Cyndi Levy knows what it it’s like to jump into action with no warning. When she was a senior advisor in Congress, she attended President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address—a big deal for her as one of the few women on Capitol Hill. As the evening ended and she was ready to head home, her boss, Senator John Chafee (R-RI), told her to write a speech for him to deliver on the Senate floor the following morning.
Cyndi knew what she had to do. She handed the speech to the senator in less than 12 hours. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep that night,” she said, laughing.
A veteran of foreign policy work for over three decades, Cyndi says that leaping into action at a moment’s notice and getting your facts straight at the same time are critical traits for anyone in the field. “You must know your subject matter better than every person in the room,” she stressed. “You need to have an innate sense of where you are and what’s going on around you.”
Currently, women make up less than 30 percent of senior positions in U.S. foreign policy, such as government and the military. In the 1970s Cyndi and one other woman were the only female senate advisors.
Today more women than ever are serving in military leadership, government, and global humanitarian organizations, like the Peace Corps. They are bringing female perspectives to international issues and perhaps a stronger sense of empathy, especially in matters concerning women and children. They are influencing legislation, tearing down barriers, and creating bonds of understanding among cultures and governments.
Meet Cyndi and two other Tidewater women who are fostering global change in varying ways.
It might seem as if Cyndi Levy is from another era. She says she has read a book nearly every day since around fifth grade and typed her doctoral dissertation on a manual typewriter. She also hosts family dinners in her Virginia Beach home on Sundays.
But don’t let the slightly old-fashioned façade fool you. She’s a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst, a former special assistant to a Secretary of Defense, and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to help write the first annual Defense Guidance, the U.S. five-year war plan.
The “family” with whom she shares a weekly meal? Her students, who just happen to be U.S. Navy SEALs and other military personnel.
The 63-year-old New York native initially thought she might pursue a career in social justice. With a therapist mother and a rabbi father, she was exposed at an early age to helping others. And unlike most of her friends who attended private schools, Cyndi was educated in the Syracuse public school system during an era of race riots. “My parents wanted me to be around everybody to know how the world works,” she said.
Her exposure to different races and cultures, along with her father’s commitment to social activism, were catalysts in Cyndi’s career path. She knew she wanted to help people in some way, but instead of becoming a community organizer or a humanitarian worker, she chose foreign policy, an area in which few women at the time were involved.
“Foreign policy is social justice, so I figured I’d start with the big problems,” Cyndi said. She earned four degrees, then headed to Capitol Hill, where she was the first senior legislative assistant to serve under two U.S. senators, Senator Chafee and Orrin Hatch (R- UT). Cyndi advised both men on dealing with “big problems” in defense and intelligence, all of which is classified information. She was only in her twenties when she held this role.
Sometimes the issues she helped resolve were humanitarian acts. In 1983 while working with Senator Chafee, Cyndi noticed a group of visually impaired people sitting outside her office for days. She learned they were there to advocate for blind children in several African countries. She listened as these folks from the Helen Keller Institute talked about the benefits of Vitamin A in preventing blindness. With the Senator’s approval, she added three little lines in the massive State Department Appropriations Bill, requesting funding to send the needed capsules to Africa. The legislation passed, and the project reduced the blindness rate by 80 percent.
“If I do nothing else in my life, that was a pretty good thing,” Cyndi said.
But she has done a lot in the 35 years since inserting that request in the bill, and a lot of what she’s done is classified. What’s not top-secret, though, is Cyndi’s dedication to helping others, whether it’s advising senators, advocating for foreign aid, or teaching countless students in universities across the world. She’ll tell anybody that’s what drives her.
Besides a desire to help people, Cyndi believes there are specific and important skills everyone, regardless of gender, needs in matters of foreign policy. In fact, she doesn’t believe gender has anything to do with how well one does in the field. To Cyndi, it’s about having the best person do the job, and that person must be willing to understand the other guy’s premise, to work with people across the aisle and the ocean.
“Things are moving so quickly in the world,” she said. “You don’t know who’s learning what information, so talking to each other is important.”
And, of course, helping. “In the end,” said Cyndy, “I want people to say, ‘She tried to help. Whoever needed it, she was there.’”
It almost seems preordained that Maria Zammit would seek a career in foreign affairs. She grew up within sight of the United Nations campus on Manhattan’s East Side, and her parents, immigrants from the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, taught her to ride her tricycle in the shadow of its towering Secretariat Building.
The 65-year-old Virginia Beach resident considered law school after graduating from college but decided to take a break by backpacking around the world. During her journeys she became fascinated by Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. She decided to rethink law school and chose to pursue an advanced degree in international relations.
Early on, Maria worked for a U.S. ambassador, but for nearly 30 years her passion has been connected to the World Affairs Councils of America, a nonpartisan, non-profit, and globally-focused association with locations in over 90 major cities. She has served as vice chair of the national organization and as president of the Hampton Roads Council. Her involvement has enabled her to lead delegations to Iraq, Syria, and other countries.
“We live in a very interconnected world, and we need to understand this world,” she said.
Maria considers herself a people-to-people diplomat and likes to work at the grassroots of foreign policy. She feels strongly that women should be more involved. “Women are half our population, but we’re not using that half of our resources,” she said.
She realizes the lack of women in foreign policy is a conundrum, particularly in cultures where men create the rules, but she’s reassured by positive changes she’s witnessed.
Before leading a delegation to Afghanistan in 2011, she visited the country in advance to prepare and met many professional women who had been in hiding under Taliban rule. One, a physician who couldn’t practice medicine during that time and until the Taliban’s breakup, was required to have her husband by her side in public. Now she’s head of the Ministry of Public Health.
“Women must deal with things the opposite sex doesn’t understand in cultures with patriarchal rule,” she said. For instance, tampon accessibility is no sure thing in certain cultures where men call the shots. “American women in the field of foreign policy are able to transform lives because they’re empathetic to the needs and rights of women around the world.”
She believes that diplomacy is more critical now than ever, saying it’s central for a stable world. “Not everything is settled with guns and ammunition,” she pointed out. Disagreements are better solved by coming to the table with open minds and an understanding of others’ positions.
Maria encourages young women to consider foreign policy careers that focus on creating channels of understanding. She suggests they look into internships, global humanitarian trips, and groups such as the World Affairs Council. She also advises them to learn other languages. She says it’s transforming to help change lives.
“There’s a lot of injustice and unfairness in the world, but there’s also a lot of beauty,” she said. “I want to take it all in and be remembered as one who built bridges across the ocean.”
Unlike Cyndi and Maria, 18-year-old Sydney Cherry has never ventured outside the U.S., but she hopes to one day work in an embassy, possibly in the Middle East as a special advisor or liaison.
The recent First Colonial High School (FC) graduate boasts an impressive resumé that includes two years as class president, six national honor societies, Student Congress, and the city-wide Student Council Association. Her final grade point average is 4.4.
This month she heads to the University of Virginia, where she plans to study policy and international affairs on a pre-law track. It’s a surprising choice for a young woman who until a few years ago thought she wanted to be a career musician.
Sydney’s involvement in Student Congress, beginning in her freshman year of high school, sparked a curiosity in global issues. The group’s trip to Washington, D.C. the following year cemented her interest as she quickly realized how much of an impact the U.S. has in the world. She joined the Foreign Policy Work Group, a small group of students at FC united by their interest in global relations.
“We didn’t stay in a classroom,” Sydney said. “We got out and met people who were making a difference in government and international affairs.”
The ensemble made about 15 trips to D.C. in Sydney’s three years of membership, meeting leaders in the military, Congress, and State Department. One of the most memorable talks Sydney heard was by John A. Rizzo, the former CIA lawyer who approved the legality of controversial interrogation techniques. He and members of the U.S. military spoke about cases where torture might be justified.
“Since I’m interested in going to law school, I found the legality issue fascinating,” said Sydney. “It gave me something to think about.” She agrees with Maria that diplomacy is more important than it’s ever been. “The climate now does require more diplomacy,” she said.
Sydney wakes up every day with a passion for learning about international relations. Last February she organized a seminar to connect young women to mentors in areas of foreign policy. The event was her senior project for FC’s Legal Studies Academy. She assembled a group of leaders that included an admiral, a former CEO of The Washington Post, Cyndi Levy, and other ladies involved in global change. Sydney handled every aspect of the program, from contacting the speakers to promoting the event. Around 95 high school girls attended.
“All the struggles were worth it,” she said. “I was empowered listening to the younger girls ask questions and hearing them say they were happy to be there.”
Sydney’s goals this summer have focused on moving to Charlottesville and staying current on world affairs with daily reads of The New York Times and BBC websites. She also enjoys her Saturday morning ritual of breakfast with her mom, whom she considers her greatest role model.
The girl who learned to play the guitar at age 7 and pictured herself in the music industry is now a young woman who’s excited about studying Arabic and brokering harmony between nations. “I feel like I am a completely different person than when I started this journey,” said Sydney.