Linda Thomas-Greenfield grew up in Louisiana, “in a segregated town in which the KKK regularly would come on weekends and burn a cross in somebody’s yard,” she recounted in a TED Talk in 2018. Neither of her parents graduated high school.
Attending Louisiana State University in the early 1970s, she encountered a “hostile environment” where she faced harassment and racism.
She was forced out at the outset of the Trump administration after a decades-long career at the State Department.
Now Thomas-Greenfield is poised to take on one of her country’s most senior diplomatic jobs as President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be US ambassador to the United Nations.
“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 said on Tuesday after being introduced by Biden at an event in Wilmington, Delaware.
Current and former US foreign service officers praised Thomas-Greenfield as an ideal candidate to restore the standing of the US and rebuild credibility at the venerable multilateral institution. The Trump administration has severed ties with a number of key UN agencies over the past four years – cutting funding to and starting the process of withdrawing from the World Health Organization, for example, and leaving the Human Rights Council – and frequently lambasted the organization
The foreign service officers who spoke with CNN hailed the choice of a career diplomat for the role. And given the State Department’s reputation for being “pale, male and Yale,” particularly among its leadership, several people said Biden’s choice of a Black woman for the job sends an important message.
“Just having a Black woman heading the transition and likely heading the US mission in New York is a big deal,” one senior diplomat told CNN. “And to have it be a Black woman who was fired by Trump, that’s even more of a statement.”
Thomas-Greenfield began her career in the foreign service in 1982. In her 35-year tenure she served as the director general of the Foreign Service, held an ambassadorship in Liberia and postings in Geneva, Pakistan, Kenya, Gambia, Nigeria and Jamaica, and was the top diplomat in the Bureau of African Affairs.
She retired in 2017, after being pushed out of the department under then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and joined the Albright Stonebridge Group as a senior vice president and head of Africa practice.
She’s a “real professional and a genuinely good and decent human being, and I think we’ve, sort of, haven’t had those characteristics at the leadership levels the last couple of years,” said former career ambassador Lewis Lukens.
A current diplomat who knows Thomas-Greenfield called her a “brilliant choice” for the job, adding that she had left the State Department as a “beloved” figure.
Retired Ambassador Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy – of which Thomas-Greenfield is a member – told CNN that she “is very well-poised” for the UN ambassadorship.
He also noted that “she clearly has the confidence” of the Biden team, as she is also serving as the head of their State Department Agency Review Team during the transition. She was in contact with the State Department transition team on Monday evening following the General Services Administration’s decision that Biden could begin the transition process, according to a senior State Department official with knowledge of the transition.
Many see Thomas-Greenfield’s candidacy for the UN ambassador job, along with that of Antony Blinken for secretary of state, as a move to return to a more traditional foreign policy approach. In her remarks Tuesday, she declared that “America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back.”
“The challenges we face – a global pandemic, the global economy, the global climate crisis, mass migration and extreme poverty, social justice – are unrelenting and interconnected,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “But they’re not unsolvable if America is leading the way.”
She also reflected on her parents, who she said gave her and her siblings “everything they had.”
“I know how proud they would be of this day,” she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where Thomas-Greenfield served as US ambassador. She was US ambassador to Liberia.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.