Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, '76
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large, International Religious Freedom, Former Emerson Trustee
Q: Would you describe your job responsibilities, and tell us about something interesting that you’re working on?
I am the principal advisor to both the president of the United States and the secretary of state on issues of religious freedom all over the globe. I sit in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and I’m the only ambassador in this bureau. Really I’m promoting religious freedom and monitoring it for the president and the secretary. I have a staff of 16 and they do a tremendous job. They’re broken up regionally. They cover five areas of the world. They give me my briefings; they help write my speeches; they help give me the materials that I need to do the job, to be out front in the world.
My job in a nutshell is to build bridges—that’s what a diplomat does. We try to find places where we have common ground. I think my background came in wonderfully well—coming from Emerson and being a professional public speaker, and being a faith leader. Most cultures have faith at the center of their culture. In a sense, I speak their language. I like to say I’m a conciliator, facilitator, mediator, commentator, liberator, and not an imitator.
A recent trip I took [in the summer of 2013] was to Saudi Arabia and China. I’ll be going to Liberia and West Africa next. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to go as a diplomat.
Diplomatic conversations can’t be shared, but ultimately what we want is for people to have the right to believe or not believe, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those are rights that all countries signed onto. So my objective is to have people not be persecuted for their beliefs, not be killed or imprisoned for their beliefs, but to be able to have the freedom to believe or not believe, and to be able to express that belief with their family and share it with their family, and to not be denied that opportunity.
Q: Could you describe one person, experience, or series of events at Emerson that shifted the course of your career?
I remember Dr. Frances LaShoto [’44, G ’47] at Emerson, and the course was on oral interpretation. I did a scene from A Raisin in the Sun. I remember both Dr. LaShoto and the class being mesmerized and standing up and applauding when I finished. I knew then that I had found my voice. I had found what I wanted to do—my passion, and really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life—and that was to make my living speaking. And that’s what I’ve done. And that’s my gift, and that’s my art. That’s what I’ll do when I finish this position. I really have a heart, now that I’ve been in the political world, to help all those who have a need or desire to go on the world stage. That is from Nobel Peace Prize winners to those who are campaign candidates. A lot of times people have a great message, but they can’t just get it across. My gift is to help them bring their charisma to the surface. I have a heart to do that. It really was birthed at Emerson. I remember the moment in Dr. LaShoto’s class, when I said to myself, “This is what I can do. This is what I’m good at.” Emerson College was so important to the shaping and the refining and the polishing and the discovery of my gift. I still get chills talking about it. That’s how dramatic it was. I remember the moment.
Q: What is the single most important piece of advice you’d like to give current Emerson students?
To stay focused and never lose your dream. Dreams don’t have an expiration date.
It’s never too late. Never lose your passion for your dream. Stay focused. It may come at a time and in a way you did not expect, but it shall come. Have the fortitude to push through and have the stamina, because all of that develops character. Be a person of integrity as you’re building your craft, and as you’re working and discovering your passion. That will never fail you.