Diplomacy and social work: Ambassador Ruth A. Davis (MSW '68) looks back on a groundbreaking career

September 10, 2021

Not long after graduating with an MSW in 1968, alum Ruth A. Davis picketed in front of Sproul Hall to advocate for the creation of a Black Studies department. She then set down her sign, headed to SFO, and boarded a plane to Washington DC to begin a long and illustrious career in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Early on, she held consular posts in Kinshasa, Nairobi, and Tokyo. By the mid-1980s she had risen through the ranks to become consul general in Barcelona, then went on to serve as ambassador to The Republic of Benin in 1992. She later led the Foreign Service Institute, where she established a new school to improve the abilities of the U.S. diplomatic corps in leadership and management, and then became Director General of the Foreign Service only a few weeks before the attacks of September 11, 2001. She also served as distinguished adviser to the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center at Howard University and senior adviser in the Bureau of African Affairs before retiring in 2009.

Her career was marked by firsts. Among other accomplishments, she was the first African-American director of the Foreign Service Institute, the first African-American female Director General of the Foreign Service, the first and only African-American woman to be named Career Ambassador, the highest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service, and the first African American to be awarded AFSA's (The American Foreign Service Association) Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award.

She has received numerous awards, including two Presidential Distinguished Service Awards, the Secretary of State's Distinguished Award, and the State Department's Equal Employment Opportunity Award. This past May, the Foreign Service Institute named their Director's conference room in her honor in recognition of the work that she did to improve the training and enhance the diplomatic readiness of Foreign and Civil Service personnel. She also holds honorary doctorates from Spelman College and Middlebury College.

In a groundbreaking career, Ambassador Davis has repeatedly stressed the importance of bringing others along. Her lasting contributions to the Foreign Service include strengthening recruitment efforts among underrepresented groups and building a work culture that values ongoing training and paths towards leadership. Her post-retirement involvement with numerous boards and organizations also demonstrates her commitment to inclusion.

In short, her career exemplifies the ways in which social welfare values can be applied to public policy and public service. We were honored to speak with her about her career, her experiences at Berkeley Social Welfare, and the overlap between social work and diplomacy.

You grew up in Atlanta and did your undergraduate work at Spelman College. What brought you to Berkeley Social Welfare?

When thinking about my post graduate work, I was vacillating between studying Social Welfare and International Affairs - Social Welfare because of my interest in promoting civic betterment and social improvements and international affairs because of my interest in foreign languages, travel and international issues.
As luck would have it, I met with Dr. Andrew Billingsley on his visit to Spelman College's campus as a part of a recruitment trip to several HBCUs in the South, on behalf of Berkeley's School of Social Welfare. I often laugh when I recount that I was the only recruit that Dr. Billingsley was successful in attracting. His description of the School's curriculum and the California atmosphere convinced me that it was just the place to be.

You were at UC Berkeley from 1966 through 1968, which were peak years for student activism and tumultuous years for the nation. What stands out for you from your time as a student?

Well, as you know the University was a hotbed of activism, including the growing anti-war movement that brought mass arrests of student demonstrators at UC Berkeley and throughout the country. I remember my young cousin who had been conscripted into the Army wanted to stop by to visit me on his way to being shipped out to somewhere in the Pacific. Lo and behold he showed up on campus in his Army uniform causing no end to worry on my part that he would be the object of derision. Fortunately — and much to my relief — there were no incidents but you may be sure I steered him away from campus as quickly as I could.

I remember well Mario Savio and others with the Free Speech Movement, which protested a ban on on-campus political activities. I also witnessed the beginning of the Black Power Movement. I distinctly recall going to a program at the Greek Theater to hear the proclamations of Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Ron Karenga and other disciples of the Movement. It was then that I learned to be skeptical about news reports, since reporting about the gathering did not correspond with what I had observed.

My activism centered on protesting in front of Sproul Hall for a Black Studies Program. In fact, wanting to cap my Berkeley experience, I went over to Sproul Hall one fine morning with a sign demanding a Black Studies Program. At noon I put the sign down and rushed out to San Francisco International Airport, boarded a plane for Washington and arrived at the State Department the next day to be sworn in as a junior diplomat, amid promises that I would not strike against the U.S. government.

A 1970 profile of you in Ebony Magazine says that while you were working on your MSW you did community organizing work in San Francisco and Oakland. What kind of work did you do, and was that typical of the School of Social Welfare at the time?

1970 magazine profile of Ruth A. Davis; photo shows her standing in front of a globe in the State Department buildingIn Oakland, I worked as a community organizer in a public housing project and learned the value of empowering the residents to act in their own interests. Moreover, in several incidents I worked with the tenants on conflict resolution between them and the housing project's management. In reading former President Obama's account of his experience doing community organizing in Chicago, I noted that he followed the major social work principle of "start where people are." That principle not only holds true in social work but it is a good basis for approaching diplomatic negotiations.

In San Francisco, I worked closely with the then well-known executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, Mr. Granville Jackson, to deal with issues of Gay and minority rights. The Gay community was just emerging, the Latino community was in conflict with the Gay community about housing issues and the Black community was being forced out of the Western Addition. This again was time used to sharpen my negotiating and conflict management skills. I gained practice in coalition building plus the skill of developing strategies and approaches for community change.

The difference between the instruction in the School of Social Welfare then and now is that during my time as a student I specialized in Community Organization only, now if I am not mistaken the curriculum is much more varied than it was when I was a student there.

What led you to the Foreign Service?

I studied abroad in France in the mid-sixties and met a number of African students who were excited about returning home to exert influence on the development of their newly independent countries. That stimulated in me an interest in Africa. Consequently, I thought that the best way to learn about Africa, to experience that historical time and perhaps contribute to the changes taking place would be to become an American diplomat and share the American perspective on development and democracy. It was also clear to me that many of the skills that I had honed as a result of my Berkeley experience would be useful in the Foreign Service, especially in Consular services which I chose to specialize in.

Your first posts were in Kinshasa and Nairobi, and you later worked in Benin in a more senior role. What was it like working in newly independent nations, and what was it like to be in Benin as they transitioned away from a Marxist government?

I was fortunate to be assigned to Benin during the tenure of President Nicephore Soglo who had spent a decade in Washington with the World Bank and was very pro-American. Consequently, my Embassy and I had an excellent working relationship with the Beninese Government. It was a fascinating time because Benin was recovering from the devastating effects of a Marxist-Leninist government which left the country's infrastructure in ruins. I chose to focus on helping to restore the education system and took the occasion to insist that girls be included in the education equation. They had previously been excluded. This is one of the accomplishments that I am most proud of including the work we did to help shore up or create the institutions essential to a functioning democracy such as the Constitutional Court. When referring to what a privilege it was to exert influence on rebuilding the country's infrastructure to support a democracy, I frequently say it was like being in the U. S. at the time of Presidents Washington and Jefferson.

Ambassador Ruth A. Davis with Hillary Clinton in 1995

You mentioned a strong connection between social work and diplomacy. Could you say more about that?

When I think of social work, I think of activity designed to promote the welfare of individuals and of the community. The work of our U.S. embassies abroad is divided into what we call tracts or cones — they are Consular, Management, Economic, Political and Public Diplomacy. I entered the Foreign Service as a Consular Officer and one of my mandates was the welfare and protection of American citizens abroad. This included a wide variety of services from registering American citizens' birth to handling estate issues. It includes facilitating adoptions, helping to evacuate American citizens in times of turmoil, such as has occurred in Afghanistan, and ensuring that our citizens abroad receive equal treatment under local laws.

During my tenure as ambassador, I dealt with development issues and encouraged the empowerment of local civil society quite similar to the work that I undertook in San Francisco and Oakland during my field work experiences. Diplomats engage directly with the people and social institutions of the country to which they are assigned. Their bi-lateral discussions are aimed at promoting peace, prosperity, stability and advancing American interests. My point is that diplomats must employ in their work many of the same skills that make for an effective social worker — good communications skills, professional networking, coalition building, and partnership development.

I've lived in three African countries: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya and The Republic of Benin, where I was ambassador. In Asia, I lived in Japan and in Europe in Italy and Spain. Consequently, I had the opportunity to observe developed as well as developing countries.

In every society that I lived people wanted peace, security, economic and political stability, good education for their children, and good health care. Both diplomacy and social work are among the tools required to achieve this quality of life.

Ambassador Ruth A. Davis with President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2001

The AFSA article quoted your description of what it takes to be a successful diplomat: "a broad knowledge of the world and current issues viewed through a historical lens... good negotiating, verbal and written communications skills... the ability to navigate, understand and interpret foreign cultures—language ability being extremely important." This sounds very similar to the cultural competency that social workers are trained in; was your perspective influenced by your training as a social worker?

I believe that my time at Berkeley's School of Social Welfare was fundamental in preparing me for a career in Diplomacy. The cultural competency that social workers are trained in is easily transferable to diplomacy. Diplomats deal with all the important multilateral issues that demand world attention and cooperation — issues such as climate change, human rights, arms control, global health, trade and commerce, containing violent extremism and terrorist activities and looking out for the welfare and protection of American citizens living or traveling abroad. Handling these issues requires skills in leadership and management, networking, negotiating, conflict management, coalition building, communications and a host of other skills that I honed as a student of social welfare. Entry into the Foreign Service does not require a specific educational background but success in dealing with bi-lateral and multilateral issues requires strategic thinkers who understand individual worth and problem-solving. There is no doubt that a good social worker fits that bill.

Your work towards mentorship and building the leadership pipeline is clearly a part of your legacy within the Foreign Service. You led the Foreign Service Institute, you created the School of Leadership and Management, and you remain involved with the Rangel International Affairs Fellowship program. Could you say more about these programs and about the importance of equality of opportunity, both for the effectiveness of the Foreign Service and for the image of the U.S. abroad?

The Foreign Service Act of 1980 says that the Foreign Service of the United States should be reflective of the American population. It is not. I believe that in the absence of a diverse, inclusive Foreign Service America is severely hampered in its foreign affairs endeavors and missing the vital contributions that a significant portion of our population would bring to the table.

One of my passions in life is seeking to make the foreign policy establishment, especially the Department of State, look more like America.

I work with various groups to try to achieve this goal. I am President ad interim of the Association of Black American Ambassadors (ABAA) and we work on issues related to recruitment, retention, mentoring and the promotion of under-represented Foreign Service employees. I have served as Chair of both the Thomas Pickering and the Charles B. Rangel Fellowship selection committees. These programs are important in preparing under-represented Foreign Service candidates for careers in the Foreign Service and serving as a conduit for them into the Foreign Service.

Since your retirement in 2009 you have lent your expertise to a number of boards and organizations. Please tell us more about your volunteer work.

My other passion is the empowerment of women. I am Chair of the International Women's Entrepreneurial Challenge (IWEC) and one of the founders of the 14-year-old organization. The goal of IWEC is to develop a global business network for successful women business owners, helping them gain and expand access to international markets. IWEC presents a platform for the exchange of knowledge, experience and connectivity among women business owners worldwide setting the stage for new business opportunities and joint ventures, and promoting social dialog among women entrepreneurs and business leaders.

I am Vice President of the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs (WIFA) which presents programs designed to keep members up-to-date on important current foreign affairs issues.

I am the chair of The International Mission of Mercy, USA (IMMUSA). From helping victims of natural and man-made disasters to assisting orphaned children, IMMUSA has been in the forefront of several rescue operations in the aftermath of earthquakes, like that of 2015 in Nepal, floods, hurricanes such as Maria and Harvey, cyclones, fires and civil unrest across the world.

I serve on the Advisory Council of the Foreign Service Youth Foundation which strives to help the children of Foreign Service personnel adjust to life overseas and to life in the U.S. after they return from overseas assignments with their parents.

I have recently completed a three-year tenure on the Board of Visitors of the Monterey Defense Language Institute, which prepares U.S. armed services personnel with the language skills required to execute their service commitments.

I am a senior advisor to the International Career Advancement Program which helps to prepare under-represented mid-level people to advance to the senior levels of the foreign policy establishment and other international organizations and enterprises.

As you can see, in my retirement I have continued pursuing my passion for fostering diversity in international affairs, empowering women, mentoring and assisting in crisis situations, all of which draw on my early educational preparation. I hold dear the experience I had at Berkeley Social Welfare. I will be forever grateful for the School's contribution to my professional foundation which proved extremely important in my career as a U.S. diplomat.

For an interview that goes into more detail about Ambassador Davis's accomplishments in the Foreign Service, see "A Foreign Service Trailblazer—Ambassador Ruth A. Davis" in the Foreign Service Journal.