Overcoming Adversity with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to UN
December 15, 2022
In this episode, President William F. Tate IV speaks to LSU alumna Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who has dedicated more than three decades of her life to public and foreign service. Currently the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, she discusses her journey from Baker, Louisiana to a global stage and how she manages the heavy stress that’s part of her job.
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield graduated from LSU in 1974. She returned to public service after retiring from a 35-year career with the U.S. Foreign Service in 2017. Most recently in 2021 she was nominated by President Joseph Biden to be the Representative of the United States of America in the Security Council of the United Nations. From 2013 to 2017 she served as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, where she led the bureau focused on the development and management of U.S. policy toward sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to this appointment, she served as Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources, leading a team in charge of the State Department’s workforce. Read more about her career.
[00:00:00] President William F. Tate IV: Welcome to "On Par with the President.” On this episode, we are honored to host Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. We're gonna tee off with a couple questions. Ambassador, you grew up in Baker, Louisiana. Did you have a vision or plan to take you from Louisiana to the world stage in foreign service?
[00:00:23] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: That's a great question. Four miles down the road from LSU. And no, I did not have a vision or a plan. I was writing something about myself recently and I wrote without thinking that I didn't even know when I was growing up what ambition was. So, I certainly didn't have a plan, but my thought was I wanted to do something. I wanted to be somebody. I wasn't even sure what I wanted to be. So, I started thinking about wanting to be what I saw. So, I knew teachers and I thought about being a teacher, and one of my teachers had a husband for a lawyer. So, I thought maybe I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn't know about wanting to be an ambassador or to be a diplomat. It just wasn't on my radar until I was much, much older.
[00:01:18] President William F. Tate IV: So, what sparked your interest in a career in foreign service in public? How did it all unfold for you?
[00:01:23] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: Yeah, I graduated from LSU in 1974, and I went to University of Wisconsin to get a master's degree in public administration with the intention of coming back to Louisiana to go to LSU's Law School. But when I was in Wisconsin, I just became enamored with one of my professors, Crawford Young, who has since passed away, who did African studies. And I became interested in Africa and stayed on in the PhD program to get a PhD in African politics. I will admit that I never finished the PhD, so I always told Crawford I was a fail student of his. But he really wedded my appetite. I went to Liberia to do research and stayed in Liberia for about a year, little bit over. And from that moment on, everything changed for me. I met people who were in the foreign service in the State Department, including my husband who was at the embassy in Liberia, and the rest is history.
[00:02:29] President William F. Tate IV: That's amazing. Tell us a bit about your childhood and your experiences at LSU.
[00:02:35] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: I went to a segregated school in Louisiana, Baker High School, just down the road from where I lived was a white school. It integrated in 1968. But most of us had been in our school, which about 10 or 15 miles down the road in Zachary. So, I went to a school, Northwestern High School. It was all black. We had amazing teachers. It was a small school that went from first through 12th grade. I'm still very close with classmates that I graduated with, but when we were graduating and thinking about going to college, I decided I wanted to do something different from everyone else. So, I decided to go to LSU. And so, in summer of 1970, I arrived on LSU's campus and spent four very complicated-- I think is the way I'll describe it now-- very complicated years. It was not for me. I have to say, not a period of fun and happiness. LSU was a different campus back in the 1970s. So, I was just happy that I graduated because I saw so many of my black colleagues who didn't graduate because it was not a warm and welcoming environment for people of color.
[00:03:59] President William F. Tate IV: So, how did you survive? What made it possible for you to negotiate all of that?
[00:04:04] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: I always tell people that I have had a life filled with adversity. From growing up poor with uneducated parents, to going to segregated schools, and I-- as I look back on my life, I feel like my adversity muscles were constantly being developed. So, if you look at my personal Twitter account, I got an arm up like this because that's my adversity muscle. So, the harder it got for me, the more determined I became. And so, I was determined that I was not going to allow the environment on the campus to force me to fail. So, I was going to succeed no matter what. And after very difficult first semester when I was put on academic probation, I pulled up my bootstraps and worked a bit harder. And, it wasn't easy, but the day I graduated was an extraordinary day for me.
[00:05:08] President William F. Tate IV: Thank you for sharing that. Today at LSU, we're focused on something we call the Scholarship First Agenda through five areas, we call them our Pentagon to protect the people of the state of Louisiana. It's agriculture, the biomedical sciences, coastal science and engineering, defense, including cyber, and the energy sector. And obviously, ag and energy are two largest industries here, and we seek to solve local problems both in the Gulf region, Louisiana, and in the world around us. So today, help us understand what do you think the value and importance of higher education is as you circle the globe and the work that you do?
[00:05:46] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: President Tate, we live in a global world, and what we do locally impact us globally. So, your sharing that with me reminded me when I was ambassador to Liberia, LSU had a program in Liberia working on an agricultural program, working on rice development. My research at the University of Wisconsin was on rice and politics in Liberia. But, to see LSU there when I went as ambassador really let me know the broad connections that we have and the importance of people connecting. So, LSU is a-- it's a global center. It's not just dealing with issues that are important to you. Everything you mentioned, I'm dealing with in the security council right now. It's the environment, it is energy, it is food insecurity around the world because of the war in Ukraine. I just came back from Ukraine last week, where they are the breadbasket of almost the entire global south. Africa and the Middle East depend on so much of their grain. Louisiana is part of that chain of food and food security. You provide rice to Haiti. So, we're dealing with the situation in Haiti, and I learned from Senator Cassidy that companies from Louisiana are exporting rice to Haiti, and because of the gang violence and the blocking of the port, some of our businesses in Louisiana are being impacted. So, you really are a part of the global environment, and I think your students will play a key role in how we address these issues in the future. I always say to young people that we-- my generation blew it on the environment, and now we have presented the next generation with a crisis that they have to deal with today. You're educating your young people to deal with these crises.
[00:08:02] President William F. Tate IV: Well ambassador, I'm gonna say this to you, I need to get you on campus to tell that exact story because the Pentagon is so important for what we're trying to do here as a research institution, and you just articulated the global perspective. I appreciate that very much. Now, we talked a little bit about golf, and this is sort of a golf show, and you teed up really well. You got the ball out into the fairway, but the big thing is, you've gotta get to the green. You gotta get to the green because you wanna score. So, share a little bit about how did your journey in public service lead to you becoming an ambassador? And tell us a little bit about your life in teaching in higher ed, political science. Both are really related, I think, being an ambassador is sort of teaching and learning, and obviously you engaged in teaching political science. Help us understand the journey.
[00:08:51] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: I'm not a golfer, and I don't understand golf, even though I'm trying. But, I think it's relevant here because it's about setting goals. So, you know what your goal is, and you set that goal, and you work really hard. And sometimes you get waylaid. So, you're gonna hit a ball into-- I, I've heard my husband, you hit a ball into the sand.
[00:09:15] President William F. Tate IV: Right.
[00:09:16] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: And so, you have to be more determined to get out of that. To get to the goal that you're trying to achieve. And so, that's how I have approached my life. I'm focused on the goal. I know that there will be challenges. There will be-- I'll be misdirected at some point, but just keep your eye on the fairway. I guess that's what I would say, and that's how I ended up getting to this point because I wasn't working to become the ambassador to the United Nations. I didn't work to become the ambassador to Liberia or the Assistant Secretary for Africa. What I've worked to become was successful. And when you achieve success, success will be presented to you in certain ways that you never, ever expect it. And then, you mentioned teaching. I taught at Bucknell University before joining the Foreign Service. And there, I found that sometimes my students were smarter than me, and that you have to, when you're teaching, you are teaching, but you're also learning. And, in diplomacy, I always feel like I'm learning because in order to be successful in diplomacy, you have to be able not just to communicate by talking to people verbally, you have to listen. And so, when I was teaching, I spent a lot of time listening, particularly when I was teaching at the graduate level at Georgetown, where I would spend the first section of my class with my class telling me what they knew about the subject that they'd learned over the weekend. It was of course on negotiating in conflict on South Sudan, and South Sudan was making news all weekend long. I didn't have time sometimes to pay attention, so I gave them the first 15 to 30 minutes of the class to tell me what they knew that I didn't know. And then, we take that into the discussion in the classroom. So again, your eye on the goal, but also you have to always be prepared to let others lead by learning from them.
[00:11:25] President William F. Tate IV: So, in your role in foreign service and as an ambassador, what would you say your biggest challenge you've faced from external forces or in the situation or context that you could share?
[00:11:35] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: I think the biggest challenge is right now. We are dealing with a situation where the world is questioning whether democracy is the way they should be going. And we know that democracies work because we've seen democracy work in our own country. But we also know that democracy is not easy. It's a process, and sometimes you're taking two steps backward instead of a step forward. And, you just have to-- again, as I talk about dealing with adversity, you just have to keep learning from that experience and building on the experience. Countries are saying to us, "Who are you to tell us about democracy? You had an attack on your capital that we saw across the world, and you're telling us about democracy. Why should we trust you?" So, that is huge for me. But I think our country is an example of democracy at its best. But also, an example of how to deal with challenges to democracy, because there will always be challenges and you have to be prepared all the time to face those challenges.
[00:12:56] President William F. Tate IV: Heavy lift. I have to ask this: how do you handle the weight of the job? It's a weighty job, maintaining international peace and security. How do you handle that?
[00:13:05] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: I always look for those things that help me relax. I'm a walker, I'm a serious walker. I say that somewhat with tongue in cheek because I'm not as serious as I used to be. I used to do between an 11 and a half and 12-minute mile walking. And people say, "When you're walking, are you thinking?" And I'm like, "No". I wipe out thinking when I'm walking. The only thing I'm thinking about is taking that next step in front of me, and it cleanses your brains when you allow yourself to do that. So, that's one way I address this, and the other is cooking. So, I am serious about cooking. I like my own food. Some people cook and they don't like to eat their own food. I like to eat my own food and I like to serve it to people. So, I came back from a real weighty trip last week. I went to Albania and then went to Ukraine and spent 12 hours on the ground in Ukraine, nonstop. 12 hours meeting with the president, meeting with people who were impacted by the war, seeing the situation on the ground, having a 10-year-old girl say, "Please end this war. What can you do to end the war for me? I wanna go back to school. I wanna see my friends." So, it is weighty. And I returned back on Thursday morning. I normally live in New York. My husband is here in the Washington area in Virginia, and I just walked in the door and start cooking. He has a little garden and it's growing butternut squash, and there were like 12 giant butternut squash sitting on the kitchen counter. And I'm like, what do you do with these things? And I figured out what to do with them, and I did two different recipes for butternut squash soup. I brought some into the office today and people will say to me, "You never rest." Well, that's resting for me. It's relaxing for me to sit and chop onions and stir pans and create something that is amazing.
[00:15:07] President William F. Tate IV: I'm speechless. But I really appreciate what you do and how you balance that. That's quite powerful, and I hope our students understand you have to work at the nexus of the serious, but also do things to help you be able to manage that day-to-day. Well, Ambassador Greenfield, I greatly appreciate the time you spent with us and thank you for all that you do for this country and for the world, and I appreciate you taking time to be with us.
[00:15:31] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: Thank you very much for having me. I look forward to being on campus again soon. And, I want to congratulate you, too, for being where you are. I can't imagine what it would've been like for me at LSU in the 1970s if you had been president of the university then. It would've been a game changer.
[00:15:53] President William F. Tate IV: Thank you for that. And again, thank you for your service and we look forward to welcoming you back as soon as you have an opportunity to come to Baton Rouge and your hometown of Baker.
[00:16:02] Linda Thomas-Greenfield: Thank you.