Celebrating Black History Month - Diverse Talents Help to Reach a Water-Secure World


This Black History Month, USAID’s Center for Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene is celebrating Brittany Thomas, a Foreign Service Officer, based in Senegal at the Sahel Regional Office where she leads water security, sanitation, and hygiene (WSSH) and climate adaptation programming. Learn more about her experience in WSSH, her unique skills and perspectives that led her to USAID, and her advice for the next generation of Black professionals in international development. 

Carmelita Francois: The Center for Water, Security Sanitation and Hygiene is really excited to be featuring you this month for Black History Month to highlight diversity and black talents who lead the WSSH work that we do and also work internationally. In the summer of 2014, you interned at the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research Bangladesh (ICDDRB) with the WASH Benefits Project promoting hygiene interventions to prevent childhood growth stunting. I'm really curious to know why you selected a WASH project for your internship?

Brittany Thomas: Well, thank you first for giving me this opportunity and to share a little bit more of why I picked that specific placement at the time. I was a university student at Johns Hopkins University and participated in their program called the Global Health Established Field Placement. So through that program, I was assigned to work at ICDDRB. I'd say my interest in specifically focusing on sanitation evolved from a previous opportunity, also as a Hopkins student, where I was selected for a public health research program in Uganda. We were all given a specific research topic and mine was waste management and sanitation.

I did have some inkling of an interest before the trip, but I would say it was transformative. In particular, we did a home stay in the Kalisizo community in Rakai. Rakai may be known pretty famously internationally, as being part of the Rakai Health Sciences Program, which is one of the most comprehensive studies related to HIV and AIDS completed to date. Staying in that community I had a hands-on experience of what it is like to not have running water in your home. But I would say that it really opened my eyes and was my first look into sanitation, especially in the international development context and that influenced my research placement in Bangladesh.

What was the most exciting thing that you did during that internship?

Brittany Thomas: They were completing a project called WASH Benefits, which had many arms, some related to hygiene, some related to nutrition, but the whole aim of the activity was to reduce growth stunting in children through these interventions. One arm of the project was safe latrine management. And they were looking for someone to create drawings to bridge some of the language barriers in this community in order to influence better communal latrine management. So I expressed my interest in art and was invited to complete the drawings that would be used in the community. I would say that was a highlight for me, also influencing some future projects combining environment, sanitation and art.


WASH Benefits safe latrine management illustrations by Brittany Thomas.

What is your advice for people interested in pursuing a WASH career with USAID?

Brittany Thomas: We are doing amazing work as an agency in terms of our contributions to water and sanitation and development at large. One piece of advice that I'd give is technical expertise is important, but don't let that limit your sights. At the beginning of my work with USAID, I was overly critical of myself. Am I trained well enough? Do I have enough sector specific background? During my time with USAID, I've done work related to forestry and carbon credit trading and energy, water and sanitation, supporting livelihoods in forest-dependent communities. I could have never envisioned doing any of those things before starting this job, but just trust that you have the skills and you have a foundation that will further your contributions in whatever discipline you choose to explore. No one comes into this as a pure expert so give yourself an opportunity to grow and also realize the work is great, but we have to focus on the people too.

What is your advice to Black professionals, from high school, to college graduates and even those considering PhD degrees, who are figuring out what’s next in their professional paths?

Brittany Thomas: A great way to start is to take advantage of this great wide web we have. I would say more and more a lot of organizations are doing interviews and videos about research topics. A lot of my career and my fellowship opportunities came from doing a scan thinking of a country or a specific topic I was interested in. In particular, I was looking up waste management in Brazil and met someone who is now a close research advisor and friend and was invited to do a fellowship with her simply from an email.

What is your recommendation for those interested in securing a paid internship abroad?

Brittany Thomas: That's an excellent question. There's a wide variety of paid fellowship and scholarship opportunities that are made available to students across academic levels. You don't have to compromise your financial and personal development as you pursue these opportunities overseas. Fortunately, more, and more, we're seeing stipends being a part of fellowship programs, being part of study abroad programs that help you meet the gap as you advance yourself in a unique way that many others in your family or even in your community have not considered before.

Carmelita Francois: That's great Brittany! Thank you so much. We really appreciate the time that you've made to inspire other Black professionals to pursue careers and see different opportunities to actually have a pathway in international development.

USAID's Center for Water Security, Sanitation and Hygiene is hiring! Consider joining Brittany at USAID for a rewarding career in international development. Learn more.

Fellowships and resources for students:


Brittany Thomas(she, her)

Regional Environmental Advisor & Climate Integration Lead

USAID/SENEGAL | Sahel Regional Office (SRO)

Brittany Thomas is the Regional Environmental Advisor in the Sahel Regional Office. Thomas leads WASH and climate adaptation programming and environmental compliance policy training for implementing partners and Agency staff.




Carmelita Francois(she, her)

Water Security, Sanitation and Hygiene Advisor, Technical Services Division

Center for Water Security, Sanitation and Hygiene

Bureau for Resilience and Food Security

Carmelita Francois is a WASH Advisor in USAID’s Center for Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security.


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Carmelita Francois