Davis, Ruth A. 1943–
Ruth A. Davis 1943–
Ruth A. Davis, the highest ranking African–American woman in the State Department, is a pioneer in her field. When she joined the Foreign Service in 1969 it was very much the domain of white, Ivy League–educated men. Even for them, it was a competitive place. She recalled in an interview with Government Executive Magazine that when a senior ambassador told Davis’ class of would–be Foreign Service officers to look around because only one or two of them would become ambassadors, the men “looked around to see who they had to beat out to be ambassador. I looked around to see who would be ambassador.” If any of those men are still in the Foreign Service, they don’t need to look around to see Davis anymore; they only need to look up. Davis has steadily risen through the ranks, becoming an ambassador in 1992, and then in 2001 being sworn in as Director General of the Foreign Service.
Jet said of her appointment, “The promotion is considered a distinctive breakthrough for minorities.” Secretary of State Colin Powell had pledged to make the foreign service more inclusive of both minorities and women. With Davis, a long–time promoter of the diversification of the Foreign Service, in the top post that pledge will likely come true. Highly educated, widely respected, and—with over 30 years in the Foreign Service—undeniably qualified, Davis is committed to the department not only intellectually but also emotionally. Government Executive Magazine noted that she likes to tell new recruits, “Short of being a multimillionaire, there is nothing I would rather have done with my career than be a Foreign Service officer.”
Davis was born in 1943 in Phoenix, Arizona, where her father Anderson Davis was stationed during World War II. When she was eight her family, including mother Edith and younger sister Eugenia, moved to Atlanta, Georgia. There, her father became a mailman and her mother taught fourth grade. During summer vacations the Davis family traveled by car throughout the United States, facing the rampant racism and segregation of the time period. “I remember very much traveling across the South and seeing the pain in my father’s eyes when we were told we couldn’t use the bathroom or when we had problems finding motels at night,” Davis recalled in an interview with The Atlanta Journal–Constitution. “The real pain [was] that my father had to suffer that humiliation.” However, she also witnessed her father’s boldness in standing up to that humiliation. In the same interview she recounted an incident that occurred at a Mississippi gas station. When the owner insisted that Davis and her baby sister use the filthy restroom labeled “Colored,” her father threatened to take away his business and report the owner to the oil company. In the end, the girls were allowed to use the clean “White” restroom.
At Booker T. Washington High School, Davis excelled in English, studied poetry, and was a reporter for the school paper. After graduating with academic honors, Spelman College, a prestigious school for African–American women recruited her. She told Government Executive Magazine that she had no aspirations for a
At a Glance …
Born on May 28,1943, in Phoenix, AZ; daughter of Anderson and Edith Davis. Education: Spelman College, BA, sociology, 1966; University of California at Berkeley, MSW, 1968; 34th Class of the Senior Seminar, U.S. Government, graduate, 1993; Aspen Institute, Colorado, graduate.
Career: Foreign Service, 1968–; consular officer: Kinshasa, Zaire, 1969–71; Nairobi, Kenya, 1971–73; Tokyo, Japan, 1973–76; Naples, Italy, 1976–80; City of Washington, D.C., special advisor on International Affairs, 1980–82; State Department’s Operations Center, senior watch officer, 1982–84; Bureau of Personnel, chief of training and liaison, 1984–87; consul general, Barcelona, Spain, 1987–1991; ambassador, Benin, 1992–95; Consular Affairs, principal deputy assistant secretary, 1995–97; Foreign Service institute, director, 1997–01; Foreign Service, general director, 2001–.
Awards: Presidential Distinguished Service Award, 1999; Arnold L Raphel Memorial Award, State Department, 1999; Superior Honor Award, State Department; Honorary Doctorate of Laws, Spelman College, 1998.
Address: Office—U.S. Department of State, 2201 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20520.
career in Foreign Service at the time. “In my family, all the professional women were teachers.” Nonetheless, Davis opted to study sociology not education. She soon distinguished herself at Spelman and was awarded a Merrill Scholarship to study in France for 15 months. During her stay, she traveled in Europe and ventured into the Middle East. However, she was most impressed by the students she met from newly liberated African nations. “You had the United States going through the civil rights movement, but these guys were talking about going back to Africa and doing nation building and becoming leaders of their countries,” Davis told The Atlanta Journal–Constitution. “I decided that I’d figure out some way to get to Africa. The Foreign Service was my answer.” She returned to Spelman and graduated magna cum laude in 1966. She followed that with a masters in social work at the University of California–Berkeley in 1968. The next year she joined the Foreign Service.
Davis began her career as a consular officer stationed in the African nation of Zaire, now called Congo. According to Government Executive Magazine it was “an unusual start for an officer who has risen so far.” Within the structure of the Foreign Service, prestige is usually reserved for the political and economic officers. Consular officers tend to the everyday tasks of the embassy such as visa applications and assistance for Americans abroad. “Their work is vital but it’s harder for them to prove to promotion boards that they have developed the skills to deal with top foreign officials.” Davis bucked that trend with an outstanding consular career that took her from her first post to Nairobi, Kenya in 1971, then east to Tokyo in 1973, and finally to Europe in 1976 and a post in Naples, Italy.
Davis returned to the United States in 1980 and worked for the city of Washington D.C., as a special advisor for international affairs, assisting the city in the international, economic, cultural, and diplomatic arenas. In 1984 she became the senior watch officer for the State Department’s Operations Center and later became chief of training and liaison in the Bureau of Personnel. After seven years of Washington desk jobs, she went abroad again, becoming consul general in Barcelona, Spain. She was very involved in getting the city ready for the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. Her hometown of Atlanta took notice and she was soon tapped to help Atlanta in its bid for the 1996 Games. “We decided very early on that it would come down to personal connections,” former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young told The Atlanta Journal–Constitution. “Everybody knew [Davis] and liked her and she moved every day in Barcelona political and business circles.” Davis eventually drafted a study called Transferring Knowledge and Experience from the Barcelona Olympic Organizing Committee to the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. The city won its bid and hosted the 1996 Summer Games.
Just as the Barcelona Games were getting underway in 1992, Davis achieved her own version of Olympic glory. She was made an ambassador to the newly independent African nation of Benin. The continent that had first caught her attention, propelling her into the world of U.S. Foreign Service, became her proving ground as an ambassador. She not only tended to diplomatic duties such as advising the nation on its burgeoning judicial and educational systems, but also addressed more personal duties. She recounted to The Atlanta Journal–Constitution a visit she made to the Tree of Forgetfulness in the city of Quidah where millions of kidnapped Africans passed on their way to slavery in the New World. Before boarding ships, the Africans were forced to circle the tree as a symbolic way of forgetting their past. “I also walked around the tree, but I did it in reverse because I wanted to undo the forgetfulness. [That] was my way of being faithful to the memory of my ancestors who were stripped of everything except their hopes and dreams.”
After leaving Benin in 1995, Davis accepted the unwieldy title of principal deputy assistant secretary for Consular Affairs. She held that post until 1997 when she was appointed director of the Foreign Service Institute, the department’s premier training ground. She was the first African American to hold that position. Davis’ three years at the Institute were prolific. She founded a School of Leadership and Management; created an Overseas Briefing Center to help Foreign Service family members cope with life abroad; and instituted information technology courses. During a speech at a Blacks in Government conference, Davis summed up her commitment to the training of Foreign Service officers vowing that they receive “the very best training, including leadership and management training, throughout their career.” Her speech, quoted on the group’s website bignet.org, continued “Training is something I believe in to the very core of my being.” She also applies that philosophy to herself. She was a graduating member of the 34th Class of the Senior Seminar, the highest level of executive training offered by the U.S. government and is fluent in French and Spanish.
According to Government Executive Magazine, during her leadership of the Foreign Service Institute, “Davis acquired a reputation as a persuasive motivational speaker and a manager who was not afraid to delegate details and trust her staff’s abilities.” These skills did not go unnoticed and in March of 2001 President George W. Bush nominated Davis to head up the organization to which she had devoted more than half of her life. Four months later Davis stood in the historic Benjamin Franklin Room of the State Department and, with her Atlanta pastor holding the bible, was sworn in as director general of the Foreign Service by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Jet noted the significance of the occasion for African Americans: “For the first time in history, a Black secretary of state administered the oath of office to a Black director general of the United States Foreign Service.” The historical import of her appointment aptly mirrored the gravity of her new position. With the position, she assumed responsibility for more than 46,000 employees in 250 countries. She also inherited a Foreign Service that Government Executive Magazine described as “sick and wounded, suffering from a decade of understaffing, outdated technology and concerns about security at overseas posts.” Davis accepted the challenges with characteristic determination, comparing the tattered agency to a phoenix, the mythical creature that rose up from ashes. “I was born under the sign of the phoenix. I grew up under the sign of the phoenix [symbol of her hometown Atlanta],” she told Government Executive Magazine. “I always believed that from ashes you could make beautiful things, from chaos you could make peace and from despair you could bring happiness.”
Since assuming the directorship, Davis has vigorously set about facilitating the Foreign Service’s rise from the figurative ashes. One of her first tasks was to increase funding to the department which had long suffered from a make–do attitude in the face of budgetary cuts. “We have been the shyest people I’ve ever seen in asking for resources,” Davis told Government Executive Magazine. “That day is over.” With an influx of Congressionally approved funds, Davis instituted a vigorous recruiting campaign much of which was aimed at attracting minorities. She sees the diversification as a necessary step to improve the department’s effectiveness. “We’ll have better representation if our Foreign Service looks like America,” she told The Atlanta Journal–Constitution. “And we’ll have a better foreign policy.” Davis has also instituted more effective training for Foreign Service employees, particularly diplomats who are often appointed for political reasons and lack effective leadership skills.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States created an upsurge of interest in the Foreign Service. Over 33,000 Americans, fueled by a renewed sense of duty to their country, signed up for the Foreign Service Exam in 2002—a departmental record. However, the attacks also highlighted one of the more negative aspects of a Foreign Service career—danger. “What we learned from September 11 is that people out there not only hate us, but hate us enough to give their lives to kill us,” Davis told The Atlanta Journal–Constitution. “That’s a very sobering reality, especially for diplomats, the people charged with telling America’s story.” As a result many career diplomats began to shy away from “hardship posts” in places such as the Middle East and Africa where luxury is scarce and security concerns high. Davis, who herself served in such places, has taken a hard line against this behavior and according to The Atlanta Journal–Constitution, “any diplomat who has lived in relative luxury for eight straight years will now automatically make the hardship list.” Still, in order to keep diplomats from leaving to take positions with other agencies or in the private sector, she’ll have to face tough compromises, finding ways to accommodate the officers and their families, while also keeping the Foreign Service strong. With the support of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents career officers and which has often been critical of former director generals, Davis is poised to navigate this difficult balance.
The Atlanta Journal–Constitution, August 28, 2002, p. El.
Jet, June 28, 1999, p. 32; April 2, 2001, p. 19; August 6, 2001, p. 4.
Government Executive Magazine, www.govexec.com/features/1101/1101s5.html
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