Conversations With America: Diversifying the Department of State

Cheryl Benton
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources
Washington, DC
March 20, 2013

MS. BENTON:  I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs, and I’d like to welcome you to Conversations with America.

Today I’m joined by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Linda serves as Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources. We will be discussing the Department of State’s recruiting efforts to ensure that this agency represents America across the world and accurately reflects the face of America. She will also be sharing insight into her career as an American diplomat.

We have received questions and comments on today’s topic from around the country through our blog, DipNote, and we have selected several for this broadcast.

To be prepared for the next century’s challenges, the United States needs a diplomatic corps with diverse backgrounds, substantive expertise, and broad intellectual interest. As an organization, we are becoming ever more diverse, and Director General Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s presence here today is an affirmation of our goal to reach out across America to those interested in international affairs.

Ambassador, thank you so much for coming and joining us today.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you so much for inviting me.

MS. BENTON: Absolutely. We’re just thrilled. And I wanted to start off by asking you to talk just a little bit about your background and what led you to become an American diplomat. And I want to add, it’s something a lot of people just don’t know about.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, you’re right. There are a lot of people who don’t know about it. And I didn’t know about it. I was – happened to be in many right places at the right time. I, in my early education, got the opportunity to travel to Africa, where I was working on a dissertation with the University of Wisconsin. And there in Liberia I met diplomats who were working at the U.S. Embassy, and became very interested in what they were doing. And although my intent was to go into academics, I took the Foreign Service exam and ended up here more than 30 years later. It had not been my plan. I meet a lot of my colleagues who tell me they wanted to be in the Foreign Service when they were in 3rd grade.

I had no idea what the Foreign Service was in 3rd grade or even earlier. But I do think that I had an interest in international relations at an early age. And when I was in 8th grade, I had the pleasure and the opportunity to be introduced to Peace Corps. The Peace Corps sent a training – a group of Peace Corps volunteers who were training to go to Africa that were going to Somalia and Swaziland to the small community that I grew up in in Louisiana. And in this very small, segregated community, 50, 60 multiracial groups of Peace Corps volunteers, along with Africans who were training them, showed up, and they changed our lives (inaudible).

One, they introduced me and the other members of my community to the world outside of little Baker, Louisiana, where I grew up, but they also brought new ideas. We were still living with the “Colored Only” signs and “White Only” signs throughout the community, and these were people who came from all over the United States, including all over the world, and they weren’t about to accept that. And initially, us people in this little small community starting thinking these people are going to cause us a problem.

MS. BENTON: Right, exactly.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: But they went about integrating a lot of facilities that we had never had access to. And I will never forget that. And the story ends kind of beautifully because when I was on my second assignment in Nigeria in the mid-1980s, my boss asked me where I was from, and I said, “I’m from Louisiana,” and he said, “I’ve been there.” And I said, “Where?” And he said, “I lived in a small town called Baker, Louisiana.” (Laughter.) And I just thought he was joking.

MS. BENTON: (Inaudible.)

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: But he knew I was from Baker, Louisiana. And he said, “No, I worked in Peace Corps.” And I immediately remembered him and told him the impact that Peace Corps had on our small community. And that’s when I got started.

The story’s much longer than that, but it started at an early age, an interest in the international relations and international politics, in the geography of the world, and then having the opportunity to go to Africa when I was in my early 20s.

MS. BENTON: And the rest is history. (Inaudible.)

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And the rest is history. I’ve been in 31 years.

MS. BENTON: Oh, is that – oh, that’s a long stint.


MS. BENTON: That’s a long stint. You were sworn in as Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources in 2012. Can you tell us just a bit about your role in that capacity and some of your top priorities, which I know that you are deeply committed to.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, I like to tell people that the Director General’s office is responsible for employees who come into the Department from birth to death.

MS. BENTON: There you go. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We recruit the new people who come into the Service. We deploy them. We train them. We reward them, and assign them all over the world, and when it’s time to end their careers in what I hope will be a 20- to 30-year career, as I’ve had, we retire them with honor. If we have to, before we retire them, we have the responsibility of firing and disciplining them.

And then the other part of it is sometimes sad, the responsibility to bury our colleagues. I do participate yearly in the AFSA ceremony for colleagues who have lost their lives in the line of duty. I participate in the Memorial Day ceremony for our colleagues who have since died. And if the unfortunate situation should occur when one of our employees is injured or killed overseas, I want to be in touch with family members and their colleagues to make sure they’re doing okay. So from birth to the end.

MS. BENTON: And often it’s very hard.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And often it’s very hard, no matter how --

MS. BENTON: How it ends? Right.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Because this is really a lifestyle that we have, and it involves our family members. And so you talk to me about – you asked me about my priorities. Well, my priority is the commitment to providing and supporting 21st century diplomacy through bringing in the right people into the Foreign Service and helping prepare them to carry out our Foreign Policy goals in the 21st century.

MS. BENTON: Yeah. One of the neat things I was really excited about is talking to you as really the face of diplomacy. It hasn’t always looked the way you look, and so that was a thrill.

Secretary Kerry is committed to merit-based workforce – to a merit-based workforce that reflects the diversity of America. So why is diversity so important?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Diversity is so important because it represents what America represents. We are a diverse country. We are a diverse society. And our Foreign Service needs to represent the face of America. People need to know what America means, what America is. And America is not just a single face. If we look at the Foreign Service of the 1970s, it was a single face. I – amazingly, in 1972, women were required to leave the Foreign Service if they got married.

MS. BENTON: No kidding?


MS. BENTON: Oh, my.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The 1980 Foreign Service Act actually changed all of that, and it requires that the Foreign Service reflects the face of America both regionally as well as ethnically. And so this has been a challenge for us, to make sure that the world understands when we talk about inclusion that we show the face of inclusion and we represent inclusion to the world. And if we are going to represent inclusion, we have to show faces like my face --

MS. BENTON: That’s right.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: -- and faces like other multi-ethnic faces of America to the world so that they know that we are an inclusive society.

MS. BENTON: Well, it’s an exciting time, I’m sure, to be in the Foreign Service. And so my next question is, what steps are we taking here at the Department to diversify? Because I think it was former Secretary Clinton remarks that talent is universal, but opportunity is not. And I know that in your role you provide that opportunity.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We have a number of programs where we are trying to get the word out about the State Department, because part of our diversity challenge is the fact that people don’t know that the State Department, that foreign affairs diplomacy exists as a job opportunity. So my major challenge as Director General is to get that message across out across the United States. So I take very seriously my responsibility as the top recruiter. Well, the Secretary is actually the top recruiter. But I’m there, and I do take it seriously.

So I was in Texas last week visiting universities in south Texas. I visited Austin and San Antonio and Dallas. The first of April I’m going to be going to be going to Georgia, visiting historical black colleges and universities as well as some of the major other colleges and universities in the Georgia area. In Texas, I participated in the meeting of the Hispanic colleges and universities. And we tried to get out the message in our recruitment efforts.

We’ll also have two very premier recruitment tools that we use to recruit diverse populations, and that is the Pickering scholarship and the Rangel scholarship, where we bring in young people from all races to – and all ethnic backgrounds and regions into the State Department. And this program has provided us about 20 percent of our diversity at the entry level.

MS. BENTON: Oh, and is this post-college or graduate school? Or how does it --

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We actually provide a scholarship. Part of the Pickering scholarship can pay for the last year of college and one year of a graduate program. The Rangel fellowship pays for a graduate degree as well. And we start – as soon as these young people come into these programs, we start mentoring them. And they get two internships with the Department, one in Washington and one overseas. And they have shown us to be very successful in their careers and they are very key to our diversity recruitment goals.

MS. BENTON: Very good. So what challenges does the Department face in achieving full representation? And I know that’s a tough question, because I don’t know that you ever get the 100 percent representation.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I don’t think we’ll ever get to 100 percent, but we’re working toward that goal. You have to continue to work toward that goal. And I think our biggest challenge is just getting the message out. And we have some new innovative tools to get that message out. We have a new mobile app that we are using to reach diverse populations. We have an award-winning website, –

MS. BENTON: There you go.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: -- if you’re interested, that shows people who are interested in foreign affairs everything there is to know about foreign affairs. But it’s not just the State Department. My name is the State Department. But we want to encourage young people to develop an interest in the world, whether State Department or other foreign affairs agencies or the United Nations. We have a goal as a government to place more Americans of diverse backgrounds into UN jobs as well. And those people make perfect Foreign Service officers.

And my best recruitment tool is Peace Corps. So young people going into Peace Corps show that they have the tenacity and the innovation and creativity that we want in the Foreign Service. So when I’m asked what’s the best preparation for the Foreign Service, I always say Peace Corps.

MS. BENTON: Oh, wow. That’s great.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And I’ve never done Peace Corps. I was never a Peace Corps volunteer. But this goes back to me being an 8th grader watching Peace Corps prepare its young people to go overseas.

MS. BENTON: Oh, good. Before we get to our questions that have come in from all across the country, you mentioned you traveled to Texas and Georgia. Do you travel much overseas?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I do travel overseas. I just came back from a trip to San Salvador and Mexico City and I visited two of the constituency posts in Mexico. And I was just astounded by the sizes of those operations in terms of their ability to support and their capacity to support all of our visa requirements there. They issued over a million visas, and I’m probably even cutting them short on their – on those numbers, but huge operations staffed by young, very innovative, very exciting people, as well as our great locally engaged staff, our Mexican staff.

And I go to raise the flag, so that they know that we know what they’re doing out there. We want to make sure that they know that their voices are heard. They need to see senior people coming out to see them. And so I try to travel about once a quarter overseas.

MS. BENTON: Oh, that’s nice. And I’m sure they are so excited that they’re appreciated.


MS. BENTON: So as I mentioned, we’ve received questions from DipNote on today’s topic. And I want to go to Sterling in Maryland who asks: Ambassador, could you discuss how you came to implement President Obama’s executive order regarding recruiting and hiring students and recent graduates in the New Pathways Program?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, I can start by saying that this is a great question to ask, because we are very committed to the Pathways Program. We’re actively recruiting in all three of the Pathway Programs, the President Management Fellows Program, the Recent Graduates Program, as well as through internships. And I am sure that many in the audience and who are watching this have seen our announcements of the various opportunities.

Currently we have over 500 Pathway interns on board, and we’re recruiting approximately 100 more in the coming year alone. We’ve offered Pathway Recent Graduate Program appointments to 10 candidates. And we have requests from the Office of Consular Affairs, because of their increased workload, for passports and passport and visa specialists. They’ve asked for 80 new recent grads. So again, we are actively recruiting in these programs, and I look forward to seeing applications from others who might be interested in participating.

I’ll mention that we have 50 Pathway Presidential Management fellows this year, and this is a great program that we also use as a pathway to come into the Foreign Service.

MS. BENTON: Okay. Wow, it’s pretty robust, then. Thanks. So Karen in California asks: Budget cuts may affect many military officers over the next few years. Some with less than 20 years of service may be in danger of losing all of their retirement pay. Many are talented individuals with vast experience. Is there a plan to transition veterans into State while preserving their retirement pay and counting those years of prior service to our country?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s a great question. I am so happy to be asked that question, because we so appreciate what our men and women in uniform do to support us overseas. And yes, the answer to your question is that we are looking at all kinds of programs to facilitate bringing the military into the State Department. I will be, on April 10th, hosting a ceremony here at the Department to mark the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on Beds* for Vets hiring initiative between the Department of State and the Department of Veterans Affairs. This MOU will permit us to work together more closely toward our common goal of increasing the number of veterans who are working in the Department of State and across the federal government. I also have someone on my staff who is totally committed to working with veterans and hiring veterans and assisting veterans to come into the Department to work.

Any veteran who has retired from the military, we believe if they’ve had an honorable service that they are already prepared to come into the Foreign Service, and we’re looking for ways to provide those opportunities to veterans. They do get the veterans planks* for Civil Service positions that are provided as well as to enter the register for the Foreign Service.

MS. BENTON: Well, I think that’s wonderful, because when veterans come back their skillset is amazing, and the fact that we make a special place for them at the State Department is outstanding.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And we have a number of colleagues – I have – currently have an Air Force colleague in my office who is one of my deputy assistant secretaries, and I meet my colleagues, veteran colleagues, from all over the – all over the United States in State Department positions, and they do, by the way, get to keep their retirement when they come into the Department.

MS. BENTON: Right. Because I know that’s what the questioner wanted to know. So Kate in Maryland asks: Can you share the criteria in hiring a person with disabilities?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s another great question. And we have a great office that deals with that, the State Department’s – we have a strategic recruiter and we have specialists in our Human Resources Office that deals with disabilities and provides reasonable accommodation for our staff. And our Office of Recruitment works closely with this office so that we can recruit. In fact, I’m very proud that the Department provides equal opportunity employment for all people without regard to race, color, disability, sex, national origin, you name it. We are an organization that cares about all of our people.

Secretary Kerry has recognized that in order for us to be an effective organization, we must draw on the skills of all Americans from all backgrounds, and that includes people with disabilities. So we’re making the inclusion of persons with disabilities an important element of the State Department’s recruitment policies and we’re working to ensure that we continue to recruit persons with disabilities.

I participated earlier this year in a program that brought in about 2,000 people – this is the Deaf Nation Expo – and we were – we attended that. And we also held our first-ever career fair for peoples with disabilities. And this was – it was – we had a great turnout for that event.

MS. BENTON: And on top of that, the President has appointed a special representative that deals with our policy – foreign policy around disabilities who has been – who came under the previous Secretary and is still serving.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And we meet with her regularly. And are we doing enough? We can always do better.

MS. BENTON: Right, right.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We are never sitting on our laurels assuming that we have done enough. We are constantly working to see how we can improve, how we can provide better accommodations for people with disabilities.

MS. BENTON: Very good. Now we have a question in from Matt in Wyoming: Secretary Kerry has been consistently referring to the Foreign Service as an investment with great returns. According to a recent article in the Foreign Affairs Journal, 28 percent of overseas posts are either vacant or filled with up-stretched candidates. Is the Department of State hoping to have a Foreign Service hiring surge in the first years of Secretary Kerry’s time in office, as we saw in the first year of Secretary Powell’s, Secretary Rice, and Secretary Clinton?

This is a great question here.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: This is a great question. These are the questions I would ask me if I were on the other side of the table. Let me just start by saying we are following the budget and sequester debates that are taking place very, very closely. So it’s not easy for me now to predict what will be the final spending bill for the Department of State.

That said, I know that Secretary Kerry and other senior leaders in the Department are committed to getting us the resources that we need to ensure that we have the people to do the jobs that we have been asked to do by the American people and by our government to fulfill the important missions that we have overseas. We have made various efforts to staff our people. Because of the hiring surges of previous years, we have a lot of entry-level people who are going into many of the more senior jobs, stretched into those jobs so that we can get those jobs staffed, and we’re doing our best to make sure that they are trained and they are prepared to do the jobs that they have been assigned to do.

I am committed to ensuring that we continue to hire. We will not be able to hire – at this point, I know we can’t hire at the levels that we were hiring at in previous years, but we do have a hiring plan that will allow us to continue to bring in entry-level officers, albeit at lower numbers than we’ve done in the past, so that we don’t end up with the staffing gaps that we’ve had in the past.

MS. BENTON: Right. The economic environment is just so unsettled that I’m sure that you are stretching as far as you can, but the reality is what it is.


MS. BENTON: Marjorie in North Carolina asks: Should the United States develop more soft diplomacy professionals to be deployed worldwide? Soft diplomacy.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, I’m trying – that’s an interesting question. I’m not quite sure what soft diplomacy is, but I know that we do it. (Laughter.)

MS. BENTON: Smart power, et cetera.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s smart power. And I think we are making sure we have soft diplomacy professionals. We have our professional diplomats, but we have a number of programs where we bring other American citizens through our public outreach programs overseas to really share the message of America overseas. We’re also using our family members in ways that we have not used our family members in the past, because they’re in the Foreign Service as well.

MS. BENTON: Exactly right.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And many of them bring very, very strong professional skills with them, and we’re looking at how we can better use their skills in professional positions overseas. So yes, we are looking at soft diplomacy ways of doing our business, and we know that the way we have done business in the past is going to change. We have to look at new ways of doing business, using the new technology that is out there that wasn’t out there 30 years ago when I came into the Foreign Service.

So, again, any new ideas that people have out there, share those with us, but we’re always looking for new, innovative ways to make sure that America’s message is heard loud and clear abroad.

MS. BENTON: Right. I had a lot of misconceptions before I came to the Department five years ago, but what I have learned since being here, something that you said at the top, is that it’s a family affair. It’s not just the person that passed the Foreign Service exam, but it’s the wife, the son, the daughter, so – and that’s just very encouraging.

So we have another question from Heather in Virginia, who asks: What is your outlook on the hiring of entry-level Foreign Service officer generalists? Will the A-100 classes be adversely affected by sequestration for this fiscal year as well as going forward?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Again, let me just say that we’re looking at the budget numbers very, very closely. We don’t know what will end up coming out of the budget for 2013. But our plan is to continue to bring in classes. We will not be able to bring them in in the large numbers that we brought them in during the diplomacy 3.0 hiring surge that we had that started in 2008. From 2008 to 2011, we had a goal of bringing in about 25 percent new Foreign Service officers. We’re at the 21 percent mark now. And unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to continue at those same levels.

And so we were fortunately approved for bringing a new A-100 class in in January of this year, and they’re in training now. We’re bringing another new class in in March. And we hope to bring in another class this summer as well as one in the fall. The classes will be smaller than previous classes, but again, our hope is to continue to bring classes in so that we don’t end up with a serious gap --

MS. BENTON: Exactly.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: -- as we had been in the past. So, yes, sequestration will affect the numbers that we will be bringing in, but we will continue to bring in classes so that we can continue to prepare people for the future.

MS. BENTON: That’s good news for me. So we’re at a place in the program that I don’t really like. We’re almost over. (Laughter.) So it’s actually time to conclude this session of Conversations with America.

I’d like to ask the Ambassador if you would share your final thoughts.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, let me just say I always see an opportunity like this as a recruitment opportunity. I’ve been in the Foreign Service for 31 years. It has been a wonderful career for me. I’ve enjoyed every single moment of representing the U.S. Government overseas – as an African American, as an American – to show the face of America to the world.

So I encourage any of the viewers who are thinking about the Foreign Service as a career to go onto our website, look at the various opportunities that we have there. And if this is something that you’re interested in doing, get in touch with us. It’s a great career. And there’s nothing for me that has made me more proud than working in a building that has the American flag flying over it, and I encourage everyone to consider public service as their future career.

MS. BENTON: Just a little add-on to that, one of your fellow Foreign Service officers said something that just – I just loved. He said when he was young, this was not the job he dreamed of, but it is his dream job --


MS. BENTON: -- because the Foreign Service is fabulous.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I will use that quote (inaudible).

MS. BENTON: Yes, please do, (inaudible).

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And thank you so much for inviting me and giving me this opportunity.

MS. BENTON: Oh, it’s been great. I really, really appreciate your doing this. And I sincerely thank you for joining us today. I believe the people have gained a great deal of insight into how the Department is working to diversify its workforce.

I’d like to also thank each of you for joining us today. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. And we look forward to engaging with you again very soon.

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