Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
February 17, 2022
Thank you Ty, and I really appreciate that long introduction, whenever I hear that introduction I always say, “we need to shorten that thing.” One of these days I will shorten it. I did have the opportunity to listen in at the tail end of this panel discussion and I couldn’t agree more with all of our colleagues who talked about foreign policy and how you inform yourselves. And I absolutely think knowing the local news, knowing what’s happening around you every day, is as important as knowing what is happening around the world. It really is a privilege to close out Day One of the State Department’s 13th Annual HBCU Foreign Policy Summit. I’m shocked that it’s the 13th because I remember the first, so we’ve come a long way.
You just heard from some of my favorite people, discussing the role HBCUs have played for International Organizations specifically and State Department history more broadly – up to the very present.
I did not attend an HBCU, I always regretted that, but I have benefited from the friendship, and the support, and the expertise of many HBCU alums during my time here. Still, I think I first really understood what HBCUs were all about when I brought my son to attend Howard University Law School. In a meeting with the parents, they said something I’ll never forget and it really resonated with me. They said: “At this institution, when you fall down, we make sure you get back up. We pick you back up when you fall down.”
I was struck by that because when I attended Louisiana State University and I can tell you I went through many moments when I was down, there was nobody to pick me back up. The attitude was not quite the same there at the time. 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 like many young people today of not getting here at all. Some of my fellow Black students at LSU didn’t graduate with me. They lacked a support network. They didn’t have a community to make sure they made it through.
In my view, what really differentiates HBCUs across the board: you have a strong community, you have tight bonds; that you have an attitude of making sure no one gets left behind. At schools like all of yours, the community understands – and you understand – and your faculty understands – and they know that for you, failure is not an option.
Everyone is looking out for you. They’re pulling for you to succeed. Your professors, your administrators, the staff, fellow students – everyone gets that with a little help, we can all make it to the finish line. And that’s what makes HBCUs so special. I know my fellow cabinet members who attended HBCUs – the Vice President for example at Howard University, EPA Administrator Regan – would both agree.
And that is exactly the kind of attitude we need here at the State Department, and for American diplomacy writ large. We need people who understand the importance of community, of looking out for each other. And be there to pick you up and lift you up when you stumble. We need your talent, we need your vigor, we need your diversity, and the depth of experiences that you will bring to our organization.
I sometimes get asked why it’s important to have a Cabinet that looks like America. And the answer is simple: our job is to represent the American people. And the American people are represented by many hues. If the Cabinet doesn’t look like America, then we’re not doing our job.
And the same holds true not just for the Cabinet, but for our Foreign Service and for the State Department. We’re diplomats. Our job is to represent the American people. And we have to look like America – we have to be America – to do that.
Nothing more devastating that’s happened to me in my career, than when I’m going into an Embassy and because I’m Black the assumption is that I’m not an American. Or I walk into a meeting and people look behind me at one of my white colleagues assuming that I’m not the person because I’m African American. So, it is very important that we have diversity in our organization.
What’s more, we know that racial diversity is an American strength, it’s not a weakness. The Biden Administration understands that and they embrace that in all of their principles. I think other illustrious HBCU alums who served in the State Department understand that principle too.
One of them, was Patricia Roberts Harris, she served as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and then she was nominated and served as the Ambassador to Luxembourg, our country’s first female Black Ambassador – I mean, can you imagine, the first female Black Ambassador – before she would become a cabinet member for two different agencies.
In her confirmation hearing, she made this point: “If my life has any meaning at all,” she said, “it is that those who start out as outcasts can wind up as being part of the system.” And I could not relate to that sentiment more fully.
I grew up in a small Louisiana town in the segregated South, where we were treated like second class citizens. My father never learned to read, so that was another X on my forehead. 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 forward. In fact, they too were very much 2nd or even 3rd class citizens, I think their goal was achieved when they thought that they had put their daughter in a place where I was 2nd class and not 3rd class. I wish they could be here today to see what they produced.
I knew that my father was the smartest man that I knew. Everything was in his head and he could produce it. He didn’t need a pen or a pencil to write out his thoughts, they came directly from his head and they were always coherent. My mother taught me to lead with kindness and compassion – so as I rose through the ranks of my career, I have been determined to bring their voices into the room every single time I speak.
And now that I sit behind the United States placard, at the United Nations, and represent the American people to the world. It’s a very different chapter than the first chapter of my life – and I think that is emblematic of the progress our country has made as a whole.
That’s what this foreign policy HBCU conference is all about – it’s about ensuring we bring underrepresented perspectives to the forefront of our foreign policy, right into the heart of our government. And into the heart of our diplomacy, because it is our government too – it’s everybody’s government, it’s your government and its mine. And together, we will ensure America represents our ideals, it represents our values, our perspectives in all of its diversity on the world stage.
So, let me end, by thanking you for joining us today – but also encouraging you to look beyond whatever perspectives or limitations you have put on your own lives and look to new ideas, look to new challenges, look to go through – we normally say the road less travelled – but I always say, go through the closed door. Sometimes there are going to be many doors you are going to pass by and they are cracked open a bit. They’re very inviting because those doors are open. But no, look for that closed door and open it up and see what surprises and what opportunities are there to be found and that you can take advantage of and that you can contribute to. So I look forward to seeing you all again tomorrow for Day 2 of the State Department’s HBCU Foreign Policy Conference! And I wish you the best of luck for the rest of the day. Thank you very much Ty, and thanks to all of you who participated in the panel.