Supporting Afghan Women
Holly Kirking Loomis works with the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council (USAWC).
HOLLY KIRKING LOOMIS (B.A. ’02) grew up on her family’s farm in Sparta, Wisconsin; her parents were the first in their families to attend four-year college. But while her family greatly valued education, Loomis was the eldest of five children and needed to be mindful of costs. She chose the U of M because she could receive in-state tuition and because of the College of Liberal Arts honors program, where she figured she would meet other young people who loved academics as much as she did.
Her studies at the U of M—which included a grant from the political science department to help fund an unpaid internship at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela—would set her on a path as a career diplomat in the United States Foreign Service, with postings in Brazil, the Marshall Islands, China, and Honduras.
Loomis has now been with the foreign service for 18 years, moving her family—she has three boys, with another child on the way—10 times. Along the way, she’s developed expertise in environmental diplomacy.
She served as acting director of the State Department’s climate change office from 2017-2020, the tumultuous period when the U.S. was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, an international treaty addressing climate change.
“In my view, American foreign policy is at our very best when we reflect the full diversity and perspectives of all of America, [whether] that’s racial diversity or urban and rural diversity,” she says. “I really think it’s critical that we understand the way that the world affects our communities around the United States.”
In 2021, her career took a new turn when Loomis led the State Department’s initiative to receive and resettle 13,000 refugees from Afghanistan in Wisconsin, five miles from her parents’ farm. That experience led to her current posting as the executive director of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council (USAWC), a nonpartisan nongovernmental organization that is affiliated with the foreign service and housed at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Founded 20 years ago by former President George W. Bush and then Afghan Interim Authority (and future President) Chairman Harmid Karzai, USAWC’s mission is to promote education, health, civic engagement, and entrepreneurship opportunities for women and girls.
That mission has been sorely tested since the fall of Kabul in 2021, and taken on even greater urgency now that the Taliban has completely banned women from attending university. “We understand that this is not a new Taliban that we are dealing with,” Loomis says. “This is an emerging gender apartheid. [My job] is to ensure that our public/private partnership raises Afghan voices in service of Afghan women, and ultimately prepares them to lead again, whenever that may be and when circumstances will allow.”