TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) - Vigo County native Cynthia Shepard Perry has served three U.S. presidents and been an ambassador to Sierra Leone and Burundi.
She’s traveled to many countries and met with dignitaries, including kings, queens and a Catholic pope. Her role as a U.S. diplomat has opened many doors, she told a small audience at Indiana State University Thursday.
Despite the differences in nations and cultures, “I believe we are one. All people are one - despite changes that evolution has brought about, that we were created as one people, and we still are,” she said as she concluded her talk at the University Hall Auditorium. “I believe there is one God, and that one God has different manifestations among people. The really important thing is not who is delivering the message from God … but to believe in God.”
The ISU graduate has returned to her alma mater in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.
On Thursday, she talked briefly about her decision at age 16 to become an ambassador and the 25-year plan she later developed to reach her goal, the Tribune-Star reported (https://bit.ly/1y5EkV4 ).
But for most of her hour-long presentation, she answered a wide variety of questions from her audience, who asked about languages she spoke, a typical day of an ambassador, dangers she may have faced as well as the biggest challenges she faced and how she dealt with them. She sat in a chair on stage and used a microphone.
One of her biggest challenges as she advanced in her career involved being challenged by men because she was a woman, something that occurred both in Africa and the U.S.
In some of the African cultures, women were kept “in their place,” having many children and sharing a husband with other wives. It was difficult for men to accept her in her role as ambassador.
“I worked around it by simply doing it. … I would say what had to be said,” Perry said. She would eventually be accepted, particularly with what she had to offer - assistance from the United States. As people got to know her better, they were grateful for her efforts, she said.
She has seen progress for African women, and especially noted the difference they have helped make in rebuilding Rwanda, which was devastated by genocide 20 years ago. She praised the current president of that country, who has included many women in his cabinet; Perry also noted that women make up about 65 percent of parliament there.
Women have contributed to the country’s turnaround and improvements in education, public health and the economy. Perry lived in Rwanda for a year after she retired as U.S. executive director of the African Development Bank in 2007.
Perry also expressed concerns about what has been happening in Nigeria, where Islamist militants have slaughtered more than 2,000 people - men, women and children. She said she needs to do more research into what has happened and why. “There is a lot of sadness when government leaders don’t respect human life - and control, power and money rule what they do,” she said.
The greatest challenge confronting Africa is good leadership, she said.
In an interview, when asked about the Ebola crisis in Africa, she believes international and U.S. health authorities and agencies should have responded with the knowledge and research they had long before the current epidemic. “I don’t know why they waited so long to apply what they knew,” she said. While the response now is good, “there’s no answer to me why it took so long.”
Growing up in Indiana, Perry said she did encounter instances of racial discrimination and once was denied service at a Hook’s drug store in Indianapolis. She recalls another instance where the n-word was used on another person she knew.
“I never dismissed it. It’s still with me. I just went ahead as though it hadn’t been said or done,” she said. She persisted with her goals and was not deterred. Her attitude was, “I’m going to manage to do what I have to do. This is something that is God-given; I’m going to move forward and you can’t stop me because He will make a way.”
She always tried to put other people and their needs ahead of her own; also, she never burned bridges and that way could always turn to people she knew for assistance.
“There was a calling in what I did, and all I had to do was to have faith that the calling was going to lead me the right way and (that) a way would be made,” she said.
Information from: Tribune-Star, https://www.tribstar.com
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