Former U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice spoke to a full crowd at the University of Southern Maine (USM) on Friday, in a conversation about race and her nearly 30 years of public service.
In the discussion, moderated by Maine State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, Rice talked about race, family, leadership and diplomacy, themes explored in her new memoir, “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For."
The event was sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Maine, housed at USM, which is celebrating its 42nd year engaging and educating people of all ages to become global citizens.
Rice, who has several ties to Maine, said she wrote her book now, relatively soon after leaving office, as a way to distill her experiences as a both a United Nations ambassador and as the 24th U.S. National Security Advisor.
“I couldn’t speak for myself … my own perspective, my own voice was something I had to suppress during my time in government,” she said. “One of my lessons was not to let other people define you for you.”
That sentiment, she said, was something she also learned from her upbringing as a descendent of both slaves and Jamaican immigrants. She described her father’s approach to identify as a major influence.
“He thought that if being Black is going to be a problem, it’s going to be someone else’s problem, not mine,” she described. “It was a mental jiu-jitsu that he taught himself: to not let bigotry become a psychological deficit.
“In your mind, you have to believe that you belong,” she said.
Rice spoke with Talbot Ross about her family, and how current issues are often topics for discussion at dinner, a subject Talbot Ross said she could relate to.
Talbot Ross is the daughter of Maine’s first African-American legislator, Gerald E. Talbot — who was in attendance with his wife Anita and two other of their daughters, Robin Talbot and Regina Phillips.
In September, USM announced a new teaching fellowship to study race in Maine in celebration of Talbot’s life and work.
Talbot Ross asked Rice about her experience navigating family dynamics, having children who sit on different sides of the political aisle.
“We are a cohesive, loving family who really differ on some big issues and it’s not easy … but at the end of the day, we really love each other and respect each other,” Rice said. “We face the choice of either letting those divisions and differences cause us to disintegrate as a family, or decide that the love and the ties that bind us are far greater and stronger than the differences, and that’s what we’ve decided.”
Before signing copies of her book, Rice also took questions from the audience, where she reiterated the need for a United Nations, in light of global humanitarian crises.
However, she acknowledged there are improvements to be made to the intergovernmental organization.
“There needs to be a place where every country has a voice. [The UN] has flaws, some structural and some political,” she said. “I think there is much to be done to strengthen it, but I sure as heck wouldn’t want to get rid of it.”
By Alan Bennett // Office of Public Affairs