This post was written by Katie Conti, Program Coordinator in the Meridian Center for Global Leadership. It is a part of a blog series highlighting and acknowledging the work and contributions of Black diplomats during Black History Month.
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is a distinguished career diplomat and trailblazer for women and people of color in the field of foreign affairs. From “gumbo diplomacy,” her Cajun spin on building cultural connections, to the strength drawn from lessons of kindness and compassion instilled by her mother at a young age, she brings a unique frame of reference to her newly sworn-in role as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under the Biden Administration.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield grew up in the Baton Rouge suburb of Baker, Louisiana. She was the first person in her family to graduate high school, having attended the all-Black Northwestern High School in Zachary, the next town over, because Baker High School was segregated at the time. Later, she studied at Louisiana State University, and was one of the first African-American students in the previously all-white school, overcoming harassment by David Duke and the KKK’s hostile presence on campus to join her fellow students in demonstrations for civil rights. After earning her bachelor’s in 1974, Thomas-Greenfield went on to receive a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin, and worked towards a Ph.D. in political science, including overseas research in Liberia. She first took the Foreign Service exam in Monrovia, Liberia, after getting to know a group of U.S. diplomats while doing research there. She then taught at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania before joining the U.S. Foreign Service in 1982.
She was nominated by President Joseph R. Biden to serve as the Ambassador of the United States to the United Nations and successfully confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. As the U.S. Permanent Representative at the United Nations headquarters in New York, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will be charged with bringing forward U.S. priorities, and values to the international community. Her confirmation also came just in time for the United States to rotate into the presidency of the UN Security Council, the organization’s most powerful body, in March 2021. In that role, she will run the council’s meetings, announce its decisions and steer its agenda to address the most pressing issues facing the global community.
The United Nations system and all of its intricacies, special bodies, funds and organs is not foreign territory for Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield. She previously served at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, working to promote U.S. interests with the UN agencies based there. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield brings a diverse array of experience to the UN from her 35 years serving as a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service. She was one of the first African American women to join the foreign service and received her first diplomatic assignment in 1982 as a consular officer in Kingston, Jamaica. She went on to serve in Nigeria, the Gambia, Kenya, Pakistan, Switzerland and in several roles based in Washington, DC, many of which centered around refugee and migration issues.
In 1994, she was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, and arrived merely two days before the Rwandan genocide began. In an episode of the American Diplomat podcast, she discusses a particularly perilous instance of being mistaken for a Tutsi and being held at gunpoint until she could prove her American nationality. She also described the care she took in her final moments at the embassy to leave personalized letters for each of the locally employed staff members, hoping to help them gain safe passage out of the country in the midst of such mass violence and destruction.
She served in senior leadership positions for the Department of State, both overseas and in Washington. In 2008, President George W. Bush nominated Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. Ambassador to Liberia. She represented U.S. interests there until 2012, encouraging the democratization of the nation after decades of civil wars. At the close of her ambassadorship in Liberia in February 2012, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield the first-ever honorary citizen of Liberia. As President Sirleaf conferred upon her the distinction of Dame Great Band in the Humane Order of African Redemption, she reflected, “While your accomplishments are many, it is not what you did, but what you shared with us as a person that we will remember.”
Returning to Washington, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs (2006-2008) and as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (2004-2006). She also served as Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources (2012-2013), leading the Department of State’s 70,000 member workforce. In her final post before leaving State in 2017, she served as Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, where she helped oversee the response to the Ebola epidemic and served as the foremost U.S. expert on African issues. “Africa for me is a passion, not a job,” she says. Prior to her nomination as UN Ambassador, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield served as Senior Vice President at the Albright Stonebridge Group, leading the firm’s Africa practice.
Beyond her goals for her current post at the UN, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield also cares deeply about the Department of State. Throughout her diplomatic career, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield was known for mentoring young State Department staff and for using an approach toward foreign policy that drew on relationships and personal connections, multiple former State Department officials said to the New York Times. In November 2020, she joined forces with William Burns, a fellow career diplomat and now the Biden Administration’s CIA Director-designate, to co-chair an advisory group at the Council on Foreign Relations on “Revitalizing the State Department and American Diplomacy.” They published a summary of findings and recommendations for improvement in the November-December 2020 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, to critical acclaim.
When Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield presents her credentials to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, she will enter the UN system at a time when the world faces compounding crises and a call for renewed U.S. leadership on the global stage. She is certainly up for the job, as stated in her Senate confirmation hearing,
“When America shows up—when we are consistent and persistent—when we exert our influence in accordance with our values—the United Nations can be an indispensable institution for advancing peace, security, and our collective well-being. If instead we walk away from the table, and allow others to fill the void, the global community suffers—and so do American interests.”