Calling themselves a “sisterhood,” seven Black women—all of them current or former members of the U.S. Secret Service—have formed a close-knit group aimed at supporting each other professionally and personally.
As the least represented demographic group in law enforcement, Black women have only recently been making their mark in leadership positions at the federal, state, and local level.
Add to that the challenge of motherhood while working in a demanding and competitive career, and the sisterhood has proven to be an essential resource for this historically accomplished group of Black women.
In September, three members of the sisterhood participated in a Center for Homeland Defense and Security Emergence program panel titled, fittingly, “Building a Support Network.”
They included CHDS instructor and alum Dione “Dee” Neely (CHDS Master’s Program cohort 1801/1802), a retired U.S. Secret Service agent, and guest panelists former Secret Service Assistant Director Renee Triplett—the first Black woman to reach that executive position in the agency—and current Secret Service Assistant Director Gloria Armstrong—the third Black woman to reach that position.
All three became mothers during their law enforcement careers and were, or still are, married to spouses in law enforcement themselves.
The trio conducted a wide-ranging discussion about the importance of seeking support and mentorship in a challenging career, how to choose the right mentor (“think outside the box”), how to deal with being the only or one of just a few women of color in a profession, and how to develop leadership skills. They also touched on how to deal with and develop their own career goals once they have achieved that status of leadership.
They also discussed the need to strike a work-life balance, including the demands of parenthood and the obligation to help support those who are just starting their careers.
Triplett, who started at the Secret Service in 1989 when there was a “limited” number of Black women in the agency and none in leadership positions, said she was largely on her own with little support at the beginning of her career.
She told Armstrong, Neely, and the Emergence cohort that she was envious of their access to support networks today, but also proud to have played a role in establishing such support.
When she started her Secret Service career, Triplett said the agency favored men for leadership roles and saw a woman’s role as raising a family, though she added that has changed.
“I understood what I needed to do to take care of my family and my career,” she said. “You need a strong support network, and I didn’t have one when I started out.”
“This generation of leaders is more sensitive to a healthier work-life balance.”
Neely said there are “challenges and rewards” that come with being a “successful woman and being a mother,” noting “certain expectations [and] certain gender role expectations and realities” that come with being in law enforcement.
“A mom’s day doesn’t end when the workday ends,” she said, “she simply switches hats and becomes whatever she needs to become once she gets home (chef, teacher, after-school activity driver, etc.).”
In her CHDS Master’s thesis titled “Level the Playing Field: Are Law Enforcement Policies and Practices Rigged Against Women and Mothers?” for which she won the Outstanding Thesis Award, Neely explored “gender role expectations as it ties in with the organizational culture.”
Meanwhile, Neely said she sees things changing, and ties it to the Covid-19 pandemic which she says “caused a shift of sorts.”
“Research shows that more men are taking the lead in the households and are doing more things that were traditionally done by women,” she said. “There’s hope for the female law enforcement agent who is also a mother!”
Triplett said she met both Armstrong and Neely “fairly early” in their careers, and she served as a mentor to Neely whose career path “mirrored” her own and formed a bond with Armstrong who she learned belonged to the same sorority. She said she and Neely “were able to support each other and draw from like experiences,” while she “remained connected” with Armstrong over the sorority bond, as well as through “mutual career aspirations to rise in the organization.”
Over time, Triplett said, “we all remained in contact and merged our respective sister-friend circles to each other, which continued to foster professional support, as well as personal friendship.”
Thus, the “sisterhood” was born and thrived over the years, including through lunchtime and after-work get-togethers, and the occasional “off-site retreat.”
Based on “mutual respect, love, and support,” Triplett said the sisterhood includes a range of Black women who “just seemed to come together despite the differing age ranges and time/tenure on the job” with older members taking on an “informal responsibility to usher the more junior sister agents through their career phases.”
“The trust and advocacy just strengthened our sisterhood,” she said. “We formed our sister friendship circle more so as a safe space to talk out aspirations, professional challenges, work/life balance, and just enjoy each others’ company without judgement. We felt it was important to cultivate relationships with people beyond the professional scope of formal mentors and our respective immediate management to include relationships that kept us grounded, were honest, and did not add the element of competition like our professional peer groups would have.”
Neely said the sisterhood grew from a professional network into “long-term, life-long friendships” where the members “give and take from each other” and the “relationships are mutually beneficial to each of us.”
As the youngest member of the group, Neely said the sisterhood has helped her with career decisions, “pushed me to climb higher, and have been great resources both on and off the job.”
“The relationship with my sisters is priceless!”
In addition, Neely said she feels a responsibility to pass along what she’s learned from the sisterhood to others, including men and women of all races.
“It’s been part of my personal mission to ensure that I help with the professional careers of others,” she said. “I’m big on making sure people know that they don’t have to be supervisors to be leaders.”
Triplett said those in the sisterhood who found themselves as the only minority, or only woman, or only minority woman in an assignment “leaned on the sisterhood as a resource, as a sounding board, and for counsel.”
Armstrong said she was on the verge of retiring from the Secret Service, intending to spend more time with her family including her daughter who was entering college and an ailing mother. But she said she realized the agency was losing a lot of leadership and she was the only Black woman law enforcement executive remaining with the Agency and there would be at least a couple of years gap before the next Black female law enforcement agent would be eligible to be an executive. The opportunity of her current executive leadership position became available and she was left with a difficult decision to make.
“I began getting concerned about what the workforce would look like,” she said, noting that she was making the decision in the wake of the George Floyd murder by a Minneapolis police officer, and the racial and social justice movement, and the agency eventual creation of a Social Injustice and Racial Relations working group. “It was not an easy decision. But I had people behind me I could help, including African American women.”
“Ultimately, I decided to stay,” Armstrong said, and she is now the third African American female to hold the Assistant Director position within the Secret Service.
Triplett said she’s proud of the impact the sisterhood has had, including supporting others.
“It is a point of pride for me that our sisterhood members and other women of color have risen through the ranks to decision-making positions within the USSS,” Triplett said, “and that legacy created by this [sisterhood] continues to pave the way for us to pay it forward.”