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IFE Brings Social Secretaries Together to Relax and Reflect on Their Work

By Raluca Barbulescu

Getting to personally know an ambassador in Washington is critical, but oftentimes it’s just as important to get to know their social secretaries. Often referred to as the “gatekeepers” of the city’s diplomatic community, social secretaries perform the vital role of connecting ambassadors and embassy staff with the people who can help advance their nations’ agendas.

These gatekeepers — some of whom have been here for many years and know the ins and outs of the Beltway better than their bosses — often perform this vital role behind the scenes. But every once in a while, they get to take center stage.

For four years, that’s what the Institute for Education (IFE) has been doing — bringing together the city’s social secretaries to meet, mingle and be recognized for their work.

On Aug. 23, IFE — a D.C.-based nonprofit that facilitates bipartisan collaboration in politics, business, media and technology — brought together new and old friends from over 30 embassies at its annual Summer Social.

Institute for Education's fourth annual Summer Social
Social secretaries from over 30 embassies pose for a group picture at the Institute for Education’s fourth annual Summer Social. Photos: Raluca Barbulescu

As these protocol gurus gathered in the ballroom of the historic Congressional Country Club, for some it was their first time connecting with colleagues that they’ve only previously known through calls, emails and texts. For others, it was a reunion of friends who’ve known each other for years.

Four of these friends help make the annual event possible: Coach Kathy Kemper, IFE’s director and CEO, and IFE Deputy Director Elise Ravenscroft have traditionally teamed up with Gwenda DeMoor, social secretary of the Belgian Embassy, and Kiyomi Buker, social secretary of the Japanese Embassy, to host the luncheon.

“Welcome sports fans!” said Kemper in her signature greeting. “It is fitting that we all gather at this historic Congressional Country Club. The club was founded by two congressmen from Indiana in 1924. The idea was to create a space where members of Congress, the White House and businessmen could gather together to recreate and find common ground, without the red tape which surrounds men in public life. Five United States presidents are CCC’s founders — Presidents Coolidge, Harding, Hoover, Taft and Wilson. And here we are, continuing the tradition of recreating and finding common ground,” said Kemper, who presented DeMoor and Buker with authentic gold-engraved White House candy jars as a token of appreciation.

“It is such a special treat for us to meet our fellow social secretaries and assistants in person before the busy fall event season starts,” Buker said before the group posed for a photo in front of the grand fireplace. “Because of all our work behind the scenes, we look forward to enjoying an event as a guest every now and then. Coach Kemper and the IFE team provided a wonderful opportunity for us to invite our own close counterparts to a gorgeous and prestigious place like the Congressional Country Club. Meeting new embassy counterparts and others through the IFE is a bonus.”

Institute for Education's fourth annual Summer Social, Gwenda DeMoor of the Belgian Embassy, Kiyomi Buker of the Japanese Embassy, IFE founder and CEO Kathy Kemper, IFE Deputy Director Elise Ravenscroft
Co-hosts Gwenda DeMoor of the Belgian Embassy and Kiyomi Buker of the Japanese Embassy join IFE founder and CEO Kathy Kemper and IFE Deputy Director Elise Ravenscroft.

DeMoor echoed that sentiment.

“The Embassy of Belgium and IFE have been organizing multiple successful events together for more than 15 years. As a matter of fact, the ambassador of Belgium is the diplomatic steward of IFE. Our present ambassador, His Excellency Dirk Wouters, enjoys very much being part of the IFE family, as did our previous ambassadors,” she said. “Personally, I love being part of this collaboration because we work so well together. Both IFE and the embassy provide ideas and suggestions and bring their own expertise to the table. Most importantly, we work well as a team so the success of an event is a collective effort.”

These women — and it’s still mostly women, although there are quite a few male social secretaries as well — understand the effort it takes to put on a successful event, whether it’s an intimate dinner, a large national day celebration or an official delegation visit.

“It is important to be organized and have an eye for detail. However, you should not lose yourself in the details and keep the overall goal — a successful event — in mind,” said DeMoor.

Institute for Education's fourth annual Summer Social, Norma Ces of the Embassy of Ireland, Elisabeth Herndler of the Embassy of Luxembourg, Tais Howland of the Embassy of New Zealand, Elle Berdy of the Embassy of Monaco, Janet Pitt, Rama Toure of the Embassy of Monaco
From front left, Norma Ces of the Embassy of Ireland; Elisabeth Herndler of the Embassy of Luxembourg; Tais Howland of the Embassy of New Zealand; Elle Berdy of the Embassy of Monaco; Janet Pitt; and Rama Toure of the Embassy of Monaco enjoy crab cakes and salad.

Buker added: “In order to be successful and effective in Washington, people often think that you need to be aggressive, ambitious and expressive. However, being humble, kind and appreciative of others has been very beneficial in my experience.”

Buker said that before technology was integral to an embassy’s day-to-day operations, the artistry of organizing events sometimes relied on creative detective work.

“Quite some time ago, our ambassador hosted a dinner honoring a very prominent and well-known figure in the U.S. The person was residing in New York City, so we didn’t know who else we should invite. At that time, there was no internet,” Buker recalled. “Therefore we went to the Library of Congress to research who his friends were through letters and other recorded documents. We felt like detectives. In the end, we were able to invite his close friends, and he was very touched by the guest list.”

Likewise, DeMoor reflected on the personal impact that events can have, citing the receptions she’s helped to organize for World War II veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive on the Western Front.

Institute for Education's fourth annual Summer Social, Asdis Hreinsdottir of the Embassy of Iceland, Barbara Wellink of the EU Delegation, Katrina Chan of Bloomberg New Economy, Kelly Wheeler of the Embassy of Oman, Siti Nurasyikin Azman of the Embassy of Singapore
Asdis Hreinsdottir of the Embassy of Iceland; Barbara Wellink of the EU Delegation; Katrina Chan of Bloomberg New Economy; Kelly Wheeler of the Embassy of Oman; and Siti Nurasyikin Azman of the Embassy of Singapore enjoy lunch.

“In December 2004, the year I started as social secretary, the then-ambassador of Belgium hosted a reception for American World War II veterans at the Belgian residence and every year since then, the Embassy of Belgium has been part of commemorations for these brave men and women,” DeMoor said.

“At the first Battle of the Bulge veterans reception I helped organize, one veteran’s story really touched me. He had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, gotten wounded in the leg and while recuperating in Belgium, he had met and fallen in love with a young Belgian woman. He had some letters with him and shared that this young woman became his wife and just recently had passed away. We read some of the letters together. This was a very emotional conversation and I was so touched by his story of hardship and love. The hardships these soldiers endured were terrible. Belgium is forever grateful,” she added.

It’s memories like these that make the work of social secretaries not only politically relevant, but personally resonant as well. And it’s why for the past 28 years, IFE has worked to convene leaders of all stripes for thoughtful discussions to find common ground in today’s polarized environment and to look toward the future of our globalized world.

To that end, for the past nine years, IFE Deputy Director Elise Ravenscroft has worked closely with more than 100 ambassadors and the embassies’ dedicated staff to bring influencers and decision-makers together. “It is a privilege to be able to thank my friends and colleagues — the social secretaries — for their continued collaboration by co-hosting this annual lunch,” she said. “Approximately 185 countries have foreign missions in the nation’s capital and these missions are vital in conducting diplomatic relations with organizations like the Institute for Education.”

Raluca Barbulescu serves as the chief operating officer of the Institute for Education, a D.C.-based organization whose mission is to harness the power of data, innovation and soft diplomacy.



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