Table for 12, Please: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, “The People’s Ambassador”

In the history of the United States, no presidential Cabinets have ever matched the gender or racial balance of the country. But America could soon see its most diverse Cabinet ever—with the first Native American secretary of the interior; first Latino homeland security chief; first openly gay Cabinet member and more. In two departments—Treasury and Intelligence—there has never been a woman in charge … until now. Altogether, Biden has announced 12 women in his Cabinet, the most ever.

To celebrate the historic number of women and women of color in Biden’s Cabinet, media thought leader Pat Mitchell is kicking off a new series: “Table for 12,” which will appear on PatMitchellMedia.comand be republished here at
Ms.—every week!

This Week: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

(Pat Mitchell Media)

When President Biden announced Linda Thomas-Greenfield as his pick for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, he lauded her as a “seasoned and distinguished diplomat with 35 years in the foreign service who never forgot where she came from growing up in segregated Louisiana.”

“During her tenure,” reports The New York Times, “she became known for what she calls ‘Gumbo Diplomacy,’ referring to the Cajun dish she often prepared alongside her foreign counterparts to break down barriers during diplomatic conversations.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield in Africa, 2016. [Credit: The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the U.S. Department of State]
Linda Thomas-Greenfield in Africa, 2016. (The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs ECA of the U.S. Department of State)

From Louisiana to Liberia

Growing up in the deep South in the 1950s, one might say that Linda Thomas-Greenfield got her start in diplomacy at a young age, facing adversity in her segregated hometown of Baker, La. She recalled in a 2018 TEDx talk that Baker was “a segregated town in which the KKK would regularly come on the weekends and burn a cross in somebody’s yard.”

Her mother had an 8th-grade education, and her father was taken out of school in the 3rd grade to work in order to take care of his family. “He couldn’t read or write,” said Thomas-Greenfield. “But he was the smartest man I knew.”

“In the years that I’ve worked in government, I’m always struck by how only in America we’d be where we are today—where life can be hard and cruel but there’s hope in the struggle,” Thomas-Greenfield has said

She knew that struggle when she was “one of the first African Americans to attend Louisiana State University,” notes The Baton Rouge Advocate. “She was there at the same time as David Duke, who later became a leader in the Ku Klux Klan.” She earned a bachelor’s degree from LSU and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 


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After she served at posts in Pakistan, Rwanda and Switzerland, among others, President Bush appointed her U.S. ambassador to Liberia in 2008. She held that post until 2012 when she became the director general of the Foreign Service. From 2013 to 2017, she served as the top U.S. diplomat for African affairs, helping to oversee the response to the Ebola epidemic.

U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Linda Thomas-Greenfield, left, meeting with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (Credit: U.S. State Department)
U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Linda Thomas-Greenfield, left, meeting with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (U.S. State Department)

She was known as the “people’s ambassador,” Biden said at her announcement, “willing to meet with anyone, an ambassador, a student, working people struggling to get by—always treating them with the same level of dignity and respect.”

Thomas-Greenfield’s Return to Foreign Service

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Thomas-Greenfield by a vote of 78-20. It marks a return to a career of foreign service where she excels.

Just three years ago, she was one of hundreds of career diplomats forced out of the State Department by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The dismissals, which included most of the top African American and Latino diplomats, as well as many women, represented “difficult losses in a department that has long struggled with diversity,” noted The New York TimesThomas-Greenfield will be the third African American, and the second African American woman, to hold the post of U.N. ambassador. 

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Her decades of diplomacy will be put to good use on a myriad of critical issues. Chief among them will be ensuring equal access to vaccines and promoting inclusive and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and fighting climate change. 

Like many of Biden’s nominees, Thomas-Greenfield will hit the ground running. As America’s representative, she “will assume leadership of the U.N. Security Council on March 1—the global organization’s top decision-making body—before the boxes of her 40th floor apartment overlooking the Hudson River are even unpacked,” reports Politico.

"Diplomacy is back. Multilateralism is back. America is back." — Linda Thomas-Greenfield on Twitter
“Diplomacy is back. Multilateralism is back. America is back.” (Linda Thomas-Greenfield / Twitter)

The outgoing U.N. Security Council leader, U.K. Ambassador Barbara Woodwardtold Politico the U.K. is excited to work with Thomas-Greenfield, “in particular on shared priorities such as climate and COVID-19.” Last week, Woodward “succeeded in pushing climate change onto the agenda of the Security Council, in a debate led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which also featured the Biden administration’s new climate envoy, John Kerry.”

“This confirmation sends a message that the United States is back and that our foreign service is back,” U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, global health and global human rights, told the Associated Press.

“We as a country and as a world are safer with Linda Thomas-Greenfield serving as the United States ambassador to the United Nations,” Bass added.

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, a heartfelt feminist welcome to the table.

Onward!

Up next:


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About

Pat Mitchell is the editorial director of TEDWomen. Throughout her career as a journalist, Emmy-winning producer and pioneering executive, she has focused on sharing women’s stories. She is chair of the Sundance Institute Board, the chair emerita of the Women’s Media Center board, and a trustee of the VDAY movement, the Skoll Foundation and The Woodruff Arts Center. She is an advisor to Participant Media and served as a congressional appointment to the American Museum of Women’s History Advisory Council.