Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United NationsNew York, New YorkJuly 24, 2023
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: How are you?
REPRESENTATIVE MAXWELL FROST: Doing well, doing well. How are you doing?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m doing great. Really happy to be on this with you.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: No, so happy to be on this with you too, and I appreciate you taking the time, Ambassador. You know, we want to make sure that when we can, we’re able to do these live conversations that we’ll start doing with important people across the country, and you’re actually our first conversation that we’re having online ever on our official account.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good, and then you’re going to get to the important people, right, at some point? [Laughter.]
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: But no, I appreciate you – I appreciate you joining this live with me, and we have so many people in the comments. I see I have a frat brother in here. How you doing? I was just inducted as a Sigma, as an honorary Sigma, so that means the world.
But either way, Ambassador, we’ll get this kicked off. And for everybody watching, you know, we want to talk a little bit about – today about young people in politics and government, and wanted to also talk a little bit, Ambassador, about your position, and I’ll talk a little bit about my story. We’ll just have, like, a normal back and forth for everybody watching. And if you have any questions too, feel free to put it in the comments. Can’t promise I’ll ask it, but if it’s a good one maybe we will. But I appreciate you all being here, and please share the live so other people can join in.
But you know, you all, we live in a point in time right now where it’s important that we have people – it’s important to have young leaders, but even more important than that, it’s important that we have people who understand the future fights, right? And issues that affect future generations, whether it’s the climate crisis and et cetera. And you don’t have to just run for Congress to be able to make a big impact, right? There’s many different positions and things you can do. And so I’m really excited to have this conversation with the Ambassador so we can all learn a little bit more about the work that the Ambassador is doing on these future issues and how it’s so important to the safety and security of our country. And oftentimes, anything about safety and security, you just think about conflict, armed conflict, which is obviously a huge part of that, but for me safety and security also includes talking about the climate crisis and talking about the existential threats our humanity faces.
So without further – Ambassador, I’ll kick it to you if you just want to introduce yourself to everybody.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Hi. My name is Linda. I’m sometimes referred to as LTG, my initials. And I don’t know if you know what the United Nations ambassador does, but I’m here to represent our country, to represent you, at the United Nations. But sometimes I also feel like I’m representing the world here, because as you heard from the Congressman, some of the existential issues we deal with are not just our issues. When you look at global issues like climate, when you look at the pandemic, when you look at conflict, all of those are issues that impact people everywhere around the world, and these are issues that we deal with every day in the United Nations, and particularly in the Security Council, where the United States is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: And Ambassador, before you ask a question, I also – I’m just curious. I know we recently – the U.S. became the president of the Security Council. What’s –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Starting next week, August 1st.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: August 1st. August 1st.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah. Yeah.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: So we’re going to be here very shortly.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: So what’s the significance of that for people who don’t know, including myself? [Laughter.] What’s the significance?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, look, there are 15 members of the Security Council. As I mentioned, five permanent, and then there are 10 elected members that are elected every – five of them are elected every two – for two-year terms every year. And we rotate the presidency on a monthly basis. So this month, the United Kingdom – and it’s alphabetical – the United Kingdom is president of the Security Council. The United States becomes president of the Security Council in August. Albania becomes president of the Security Council in September.
As president of the Security Council, you preside over the Council, but you also get the opportunity to set the agenda, to set what is called the program of work where you define what is going to be discussed. So for me, my big issue is food insecurity, and I will be looking this – in my presidency in August – on how we end hunger, how we end famine across the world. And hunger is an issue also that is global.
We deal with issues of hunger here in the United States, but even more, we’re dealing with issues of hunger across the world – hunger that has been exacerbated by conflict such as the war in Ukraine, where the Russians are now, as we speak, attacking ports and have pulled out of a grain deal with Ukraine that was providing needed grain for the rest of the world. It was exacerbated by COVID, and it certainly is being impacted by climate change.
So this is a huge issue for the world. It’s an important issue for the United States, and we will be discussing on the 3rd of August – with the Secretary of State in the chair – how we can address issues of hunger and end famine for people around the world.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: Well, you know, okay, that’s very interesting. I didn’t know that the – that it changed every month. Do you find that different countries use that as an opportunity to lean into the specific issues that, you know, they’re dealing with in their country? Or do they try to really take a step back and see more of a global perspective on that?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: No, yeah. The Security – yeah. The Security Council is about peace and security, and it’s about peace and security around the world. Most countries are not going to want to highlight problems in their own country. They’re going to want to deal with the broad global issues. The UK during their presidency focused on issues related to women, peace, and security. They also focused on artificial intelligence and how we address issues that we will be facing related to artificial intelligence. So they tend to be broad global issues that countries put on the table.
Russia, of course, when they’re president of the Security Council, will try to use the Council to project their own narrative about what is happening in Ukraine or their narrative that somehow they’re not the pariah of the world and try to point to issues that will, in their view, maybe undermine the United States. But they’ve not been successful.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: I know – you know, I think about often, you know, there’s obviously just so much going on across the world, across the globe, and then you enter a space where you have representatives of a lot of these countries, and a lot of time, you know, are things – can things be very contentious, right? When you walk into a room and there’s someone from a country who – you know, from Russia or wherever? You know, how do you all still work with folks who are representing something that is, you know, directly the antithesis to what we believe in as a country and, you know, we’re in some sort of conflict? How does that work?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It can be very, very contentious.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: I mean, I feel like I do have a smaller scale in Congress. [Laughter.]
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah. It’s not smaller. It’s the same. But it can be very contentious. Clearly, dealing with Russia now, given their unprovoked war on Ukraine, is contentious. And if any of you ever log on to the UN web and see the speeches that we give in the Council, they’re – they can be very, very pointed and they can be very aggressive in identifying what countries are doing and how we should deal with those issues.
Today, I was in the Council and I called Russia out for, one, their attack on food across the world. They’re holding food, using food as a weapon of war in Ukraine. They’re using food as a weapon of war in Syria. And I called them out on it. They will look for opportunities to accuse us of different things. So, for example, today they said that it was because of U.S. sanctions that food was not reaching the people of Syria, which is the furthest from the truth. In fact, our sanctions are not being applied to any humanitarian assistance anywhere in the world.
So you do have a lot of contentious back and forth. We attempt in private to be – I won’t use the word “respectful” – cordial with each other in private. But the tensions are always there.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: Okay, got you. That makes a ton of sense. And how do things work when we have to – you know, sometimes you’ve got to talk with your friends, right? And be like, hey, what’s going on? You know. When we’re put in that position as a country, how do you usually approach that when we have to speak with our allies about something that’s really important to the President, the administration, or to the country about what’s going on there?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You now, just like you do in Congress – and I’d love to hear how you operate in Congress, and particularly being the youngest person there – but I will sometimes meet with our allies in advance of a meeting so we can align our positions and understand our positions. So it’s important that you engage with likeminded, which is how we refer to each other, or with allies, to make sure that we’re on the same sheet of music when it comes to some of these issues.
And that has been the case with Ukraine. Russia actually thought that they could divide Europe, they could divide NATO, and actually they were sorely mistaken. NATO and our relationships with our allies in Europe actually became stronger as a result of the war. They have been roundly condemned because of their actions during this war. We’ve seen 140-plus countries condemn Russia in the General Assembly, and that requires engaging with countries that have views that are similar to yours.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: Got you. That makes a ton of sense.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So you tell me, how do you do that in Congress, and particularly being a newbie? You just joined. You’re the youngest person. And I really – let me just say how much I appreciate you, respect you, and am just enamored by who you are, as young as you are. I can tell you when I was your age, I didn’t even know what I wanted to be when I grew up, let alone be a member of Congress negotiating and dealing with some of the issues that you have to deal with in Congress. So how do you operate and maneuver in this very complex organization that you’ve been elected to?
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: Yeah. Well, no, thank you so much. And it really has been a blessing to be representing my home in Congress. You know, I was just joking this morning that when you come to the Congress, you don’t get a handbook, right? There’s not a “this is how to be a member of Congress.” In fact, even our orientation (inaudible) to prepare us is mainly talking about practical and, you know, logistics and staffing up and HR and stuff like that. But as far as the way we run our office, you know, we’re kind of like little CEOs, right? And we have a budget, we have a staff, and we have a mission, and we’re kind of told, you know: “Good luck and figure it out.”
And so, what’s been really helpful for me is, number one, I’m really blessed because from a young age – and I was adopted at birth – so from a young age, I’ve always, number one, been around a lot of older folks in my life. My parents were always older than my friends’ parents just because of the age that they adopted me, which means my grandparents were always older, and I was just surrounded by – I like to joke around: I didn’t get advice when I was a kid, I got wisdom. [Laughter.] And – but that was really helpful for me. And part of that has kind of – you know, I carry that throughout my life, kind of a deep respect for my elders, and I also seek them out in spaces that I join. So oftentimes when I get into a new position or job, I try to find folks who’ve been there for a while.
And so it’s the same thing here in Congress. When I first came in, you know, I took a step back. I have a great staff, and I wanted to make sure that I had a mix. I wanted some people who have been working on the Hill and understand it and understand how we can use – work within this system to provide for our people, and I wanted people who understood that it’s the same system that’s also caused harm to people. It doesn’t mean that, you know, we guilt ourselves for being a part of it, but I think it’s just important to understand it holistically. This institution has caused harm, I’m here to work on it being a force for good.
And so, we have, you know, my chief of staff has been on the Hill for around 15 years, but then we also hired people who’ve never worked on the Hill before and come from movements and come from organizations, and that was important to me too because I am that, right? I’m a first-time legislator.
When I came in, the first thing I did was really go out and seek people that I could build good relationships with and get advice. And, you know, to be honest, it’s been amazing. Being a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, I got a few aunties – you know, I got a few who look out for me and who really have been teaching me about the way to navigate in this space. I also have so many friends who are younger electeds. And I made the news being, you know, being the first Gen Z, but this incoming Democratic class of freshmen, this is the youngest, most progressive, and most diverse in modern history to come to the United States Congress.
So that gives me a lot of hope. You know, when I first came in, I was very hard on myself because I was thinking, wow, I’m going to be behind everybody. I’m coming in with people who have been serving in state legislatures. I’m coming in with a former senate president of a state legislature. You know, I hope I can, you know, do a good enough job for my people. And as I’ve connected with them – and we are doing a great job – but as I’ve connected with my colleagues, even, you know, those who had senior positions in their state government, their states, who are like, “Yeah, we’re figuring it out.” “Like, this is way different than anything I’ve ever done.” And so that also gives you a little bit of confidence, you know, because it’s not just me going through this and figuring it out. It’s me, it’s my staff, it’s my colleagues, and we’re figuring it out together.
You know, I’ve heard time and time again that this current freshman class is the most tightknit freshman class that any member I’ve spoken to has seen so far. You know, sometimes, you know, it’s a little – you get a little adversarial, a little competitive – and we’re competitive – but we also are very, very close. And we have, you know, we have our conflicts like anyone else, but we want to help each other. So that’s been a big help for me.
And I also – you know, the young people who came before me in this institution made it possible for me to be here now. Because when I came in, you know, I mean, I had trouble, right, as a young person and there’s stigma and et cetera, but I, you know, came up, with a lot of respect and I had the ability to have leadership positions in multiple caucuses. Young folks who came before me, you know, not so much. You know, I’m thinking about someone like Ritchie Torres, who had problems with being in both the Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus, and he worked through that and it was a thing. And for me, I just had to sign – you know, sign up for both, and I’m in both, and you know, there was no drama.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: I think about someone like AOC who came in who had trouble too. And, you know, now as newer young people come in, we’re not having a lot of those troubles. So the people who came before us are definitely a very important part of the success we’re seeing now. And we’ll work hard now so it’s even better for those who come in the future.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, that says everything about youth empowerment, and it’s something that I have engaged a lot on here at the UN, and I’ve spent a lot of my career in Africa working with young people. And I really do strongly believe that you, your generation, you’re our future. And it sounds trite, but we have to give you – one, we have to empower you.
So I would love to hear your views on how we engage with young people. Give me your advice on how I might engage more with the younger generation. What do you need from my generation to be successful?
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: No, this is a great question. And, you know, I think it’s a – there’s a few things, especially we as political leaders and we as leaders that have the ability to, you know, run an office and pick out, you know, how we operate can do.
One that I always encourage my colleagues to do, and as I speak with other members of Congress and people in state and local government, is it’s – you know, advisory committees are good, right? It gives young people an opportunity to sit at the table, to see something they’ve never seen before and give their opinion. But what’s even better is working to put resources into empowering young people to learn but to be a part of the process. And I think, you know, there’s a lot of opportunities at school or wherever where young people can be a part of, you know, a smaller process, whether it’s student government or anything like that. But we have the ability to really give people a seat at the table.
So something that, you know, we’ve asked for the administration to do, right, is they have a staff member who focuses on young people, right? And so how do we expand that office and have more opportunities for young people to actually work in the administration? You know, for me, my resources are a lot smaller than the administration’s, but, you know, how are we including young people in our councils and how do we empower those councils to actually have a deliverable, an actual thing that they can work on and that they can make the decisions on? And that would be the difference between, you know, me having an advisory council where I hear people out – which is cool, but let’s be honest: my job’s to hear people out. I hear people out in town halls, in roundtables all the time, all across my district. So how do I make, you know, my youth arm different?
You know, on my campaign, we’ve hired nine organizing fellows, and they are, you know, they’re getting paid, but they’re also – half of their time they’re learning how to organize, they’re learning about democracy and how to protect it. The other half of the time they’re knocking doors and, like, learning how to actually be in the community.
So the main thing is, you know, figuring out how do we move from, you know, figuring out the easiest way to involve young people, which is good – we should do that still – but, you know, how do we put actual resources and money, to be honest, behind it to make sure that, you know, they actually have something they can be a part of that’s more than just informing, but actually making decisions. And it’s this whole concept of, you know, young people are often thought of the leaders of tomorrow, which we are, of course, but how are we empowering young people to be the leaders of today as well?
And I think, you know, when I think about a place like Congress, and even the UN, any kind of body of many people, you know, what we do in Congress is we come together to talk about the issues that are both known and unknown of the past, of the present, and of the future. And if I were able to put together – you know, build my table of who I want to sit around figuring out the problems of the world, I would want a very diverse table. I’d want people who understand what it’s like to grow up now, and I’d want people who understand what it’s like to grow old now. And growing old and growing up now is different than it was before.
I’m sorry, I –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, then I can be that member at your table. I can be the old person at your table.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: Ah, yeah. [Laughter.]
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, you – I said – you know, when we started I said you are the future, but the future is today, and the issues that we have to address are today’s issues. And I can tell you just listening at you, you give me so much hope. You give me so much confidence that we are in good hands in the future. And I’d love to hear from you what gives you hope for the future, and I know it’s not me. [Laughter.] But what are you looking at that gives you hope that by the time you reach my age – and I won’t tell you how old I am – but by the time you reach my age, what are you going to hope to have achieved, and what gives you hope that you can get there?
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: Well, you know, I come from the gun violence movement. So I’m a survivor of gun violence – gun violence is the issue that got me involved in politics. I remember just a few months ago I sat down because I wanted to count how many vigils I’d been to for victims of gun violence. And going through my mom’s Facebook and my Facebook, and like, just looking through photos, in photos – in proof – I could prove I’ve been – I could find photos and information that I’ve been to 60 vigils, at least 60 in the past decade of my life. And that’s what I could find, right?
I say that to say whenever I’m asked about hope and resiliency, you know, I come from a movement that is so enthralled with trauma. And the peaks of our movement – you know, and this is something to think about – the peaks of our movement, when the most people care and are involved, are also when we have some of the worst carnage in terms of mass shooting. And so, I think that’s really – you know, coming up through that, I think, you know, builds you with a very tough skin, but also makes you a long-distance runner for justice, because you really understand that it takes time.
And you know, there’s oftentimes – and then I’ll get into what I hope to accomplish – I was just thinking about this, and I just – it kind of came out of my mouth on a panel I was speaking on last week, and I sat with it and said this is a message I really want to talk with especially young people about, that I feel like there’s this – you know, oftentimes especially in politics we’re lied to about a very – a binary choice, that it really isn’t so binary. And one that I think about especially as a young progressive is you either have incrementalism and taking steps, or you have big, bold transformational change that will actually really help people, and that’s it. You’ve got to pick what you want to do. And especially coming to Congress and just being an organizer, I’ve really realized that it’s not – it doesn’t have to be like that, right? You can be – I believe in health care for everybody, I believe in ending gun violence, I believe in defeating the climate crisis, I believe in housing as a human right, all these things.
As organizers, the steps we take to get there are an important part of that journey. And the difference here is we do have folks in government who never want to talk about the end result or the big change, and they just want to talk about the steps, and I feel like that’s at the expense of bringing together a movement that can make it happen. You’ve got to know where you’re going to take a step forward.
So I think, you know, when we think about all the great social movement – social justice and movement – movements of our country, and of the world, really, those steps oftentimes don’t make it into the movies, but we didn’t wake up one day and have the right to vote, right? We didn’t wake up one day and be able to run for office, you know. It was work and steps that got us to a place where one day we woke up and said because we did the work for X amount of years, now we hold the power, now we can pull the lever. But the lever doesn’t just show up.
And so either way, that’s the thing I’ve been talking a lot about, because I do believe in big, progressive, transformational change, and I’d love to look back and, you know, as I get older and I’d love to see that I played a role in building that power for either future Max – I hope I’m around for this big change. I think I can be, because I think we’re moving quick, and that’s exciting. But I just want, you know – I just want our people to have health care. I want our people to live free of gun violence. I want our systems to work for the people, especially our most vulnerable. And I want our country to see the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable too. And I think, you know, right now it’s a battle, right? We’re all fighting it, to change the way – what we value and how we value it. And I think for so long our country has, you know, very much values the bottom line, and that’s kind of the way we assess how good our country’s doing. It has to do with the dollar and cents, which is important.
But as I organize our – just always trying to connect those numbers, so like day-to-day people, and if I can do my job and do it right, you know, I want to play a part in making sure everyone has their basic necessities meet so they can have true freedom and do whatever they want.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Wow.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: That’s my simple – that’s my politics. It’s not Democrat versus Republican. It’s the people versus the (inaudible).
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, that’s fantastic. And I can tell you, when I was 26 years old, I did not see you. I certainly didn’t see me. So having you sitting in this position today shows me the enormous progress we’ve made. It’s not just that you are a person of color, but you’re a young person of color. I don’t think we have any examples that are like you. So we’re putting a huge burden on your shoulders – young man – to save successive roles from this carnage of all of the ills that we have allowed you to inherit from us. But I can tell you I am so confident having you sitting in this chair – whether you’re sitting in this chair in Congress today or you’re sitting somewhere else in the future, that you will make a huge difference for us in the future.
And I think your presence as a role model for other young people to do the same is truly important, and I’d like to just end by using this as a recruitment moment for me as well, that there are jobs in multinational, multilateral diplomacy, whether you’re working for the U.S. Government or you decide you want to work for the United Nations, you want to go into Peace Corps – to learn about the world. Because the issues that you are dealing with, Congressman, are issues that young people are dealing with everywhere else in the world, and they need your voice. They need our voices wherever we are able to share our perspectives.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: Thank you so much, Ambassador. And thank you so much for everyone being here. It’s been so great to learn about your position and our – what our – the good work our country is doing at the UN, and also to just talk about how we advance an agenda. You know, when we advance an agenda that keeps track of the humanity and future of young generations, that’s an agenda that’s for everybody, no matter how old you are, no matter who you are.
And so here’s to a better and a livable future. Again, everybody in the – everybody in the comments, thank you. We got some questions in but we are out of time. I appreciate you sending in those questions. Some of them we kind of answered in the conversation, and the Ambassador also mentioned, especially for young people, look at the Peace Corps. And I will – I’ll re-up that ask. Definitely check it out. That’s an experience I didn’t have that I wish I did, and –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I didn’t have it either. I regret not having it.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: Yeah, me too. Me too. And so definitely, if you’re in high school or you’re a young person and you’re watching this video – we have a few on here – please check out the Peace Corps. You know, I’ve been meeting with a lot of MPs or representatives from across the world that are very young, and people also have an appetite to talk with folks in the U.S. about what’s going on across the world. And that’s really exciting.
So all right, you all. Thank you so much for your time. Ambassador, thank you for your time. I want to be respectful of it. We’re a minute over. I’m sorry about that. But I appreciate everybody. Have a great day, and God bless.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. Have a great day. I look forward to meeting you in person.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: Yes, very soon.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. Thanks.