The Wisconsin Alumni Association celebrated the fifth anniversary of Alumni Park on Friday, honoring 11 new distinguished alumni with park exhibits and an awards ceremony. Among the honorees was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
Thomas-Greenfield was among many notable alumni being honored at the event. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Geraldine Hines and Tony-winning actor André De Shields were also recognized.
It was Thomas-Greenfield’s first time leaving her home state of Louisiana when she attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate school, she said during the award ceremony. After receiving her Masters in Public Administration in 1975, the ambassador started her 35-year-long career with the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat stationed all over the world.
“This was a campus where every issue in every country was being talked about in the streets,” Thomas-Greenfield said of her time at the university. “[The campus] was the center of liberalism, hippie culture and people who were ready to fight for all of the global issues.”
Thomas-Greenfield described walking down State Street and being “introduced to the world every single day” by the countless protests held for international issues in the 1970s. Such a progressive city stood in contrast to the ambassador’s hometown of Clark, Louisiana, where she graduated from a still-segregated high school in 1970.
The ambassador also pursued her undergraduate degree at Louisiana State University, where Thomas-Greenfield said racism and exclusion were the norm in the early 1970s. She said attending UW-Madison was her first time interacting with white people.
“I come to this campus and I have a completely different experience. It was almost traumatizing to me, to come to this campus and experience the openness,” she said.
However, UW-Madison was not exempt from racial discrimination, and Thomas-Greenfield said the only time she was called the N-word was on campus in Madison.
“It was more shocking than if it had happened to me in Louisiana, because in Louisiana I expected it. In Madison I didn't expect it,” she said. “I think it was a one-off because it never happened to me again. I always felt welcome, I always felt embraced in this community.”
In January 2021, Thomas-Greenfield was appointed the U.S. ambassador to the UN by President Joe Biden, and has since been at the center of U.S. relations abroad, including American diplomacy and intervention in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Thomas-Greenfield has come to be known for her self-invented “gumbo diplomacy” approach to foreign relations, where kindness and compassion are emphasized when negotiating with other world leaders.
“I have always felt that in dealing with foes, sometimes the best weapon you can have, that will take them completely off guard, is kindness and engaging,” she said. “You're not going to have an impact if you don't engage. That's what diplomacy is about.”