On a Path to Bolster Democracy Abroad
Desirée Winns’s story is an international one, crisscrossing the globe since she was born in Japan. She’s attended high school in Germany, college in North Carolina and Florida, and lived in Hong Kong. Now she makes Washington, DC, her home and continues her journey as a citizen of the world in her international affairs graduate program at the George Washington University. PSI spoke with her in late 2023 to hear about her experiences as the Hearst Fellow and catch up on what she’s been doing since her fellowship ended.
This Q&A has been edited for length.
You have an incredible educational and internship background in several areas, including democracy studies, international affairs, and film. What drew you to the Hearst Fellowship and its focus on the nonprofit world?
I had worked for nonprofits in previous internships. But I didn’t know a lot about the work behind the scenes. I didn’t know that tax filings play a role in nonprofit transparency, how difficult filings can be to access, and that this is its own category of research. It’s been quite relevant to my current studies in democracy. When we look at civil society and how it is such an important aspect of a well-functioning democracy, you also must make sure those civil society organizations, whether they’re nonprofits or other NGOs, are not misusing the funds they receive.
You were a Hearst Fellow in summer 2022. What was the highlight of your experience with the Aspen Institute?
The highlight that summer was the Seminar for Mid-America Foundation CEOs in Colorado. It was the first in-person event I’d had for an internship because of the pandemic. Engaging with these CEOs was great for me on a personal and professional level. I learned both from their experience and realized that they’re just people. I was 21 at the time and learning how to do in-person networking was valuable.
I was also a cultural consultant during the 2022 Juneteenth celebration. It was the first time I celebrated Juneteenth and I did it among a diverse crowd of CEOs that could relate to the concept of freedom and the importance of the day. Seeing discussions of diversity and cross-cultural communications happen in a more business-oriented space was interesting.
A lot has happened since you were a Hearst Fellow. Can you share a few highlights of your studies and work since then?
After the fellowship, I moved to DC to start my master’s program in international affairs at George Washington University. I’m in my second year of the program, with a concentration of democracy studies and Russian Eurasian studies. I completed a fellowship at the US Helsinki Commission where I became the acting communications director. I did a lot of work advocating for more American intervention and sanctions against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
After that I worked at NASA for a spring semester in the Office of International and Interagency Relations, focusing on our collaboration with ROSCOSMOS, the Russian space agency. I also worked at Hostage US, a nonprofit that supports former hostages and their families.
I published a paper with the women’s Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security on the gendered politics of democratic transitions. The paper was on Belarus and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is recognized as the legitimate leader of Belarus. I also was selected to be a fellow for the Generations Dialogue Project, where I host events and speak to people of color who can give advice to younger students of color about navigating the world of international affairs. I’m also currently in a mentorship program that’s a collaboration between George Washington and the United States Institute of Peace.
You’re working toward your doctorate. Given the breadth of your experiences, what are some possible next steps that you can see yourself taking after earning it?
As an undergrad, I found that I enjoyed researching authoritarianism on Russia, on the post-Soviet space. I wanted the opportunity to study it more and become an expert in the region. So I think my ideal goal after my PhD—or my goal in getting a PhD—is to become an expert in my field. Whether I become a professor or whether I become a policy analyst, a consultant, or an advisor to the government, I want to be an authoritative source on those topics. I want to apply that to any purpose that would be useful or beneficial to the policymaking world and people affected by those spaces.
For example, I volunteered at the Renew Democracy Initiative. Their mission is to raise awareness of the signs of impending authoritarianism and promote democratization in other countries. I attended an event on transnational repression and heard people Iran, Cambodia, and Venezuela speak. They were talking about how they were still getting death threats and being threatened by agents in their home countries despite moving to the United States. I’ve had conversations with people from Belarus, people from Russia about their experiences here in the States as they’re fighting for democracy back in their home countries.
When I was at Helsinki, a Ukrainian medic testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about being tortured by Russian forces. I livestreamed that, and we got about 26,000 views. It was important to share her story and make people aware of the real political and psychological toll of dictatorship on people who just want to live the way that we do in the United States.
And that’s the one thing I would really love to do—get advocates for democracy in front of the right people. If I can leverage my education, expertise, and contacts, I can connect people fighting for democracy abroad to the right people in the US. I want to help bolster or improve the chances of democracy happening back in their states.
What advice would you give to students beginning their Hearst Fellowship journey? What words of wisdom can help them navigate and make the most out of it?
Ask questions. I had a professor tell me to take advantage of imposter syndrome. If you don’t know something, just ask. Remember that the people you’re interacting with are human. If someone mentions a name or a program you don’t know, ask about it. Because then you’re learning from someone who does have the expertise and that knowledge. It’s actually a great thing that you don’t know everything because it just kind of means you should open to everything.
Spectrum: Stories of the Hearst Fellowship at PSI is a blog series that features current and past holders of the William Randolph Hearst Endowed Fellowship at the Program on Philanthropy & Social Innovation (PSI) at the Aspen Institute. The support of the Hearst Foundations makes possible this fellowship, which helps diversify and strengthen the social sector. PSI is grateful for the Hearst Foundations’ generous commitment.