As a young girl growing up in Baker, one of my biggest dreams was joining the Peace Corps. As the oldest of eight children, I always had a strong sense of responsibility and curiosity. I became enamored with the idea of the Peace Corps from joining a group of trainees who were stationed at nearby Leland College for their language training, and learned to speak Swati along the way.
I didn’t end up serving in the Peace Corps, but after graduating from Louisiana State University in 1974 I landed a scholarship that would take me to the University of Wisconsin, which led me to a grant to conduct research in West Africa. Little did I know that would lead to a bustling 35-year career in the United States Foreign Service, including posts as U.S. ambassador to Liberia and director-general of the Foreign Service. Though I closed my Foreign Service career in 2017 as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, I know much work still lies ahead of me.
With a little less than a month until the 2020 presidential election, I have dedicated significant time and energy to encouraging others to get to the polls and vote. Growing up in the bends of southeastern Louisiana, where I saw the fear wrought by the KKK and felt the humiliation of “Whites only” signs, helped shape me into the leader I am today. It’s important to remember and honor the rich history that surrounds us no matter how far from the Mississippi we may be currently. When I think about the groundbreaking Baton Rouge bus boycotts of 1953 or the immense bravery of Ruby Bridges desegregating the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, I am reminded why I work so hard today and why it is so crucial that we exercise our right to vote.
This unique right, as we know well, has historically and categorically presented barriers to entry for African Americans across Louisiana and the rest of the country. During my 30 years spent across the continent of Africa, I witnessed the commitment of South Africans voting in the first free election in 1994 that put Nelson Mandela into office, and the long voting lines in Liberia that elected the first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Africans truly voted as if the outcome of their lives depended on it, and it very much did.
Louisianans, the same is at stake for you. What Africans saw that we can learn from and emulate were new opportunities and ways of living. Tradition is embedded in our culture and way of life, but if this hurricane season, lingering global health pandemic, and repeated attacks on Black bodies has shown us anything, it’s that we need to start opening our hearts and minds to a new path forward. I am confident that with more of us voting that path is in near sight.
As ambassador to Liberia, I was committed to inclusive foreign policy and national security. I preached it, practiced it, and implemented it during my entire career. But I often stood alone in this practice. The young girl from Baker in me did not imagine this career, and while I had few who looked like me at this level, I know the power that representation can bring to an agency like the State Department. My wish is for more girls from Baker and Baton Rouge to serve as United States ambassadors, diplomats, international aid workers, Fulbright Scholars and Peace Corps volunteers.
The November election is arguably the most important of our lifetime. Now is a perfect time to practice diplomacy by thinking globally and acting locally. Vote like your life depends on it and like you may wake up tomorrow as an ambassador. Your vote this election can influence having more people like me in jobs like mine than ever before. After all, the world can use a lot more Louisiana representation and “gumbo diplomacy” to represent our interests here and overseas.
Former Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is a senior vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group.