This article was written for ShareAmerica by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary for African affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
Like all countries, America has faced times of trial and struggle, yet it has prevailed due to a strength that is derived from its diversity. Its citizens celebrate this strength during Black History Month, when we honor contributions made by African Americans — including in the areas of civil rights and diplomacy.
For many decades, America’s diplomatic corps was the domain of white men from Ivy League schools in New England. When I joined the U.S. diplomatic corps (which we call the Foreign Service) in the early 1980s, as an African-American woman from the small town of Baker, Louisiana, I was different from the typical diplomat at the time. I also knew that my background and perspectives were important parts of America’s story.
The Foreign Service did have African-American trailblazers — among them statesman and Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche; Terence Todman, named a career ambassador by President George H.W. Bush; Edward Perkins, who represented this country at the U.N. after serving in several diplomatic posts; and Ruth A. Davis, who worked tirelessly to increase diversity among the diplomatic corps. These trailblazers taught me that simply by representing my country overseas, I could help foreign citizens better understand U.S. values and history.
By the time I became the director of the Foreign Service three decades later, U.S. diplomats were more diverse in terms of racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender, religion and sexual orientation.
But the Foreign Service still has a ways to go. We need to ensure that our diplomatic corps is truly representative of all the people of the United States of America. Recruitment of diverse, highly qualified candidates remains a priority. To show the world what the United States looks like, we must inspire young Americans from diverse backgrounds to see themselves as the face of America to the world.
Our Pickering and Rangel fellowships and the U.S. Foreign Service Internship Program aim to increase diversity in the Foreign Service by targeting bright students from many backgrounds, providing them exposure to diplomatic work. They learn how diplomats promote peace, support prosperity and protect American citizens around the world.
Black History Month is a time to honor diversity in the U.S. and around the world. If you are interested in public service, consider the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Make a career out of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in.”