Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
November 30, 2021
It really is a true privilege to speak with the scholars and leaders selected to represent over 50 historically Black colleges and universities. I’m so glad to be talking to you in the lead up to the Summit for Democracy, where President Biden will convene established and emerging democracies and representatives from international organizations, civil society, and the private sector to reinforce our commitment to democracy and human rights. I’m speaking to you now in advance of this summit, in part, because it is so important to incorporate traditionally underrepresented and youthful voices, like yours, in our democracy. You carry a unique perspective that needs to be heard. Demonstrating the importance of your voices, and leading by example, and sharing these best practices for strengthening democracy during these trying times is what the Summit for Democracy is all about.
Being with you reminds me of when I brought my son to attend Howard University. Howard University’s Law School, in fact, and in a meeting with the parents, the President of the University said something I’ll never forget. He said, “at this institution, when you fall down, we make sure you get back up.” I was really struck by that. When I was an undergrad at Louisiana State University, that certainly was not true.
When I fell down, when the challenges and the pressures got to be too much, no one picked me back up, and that meant I was at risk of not getting here at all. Some of my fellow students, especially those like me who were integrating the university for the first time, did not get back up. They didn’t graduate with me, because they didn’t have a support network or community making sure they made it through. I did what I like to call flex my adversity muscles in order to survive, but in my view, this ethos of making sure no one gets left behind is true across all HBCUs. It is part of what makes institutions, like these, so special, and I know my fellow cabinet members who attended HBCUs, Vice President Harris, and EPA Administrator Reagan would agree.
At HBCUs, the community understands, and you understand that failure is not an option. Everyone is looking out for you, pulling for you to succeed. Professors, administrators, staff, fellow students, everyone gets that with a little help, we can all make it to the finish line.
The same could be said of democracy. For our Democratic project, failure is not an option. As Lincoln put it, that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from Earth, but that does not happen by itself. That shell is not a prediction. It is a call to action. We must do the hard work of defending democracy, making sure it delivers for the people and ensuring its survival. Because, right now, our democracy is under threat from both external forces and within. Persistent inequality and pernicious authoritarianisms are sowing the seeds of division and distrust. Even robust historical democracies, like our own, are far from immune from disinformation and other forms of interference in our electoral process, including, as we now see, voter suppression. Against these attacks, we must be clear. The world needs democracies, and so therefore, the world needs us. We need to stand up for our democracies, warts and all.
For while authoritarian governments claim to be perfect and infallible, we do not. Unlike authoritarianism, democracy is self-governance. It is rule of the people. We value transparency and honesty. We acknowledge we have flaws, sometimes, deep and serious flaws. That’s particularly true, for example, when it comes to racial justice. The police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement amplified has demonstrated just how much work we still have to do. And it’s a potent reminder that, if our democracy isn’t perfect, that can be true of other countries and other democracies too. The important thing is that we do the work of improving, of holding people accountable, of ensuring justice is accessible to all, that we help each other out, we pick each other up, and we keep trying our best to strengthen democracy and push it forward.
I grew up in the segregated South. I was a second class citizen, and now, I sit behind the United States placard and represent America to the world. That is progress. The source of this progress is clear. Your mothers and fathers, and their mothers and fathers, and their ancestors before them put in the work. And thanks to their efforts, we have come such a long way, even if we still have a long way to go. Now, it’s your turn.
The HBCU alum and legendary Civil Rights attorney Ambassador Franklin H. Williams put your charge simply. He said, and I’ll quote him, “We must not stop now. We have come too far to turn back. A nation that has progressed beyond the sweat and blood of thousands of Blacks must not now give up the struggle.”
So as you plan out your future careers, I want you to promise me something. Promise to set aside some time in your life plans for public service. Your country and the world needs your talents. We need your passion, your wisdom, your drive, and public service is what it means to be a good citizen. It is part of being a member of this broader community. Your public service can take many forms from enlisting in our armed forces to spending some time in Peace Corps to serving on a local community board. My very biased recommendation, join the Foreign Service. My 35 year career in the Foreign Service served me just as well as I served my country. You will get to stand up for American values and help people in every corner of the globe. Whether or not you join the Foreign Service, and I will say, you should, you must make sure to see more of the world.
When I was 23 years old, I had been in two places on Earth, Louisiana and Wisconsin. Then I took a trip to Africa. It was an adventure that would inspire the rest of my life. One day, I was traveling from one West African country to another in a bush taxi, and I don’t advise that today. But it was fun back then, and I was squeezed up alongside several other women in the back of this taxi making this journey. Bush taxis are called that, because you’re often barreling through the bush on dirt roads over desert, and through villages, and off road. It’s a bumpy ride. At one point, we hit a checkpoint, and when they collected my passport, they were in shock that I was an American. It caused a bit of a stir, because I was just another Black woman sitting in the back of this taxi. After we had safely crossed, all the other women in the taxi wanted to touch my passport. The bush taxi driver was a bit upset. He’d had to pay some extra fees to transport me legally when he had been trying to sneak us all across the border on the sly, but eventually, he calmed down. And then he said, are you really American? I’ve never met an American before. That was the start of a lifelong passion of meeting people abroad and trading perspectives and stories.
My point is, an American passport is one of the greatest privileges in the world. If you are an American citizen, get one. Do not miss out on your chance to actually use it. Everyone should see for themselves that there are people in places not like the ones you know. You will learn from them, and they can learn from you. You will develop friends and relationships that will pay dividends for the rest of your lives.
Foremost among those lessons I learned was that great communities and great countries require great leadership. Young people, you are our future leaders. We’re counting on you to keep our democracy strong and to push our democracy forward through hard work, through public service, and through making sure that, when we fall down, we help each other get back up. That is your charge. That is the HBCU way, and I have full faith that you will put that mindset and all the tools you’ve acquired toward building a better future for all of us. Thank you, and now, I look forward to your questions.