21 Questions for an “Arctic Advisor”

Hillary LeBail is a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC. She visited Norway as an Emerging Leader in 2016 and took part in this year’s special Virtual Emerging Leaders event organized as part of Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø in February 2021. We thought this would be a good opportunity to learn more about Hillary and get her perspective on a variety of issues. Enjoy!

  1. Can you tell us a little about your current role at the State Department? 
  • I serve as Senior Advisor to Jim DeHart, U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region. Every day is different but in short, I “advise and recommend” on all kinds of Arctic-related foreign policy issues.
  1. What do you enjoy most about working on Arctic issues?  
  • The variety of topics you get involved in.  One day you’re called to the White House for a meeting on the impacts of climate change in the Arctic, and the next you’re discussing the migratory routes of caribou with indigenous leaders.
  1. What is one thing that makes the Arctic Region unique?
  • Polar bears.
  1. What’s the most interesting place you’ve visited in the Arctic? 
  • Point Barrow, the farthest north you can go (on land) in the United States. It’s near Utqiaġvik, our northernmost city. You feel like you are at the top of the world. I wish everyone could see how unique the way of life is there
  1. You are an alumni of Norway’s Emerging Leaders program. What did you learn from your EL experience? 
  • It was such a unique opportunity to visit the Norwegian Arctic together with other young leaders from around the world. We all brought our own unique perspectives and understanding of the Arctic and learned a lot from each other. It was great to see some of them again at this year’s virtual engagement. As the in-person EL couldn’t be held due to the pandemic, a group of alumni gathered to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on educational and work opportunities and how this might influence development in the region.
  1. What’s your favorite Arctic food? 
  • Reindeer. (Sorry Sven!)
  1. What advice would you give young people who want to work on Arctic issues? 
  • Don’t give up. I had someone once tell me there was no way I was going to ever work on Arctic policy and I should go back to school and get a different degree.  I didn’t listen and stuck to my goals and got degrees in natural resources/environment and public policy, which are very helpful in this field. I’m definitely happy where I am today.
  1. People like to call the Arctic Region “dynamic” – what does this mean in your opinion? 
  • I use that word all the time. To me, it means you can take any foreign policy issue and find some way that it applies to the Arctic. So much is happening in the region.
  1. What is your favorite place in Norway? 
  • The Lofoten Islands.
  1. What do you think of brown cheese? (brunost) 
  • I haven’t tried it yet – should I?
  1. What is it about Arctic communities that makes them so resilient? 
  • Arctic communities have survived for generations in one of the most extreme environments on earth.  They respect the land and what it is capable of providing, but they have a deep understanding of what it can take away and recognize when adaptation is necessary.  The rest of the world can learn a lot from them.
  1. What is your most memorable Arctic experience (personal or professional)?  
  • Every time I’m in the Arctic something memorable happens.  Professionally I would have to say it’s between watching my boss deliver a speech I had written to world leaders on how the Arctic is like Star Trek (the reactions were priceless). Also, being part of the team that organized the GLACIER conference in Alaska in 2015 attended by President Obama, resulting in him becoming the first president to step foot in the U.S. Arctic.  It’s always fun and an honor to be part of history.
  1. If someone is planning to visit the Arctic for the first time, what advice would you give them?
  • Dress warm and bring some good boots–no matter what the occasion!  I brought high heels to one of my first Arctic conferences trying to look professional (boy was I naïve).  Also, don’t arrive with any preconceived notions or let others paint a picture for you.  The Arctic is truly unique no matter what part of the region you are visiting, and you should get to form your own opinion and enjoy what is going to be a very memorable experience.
  1. What is a great example of Arctic innovation? 
  • I’m always fascinated by renewable energy projects that help local communities reduce their black carbon emissions, for example from diesel generators.  It seems like such a small initiative, but it has such a huge impact.
  1. “Arctic” means different things to different people. What does it mean to you in one word? 
  • Resilient.
  1. What hashtag do you use most on social media? 
  • #ArcticDiplomacy
  1. How can those who live in the Arctic or work on Arctic issues continue to build networks and strengthen cooperation even when they cannot travel or meet in person?  
  • If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we have the digital tools to stay connected. And they’re only going to get better now that we’ve seen what they can do. Once you have the tools in place, you just need the voices. That’s where our younger generations come in. They are very active and already making changes that will lead to a better future. I would love to see more youth connected across the Arctic through various digital platforms.
  1. Have you seen the Northern Lights? 
  • I sure have and I find them magical every time.
  1. Bird watching or whale watching? 
  • Whale watching (I’m a sucker for the charismatic mega-fauna), but don’t discount the birds. I took care of some Alaska seabirds in grad school at the Alaska SeaLife Center and they have some amazing personalities.
  1. Cranberries, cloudberries, or crowberries? 
  • Cloudberries
  1. Favorite Arctic author, musician, or visual artist? 
  • Byron Nicolai from Toksook Bay, Alaska

Hillary LeBail has been professionally working on Arctic issues in different capacities for more than five years although she’s held a personal passion for the region ever since she spent time as a graduate student intern in Alaska. She holds a BS in Business Administration from The Ohio State University as well as dual MAs from The Ohio State University, where she studied public policy and management and environment and natural resources. You can contact her at USArctic@state.gov.