the Ambassador’s commitment to her job. However, I also left that interview conflicted because I felt like something was missing.

Listening back on the interview, I realized I did not fully capture Gina, the woman, as I intended to. I was missing her unfiltered thoughts and concerns. Instead, I captured the Ambassador, the highly regarded leader; every word calculated and diplomatic. I had to listen to the interview several times to find Gina underneath the Ambassador, to listen to the moments where I could see her.

One moment, in particular, stands out: I saw Gina when she talked about changing the dress code during her A-100 days. From her smile to her voice’s cadence when sharing this example, I knew I was talking to and seeing Gina. I also realized that my struggle in writing this piece was showing Kayla underneath the Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow and Rangel Fellow. This interview exposed me to the complexities of storytelling, allowed me to appreciate the intimacy of the moment, and pushed me to see the ways one can showcase one's authenticity in little yet moving ways.

The process for any piece I write is always different. A piece can take me a couple of hours, or a piece can take a couple of weeks to finish. This time there was a heaviness in my heart going into my Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow story.

Two days after the interview, I got a phone call that my maternal grandmother was admitted to the ICU and placed on a ventilator. Since April, my grandmother’s health had been rapidly declining due to the malpractice and negligence she faced in Mobile, Alabama. On July 1, my grandmother transitioned, and I was utterly devastated. I put my life on pause to prioritize my mental health and be with my loved ones during this difficult time.

Although I wanted more time to grieve, I knew my grandmother would want me to handle my business and finish this story. Returning to this project was challenging because I questioned the direction, word usage, possible ramifications, and the reporting window of this story. Thanks to my Pulitzer Center mentor, Jennifer Koons, and the support of my loved ones, I gave myself grace and produced a piece that I am proud of.

Although I faced difficult hurdles during this writing process, I am proud of how much I’ve grown as a storyteller at the intersections of race and diplomacy.





teal halftone illustration of a raised fist


Racial Justice

Racial Justice
Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


Gender Equality

Gender Equality

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues