Meet 10 trailblazing Black women working in national security and foreign affairs

OPINION: In workplaces that are predominately white and male, these Black female pioneers are breaking barriers while working to keep our country safe and connected to the global community.

Front row, from left to right: Dana Banks, Jalina Porter, Desirée Cormier Smith, Linda Etim, and Asha Castleberry-Hernandez. Back row, from left to right: Bonnie Jenkins, Algene Sajery, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, Chidi Blyden and Linda Thomas-Greenfield. (Graphics: Marlene Marmolejos, @motionmami)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

We often think of history as something that happens in the distant past, but history is constantly being made every day, in the here and now. 

As we close out Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing 10 trailblazing Black women currently working in national security and foreign affairs—fields that are predominantly white and male—who are shattering glass ceilings while helping to restore America’s presence on the world stage and keeping our country safe.

These women are at the forefront of important U.S. foreign policy issues, from nuclear nonproliferation to improving trade with Africa and other foreign nations to addressing gender equity and racial justice issues around the globe. They serve in a wide range of governmental agencies from the State Department to the Department of Defense to the National Security Council.

While several of them are “the first Black woman” to hold their positions, many of them have also been putting in the work for decades—hidden figures who stand out not only for what they represent but also for their unique perspectives and the wealth of knowledge they bring to their roles. 

The most visible of these towering figures is U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Thomas-Greenfield—who came out of retirement after a 35-year career to work for the Biden administration—has been a regular presence on the Sunday news shows, explaining the White House’s strategy in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unjustified war on its neighbor.

Thomas-Greenfield, who served as ambassador to Liberia during the Obama administration, grew up in a segregated Louisiana and learned at an early age that brute force wasn’t always the true sign of strength—knowledge she used to help save herself while staring down the barrel of an AK-47 in Rwanda in 1994. 

“My mother taught me to lead with the power of kindness and compassion to make the world a better place,” she tweeted on the day she was nominated. “I’ve carried that lesson with me throughout my career in Foreign Service.”

Appointing Thomas-Greenfield was a signal that Biden was keeping his promise of hiring seasoned veterans to restore the country’s battered brand while building an executive branch that looked like the real America.

“I think it speaks volumes of the commitment to this administration to uphold its promises of inclusion and equity,” said Jalina Porter, State Department principal deputy spokesperson, the first Black woman to hold the position and one of the 10 women on our list. “It’s really important because not only does representation matter, but it matters because we are changing the landscape of our foreign policy to make sure that inclusion is a part of everything that we do.”

To that end, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley was named chief diversity and inclusion officer for the State Department—the first in the department’s history.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted when appointing Abercrombie-Winstanley in April 2021 that in addition to her 30 years of diplomatic experience and track record of advocating for diversity and inclusion, she was “a diplomat who knows there are times when you shouldn’t be diplomatic”—an important skill when in places that don’t always embrace change. She will help develop and implement a diversity and inclusion plan to ensure our diplomatic corps and all levels of the State Department reflect the fullness of America.  

“I believe that we, the Department of State, should and can become in the field of inclusion a leader,” she said during the press conference announcing her appointment. “Indeed, we have the talent to become the model for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workforce.”

Bonnie Jenkins is not only one of the nation’s foremost experts in chemical and biological weapons and nuclear nonproliferation, but she is also the undersecretary for arms control and international security, the first African American to hold the title of undersecretary. Yes, a Black woman has a seat at the table to keep the country from an extinction-level event.

Jenkins understands that being first also means ensuring she won’t be the last.

“I take it very seriously, being in this role, being a role model for other young Black women or young people of color who want to do something in this field,” she told ABC News. “It’s so important to see people who look like yourself in the field or look like yourself doing something because it gives you that feeling that I can do it, too.”

Porter concurs. “I think for us, we have a special obligation as public servants, but also as African-American women public servants to reach back and pull forward to make sure that people know that we have their backs and that we are doing the work on their behalf also to make sure that our colleagues, not only here, but on the world stage, know that they should get comfortable seeing us as leaders and embracing that as well.”

These are just a few of the amazing women in national security and foreign affairs who shared their roles, why their jobs are important and what they love most about what they do. Here’s a look at the full list:


Genetta M. Adams is the managing editor/opinion at theGrio.

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