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Community Liaison Officers: The Glue That Helps Keep Embassy Communities Together

Posted: 1:14 am ET

 

The M. Juanita Guess Award is conferred by AFSA on a Community Liaison Officer who has demonstrated outstanding leadership, dedication, initiative or imagination in assisting the families of Americans serving at an overseas post.  Since 1995, Clements Worldwide has sponsored the M. Juanita Guess Award (named after Clements’ co-founder).

In 2016,  the award went to Sara Locke of U.S. Embassy Beirut, Lebanon with Berna Keen of U.S. Embassy Dhaka, Bangladesh as runner-up. Below via afsa.org:

Sara Locke | U.S. Embassy Beirut – 2016 M. Juanita Guess Award for Exemplary Performance by a Community Liaison Officer

Sara E. Locke is the recipient of this year’s M. Juanita Guess Award for Exemplary Performance by a Community Liaison Officer for her outstanding leadership, dedication, initiative and imagination in assisting the employees and family members of U.S. Embassy Beirut.

Embassy Beirut enthusiastically nominated Ms. Locke, stating: “There is probably no other person in the mission who receives as much unanimous, universal praise as Sara for her efforts in turning around the rapidly deteriorating morale at Embassy Beirut.” Working with members throughout the community, her leadership has dramatically improved morale through innovative programs and activities, re-establishing U.S. Embassy Beirut as a post actively sought by Foreign Service bidders. Her tireless efforts on behalf of employees and family members are absolutely impressive.

When Ms. Locke arrived at post in 2014, morale among embassy staff was plummeting and curtailments were increasing at an alarming rate. She recommended to the ambassador that post conduct a morale survey, and then coordinated closely with him and the regional psychiatrist (RMO/P) to figure out how the downward spiral could be reversed. She not only designed and conducted the first survey, but after a very insightful analysis, which she presented to the ambassador and deputy chief of mission, Ms. Locke created an “Action Committee” to respond to the complaints and suggestions.

As a result, many policies and practices on the compound were changed, and new innovative ideas were brought forward and implemented. Thanks to Ms. Locke’s efforts, the situation has improved so much that employees are now requesting extensions to their assignments, and positive responses to a recent morale survey are at an all-time high. The fact that community members now feel they are being heard has had a profoundly beneficial impact on life on a small compound at a high-threat post with very restrictive security requirements.

Ms. Locke has continued doing surveys every six months to measure changes and to solicit ideas on how to continue improving morale, but her influence extends beyond Beirut. Former U.S. Ambassador to Beirut David Hale (who had been in Beirut when Ms. Locke created the survey) wrote to Ms. Locke from his new post: “I owe you such a debt of gratitude and would appreciate any advice on how to maximize this product here,” he said, requesting that she share her thoughts and recommendations with his deputy chief of mission and management section.

Beirut is a challenging place in the best of circumstances: terrorist threats are real, security restrictions limit off-compound movements and permanent employees live and work in cramped, dilapidated facilities. The role of the CLO as an advocate for community members is absolutely critical, and Sara truly embraces it. She lobbies hard on behalf of family members to find rewarding jobs in the mission. She includes spouses in all aspects of embassy life, from social events to emergency preparations. She recently hosted a series of seminars on evacuation planning and community resources for the mission. She is the person many individuals turn to for support and guidance.

Just one example: immediately after a suicide bombing in downtown Beirut in November 2015, just a few miles from the embassy compound, Ms. Locke reached out to the embassy community to ensure accountability and reassure colleagues. When things quieted down, she developed a variety of innovative programs, trips and activities to allow employees to experience Beirut, always working closely with the embassy’s regional security section to stay within the constraints of strict security parameters. She helped increase the number of trips off compound to grocery stores, and then helped put in place a very popular weekend shopping shuttle. This change alone significantly improved morale and gave embassy employees a whole new perspective on life here; previously, only one trip off the compound per week was permitted.

Ms. Locke is extremely creative, constantly seeking out new entertainment venues and cultural events (concerts, museums, restaurants, wine tastings, food festivals), always coordinating well in advance with the regional security officer. She put together a long list of embassy recreational events, including scuba diving, hiking, skiing and snowshoeing. She also organizes a multitude of events for embassy families on the compound. She is an invaluable resource to everyone in the mission.

Berna Keen | U.S. Embassy Dhaka – 2016 M. Juanita Guess Award for Exemplary Performance by a Community Liaison Officer Runner-Up

Berna Keen, runner-up for this year’s M. Juanita Guess Award for Exemplary Performance by a Community Liaison Officer, is recognized as an exemplary CLO by her colleagues at U.S. Embassy Dhaka during what has been a turbulent period of terrorism and violence in Bangladesh. Her conscientious and compassionate approach to each and every member of the mission, the creativity she employs in bringing people together and her exceptional talent for organization has substantially increased morale at post.

A rash of “hartals,” violent political demonstrations, in 2015 crippled embassy operations in Dhaka. Ms. Keen experienced this violence firsthand when a vehicle she was riding in was hit with an explosive device. Incredibly, this only strengthened her commitment to her work. She communicated with everyone in the mission on shelter-in-place days, sending out ideas for activities to do with kids stuck indoors. She became a key voice on the Emergency Action Committee and created an EFM email list, subsequently added to the Global Address List, ensuring that security messages were received by everyone in the mission simultaneously.

With all of Dhaka on edge after a series of murders committed by Al-Qaida-allied fanatics and members of the so-called Islamic State group, embassy personnel were restricted to a two-square-mile area, could not walk outside and had a 10 o’clock curfew. School buses ridden by embassy children were accompanied by an armed police escort. Outside entertainment was off-limits to embassy personnel. In this tense environment, Ms. Keen brought the embassy community together, planning a staggering number of events—nearly 90 in 150 days—despite the fact that her office was understaffed.

Ranging from wine and cheese parties to pet playdates, she successfully provided people with an outlet for normal social activity. She brought the local market to the embassy, snagging pearl vendors, antique dealers and rug and clothing sellers to sell to the embassy community. Her continual reminders to the EAC on the importance of communication has kept the community well-informed and engaged during this trying time.

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