Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the William & Mary Charter Day Ceremony

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
Williamsburg, Virginia
February 10, 2023


Good afternoon, everyone. President Rowe, Chancellor Gates, Rector Poston, members of the Board of Visitors, distinguished faculty, staff, students, alumni – thank you. Thank you for this tremendous, tremendous honor.

It is humbling to look back at all those who have stood in my place as Charter Day speakers. U.S. presidents, foreign dignitaries, artists, authors, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, your own alumni – and now me. It’s a pinch yourself moment.

And I’ll let you know a little secret: I never finished my PhD program at the University of Wisconsin. So with this honorary doctorate, I’m glad to fill the gap in my resume. So thank you. (Applause.)

I also want to congratulate you, Bobbie, on your well-deserved honor. It is particularly meaningful to take part in this Charter Day because it coincides with the 300th anniversary of the Brafferton Indian School – a school that was created to educate, clothe, house, and board Native youth. And I hope you’ll join me in recognizing members of local tribes who are with us today. (Applause.)

Today, we also honor the Bray School – one of the United States’ oldest surviving buildings dedicated to Black education. This afternoon, I had the chance to take part in a ceremony to mark the building’s move to Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area. And it was incredibly moving to be joined by descendants of the Bray School community, many of whom are here with us today. I know the Bray students we’re honoring today would be particularly proud to see me here on this stage.

In so many ways, the story of Brafferton Indian School and the Bray School is the story of America – America in all of its noble ideas and profound contradictions.

Let’s be honest: the goals of Brafferton’s founders were far from pure. This was a time when Native Americans were portrayed by white people as savage and inferior. And Brafferton students were pushed by the school’s leaders to assimilate and become “civilized.”

But we must also recognize the historic nature of this school, and the power that Native Americans gained from their education. Brafferton students became translators and diplomats for their communities. And despite efforts to whitewash their culture, Native students held on to their traditions, their language, and their sense of self.

The Bray School – where roughly 400 free and enslaved African Americans learned to read and write – has a similarly complicated legacy. Ann Wager, the school’s sole educator, taught about the benevolence of slavery. African Americans were explicitly taught to accept an inferior place in society.

But we know that Bray students, like those at Brafferton, did not give in to the indoctrination. The scholars, as they were known, took advantage of the newfound power that education afforded them. And many – many – passed on their education to other slaves as clandestine teachers.

As Nicole Brown, who currently portrays Ms. Wager at the Bray School, put it: “Education, once it is unlocked, cannot be contained.”

Education, once it is unlocked, cannot be contained.

I could not agree more.

And this is another pillar in the story of America. A country where academic institutions, like William & Mary, are some of the world’s most envied. Where education is seen as an equalizer, as essential to America’s greatness and prosperity.

But here again, nothing is straightforward. Because we know educational opportunities have not always been available to all. In fact, in the 19th century, Virginia made it illegal for slaves to learn to read or write at school. The punishment for violating this draconian law: up to 20 lashes.

But we also know it wasn’t until the 1960s that the first African American undergraduate student enrolled at William & Mary. So yes, the story of education in America is also one of inequality and segregation. And I can speak to this from personal experience.

I grew up in a small town in Louisiana where our schools were segregated. And while my family was full of love, we came from humble means. Neither of my parents were well educated. In fact, they weren’t educated at all.

When I was growing up, my mom had not finished high school. And I met with a refugee family today and the mother told me she had not finished high school, and I shared with her my mother’s story, who got – my mother got her high school diploma in 1989, 19 years after I received my high school diploma. So it is never, ever too late.

My father was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. But he was totally illiterate. It is not lost on me that more than a century after the Bray School closed its doors, my parents – two African Americans from the South – were not able to complete their studies.

But from an early age, I was determined to become the first in my family to go to college. And when I started at LSU, Louisiana State University, I was one of very few Black students on campus. It was daunting. It was uncomfortable. And I often felt isolated and out of place. But despite these adversities, my education, more than anything, got me to where I am today.

I had professors who became my mentors. They expanded my horizons and opened doors for me. And it was my first time at the University – it was at my time at the University of Wisconsin, where I attended graduate school, that led me to pursue a career in international diplomacy. And that career has allowed me to serve our country in posts around the world – from the Gambia and Geneva, Pakistan to Liberia.

Over the course of four decades, I have worked to strengthen relations between the U.S. and Africa. To address humanitarian crises and help refugees find new homes. And now, as the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, I’m working to bring countries together to tackle the global issues of our time.

It is an immense privilege to serve the American people. But it is also a weighty responsibility. Because like this country’s history, like William & Mary’s history, today’s global challenges are complex – but they need to be addressed with moral clarity.

Take the food insecurity crisis – the likes of which none of us have ever seen before. There is no one driver of this crisis. It’s the consequence of a perfect storm of global forces.

The climate crisis is responsible for rising temperatures, extreme flooding, severe droughts. And these conditions make it harder for farmers to produce crops, which in turn make it harder for countries to provide for their own people. And many countries have to look elsewhere for food.

That has become more complicated and costly as COVID-19 has strained supply lines, and high energy costs have made it more expensive to ship food. And protracted conflicts – especially Russia’s horrific and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine – have pushed tens of millions more people into hunger.

Before the war, Ukraine was the breadbasket of the developing world. Unfortunately, Russia has systematically sabotaged and destroyed Ukraine’s farmland, infrastructure, and grain stockpiles. And Russia is making it difficult for ships full of food to leave the Black Sea.

But while this crisis may be complex, our moral responsibility to the world’s most vulnerable is straightforward: We must save lives. We must stave off famine. And after all, those who face famine and acute hunger are, but for the accident of time and place, no different from any of us here in this room.

And I certainly think about the poor people in Türkiye and Syria. Twenty thousand-plus people have died because of this earthquake. Twenty thousand. We have a moral responsibility to provide assistance.

Last year, the United States launched a “Roadmap for Global Food Security” at the UN, which more than 100 countries have signed. And we have committed over $5 billion to address this crisis since last March. And just the other week, I was in Somalia – a country plagued by severe droughts and hunger – and I announced an additional $41 million in U.S. assistance.

But the truth is, we cannot solve the global hunger crisis, we cannot solve humanitarian crises such as this earthquake – or any other global crisis – alone. Other countries must bolster their humanitarian contributions. This is a collective responsibility.

I’ll give you another example of an issue that, on the face of it, seems complicated to tackle: the climate crisis.

The questions before us are daunting. How can we convince the world to fully transition to renewables? How can we put aside our differences with competitors, like China, and partner on climate initiatives? And how can we do more to support vulnerable communities and developing countries that are already feeling the acute effects of warming climate?

Here too, though, the answer is cut and dry. We will do this work because we must – we must do this work. There is no alternative. There’s no planet B.

Thanks to the persistence of scientists and activists, world leaders finally understand that. And I will tell you that before coming here this morning, I stopped at the Langley NASA operation and saw the extraordinary work that they are doing to address climate change, and I encourage all of you to take that opportunity as well.

We’re starting to see countries take bold actions – unilaterally and collectively – to protect our environment. Here in the United States, we are leading by the power of our example. This past summer, President Biden signed the largest climate investment in our nation’s history into law. And we’re working on an international, multilateral scale to reach consensus and raise ambitions on lowering carbon emissions.

As I mentioned, at Langley I saw a state-of-the-art facility, and again, I encourage you to visit. Their research is being shared with scientists around the world and is being used to inform policymakers.

On food security and climate and a host of other issues, our Administration has made it clear to the world that American leadership is back. And I’m proud of the progress we’ve made and the international coalitions we’ve built.

As President Biden said this week at the State of the Union, “Because of the American people” – because of you – “our Union is strong.”

Now, we have to finish the job – and chart an even brighter future. That’s where all of you come in.

For the students in this room, here at William & Mary, your job is to understand the complexities of the world. To dig deep into the issues of the past. To open your mind to the world’s possibilities. And once you leave here, your job is to meet those complexities head-on. To cut through them with moral clarity, and transform the world into a better, safer, kinder place for us all.

I know this sounds like a tall order. But fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. You have amazing faculty, alumni, leaders here today who will be there to guide you and to support you.

Today, I want to encourage every young person in the audience to spend at least two years in public service. And as a parent, I’m sure parents are looking at you and thinking, “Oh, my God, what is she telling them to do? Don’t take a job?” This will make them even better qualified for a job.

I’m actually biased toward the Peace Corps and toward the Foreign Service. But service doesn’t mean you have to join the government or run for office or enlist in the military. There are so many ways to serve. You can be a teacher. You can work at a non-profit. You can serve your community here at home or in a city halfway across the world.

But no matter what you do, find a way to serve. Service will make the world better, but it will also make you better. It will enrich your life. And trust me on that, because I feel I have such a rich life.

You will find, as I have, that nothing is more rewarding than a life of service to others. And regardless of the field you go into – whether it’s business or academia or engineering – know this: Your responsibility to the world is not defined by your title.

You always can – and always should – find time to lend a hand. Lend a hand to the world’s most vulnerable, to the persecuted, to the not yet free.

That is exactly the spirit behind something called the Welcome Corps – a new State Department program that empowers Americans to sponsor and welcome refugees to their communities. And I urge all of you to see how you can take part in this groundbreaking initiative.

This morning, I met Tonia Merideth. When Tonia first learned about the Bray School, she dropped everything in her life to come visit. And in that moment, the trajectory of her life changed. She saw the value of this school’s history and was determined to share it with others. And so, she took a job as the school’s first oral historian – and is now interviewing descendants of free and enslaved students.

Her work is helping to tell the story of the Bray School. But it is also helping to tell the story of William & Mary. Of embracing the complexity of history, of seeing the bigger picture, and of finding ways to serve your community.

That is why we have gathered here today: to celebrate this university’s rich history and the 330th anniversary of its charter. Because when we understand our history and our world – in all of its triumphs and shortcomings, its promises and complexities – we are better prepared to write the next chapter.

And students, I am so excited to see the chapters that you will write. The future you create. Here at William & Mary, your education is being unlocked. And there’s nothing – nothing – on Earth that can contain it.

Thank you. (Applause.)