Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook
F. Allen "Tex" Harris Human Rights Diplomacy Award
Interviewer: Beth Akiyama, UNA NCA Human Rights Committee Secretary
Suzan Johnson Cook has represented the United States in 28 countries and more than 100 diplomatic engagements, bringing faith leaders and women to the Religious Freedom table. Additionally, she has been the faith advisor to two U.S. Presidents, three cabinet secretaries, as well as political and celebrity leaders. On the front lines of 9/ll, she helped New York and our nation through traumatic times, and become known as “America’s Chaplain”. She served Harvard’s Divinity School as an Associate Dean, and Faculty member for three years, as a President’s Administrative Fellow. Her alma mater, Union theological Seminary, awarded her with the UNITAS and Trailblazing awards, as well as the Activist Scholar Fellowship for two years. She also was a Fellow at Catholic University of America, where she concentrated on women and Peace Building. Ambassador Johnson Cook’s passions are education, desiring to shape a generation of 21st century scholars, and enhancing the role women play as leaders, both domestically and internationally. Her Pro-Voice /Pro Voz Movement is in direct response to seeing first-hand the lack of access, and the lack of women at corporate, political and diplomatic tables worldwide. Her movement helps Black, Latina and Asian women become both a political and economic force, through connections, celebrations and conversations, and mentoring them into key leadership positions.
UNA-NCA: Can you tell us about yourself and what lead you to get involved in human rights work?
SJC: First I want to say I am very grateful and honored because Tex Harris is such an icon and I appreciate his work so much.
I was born into a civil rights family, I’m what you call a “Civil Rights Baby”. Certainly “civil rights” is “human rights”.
My parents were Southerners, born in the Deep South during Jim Crow segregation. They moved to the North and had us, but we went South every summer. You know you connect to your roots, particularly your maternal roots. You lived on the farm with your relatives. Rich, rich time, but you were in the midst of the segregated South. I remember as a kid being stopped all the time. We’d go down and they’d see these Northern license plates. We’d stop and I remember not being able to eat at certain counters when we would go shopping downtown on Main Street with my grandmother. I was small but I remember it because it was just so prevalent. So I was born into a consciousness of things not being right. My parents as well as their friends who were Black and primarily Jewish in New York, were very involved in the Martin Luther King Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights March. And I remember being a little girl and sitting in the basement of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem while our parents all took these buses to the March on Washington. I was about 5 or 6. It was 1963. They didn’t take the kids, but we were taught the Freedom songs and why our parents were going. And so on black and white TV we’d look for our parents in the mass of about 100,000 people. So I knew that things were not right, but I knew my parents and their extended family were fighting for things to be right. So I took on that mantle. You couldn’t escape it, it was part of the fabric of our life. In our homes we talked about it, in our churches we talked about it. So I was very moved as I entered my teenage years and then when I entered the ministry with a consciousness that we are supposed to live out the dream. We are supposed to have rights for children, for teens, for adults, no matter what their skin color.
At 14 I went to Spain on a semester abroad. When I came back it was really the beginning of the Latinization of America. My neighborhood in the Bronx was becoming heavily Puerto Rican at the time. You had Blacks you had whites you had Puerto Ricans. Now I’m bilingual in Spanish and English coming back and so I’m able to translate for my playmates and parents. I just understood that you have to be global, the rights are for everybody. I would defend my friends, because usually there were just one or two Puerto Ricans in my class. We had been the minority before, so I was like, “You can’t treat people like that, you know.” That first generation. So I always was kind of like a Freedom Fighter.
I didn’t know how it was going to play out, but I knew it was going to be global after that trip to Spain. I knew I was going to be a Freedom FIghter in some respect and I knew what I wanted for our family had to be for everyone else. So it’s great to be “privileged” in the sense of having privileges, but then everyone should have the same access and rights to that. So that’s what started my journey.
UNA-NCA: Has there been an event or experience that has had a continuing impact on your life?
SJC: Faith has been the common denominator throughout my life. It was my faith community that has sustained me, that has encouraged me. As a kid, they were like “Where are you going to college?” And I was like, “I’m just reading Dr. Seuss books!” And they were, “OK. And where are you going to college?” So they helped me keep focused. They helped me be encouraged. They celebrated when different occurrences happened in my life. So it was the faith community that has been the common thread all the way through my ambassadorship.
We were part of the churches of Harlem and there was a church on every block. It was a very united community. The Church was a very integral part of the community. We would have intergenerational parties, so our pastor, our parents and the kids would be at the same table. We learned how to socialize in a clean, good way. Our standards were always high. We would look for good men like our fathers, because we were always around strong men. Families were intact and they cared about their kids, it wasn’t like we were to the side we were always involved. So the faith community was critically important throughout my life, to this day.
UNA-NCA: What are you most proud of in regards to human rights in your service as an ambassador?
SJC: It was not just about success, but about a word I call “significance” that I was able to make an impact in many places for many people. Sometimes your “presence” is the greatest “present”. I remember being in Saudi Arabia and the diplomatic table was all men, except me, and then there was a second ring of chairs around that table, against the wall and the women had to sit on the outer circle. The women had their hijabs on and you could only see their eyes, but they looked at me and they were smiling. Afterwards they passed me their card. That’s when Pro Voice started for me: “You have to amplify our voice for us when we can’t do it.” So I am most proud that I was able to get to the table. So my thing is, I’ve been the first, but I hope I am the first of many. That’s really what I wanted to be, the door opener, and that’s what I think I am most proud of.
UNA NCA: Do you have any heroes or role models that you’d like to share with us?
SJC: Certainly Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King. I always zero in on the women! I am the god daughter of Coretta Scott King and I would always sit with her and just admire her. She didn’t have to be up front, but she had a major role and a major impact. Not only on Dr. King, but on the Movement. It’s that quiet strength that I like. It doesn’t always have to be up in your face. She was this quiet, brilliant, beautiful strength. I really admired Coretta Scott King.
Then, she wasn’t famous, but my mother was just the bomb! She had the package: She was elegant, she was fiscally fit, physically fit, she was a ladies lady. She wielded power. My parents collectively employed a lot of people in the Bronx when employment wasn’t plentiful for people. They believed that if you were going to do right by people, particularly for the fathers in those days, you had to help them put food on their table. Because if a man can’t go home at the end of the week and feed his family, then nothing else is right. Their human rights was not always marching, and there was a need for that, but there is also a need for people when the march is over to help the people who are still there, still poor, still broke, still their spirits are in poverty and that’s what my parents did. And I think I got a lot of that.
UNA-NCA: What are some of the ways you can suggest which people who are in human rights can make an impact?
SJC: Volunteer. During crisis times and also not during crisis times. In this globe that we’re in, there’s a crisis somewhere every day in the world. So volunteering, but I would say organized volunteering. Not just to show up and be another body, but if there is training involved, trauma training, whether its training to serve 5000 people food, but to prepare yourself before. But to show up and volunteer. Find an issue that’s important to you and to serve there.
The second is to mentor, because if you’ve already done it and you have life experience then passing that on to another generation is critical so that can continue. That’s what I feel legacy is, so that after you go, it can still continue otherwise every generation has to start all over again.
The third thing is, if you can’t show up physically, then you can write a check. That’s what Giving Tuesday was all about. Remember that there are some of us out there are some of us out there doing it every single day. So you can fund the project. You can fund human rights.
I would say those are some of the ways I would encourage people to get involved.
UNA NCA: Regarding the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, what do you think was, and continues to be, the importance of that ambassadorship?
SJC: There has to be a voice in the globe that cries out. The holy scriptures talk about “a voice crying in the wilderness”. There has to be a voice that speaks and amplifies the voices of those who are voiceless. Religious persecution is real and unless someone speaks up for you or impacts governments to treat you correctly, then it’s not going to happen. So it has to be intentional. The creation of this position was the intentionality of the U.S. saying, “We want to do something about it.”
It’s not the headlines kind of ambassadorship, like if you’re an ambassador to Spain or the Bahamas, but this is 199 countries and many times you cannot be in the headlines, because you’re trying to save the life of a family, of an individual, of a tribe, ,of the Kurds, of the Shias - of people who are being persecuted for their beliefs. So you have to do the opposite kind of thinking for this. You can’t be the one that’s looking for glory and glamour, because it’s really not about you. You have to work within the vision and the parameters of the Secretary of State and the President of the United States. Again, if you’re coming from a place where you’ve been the leader and you’ve been in charge. You have to realize that “at-large” is different than “in-charge”. You are there to serve the President, the Secretary and the American people and represent them. It’s not about your opinion, it’s about “How do I join the team to help human rights become effective globally?”