Linda Thomas-Greenfield has traveled all over the world: Kenya, Pakistan, Switzerland, Wisconsin. But she has a habit of winding up in places she’s been before.
For example, this May she gave the commencement address at the high school in the small Louisiana town where she grew up. Thomas-Greenfield, who is black, had been barred from attending the school when she was a teenager. When she returned this spring, she had a 32-year career in the Foreign Service and the title of assistant secretary of state for African affairs to her name.
This week, she adds another bullet point to her résumé: Thomas-Greenfield’s office is helping to orchestrate the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which began Monday.
Preparing for the summit doesn’t leave much time for reflection — Thomas-Greenfield hasn’t even had a chance to eat lunch. But, sitting in a State Department conference room Sunday night, on the eve of her biggest day on the job so far, the diplomat admires the way her career seems to double back on itself.
“I do feel like there’s some concentric circles that are happening in my life,” she says.
Growing up in the South during the civil rights era, Thomas-Greenfield did not envision becoming an ambassador or working at the State Department. She couldn’t even imagine traveling to Africa.
But in the early 1960s, the Peace Corps opened a training facility for Somalia and
Swaziland-bound volunteers in her hometown of Baker. Thomas-Greenfield recalls being somewhat bewildered by the volunteers, who “galvanized” the community by protesting the segregation of local businesses. But she was also deeply impressed. At 13, she decided she would become one of them — an exotic notion for a girl who would be the first person in her family to graduate from high school and one of few in her town to leave it.
When she graduated from her still-segregated high school in 1970, she chose to attend Louisiana State University rather than a nearby historically black college.
“I didn’t want to go where everyone else was going,” she says.
She often wondered whether she had made a mistake. When she got an F in a class — a disgrace that still rankles — her professor told her that if she didn’t know why she had gotten it, she probably shouldn’t be at the school. The implied message: She should have gone to the historically black school instead.
To her relief, Thomas-Greenfield made it to graduation (and she’d be back, 38 years later, to give LSU’s commencement address, another concentric circle). She entered a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where a year-long fellowship to do political science research in Liberia convinced her that diplomacy was the career for her.
Instead of finishing her dissertation, Thomas-Greenfield took the Foreign Service exam, and by 1982 had her first international posting: a position as a consular officer in Kingston, Jamaica.
Thomas-Greenfield then spent the next 10 years working at embassies in Africa, first Nigeria, then Gambia and Kenya.
The last job was the most difficult. While Thomas-Greenfield was on a trip to assess Rwanda’s refugee situation in 1994, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, sparking the country’s months-long genocide. Thomas-Greenfield was caught in the middle: Mistaken for Tutsi, the ethnic group that constituted most of the victims of the genocide, she was held at gunpoint until she managed to convince her attackers that she was an American.
The experience, combined with the racism she encountered as an ambassador in Kenya, soured Thomas-Greenfield’s opinion of serving in Africa. A 1994 Washington Post article about her experience reported that she was feeling “burnt out, fed up and ready to go home.”
Those feelings were short-lived, she says, but they did leave her wondering: Why was it that Africans treated her so differently than her white colleagues?
“I sometimes think that the reason I was mistaken for a Rwandan is because other countries don’t expect that an American diplomat is black,” she says.
Thomas-Greenfield kept returning to that concern even after she was assigned away from the region in 1996. When she was appointed director general of the Foreign Service, in 2012, she made recruiting a diverse pool of diplomats a priority. She spent the year traveling to places that reminded her of her home town, talking about diplomacy with high-schoolers who, just as she had been, were unaware of what the Foreign Service was.
When Secretary of State John F. Kerry asked her to leave that job to lead the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, she had to be talked into the position. Gregarious and easygoing — while serving as an ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012, she would invite foreign leaders to discuss policy in her kitchen as she cooked them a pot of gumbo — Thomas-Greenfield wanted to interact with people, not jump between meetings. But she couldn’t resist an opportunity to refocus on the continent that has interested her since she was 13.
Thomas-Greenfield was sworn in on Aug. 6, 2013, and on Monday, the first day of the three-day summit that she jokes is her “anniversary gift,” her schedule is measured in 15-minute increments. When an elevator doesn’t arrive within 30 seconds of pressing the “down” button, she heads toward the stairs.
As she speed-walks down the hall, a passing colleague asks: “Are you having fun?” Thomas-Greenfield waves a hand.
“But it’s your week,” he insists.
Wryly, she repeats: “It’s my week.”
Although the summit was conceived by President Obama before Thomas-Greenfield took her current post, it’s true that this week is largely hers. Her goal for the event is much the same as her goal for the Africa bureau: to establish relationships with African countries that go beyond responding to the latest political or humanitarian emergency.
“When I first took the job, I naively said I’m not going to be chasing crises,” she says. “I wanted to think strategically.”
Thomas-Greenfield explains this while en route from a meeting at the State Department to a speech at the World Bank. With one hand, she scrolls through a news alert about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa on her phone; with the other, she gestures around the car.
“Clearly, you have to do both.”