Let Our Rejoicing Rise: TLG Celebrates 50 Years

The State Department’s first employee association looks toward the next 50 years as a dynamic force for progress in the foreign affairs community.


On Feb. 2, 2023, the Thursday Luncheon Group (TLG) launched a yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary with a festive luncheon in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room at the Department of State. The first in-person TLG event post-pandemic, the luncheon was part reverent convocation and part joyous family reunion of more than 150 TLG members, employee organization presidents, and congressional representatives.

TLG was founded in 1973 by a handful of Black Foreign Service officers from the Department of State, the U.S. Information Agency, and USAID. Because the group met once a month on Thursdays for lunch to discuss and debate foreign policy as well as personnel issues of interest to Foreign and Civil Service employees across the interagency, they adopted the weekday name.

The first of the State Department’s employee organizations, TLG has as its mission to increase the participation of African Americans and other underrepresented groups in the formulation, articulation, and implementation of U.S. foreign policy. In addition to foreign policy examination, its priorities are advocacy, support, and mentoring for African Americans who choose a foreign affairs career.

The unique value of TLG’s policy analysis is the cross-fertilization between Civil Service and Foreign Service members, which enables TLG to offer nuanced perspective to policy discussions. TLG has championed progressive foreign policy positions such as pointed opposition to apartheid, support for post-colonial government reforms in the global south, and support for environmental protections.

Throughout its five decades, TLG has been a dynamic force for progress at the State Department and in the foreign affairs community broadly. Membership is open to all employees of the foreign affairs agencies. The strength and effectiveness of TLG’s work was abundantly apparent at the anniversary celebration. The group’s 2022-2024 action plan promises to deepen that success.

Past TLG presidents with Secretary Antony Blinken (left to right): Stacy Williams, Amb. Pamela Bridgewater, Amb. Teddy Taylor, Amb. Aurelia Brazeal, Secretary Blinken, Amb. Ruth Davis, Amb. Gail Mathieu, Amb. Steven McGann, and Yolonda Kerney.
Javon Rowe

On the Shoulders of Giants

TLG Vice President Krystle Norman welcomed guests with a reminder of the group’s importance and responsibilities. “We have and will continue to make important contributions to the formulation, articulation, and implementation of foreign policy,” she stated. “The responsibility to shape and strengthen this institution that has become the leading voice for African American and foreign affairs professionals of color is one that neither I nor the board take lightly. We stand on the shoulders of giants, lean on the counsel of our pioneers, and work every day to forge a future filled with resilience and unwavering optimism. TLG is truly a family, a legacy, and a community deeply rooted in its past and fiercely devoted to its future.”

The ceremony included announcement of the 2023 TLG Pioneer Award winners: Ambassador (ret.) C. Steven McGann and Ambassador (ret.) Pamela Bridgewater. TLG Pioneers are distinguished by their contributions to foreign policy and their commitment to mentorship. The awards were established to honor awardees’ achievements and, at the same time, spotlight what’s possible for aspiring new members. The Pioneer Award is given to individuals who have invested in the recruitment, retention, empowerment, support, advocacy, sponsorship, and/or mentorship of Foreign Service and Civil Service people of color in the foreign affairs agencies, within or outside of the TLG representational community.

Some of TLG’s newest members presented the awards, and in doing so, they expressed their gratitude for TLG’s support and offered insight into the power of its programs. In introducing Amb. McGann, State Department intern and new TLG member Ghaida Ahmed said: “Discovering TLG was one of the best parts of my experiences at the State Department. I’m a current master’s candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies. And after graduation I hope to join the State Department as a foreign affairs officer. Over the summer I had the honor and privilege of interning at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under the Office of Near Eastern Affairs. My experience was nothing short of extraordinary.”

She continued: “At the time, however, interns were not being paid as they are now. To my complete surprise upon the completion of the 10-week program, I received a call from board members of TLG and ABAA [the Association of Black American Ambassadors] letting me know that I was going to be receiving a stipend [to defray internship expenses] for my time and dedication. I’m so grateful that organizations like TLG exist, because they have highlighted to me that Black Americans not only have an honorable place at this distinguished agency but can also make venerable achievements while making history, as many of you all have done.”

Amb. McGann was founder of the international consulting firm The Stevenson Group and a retired Senior Foreign Service officer with the rank of Minister-Counselor. He was U.S. ambassador to the Republics of Fiji, Nauru, and Kiribati, the Kingdom of Tonga, and Tuvalu. He also served as the deputy commandant and international affairs adviser of the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy at the National Defense University. Amb. McGann served two tours at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations covering issues in the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council.

In his remarks on receiving the award, McGann encouraged Ms. Ahmed and all other State Department aspirants: “We chose a career that has a path that is difficult. It’s not easy. But that’s why we have a duty to make sure that the policies toward recruitment, retention, and promotion are sound. It is our obligation to ensure the continuity, the viability, and the sustainability of the Pickering, Rangel, and Payne programs. But most importantly, it’s important for us to understand that we are the State Department. We are a part of the State Department.” (Sadly, Amb. McGann passed away on May 24. He will be deeply missed, but his legacy will live on.)

At the TLG 50th anniversary luncheon on Feb. 2, 2023, Director General Marcia Bernicat (center) presents Amb. Ruth Davis with a bouquet of flowers as Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on.
Javon Rowe

An Introduction to Excellence

Amb. Bridgewater, the second Pioneer Award recipient and a former president of TLG, is a three-time ambassador who retired from the Foreign Service in 2013. Among many important assignments, she was the first African American woman to serve as consul general in Durban and the longest-serving American diplomat in South Africa. Appointed U.S. consul general in Durban in 1993, she worked closely with Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress during the transition from apartheid. Later named the State Department’s special coordinator for Peace in Liberia, she was instrumental in bringing that country’s second civil war to an end in 2005.

Amb. Bridgewater was introduced by newly selected Rangel Fellow Abbie Ferguson, who described her experience with TLG. “My introduction to TLG came through my participation in the group’s Larry Palmer Envoys program with former Diplomat in Residence Dr. Yolonda Kerney, who worked with Ambassador Palmer early in her career,” Ferguson explained. “[After his death, she] wanted to continue his legacy of service and mentorship by introducing historically Black college and university [HBCU] students like myself to the work of the State Department and the importance of excellence in diplomacy. So she started the Palmer Envoys.”

Ms. Ferguson continued: “In December I graduated from the University of the District of Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a concentration in global studies. And I was also chosen as a 2023 Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellow. My fellow Palmer Envoy, Karmel Reeves, was selected as a Pickering Fellow. We are proud to be the first Palmer Envoys to become diplomatic fellows, and we are both grateful to TLG.”

In accepting her award, Amb. Bridgewater cited TLG’s professional development programs and networking events: “As we pay it forward in the years ahead, we commit ourselves to continuing the work of the Thursday Luncheon Group and, Mr. Secretary, in making sure that the face of American diplomacy continues to represent the best of the United States of America.”

An Ongoing Story

The Thursday Luncheon Group Executive Board (left to right): Jacques Etienne, membership chair; Bernie Cole-Byrd, treasurer; Candice Helton, Civil Service vice president; Yolonda Kerney, president; Krystle Norman, Foreign Service vice president; Russell Brooks, programming chair.
Javon Rowe

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the keynote speaker, was introduced by TLG member Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley with a nod to TLG’s provenance: “Before diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility [DEIA] was a formal concept or an arm of organizational management under a committed and bold Secretary, TLG members focused on inclusion, accessibility, equity, and diversity across the interagency.”

Secretary Blinken saluted TLG’s impact over 50 years: “As the oldest employee affinity group, the TLG has helped launch other employee organizations and served as a model to those helping Americans of all backgrounds find a home here in the department. What’s so encouraging to me is to see some of our younger colleagues come up here today and show that this is an ongoing story. Over the past half century the Thursday Luncheon Group has quietly, steadily changed American diplomacy. We see that first and foremost in TLG’s members—devoted diplomats who have always offered a hand-up to the next generation.

“TLG has also encouraged the department to improve how it recruits, how it retains, and how it promotes employees of color so that, yes, our department actually looks more like the country it represents,” he continued. “This is literally the future of our foreign policy. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.”

Secretary Blinken received an honorary lifetime TLG membership from Ambassador Ruth Davis. “Early in your tenure as Secretary of State,” Davis explained, “you said, ‘We simply cannot advance America’s interest and values around the world without a workforce that is truly representative of the American people. Beyond diversity we are committed to inclusion.’ TLG members know that institutional attitudes are guided by their leaders. Therefore, we feel very fortunate to have you at the helm of this great institution that we all love so well. And that is why we take great pleasure in conferring on you a lifetime membership in TLG.”

As guests rose to give Amb. Davis a standing ovation, Director General of the Foreign Service Marcia Bernicat presented her with a bouquet of flowers and a tribute: “We think it is only fitting that as TLG celebrates its 50th anniversary and its service to the international affairs community, we also pause to recognize a trailblazer, past TLG president Ambassador Ruth Davis. Hers is a long list of firsts. She was the first female senior watch officer in the Operations Center, the first African American director of the Foreign Service Institute, the first African American female Director General of the Foreign Service, and the first African American woman to be named a Career Ambassador. Who in this room does not stand on the shoulders of this giant?”

As a core programmatic initiative during its golden anniversary year, TLG seeks to expand its Palmer Envoys program.

In closing the ceremony, TLG President Yolonda Kerney reflected on the group’s role: “When I first joined the Foreign Service I was told—and I still believe it to be true—this is the greatest way to serve this country. I was also admonished: ‘Even if it costs you, speak truth to authority. If it costs you the ambassadorship, speak truth to authority. It is the right thing to do.’ And the truth is, at many inflection points in our history, TLG hoisted a mirror and asked the foreign affairs community and the agencies to look at themselves. And we did not always like what we saw.

“But in it we also found things of great beauty,” Kerney continued. “We saw the dignity and the moral force and the clarity of wisdom of Ruth Davis and Aurelia Brazeal and Teddy Taylor and Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Larry Palmer. We saw Pamela Bridgewater serve with distinction in apartheid South Africa. And we saw Steve McGann lead in Asia and the Pacific with maritime policy in ways that we had not seen before. We saw a network of people who support each other and cheer each other on in a thousand small and huge ways.”

Programs and Initiatives

Always a cornerstone of its mission, policy deliberation has been ongoing. The value of TLG’s foreign policy analysis is the interplay between and among its Civil Service members who serve as institutional brain trusts, and its Foreign Service specialist and generalist members who bring the value of ground truth from post. As Secretary Blinken stated in his keynote: “On every issue in every region, TLG members have made our foreign policy smarter. They’ve made it more creative. They’ve made it more effective.” TLG regards dispassionate policy examination as its legacy.

In an effort to attract a more diverse next generation of career Foreign Service members, in 1992 TLG partnered with the American Foreign Service Association to establish a joint internship program for minority college students at State. “AFSA has supported a TLG intern every year since 1992,” says AFSA President Eric Rubin. “To date, the program has supported 32 interns, many of whom have gone on to join the State Department. AFSA has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with TLG and looks forward to the next 50 years of partnership.”

In 1995 TLG established the Terence Todman Book Scholarship—named after the late six-time ambassador, who retired in 1993, the first African American to attain the rank of Career Ambassador—to encourage outstanding students at HBCUs to pursue careers in international affairs. In February 2022, TLG President Kerney was instrumental in having the State Department cafeteria named in honor of Ambassador Todman. In 1957, as a young diplomat and self-identified “troublemaker,” he succeeded in integrating the dining facilities at the Foreign Service Institute.

As a core programmatic initiative during its golden anniversary year, TLG seeks to expand its Palmer Envoys program. Selected from HBCUs across the country, the initial cohort of 41 students met virtually with TLG members for eight months. Palmer Envoys are students interested in international affairs careers. The sessions with TLG members included review of the National Security Strategy, the interagency budget process, and the State Department’s Managing for Results Framework to demystify the department and make it more accessible to the exceptional students who might otherwise not seek State internships, fellowships, or employment.

TLG continued its yearlong celebration with a speakers’ series that included retired NASA astronaut Robert Curbeam discussing space diplomacy, and two Real Talk sessions on bidding and general career advice with Ambassador Dereck Hogan and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ervin Massinga. TLG’s executive board is modernizing the organization’s virtual and social media presence and paying tribute to its luminaries as it prepares for its next 50 years of service.

TLG President Yolonda Kerney is a public diplomacy–coned Foreign Service officer. She currently serves as senior policy adviser in the Secretary of State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Her overseas experience includes tours in the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa.


TLG Foreign Service Vice President Krystle Norman has a passion for leading strategic campaigns, building coalitions for change, and mentoring aspiring and entry-level diplomats. After serving in public diplomacy positions in South America, Europe, and in Washington, D.C., at the Foreign Service Institute, she joined the Bureau of African Affairs as the desk officer for Mozambique and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).


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