On January 20, Linda Thomas-Greenfield MA’75 started a new job. Not just any job, but a job for the White House. Serving as ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas-Greenfield was among the first cabinet picks announced by then President-Elect Joe Biden on November 24, 2020, and her nomination was met with resounding applause from diplomats and leaders across the globe.
This is not Thomas-Greenfield’s first time in a presidential administration. Under George W. Bush, she held the post of U.S. ambassador to Liberia. Beginning in 2013 in the Obama administration, she served as the assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs. She held that position through 2017, but like many other members of the State Department, she was forced out as the Trump administration greatly downsized the department. Thomas-Greenfield is a proud career diplomat, but it’s certainly not the direction she anticipated her life would take. Her dream was to be a lawyer; in fact, that’s the first thing she remembers wanting to be when she grew up.
Thomas-Greenfield graduated from a segregated high school in Baker, Louisiana, in 1970. She enrolled at Louisiana State University (LSU), entering what she describes as a “hostile environment.” Just six years earlier, a federal court mandated that non-white students be admitted. David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was a student alongside Thomas-Greenfield. Faced with adversity, Thomas-Greenfield only grew stronger, smarter, and more confident.
The “adversity muscles” — a phrase of Thomas-Greenfield’s — that she developed will certainly come in handy as she starts her new position in a time of pandemic and political unrest. Prior to her Senate confirmation, we shared a (virtual) car ride with Thomas-Greenfield to learn about her time at the UW, her hopes for the country’s future, and how she’s kept her family grounded.
What led you to UW–Madison after you graduated from LSU?
There was a professor whose name I can’t remember other than Karen, and her last name starting with a B. She encouraged me to apply to the [political science] graduate program. Originally, my plan was to go to law school, but I wasn’t going to do it immediately. So, I applied to the program, I got accepted, and I ended up coming to Madison and never went back to law school. I did the master’s, and I worked in the PhD program with the idea of getting a PhD. I did research with Crawford Young, went to Liberia, and studied there, but I never finished writing the dissertations. So I’m one of Crawford’s failed students!
You’ve talked about flexing your “adversity muscles” and growing stronger through adversity, and you’ve been open about your experiences at LSU. Were there times at the UW where you had to strengthen those muscles?
When I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, it was, for me, the first time I was in a community in which at least I believed that race was not a factor. And then suddenly, I faced my first experience [of racism] in Madison. I was walking out of the library at midnight. There had been a football game, and you know how crazy State Street can be after a football game. I was walking out of the library and walked up to State Street. I was standing on the corner waiting to cross the street, and somebody passed by in a car, called me the N-word, and sprayed me with a water gun. That was the most devastating experience I’ve ever had, because it was totally unexpected. I wouldn’t have been devastated if that had been in Louisiana, because you always expect it. In Wisconsin, I didn’t expect that. It really took my breath away to have that happen in Madison.
What advice do you have for current UW students of color?
I’d say they have to keep their eyes wide open and not expect that because they’re in Madison and it’s a liberal city that they won’t encounter racism. Racism exists everywhere. They need to be prepared for it, but they should not let it stifle them. They shouldn’t allow it to paralyze them. My feeling about racism is that it’s not my problem, as much as it is the problem of the person who is the racist. Don’t take their problem and make it into your problem.
When you were studying at the UW, what were you expecting your future would look like?
I thought I would end up in academics, teaching at a university. Which I did for a couple of years; I went to Bucknell University. I taught an intro to politics, political science 101; and then I taught a seminar on African studies.
Is there something you learned while teaching that you hold with you today?
From my experience at Bucknell, I learned that you have to be agile in the classroom. Things will change. Students will ask questions that maybe you hadn’t thought about. When I first started, I was a young professor, I would stay up all night and prepare my 45-minute lecture and realized very quickly that that’s not what the students wanted. They wanted to have a give-and-take, they wanted to ask questions. You had to have that flexibility to allow your students to do that.
How did you go from teaching to the foreign service?
When I was in Liberia, I became more familiar with the diplomatic service and the foreign service. So, I took the foreign service exam, passed the exam, and got invited to take the oral exam when I was in Madison. But by the time I got offered a position in the foreign service, I had already signed a contract to teach at Bucknell, so I turned the foreign service down! I taught at Bucknell for a year and a half. The State Department contacted me again in August of 1981 to say, “Are you still interested in joining the foreign service?” And I said yes, and they said, “Oh, great! You can come into our November class.” And I said, “I’m committed to teaching next semester. I have students who have signed up for my class, and I can’t walk out on my students.” At that point — it really surprised me, and a lot of people have expressed surprise at this — they said, “Well, we think we have a spot in the January class. If we give you an offer in August for a January class, could you accept?” I talked to the head of the department at Bucknell who said yes. So I joined the foreign service in January 1982.
After 35 years in the foreign service, you’re making history as one of the only — if not the only — career diplomats from the State Department to be selected for a presidential cabinet. What are you most looking forward to in being a cabinet member for President Biden?
I’m looking forward to normalcy in our foreign policy, our national security, and our diplomacy. We have gone through a situation over the past four years that has been extraordinarily abnormal.
In December 2017, you said, “We know that the State Department has been diminished, that our diplomacy has been damaged.” I imagine many of the U.S.’s diplomatic relationships look different than they did then. How do you start to regain trust and mend relationships?
You start out by engaging. That’s what diplomacy is about. You start by engaging with people, humbling yourself. I think there will be a tremendous amount of humility that we have to bring to the table. We kind of turned our backs on the international system. It’s going to require a lot of effort. But I think people are welcoming us back. They want us back. While I think the job will be challenging, it will be made easier because our presence is wanted.
What are some of the biggest opportunities you have in your role to rebuild those bridges?
I think it will show to career people that there is confidence in their abilities, there’s respect for what they do, and it will give them kind of a sense of acceptance by the broader political system to have a former career person in a position like this. And I think it sends a strong message globally, as well, that the administration is serious about bringing back engagement in diplomacy.
What do you think your first few days will look like?
I don’t have a clue! I will find out when I start. I have to get through the confirmation process. I have not been confirmed for this job, so I have to constantly remind myself to say, “if confirmed.” So if confirmed for this position, and hopefully it will be by January 20, I will be hitting the ground running. It’s going to be very fast-paced, I can imagine. I think it’s going to require a lot in the first week, first month, first 100 days.
When you finish this job, what would make you say, “I succeeded”?
Oh, my goodness. There’s not a single answer to that question, but I would just say that I brought respect back to the United States. And I brought our leadership back.
You were part of the agency review team supporting then President-Elect Biden’s transition. This was a big transition in a year full of transitions. Was there a period of transition in your life that was particularly important to who you are today?
When you’re in the foreign service, you’re moving every two or three years, and you have these transitions all the time. Studies have shown that the most stressful time in a person’s life is when they’re moving from one place to another. I think, for me, the most stressful move that I’ve ever had was moving to Pakistan. I moved out of my comfort zone, [which was] being in Africa. I knew the issues. I’d studied it, and I could address issues related to Africa. I felt comfortable in that space. Then I decided to take a job in Pakistan working on refugee issues. I was totally out of my comfort zone. It took a lot of time to figure out where my balance was as a professional in an environment that was extremely prejudiced toward women. It was a different type of prejudice that you felt. It was a huge adjustment to adjust to that cultural shift. I kind of describe it like [moving to] Madison.
Moving to Madison from Louisiana, where I had been, except for going to LSU, was an almost exclusively Black environment. I can’t identify a person when I was at Louisiana State University who was a friend. I don’t have any connections with any white person from LSU. And then I moved to Madison, and everything is white: all of my friends, all of my classmates — although there was a really strong African American community when I was there — and we were very close knit. And interestingly, we’re still close knit. A friend of mine just sent a picture of us from Madison, and it was just me as the only Black person, and every other person was white. My friends were like, “Where are the Black people in that picture, Linda?” And I’m like, “You saw the Black people; it was me!” I had to adjust to being comfortable in a white world. In Louisiana, I never felt I needed to adjust to being in a white world, because I was never in a white world, even though I was at Louisiana State University. In Madison, you’re in a white world. That was a huge, huge transition for me.
It wasn’t just you moving every two to three years, but your husband and two kids. As a family going through so many of those transitions, how do you stay grounded?
It’s interesting you say that. I don’t know what my kids think, but I always brought them home every year to Louisiana, so they kind of felt rooted in a place in the United States. We could’ve been going on vacations in Europe and things like that, which is what some of my friends did, and my kids regret that I didn’t with them, but I always felt that they had to come to Louisiana and know their relatives and be connected to their family.
Speaking of Louisiana and home, you’re known for your unique brand that you call “gumbo diplomacy.” Any chance of sharing that gumbo recipe?
That’s a great question, because I actually never had a recipe! The Washington Post contacted me and asked if I could do a recipe. So I wrote one for the Washington Post. I am happy to share it!
This story originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Badger Vibes. Learn more about this monthly email newsletter from WAA, and sign up for the mailing list.