Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas is RL’s 17th Jarvis International Lecturer
Since 2004, we have welcomed sixteen distinguished public servants and thinkers on foreign affairs to campus as part of the F. Washington Jarvis International Fund Lecture. Past speakers for this Lecture, named for the man who for thirty years led Roxbury Latin as its tenth Headmaster, have included economist Paul Volcker; former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; homeland security advisor to President Obama, Lisa Monaco; and former Director of the CIA John Brennan.
On October 22, Roxbury Latin hosted the seventeenth annual—but first ever virtual—Jarvis Fund Lecture by welcoming Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas as our honored guest. Ambassador Elam-Thomas directs the University of Central Florida’s Diplomacy Program. Earlier in her career, she served as United States ambassador to Senegal and retired with the rank of career minister after forty-two years as a diplomat. A member of the United States Foreign Service beginning in 1963, the Ambassador also served as Chief of Mission to Guinea-Bissau; Acting Director of the United States Information Agency; and many other key, diplomatic roles in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, France, Mali, and the Ivory Coast. She is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the U.S. Government’s Superior Honor Award, and the Lois Roth Award for Excellence in Informational and Cultural Diplomacy.
Ambassador Elam-Thomas began her lecture with an account of her own path toward diplomacy. Raised in Roxbury, the Ambassador attended Roxbury Memorial High School (after a brief stint at Boston Latin, which ended when the Ambassador decided that learning Latin was “a fate worse than death”!), followed by undergraduate studies at Simmons College. Throughout her early educational experience, Ambassador Elam-Thomas did everything she could to prove that she was academically equal to her white counterparts. When she studied abroad for the first time—through Simmons’s experiment in international living in Lyon, France—she finally began to see her complexion as an asset instead of a liability; she found she could exist without having to justify her place in society. “This step of my journey changed my life and sparked my desire to live and work abroad,” she said. After several assignments overseas, she received a fellowship to attend The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Once she graduated from Fletcher, Ambassador Elam-Thomas accepted a role as a cultural attaché in Athens, Greece. She taught herself Greek for the role, and she spent four years improving America’s image abroad and challenging the misperceptions Greeks had of America. In the mid-’90s, she was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service. “If it were not for my knowledge of a language,” she said, “I would not have been able to make that step on behalf of my country.”
The Ambassador expressed her wish that our country would incorporate more voices into the conversation on foreign affairs. America, she noted, is at a great comparative advantage thanks to the diverse range of culture, language, and aptitudes of its citizens. And yet this resource remains under-tapped. “The current demographic trends in the United States do not simply allow for a more diverse approach to international affairs, but they, in fact, demand one,” she said. “Given the increasing diversity of American society, minorities are developing their own perspective in foreign policy, priorities, and patterns. We need to determine how best to fashion and implement foreign policies from these varied viewpoints. Otherwise, the United States will fall behind its global competitors.”
Through her diplomacy work in Greece, Turkey, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau, Ambassador Elam-Thomas learned important lessons surrounding cultural competency and civility that she wished to impart on RL boys. These were first and foremost lessons on decency, kindness, and even deference. “We really cannot superimpose our values on others,” she said. “We must learn to respect that when you are in another country, you are a guest there.” This is true for all diplomats, she explained, and it is important for them to be respectful, remain decent in the face of indecency, and apply to themselves a rigid standard of morality. She quoted Aaron Sorkin, saying: “Don’t ever forget that you are a citizen of this world and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit—things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day.”
Special thanks to Jack and Margarita Hennessy, who have generously provided Roxbury Latin the philanthropic wherewithal in order that others might come to know and appreciate cultures and individuals around the world. Mr. Hennessy—RL Class of ’54 and former member of the Board of Trustees—and Mrs. Hennessy envisioned this fund helping to bring to the school distinguished thinkers on world affairs, as well as enabling the boys and faculty to experience cultures different from their own by sending them out into the world. We are proud to report that about 85% of RL’s upperclassmen have attended a school-sponsored international trip. Special thanks also to alumnus Tenzin Thargay, Class of 2014, for introducing us to the Ambassador, through his studies in international affairs at Columbia.