As we near the end of this year’s commemoration of Black History Month, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to a woman whose life story is that of a Black American girl who rose from humble beginnings in the segregated South to a place of honor and influence in our country.
I hope you’ll spend an uplifting 10 minutes watching this 2018 TedTalk video of Linda Thomas-Greenfield, our newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, as she describes overcoming adversity and being strengthened by it–with compassion, kindness, and a smile.
And those adversities have been numerous. They included the indignities and fears of her childhood, such as watching the KKK burn crosses on nearby lawns. Further insults and attempted degradation during her education years served only to propel her forward. She discusses in the video her pleasure in being honored years later by the same university that she’d been admitted to by the force of a court order.
As a Foreign Service officer, she was sent to Rwanda in 1994 as that country spiraled into genocide. There, she looked death in the face and talked her way to safety—as she details in the video. That time in Rwanda, she said, “changed my life forever.” Her Foreign Service career has spanned more than three decades.
Thomas-Greenfield won me over when I first read about what she calls “gumbo diplomacy.” I read about it again in a New York Times article written just after her ambassadorial confirmation days ago.
“Diplomacy is driven by relationships, and talking about difficult topics while chopping onions for a gumbo sauce can break barriers and foster success, she said.”
One of her colleagues in the Foreign Service, Dehab Ghebreab, interviewed in the Times article, recalled working with her when she was the ambassador to Liberia in 2012.
Thomas-Greenfield felt that the increased harassment of LGBT young people in Liberia required attention. Her approach: a little dinner party with 8 key invitees, including the country’s minister of information, two LGBT youths, and members of the press. They talked as they consumed her gumbo, chicken, rice, and fish.
The Times reports:
“Hours after the country’s minister of information left, he released a statement condemning the rise in abuse, Ms. Ghebreab said, which caught some embassy staff by surprise, because most top politicians in the country had refused to address the issue.”
“‘She’s very effective,’ Ms. Ghebreab said.”
After serving in Liberia from 2008 to 2012, and then as director general of the Foreign Service, she became the US diplomat for African affairs, working to contain the Ebola epidemic. When Rex Tillerson became Secretary of State in 2017 and decided the State Department needed an overhaul (some called it a “hollowing out”), she was one of the diplomats he ousted.
She assumes her new position as a seasoned and respected professional at a particularly important and delicate time for our country’s UN ambassador, as the post-Trump US reasserts itself on the world stage.
When President Biden nominated her in November, she reiterated his emphasis that “America is back,” and added: “Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.” But she’ll have her work cut out for her to reestablish America’s credibility.
She’ll have to “undo a lot of the work” of the Trump administration, according to President George Bush’s secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi E. Frazer. But, he said,
“she’s the perfect person to do it, because of her diplomatic style.”
She’ll dive right into the middle of the action in March, when the US serves its rotation as the presidency of the UN Security Council for the month. She’ll be running the Council’s meetings and—diplomatically—describing the results. Adversity? She’s ready for it.
So we can expect non-stop gumbo simmering away in the vicinity of New York’s East Side—where the UN is located—as she practices her particular blend of the culinary and the diplomatic.
China is obviously one of our/her biggest challenges. It is now second only to the US in financial contributions to the UN and has enlarged its presence in a number of agencies.
Thomas-Greenfield faced scrutiny from Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio during her confirmation hearings because of a speech she’d made in 2019 about her hope to work with the Chinese government in helping the African nations. She assured them she wasn’t naive about China and would deal with the Chinese aggressively. The vote in favor of her confirmation was 78-21, but—surprise!—Rubio and Cruz voted “Nay.”
I’m betting Thomas-Greenfield will prove any doubters wrong about how she’ll handle our tough adversaries. And assuming she has successes on this very difficult terrain, I wonder if we’ll ever find out what role her gumbo played in winning over the Chinese delegation–gumbo served up with a hefty dollop of compassion, kindness, and a smile.