Last fall, our team in the Office of Children’s Issues paused our regular international parental child abduction casework and bilateral portfolios for a daylong retreat. In addition to team-building exercises and an in-depth examination of our processes to see where we might improve internal coordination and workflow, we also took a 10-minute walk over to the main State Department building near 23rd and C Streets in northwest Washington, DC.
As most (but certainly not all) domestically-assigned consular officers do, our team works in the consular annex commonly referred to as “SA-17,” co-located with the Washington Passport Agency. Located near the corner of 19th and F Streets NW, SA-17 is only a few blocks away from the Harry S. Truman Building, commonly referred to as “Main State,” or “HST” for short.
Although I don’t need to go over to HST every week, it isn’t uncommon to pop over for a variety of administrative, technical, programming, and consultative reasons. It is a very large building, and has a reputation for being confusing. I have heard officers who work inside HST joke they have their ways of getting from point A to point B within the building and if they deviate from their routes, they don’t know where they are.
Our acting branch chief suggested we have lunch in the Main State cafeteria, followed by our last *mystery* activity of the day. Pre-pandemic this was really the place to be. It’s still all right, but definitely doesn’t seem to have all the options it used to. We enjoyed our food and as we were wrapping it up, our boss surprised us by suggesting we pair up within our team to do a timed scavenger hunt – and all the things we had to find were at HST! Cue my introvert dread.
I admit that initially, the idea of having to decipher a long list of riddles while navigating the incomprehensible and unfamiliar hallways of HST was daunting. What I really wanted to do was settle into listening mode for our last activity and think deeply about something – anything – while digesting all the salad I’d just eaten. I was not in the mood to lug my jacket, purse, cloth bag, water bottle, scavenger hunt paper and pen all over the building, let alone in any semblance of a hurry.
“Let’s just not race,” my colleague S suggested. Now she was speaking my language.
As the only two FSOs in an office of mainly Civil Service folks, S and I were probably naturals to pair up on this exercise. We back up one another’s portfolios during leave periods, and have both spent all of our non-training periods in the Department to date overseas – she in Bogota and Mexico City, and me obviously in Tashkent, Canberra, and Ciudad Juárez. Unlike many of our domestic colleagues, some of whom have actually worked in HST at various points, S and I hadn’t really been at Main State much since our respective A-100s.
I went there my very first day of A-100 in June 2014, and I remember one of the six weeks of our orientation featured a tour. But I didn’t write about it for the blog, so I’d have to pull out my giant A-100 binder (yes, I still have it) if I were curious about the details. Therefore as much as we maybe didn’t feel like doing the scavenger hunt initially, as we looked at our mission, we conceded most of the things would be helpful in the course of our jobs and we could have some fun doing it.
Maybe pairing off with a Civil Service colleague who had more experience in the building would have been an advantage, but I don’t think we cared. We get along, and we were in the mood to do our own thing.
We started off taking selfies with all the things downstairs we needed to find – at least 30 foreign flags (which are easy to find in the C Street lobby), the giant eagle in the courtyard, and what was jokingly referred to on our checklist as “the blue/green guy” but is actually Marshall Fredericks’ (1908-1998) sculpture “Man and the Expanding Universe Fountain.” The Department installed Fredericks’ sculpture in 1964 in honor of the space exploration age; Fredericks described his work as representing “this age of great interest, exploration, and discovery in outer space… [and] the immensity, order, and mystery of the universe.”
We challenged HST’s own immensity and mystery to find “the jogger’s entrance” near IT, learn about the guest sign-in process, talk to the Ralph J. Bunche librarian about resources within the library we could potentially use in our child abduction cases (and we later disseminated those resources within our team), and take more selfies around the cafeteria and gift shops where S popped in to buy U.S.-Peru flag pins.
At various points S and I laughed because we ended up in freight elevators and some really weird places in the bowels of HST that, well, if you’ve been there, you get it. This is where diplomacy happens, I chuckled to myself.
We could not take selfies near “Mahogany Row,” the Operations Center, or the Secretary of State’s suites, obviously, but we did find them. We also found and chatted with the regional desk officers who cover our portfolio countries – Peru and Mexico for S and Bolivia, Chile, and Venezuela for me. We already knew most of them, but as I learned many times during my political tour in Australia, it’s important to develop relationships and contacts not only with your foreign counterparts but also within your own administration. It helps understand shared equities, smooth paper clearance processes, get questions and problems solved more quickly, and identify ways to collaborate and advance shared goals. We even found the consular suite of offices within HST, which has apparently moved many times and may have even moved again since the scavenger hunt!
We treated ourselves to a coffee afterwards and texted our boss copies of our completed scavenger hunt evidence. He was pretty much like, You guys were last, I thought you left. Ha ha! We had lots of people to chat up. We were being diplomatic in the building and kept seeing people we knew.
This exercise, besides its practical usefulness, also brought to mind past occasions where I didn’t feel like doing some activity but later was really glad I had. I talked about this in my 2018 post Introversion: The Challenge of Saying Yes. And I don’t mean to suggest in any way that introverts are unprofessional, lack energy, or are “too shy” to do their work. These persistent myths are harmful. Rather I’m saying there are times where the value or utility of something and its future applicability is easy for me to overlook because it is not presented to me in a way I can easily absorb in the moment.
But if I’m able to make adjustments and manage my energy differently enough to take advantage of that opportunity (without shame in moments where I truly cannot), I have never looked back and thought it was a waste of time. Every time I’ve been to HST since this breaking-the-ice exercise was honestly a little more efficient and enjoyable.
Thanks for the tour of the office. I’ve been there twice (the last time in 2017) and remember seeing mouse traps in the corridors. The people who met us were very casually like, “Yeah, we have a mouse problem.” and we thought it was hilarious that even such an important institution has to deal with the common rodent.
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