Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
April 14, 2021
To Dean Fried; distinguished alumni, faculty, and staff; and, most importantly, to the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health Class of 2021: Congratulations!
I am so delighted to join you today at this graduation, and at a time in our nation’s history when your success in achieving your goals is so necessary and important to our nation as we confront and fight a pandemic.
Graduates: You have so much to be proud of. You worked hard for your degrees. You studied in the lab and you took your work out into the field. You learned how to track the spread of a disease – and then were forced to continue your studies virtually, to prevent the spread of one among yourselves. You’ve taken courses on the history of health and conducted studies about our present challenges, and now you are poised to lead, shape, and improve the future of public health for millions around the world.
Of course, you didn’t get here on your own. As much as this is your day, your achievement is shared by everyone who helped you along the way. So, take a moment to thank your supporters – your friends, your families, your partners, your professors, and all the people who showed you love and kindness and made this major milestone possible. And thank yourselves.
As you know, I’m not a scientist, or a doctor, or a public health specialist. I’m an ambassador. And in some ways, our professions are quite different. For one thing, it took this past year for you to teach us diplomats to get over our love of handshakes and hugs. We’ve learned that the elbow bump – taught to us in Liberia during the Ebola crisis – is just as effective.
But I believe being a great ambassador, and being a great public health leader, actually have a lot in common. At our core, both of us have the solemn responsibility of representing the wider public, especially the most vulnerable. We are both charged with doing everything in our power to ensure people’s safety and prosperity.
So today, I’d like to share three of my own takeaways from my 35 years of representing America around the world – observations that I hope might resonate with your experience and careers, too.
First, I learned that shared problems require shared solutions. When I’m meeting with representatives of another country, and thinking about how to best advance America’s interests, I start by looking at the problems we share with our counterparts. After all, almost all of our challenges are global now, which means we’re going to have to work together to take them on.
We can all see, immediately, how the pandemic proves this point. Even if we curb the pandemic at home, we won’t stay safe if it’s still raging abroad. The world is simply too interconnected for us to try to go it alone. That’s why global initiatives like COVAX, which accelerates equity in global vaccine distribution, are so important. We need to work together to meet this kind of global challenge.
The same is true for so many other public health threats, too. Even if we wanted to tackle climate change alone, we couldn’t. So, while we vigorously oppose China in some debates – especially when human rights violations are at stake – I make sure to engage my Chinese counterparts at the UN on how we’re going to team up to combat the climate crisis. It’s a problem we share, and we both recognize we can only solve it by working together.
Which leads me to my second takeaway: Meet people where they are. Because I’ve found that no matter what you end up proposing, you first have to understand the views of the people affected. Throughout my career, I’ve done this by engaging in people-to-people diplomacy. That means going out into the streets. It means having people over for dinner, eating their foods, sharing their culture, actually getting to know them on their own terms. And by people, I mean everyone.
As Ambassador to Liberia, I found my encounters with mothers in the marketplaces were just as important and informative as my meetings with heads of state. Of course, the pandemic has made it more difficult to forge these kinds of personal and local connections. But that just means, whether you’re investigating a qualitative question or running a quantitative analysis, you have to come up with new ways to learn the local context. People know their own problems best. Both diplomats and public health professionals alike succeed when they hear from people what their challenges are before trying to solve them.
Which leads me to my third, final, and most important point. If there’s one thing I’ve tried to do throughout my life and career, it has been to speak up for those who aren’t in the room. For those of us fortunate enough to attend this commencement, that comes with a certain kind of privilege. It means we have to remind ourselves of our charge. As public advocates, we have to represent all the people. Not just the ones with the loudest voices, or the ones with the most access, or the ones who are fortunate enough to affect day-to-day policy.
The “public” in public health has to mean everyone. Especially those who aren’t in the room to represent themselves. Because time and time again, I’ve seen how the most vulnerable are the least likely to be heard. My father never learned to read. My mother raised me with only a middle school education. Their perspectives were not necessarily shared with those who made the policy decisions that steered their lives. But my father was the smartest man I know, and my mother taught me to lead with kindness and compassion – and so I bring their voices into the room every single time I speak.
Today, representing and advocating for those with structural disadvantages has never been more important. In America, Black people are almost twice as likely to die from COVID as white people. The ratios are even worse for Latino people and Native Americans. That’s not because the virus is racist. It’s because our systems are. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are exacerbating inequities, particularly in public health outcomes, all around the world. Poor communities, communities of color, people with disabilities, and the Global South are getting hit hardest by these dual threats and receiving the fewest resources.
What’s more, both COVID and climate change are force multipliers. They take existing public health issues facing disadvantaged communities – like gender-based violence or access to affordable health care – and compound their impacts. That’s why the role you are about to play is so important. Because if public health threats can make our most pressing issues more dire, then public health leaders like you can serve as force multipliers for justice.
So, Class of 2021, by identifying shared solutions, meeting people where they are, and most importantly, speaking up for those who aren’t in the room, you can save lives. You can change lives. You can change entire systems. You can change the world. And you can serve as ambassadors for a safer, better, healthier world.
The future of public health is now in your hands. And I have every confidence that you will treat it with care and courage in equal measure.
Thank you, and congratulations.