Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas * Email: * (407) 744-1261

Press Kit – Downloadable

“You really need to interview her.”  

The advice came from the head of the USIA Equal Employment Opportunity Office and the reason was that she had clearly succeeded.  The “her”  was Harriet Elam and she was in line to become the senior most Foreign Service Officer at the Agency.  She would soon be its Counselor.  And, many said,  an ambassadorship would be next.  

I was struck initially by the character of her office.  It was grand as government offices go, and clearly thought out.  A visitor would see the traces of service abroad, commendations, and above all just neat and proper.  What Harriet did not know is that I had just finished being given a tour of the old USIA/VOA headquarters by the then head of personnel.  The Wilbur J.  Cohen building had been constructed in 1940 and contained some famous Ben Shahn murals depicting the era of the New Deal.  

But my attention was directed to two water fountains, each just a few feet apart of the other.   “Remember” I was told, “the US government used to be segregated.  It started with Woodrow Wilson.  We had separate bathrooms and still have these separate fountains.”

Of course, I found their existence strange.  As well as this particular lesson in history. 

I got another lesson that day, when I made a casual remark about how elegant Harriet’s office appeared.  I expected she would then give me the tour of where she had been for each of the pictures and artifacts displayed.  Instead she said what made the office nice for her and others on the executive floor was how hard the cleaning staff worked to keep things clean.  “We all work pretty late into the evening.  And only when we go home do the cleaners get to start their work.  It isn’t easy and I am grateful to them every morning I come back in.”  Over the next 25 years, I would learn a lot from Harriet.  

The date of our first encounter was 1995 and I had been asked by the Director of the Agency, Joe Duffy, to conduct an independent study of the diversity of the USIA Foreign Service and to determine whether or not there  were equality of opportunity in promotions, salary, and awards.  Their ought to be, especially since the Foreign Service Act of 1980 had mandated that and required that  “the members of America’s Foreign Service should be representative of the American people.”

The report I submitted later was entitled “Separate and Unequal.”  I had found that at virtually every level in the service and at every opportunity to be recognized for an award, I would not want to change the color of my skin.  Sadly, I found that some them on duty also regarded it important that the two water fountains were kept as they were and said so openly.  And much worse.  And that they advanced much faster in their careers despite behavior and with attitudes that should have no place in our public service today no matter what President Wilson did or thought back then. 

Harriet’s book is about what a person can achieve and do when they don’t look like me.  And what we can all learn by their story and their leadership.  

Ever since proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, Americans have considered “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” as something requiring us to explain things.  We believe telling our story is important and that we need able diplomats who can do this to the many audiences and places where most of the people do not happen to look like me.  While I do not know the exact level of diversity in the Foreign Service today, I am fairly sure we are still far from the goal Congress intended and that we need more people just like Harriet willing to devote their lives to a very difficult task.  So this book ought to inspire as well as inform.  It does for me.  

As noted early on, diplomats need “a mixture of empathy, persuasion, bluster and courage.”  Amen.  They also need to be able to light up a room when they speak and to remember to thank those who came to  hear them — and those who will clean up and turn out the lights after everyone else has gone home.  

Over the course of my travels, I have actually met many of the local staff who served with Harriet in her various posts.  They speak of her with appreciation and a certain reverence.  Not because she achieved so much or rose so high, but because she never forgot her roots or the role Foreign Service Nationals played in contributing to her success.  One lesson from this book is that sometimes the little things are really important to contributing to the decent regard which people have of us and that this aspect of diplomacy pays dividends over many years.  As this book so eloquently reports, the little Elam girl did exceptionally representing us all.  

Foreword by Allan EGoodman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Institute of International Education

FOR MEDIA INQUIRIES AND PRICING: Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas * Email: * (407) 744-1261

Press Kit – Downloadable