Tribute to Congressman Charles B. Rangel

Heather Higginbottom
Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources 
Washington, DC
September 6, 2016

As Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon, and welcome to the State Department. Thank you all for being here – we have members of the Thursday Luncheon Group, members of the Association of Black American Ambassadors; Pickering, Payne, Mandela, and Rangel Fellows and Scholars, and of course, the Congressman himself! We’re also pleased to welcome Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and President Emeritus of Howard University Patrick Swygert, a co-founder of the Rangel Fellows program.

Congressman, we know how busy you are – we really appreciate you making the time to join us today. And we’re thrilled to have this opportunity to recognize and celebrate your incredible work.

“Congressman” doesn’t seem really an adequate description to encompass the story of someone who rose from humble beginnings to the highest levels of power; to a career that has touched all three branches of the Federal government as well as the state government in New York – that’s 55 years of service.

In that time, Congressman Rangel has improved the lives of millions of people, both in his district and around the world. And he has helped reshape our government, in particular the State Department.

Today, I want to talk about his impact on the world through his influence on U.S. foreign policy, and his impact on this 227-year-old institution.

Congressman, I imagine that you, like most of your colleagues, pursued office because you saw people in your city, in your district, who were struggling, and you wanted to help them. And certainly, you have. But your compassion extended well-beyond the borders of your district, and even our country.

Congressman Rangel was stirred to action by the injustice of apartheid in South Africa, bringing his perspective, his understanding of our country’s painful experiences with race and what it takes to create positive change, and a compassion for oppressed people everywhere, to aid the struggle of oppressed people half a world away. With a strategy of discouraging investment and with tenacity – it took ten years – he passed a law to encourage divestment, putting one of the final nails in the coffin of apartheid.

As democracy took hold in South Africa, and other sub-Saharan African countries worked to develop economically and politically, Congressman Rangel went to the economic toolkit again, writing and shepherding into law the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Thanks to this legislation, American trade with and investment in sub-Saharan Africa more than tripled – progress we’re continuing to build on today.

Closer to home, Congressman Rangel was instrumental in expanding the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which similarly helps these small island nations do more business with the U.S. He took a special interest in Haiti after the devastating earthquake there in 2010, encouraging private charity through accelerated income tax benefits to meet the staggering needs of the Haitian people.

His legacy in foreign policy will continue to help millions around the world. And his impact on the State Department will also continue to grow.

Why is increasing the diversity of our senior leaders such a priority? Because we know that in an increasingly complex world, our diplomats are called upon to communicate across cultures. And when our teams represent a broad cross section of American society – already skilled in putting themselves in other peoples’ shoes – we are better able to understand and appreciate alternative perspectives, leading to more creative and effective policy approaches.

Of course, Congressman Rangel understands all this – and he was in a position to do something about it. So he got to work, talking to the Department, working with his Capitol Hill colleagues, and drafting legislation, which led to the Rangel Fellowship and Summer Enrichment Programs. Now through these programs, we are practicing at home what we preach abroad; we are identifying and overcoming the barriers to building the Foreign Service workforce we need.

We’re getting information about our careers to diverse audiences, students and professionals alike, convincing them to apply, helping them afford grad school, and providing them mentorship and support. These are all proven steps that will help create a workforce that better reflects the faces of America.

A total of 164 Rangel fellows are now in the Foreign Service. The first Rangel Fellows class in 2003 had six members; the next had ten; we’ve increased to 30; right now, we’re working with the Hill to get more and hope to see that number double once again.

Hiring good people is only the first step. We’re also working to build an inclusive culture at every level that provides equal opportunities to advance to leadership.

In addition to the mentoring and other support I mentioned, we’re talking to people who do choose to leave, to learn from their experiences. We’re gathering data from that effort that will drive further changes.

This is part of a larger drive to improve the quality and availability of our data on diversity. And we are developing training on recognizing and dealing with unconscious bias and examining a range of inputs on recruitment and retention.

With Rangel Fellows and Scholars like all of you here today and out in the field, and support from leaders in Congress and the Department, I’m confident we’ll build on Congressman Rangel’s legacy to ensure that the future of foreign policy is led by and linked ever more closely to all of America’s communities, in all their rich diversity.

So let me thank you, Congressman Rangel, for your vision of a better world and a better State Department, your leadership to make it happen, and your career of service to all Americans, and to people struggling with poverty and oppression around the world. You inspire us all. Thank you.

And now, LaJune Barnes from the Board of the Rangel, Pickering and Payne Fellows Association, will share a few thoughts.