Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
May 1, 2022
Thank you, Madam President. Thank you so much, Congressman. Good morning. To President Walters, the Tougaloo College Board of Trustees, and Tougaloo distinguished faculty and staff; to the Golden Class of 1972 and the Silver Class of 1997; President Emerita Hogan, and my fellow honorary degree recipients; and most importantly, to the Tougaloo College Class of 2022: Congratulations! [Applause.]
You did it. You made it to commencement. I see a few of you falling asleep out there, so that means you partied all night. [Laughter.] But the party is not over yet. And I know it took a lot of work to get here. So go ahead and give yourselves a big pat on the back, and a hand of applause. [Applause.]
Of course, you know you didn’t get here by yourselves. One thing really special about HBCUs in general – and Tougaloo College in particular – is the way you look out for each other. You had family, friends, professors, staff, and everyone in the Tougaloo community pulling for you, having your backs, making sure you got here today. And I think they also deserve a hand of applause. [Applause.]
So, President Walters, you know, I’m very familiar with Tougaloo College. And that’s actually because I interviewed for a job here. This was a long time ago, before your time, before I became the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and before I even joined the Foreign Service and embarked on a 35-year adventure that took me around the world.
It was 1980. Many of you weren’t born. I was fresh out of graduate school and I was looking to teach. I had traveled all the way from my home state of Louisiana to Wisconsin for graduate school, and I was looking to come back closer to home, somewhere in the South, somewhere that didn’t need fur-lined boots and a heavy parka. And I really wanted to teach at an HBCU. After having been one of the earlier students to integrate LSU, and then going to the Midwest, I was excited by the idea of a southern HBCU experience, and especially in a small school environment.
So I found an open position in the political science department. Who’s the political science professor here? And so I admired your history. I loved your tight-knit community. And I interviewed for the job. And you won’t believe what happened: you turned me down. [Laughter.] So, Tougaloo, I’m here today to tell you… you made a big mistake. [Laughter and applause.] But truthfully, there are no mistakes – just different opportunities and different doors. I ended up going through a different one, and here I am today – your commencement speaker. [Applause.]
Besides, there’s one thing that Tougaloo definitely got right. And that’s you, Class of 2022. [Applause.]
Graduates, you are activists and academics. Scientists and historians. Poets, musicians, journalists. Future teachers, doctors, and nurses. You are the next generation of public servants – like my colleague Cliff Jeffery, a State Department Diplomatic Security agent who recommended me as your commencement speaker, not knowing that I was still feeling the pain of not being employed here. [Laughter.]
You are honor students. You are first-generation college students. You’re the first-ever class of high school students receiving associate degrees. Give yourself a hand of applause. [Applause.] You are your ancestors’ wildest dreams, sitting in graduation gowns, graduating from a college that transformed a plantation into an institution of Black excellence. Class of 2022, you are stars. You are our futures and our dreams come true.
I know you’ve been through some true trials and tribulations. You’ve – you overcame all the challenges Tougaloo students have been facing for decades: classes, capstone projects, community service. Late nights in the library. Early mornings underneath your gorgeous hanging moss trees. Going out into the world for internships and job shadowing.
Perhaps after those jobs, you returned to your historic safe haven, maybe a little glad you weren’t in the real world quite yet. But the world arrived here anyway – and threw some new challenges at you. A global pandemic that started halfway around the globe came to Mississippi. And you were summarily kicked off your beautiful campus, right in the middle of your college experience. I can’t imagine how you felt. And then came the summer of 2020, when the murders of Black men and women by police ignited a racial reckoning across our country and around the globe.
These challenges and intrusions upon your normal lives as students were all learning experiences. You were forced to see how no matter where you are or what you do, you cannot avoid the world. It will come to you, for better or for worse.
That’s what I want to talk to you about today.
Graduates, here is my message to you: What happens in the world will make a difference in your life. And you can make a difference in what happens in the world.
I first started thinking about the outside world when it came to me. I was in eighth grade, in my hometown of Baker, Louisiana – just down the road from here. The Peace Corps decided to use a nearby campus of a closed HBCU to train volunteers before they shipped out to Swaziland and Somalia. They had brought experts from Africa to teach them the language. And they decided to bring the little kids from the community to learn with them.
So as a little eighth grader, I learned Siswati. This was a totally new experience for me, to say the least. I was entranced by the foreign sounds, by the stories the instructors told, by the buzzing excitement of the volunteers before they went abroad. My mind grew as I realized how much more there was to the world beyond Baker. Now, don’t quiz me – I can’t remember a word of Siswati today – but the experience whetted my appetite for international affairs at a very young age. It made me curious about what lay outside the borders of Louisiana. And ultimately, it planted a seed that would sprout many years later, when I was in graduate school and decided to travel and study to Liberia. So I’m hoping I’m sprouting some seeds here today.
That visit inspired my career – one where I held posts in Kenya and Switzerland, Jamaica and the Gambia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Liberia, where I would serve as the U.S. ambassador some 30 years later. What I learned from my years abroad is that we are deeply interconnected. And the big policy issues you see in the headlines? They actually affect you, whether you realize it or not.
So take, for example, one of the big, major items in the news today, Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. You might not think that as a – that this is – this is far away from you in this far-away place, that it doesn’t really affect you. But what is happening in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine – it is about all of us, every single one of us in this room. Once Russia invaded, many expected the Ukrainians would fall in a few days. But the people of Ukraine have shown that – what it means to fight for your country; they have shown what it means to fight for your sovereignty; they have showed what it is to fight for your dignity and to fight for democracy.
After all, that’s why Putin felt threatened by Ukraine, because it was a burgeoning democracy. And he knows that when people see freedom next door, they start asking why they can’t have freedom, too. And that matters to us. [Applause.] It matters to us because we’re the world’s most powerful example of democracy and freedom.
What happens, then, when our democracy is under threat? When our own foundational freedoms are undermined? The war in Ukraine emphasizes just how important it is that we cherish our own hard-fought-for freedoms and act to protect them. That we exercise our right to vote. Our parents fought for that. [Applause.] They marched for our rights. That we do everything in our power to defend our democracy.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has had many other ripple effects – like, for example, global food security. Ukraine was once the breadbasket for the developing world. Now, Ukrainian civilians wait in breadlines – and as we’ve heard, sometimes Russian forces shoot the people who are waiting in line. Not only are Ukrainians going hungry – it also makes life worse for the people and countries that relied on Ukraine and Russia for food and fuel. Russia’s war increases prices in Middle Eastern and African markets. The war makes desperate hunger situations even more dire, far outside of Ukraine’s borders.
Have you noticed the price of fuel? It’s increased right here in Mississippi. And some of that can be traced to Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine.
And this challenge comes at a moment when we are deeply concerned about the ways other conflicts and global forces, like climate change and the pandemic, are affecting food security around the world. And that includes right here in Mississippi. In this great state, droughts are making it harder to grow crops, and increased temperatures are making it more difficult to raise livestock.
Ladies and gentlemen, my point is – these issues are interconnected and they are immediate. A food shortage caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine doesn’t help when we have rising food costs here in Mississippi. So it matters that we have rallied the world to Ukraine’s aid, that we’re isolating Russia on the world stage, and that we’re doing everything, everything in our power, to end this senseless war.
It matters that President Biden led us in rejoining the Paris Agreement, and announced a new set of ambitious, nationwide goals for cutting down on greenhouse gas pollution last week.
And what you do matters, too. So much. We need you. We need you, Tougaloo graduates. We need you to stand up for our rights and to protect our democracy, just as Tougaloo has been doing for more than a century. We need you to take on climate change, because it will be your generation that ultimately saves our planet. We need you to represent our country on the world stage and push for peace and security.
Which brings me to the second half of this message that I want to pass on to you today: Tougaloo 2022 graduates, you can make a difference in what happens in this world.
For proof, just look at your distinguished alumni – so many of whom are gracing our presence here today. Tougaloo doctors and nurses have saved lives on the frontlines of this pandemic. Tougaloo scientists and activists have come together to combat climate change. Tougaloo journalists have kept us informed about what’s happening in our local communities and around the world. And Tougaloo public servants are advancing American values here at home and across the globe.
Here on this stage, one of your alumni, Judge Green, broke racial barriers. Congratulations, Judge. [Applause.] She became the first Black person and the first woman to hold her position, and has protected democracy and the rule of law for decades.
And another of your alums here today, Congressman Bennie Thompson – (applause) – has been serving Mississippi and all of us across the United States since 1993 and has been a stalwart defender of our democracy and our values. [Applause.] It is no coincidence that Congressman Thompson was chosen as the Chairman of the House Select Committee on the January 6th attack. [Applause.]
And right now, in the White House, Tougaloo alums and other HBCU alumni are working with President Biden and Vice President Harris to help all Americans build back better. As just one example, they have helped secure billions of dollars in investment and support for HBCUs through the American Rescue Plan, with more on the way. [Applause.]
We’re making those investments because these are investments in our future. They are investments in more graduates like the 2022 Class. It is a fiscal demonstration of just how valuable you are to your communities, to your country, and to the world. We’re counting on you. We’re counting on you to bring Tougaloo to the world – and the world to Tougaloo.
Now, I know that’s a tall task. But fortunately, Class of ’22, I have some final pieces of advice for you that can help you meet this moment.
My first piece of advice – and I know you know this already: Seek out mentors and sponsors. Soak up the wisdom, the counsel, and guidance of those who have been there before you.
I have been blessed with many wonderful mentors in my life. And one of them I’d like to share with you was Ambassador Ed Perkins, who passed away last year. Ambassador Perkins served as our ambassador to Liberia, he served as the director-general of the Foreign Service, and as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And I went on to serve in all three of those positions. And that was not a coincidence. [Applause.] And by the way, he was born in Louisiana, just like me.
Mentors can guide you to where you want to go – where you need to be. Tougaloo alumni and so many others are out there, waiting to help you. And we want to bring you under our wings, and guide you toward your highest aspirations. But you need to take the first step. You have to seek us out. You have to ask for our advice and our support. And don’t blame us if you don’t follow our advice. [Laughter.]
Second: don’t forget where you came from – like Congressman Thompson, Cliff Jeffery, and all the other alumni who have showed up today. Come back, and give back.
Third, don’t ever get disillusioned and lose faith in yourself. If one door closes, open another. That’s what I did when Tougaloo decided I wasn’t the right person for the job. Sorry. I’m still feeling it, Madam President. [Laughter.]
And fourth, be true to your values. Don’t allow yourself to be tempted by sweetheart deals, the easy way. Know that if you work for it, you earned it, it’s yours. [Applause.] And remember – and this is an important one – your name is more valuable than your title. [Applause.]
Finally, the best advice I can give you is what has consistently worked for me: Be kind. [Applause.] As the saying goes, “People will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Graduates, I have so much faith in you. You’re ready to make a difference in this world. Your horizons are unlimited. After all, you are Tougaloo graduates. And they say in Tougaloo, Tougaloo is where history meets the future.
Well, I’m looking out on the future right now. And I cannot wait to see what you accomplish.
So, graduates, take a moment to reflect on your past four years. Think about all the challenges you faced, the hills you had to climb, backward with no shoes on as our parents used to tell us. Think about the mornings you thought you wouldn’t make it through the day. Now think about today – how far you have come but also how far you have to go. Because it’s not over yet. If you feel a little scared, that’s okay. You’re leaving the security and the safety of this campus, where you felt the warmth and you felt the support. So again, if you’re scared, I’m not surprised. You should be.
But Class of 2022, you are ready. Flex those adversity muscles that you’ve built up over the past four years. You’ve been prepared for this moment and for this time, and it is your time. Go forth and make us proud.