Diversifying Diplomacy: Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas

Last Tuesday evening, the Friends of the Shepherd Library hosted Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas, the former US Ambassador to Senegal, in the latest iteration of their Book Talk series.


Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas spoke on “Cultural Competence in Foreign Affairs” based on her new book Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar.

Diversifying Diplomacy tells the story of Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas, a young black woman who beat the odds and distinguished herself with a foreign service career. Elam-Thomas served as a United States ambassador to Senegal (2000–2002) and retired with the rank of career minister after forty-two years as a diplomat. Today, she directs the Diplomacy Program at the University of Central Florida, where she inspires generations of future foreign diplomats

Not All Cocktail Parties and Receptions

Ambassador Elam-Thomas delighted the audience at the event with many stories of her time serving in the diplomatic corps.  But she was quick to let us know that the job was no easy task.  “Diplomacy and being a diplomat is not all cocktail parties and receptions,” she recalled. “It’s a dangerous business. I remember calling the ambassador to Nigeria when I first arrived in Senegal and said, ‘People are a little cool and don’t really seem to want to stand up when I walk into a room.’  Well, not only was a woman, I was a woman of color, representing the president of the United States.  And the good ambassador said, ‘Welcome to our world!'”

That was the year 2000.  She said that women are still having a challenge today running embassies around the world.  She went on to say that over her career she felt more resistance to her authority due the fact that she was a woman than being African-American.

Roxbury Roots

Elam-Thomas grew up in Boston, Massachusetts in the predominantly Black Roxbury neighborhood.  She was the youngest of five siblings, including her oldest brother Harry, who went on to become an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court.  Her high-achieving family helped to shape her foundation.  She followed her brothers’ footsteps and attended Boston’s renown Latin School. However, after twelve weeks of school she declared, “I CANNOT LEARN LATIN!” and begged her parents to transfer (Little did she know that she would later become fluent in French, Turkish and Greek).

Harriet Elam in Paris
Harriet Elam in Paris

They allowed her to switch to the Roxbury Memorial High School for Girls where she thrived academically.  She really came into her own when she graduated with six scholarships in hand and matriculated to Simmons College.  During her first summer, she participated in a Living Abroad program in Lyon, France, which truly opened her world view.

Running a Tight Ship

Throughout her diplomatic career, Ambassador Elam-Thomas placed a heavy emphasis on professionalism and getting the details correct.  “There weren’t going to be any security violations or administrative violations my watch,” she stated.  “My name is at the bottom of every message going out of this embassy. No one back in Washington is going to assume that a foreign national who works in the embassy wrote the telegram and give them a pass, when they know that ‘E-L-A-M’ belongs to a woman of color who happens to be the Ambassador of Senegal.”

Even when service stations provided note takers, she took her own notes, in shorthand, in French or Turkish, to ensure that the message was received accurately.

At a time when desk officers were generally assigned to cover the political, economic and cultural movements of one country, she was tasked with three, including Greece and Turkey.  In many ways, she served during the “Golden Age of Diplomacy” when American interests often collided with those of their Soviet-Bloc counterparts. Her efforts included countering negative propaganda about our nation.

Ambassador Elam in Senegal
Ambassador Elam in Senegal

She also had the solemn duty to protect the well-being of American students, tourists and expatriates during the September 11th tragedy.   After the event resolved, she received the heartfelt and earnest condolences from the Senegalese government and many of the other ambassadors on behalf of our nation.

The Next Generation

Once Ambassador Elam-Thomas retired from foreign service, she looked forward to a life of relaxation, but instead was recruited to serve as the “Diplomat-in-Residence” at the Diplomacy Program at the University of Central Florida.  She has helped to build that program into one of the premier pipelines for foreign service professionals outside of the elite East and West Coast universities.  UCF is a large school that serves many first-generation college students, and this alternate background increases the opportunity for diversity in our foreign service ranks. “We need the perspective that comes from outside of the Beltway,” she stated.

She is a hands-on teacher and often runs simulations for her students so that they can get a real feel for life in a busy embassy:  “What do you do when you have a Secretary of State visiting your country and there is a cholera outbreak on the border? She’s landing in 48 hours. Do you have her still come?”  These practical exercises have helped to prepare many highly honored students and boosted the interest in the program overall.


The Ambassador held an extensive Question and Answer period with the audience and engaged many former State Department colleagues and friends who came to visit.

Ambassador Howard Jeter
Ambassador Howard Jeter adds a follow-up to a question about bringing more minority and rural youth into the foreign service.

One question asked how we can increase the level of interest for foreign service among all young people, but especially minorities and people from rural areas of the country.  Neighbor and former Ambassador to Nigeria, Howard Jeter, was there to relay his experience rising from poverty in pre-civil rights South Carolina.  During his college years, he traveled to Africa and built his expertise.  He said, “If you have the drive, the ambition, the determination, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is what’s in your brain and what’s driving you.”


Author’s Series Success

Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas and Savannah

This lecture was a delightful entry into the Friends of Shepherd Park Library’s Author’s Series. Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas was engaging, warm and happy to share many stories that highlighted points in her impressive career. My daughter has an interest in foreign service and that interest has only been heightened since this talk. I personally thank the Ambassador for her visit and wish her the greatest success with her book and her efforts to spread the message about foreign service to new communities.

Here is an oral history that Harriet Elam-Thomas conducted for The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

Fun Fact: Ambassador Elam-Thomas is the aunt of one of the greatest Hip-Hop lyricists who ever lived: Keith Elam, better known by his stage name Guru, of the group Gang Starr.




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