Claiming your own Future, Creating a Better World

Hannah Rosenthal
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Madison Area Technical College
Madison, Wisconsin
May 15, 2010

Good morning, graduates! When I moved to Washington last fall to become the President’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the Department of State, a friend told me that “All roads lead to Madison!” I have been amazed at how many people with Madison connections I’ve encountered in the last six months – not only in our nation’s capital, but on trips to London and Jerusalem -- they’re everywhere! But nothing can top actually being back in Madison. President Barhorst, administrators, faculty and – most important of all – members of the Class of 2010, thank you so much for this invitation to return home and to share some of my insights with the graduating class.

I understand that for many of you, the road that has led you to this day has been long at times, often steep, sometimes filled with obstacles blocking the way. Many of you have balanced working part or full-time with pursuing an education. You have – both literally and figuratively – gone the extra mile and are to be commended for your perseverance. Please, take a moment to smile, to relax, and to relish your achievement!

This is also a time to acknowledge all those who have supported you and held you up along the way. The bosses who gave you a flextime schedule so you could attend class; the family members who babysat your children so you could fulfill that graduation requirement; the neighbors and friends who pitched in when you needed time to study for that exam or write that paper; the professors who understood when you absolutely had to have that extension! This day is your day, your moment to shine – but it is also a time to thank those who were with you every step of the journey, who contributed in ways large and small to help make today a reality for you.

Madison Area Technical College’s motto is “Real World Smart” and this institution provides thousands of students with an outstanding technical education. I’d like to talk a bit today about how the education you have received here is preparing you to make a real difference in our complex 21st century world. The legendary American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” You may not think that you, diploma in hand, can go back out into Madison and the world and make an impact, but I am here to tell you that you absolutely, positively can. Never doubt that what you do matters, it truly does.

However, how can we be optimists in this fractured world? Although the U.S. economy is emerging from the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, it’s still a difficult job market for both recent graduates and seasoned professionals alike. The news brings reports of natural disasters in Haiti and Chile and man-made ones off the Gulf Coast. Terrorist attacks are foiled on airplanes and in Times Square. Yes, it would be easy to be pessimistic about the future.

But there is a great deal in our 21st century world to be optimistic about. Change is occurring and people are impatient for further progress. We live in an age of instant international communications, where with the click of a mouse or the touch of a button, people from Botswana to Boston can be in contact with each other. The internet has made information accessible to millions around the world who previously had limited access to traditional libraries. Particularly in the developing world, cell phones have connected people who’d had little or no access to land-line telephones.

Internet freedom provides opportunities and challenges. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in January in a speech on Internet freedom at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., “Amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.”

You are also graduating into a world where globalization is the norm and borders are increasingly obsolete. Some of the largest economies in the world are not just individual countries – Germany, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, for example – they are companies, international businesses with employees of many nationalities and offices in most time zones. Wal-Mart is the largest corporation in the world, with annual earnings ahead of the Gross Domestic Products of Denmark and Argentina. In his book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, New York Times foreign affairs columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman comments that the world’s traditional historical and geographic divisions are becoming increasingly irrelevant. By ‘flat’, Friedman means interconnected. In Friedman’s ‘flat’ world, you can place an order with a call center in Bangladesh which is processed by a shipping service in Ohio, which forwards your order to a warehouse in Seattle that stores products made from parts manufactured in South Korea and Indonesia. Friedman argues that the sooner Americans realize how rapidly our lives, our dreams, and our goals are linked to those of others around the world, the easier it will be for us to adapt to this shifting global landscape.

I see this flatness, this interconnectedness as an opportunity, not a threat. After all, we all want to be something bigger than ourselves. We all want to make a difference. We all want to do something meaningful that will have a positive impact on others.

The number of non-governmental organizations that promote human rights is growing in societies around the world. Despite democratic gains on all continents, particularly in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, there are still many countries where people are not free. The Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, where I serve, is committed to helping all people achieve their human rights. Every year, our Bureau prepares several Congressionally-mandated reports, including the International Religious Freedom Report and the best-known of our reports, the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These annual reports are widely considered the gold standards for many human rights groups, as well as interlocutors in government and academia. We seek to forge strong partnerships with academia and NGOs to help us document abuses and work to end them.

The United States is engaged overseas to combat hatred and promote tolerance through people-to-people programs, interfaith and interethnic exchanges, and diplomatic dialogue. On a global basis, we defend those persecuted by their governments for exercising fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly. We support women’s issues; combat exploitative child labor in societies where that is acceptable; support those who are victims of violence or other human rights abuses solely on the basis of their sexual orientation; and advocate for members of religious minority groups who are persecuted for their beliefs. As Secretary Clinton said in December in her Georgetown University speech on the Department of State’s human rights agenda, “to be successful, we need to work bottom up.” It is a large mandate and often a daunting mission, but one that is essential for our country’s – and the world’s – future.

As the President’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I am charged with both monitoring anti-Semitic incidents and combating such intolerance, both domestically and internationally. My approach to this challenging mandate includes inter-faith and inter-group engagement, coupled with community relations and civil society outreach.

As a child of a Holocaust survivor, anti-Semitism is something very personal to me. When I was old enough to somewhat understand what my father went through as the only member of his family to survive the concentration camps, I asked him how he handled his guilt and kept his sanity. He didn’t miss a beat and said: “I survived to have you, Hannele!” – so took that guilt off his shoulders and put it squarely on mine – and I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only Dad could give me.

When I was growing up in Flossmoor, Illinois, daughter of the local rabbi, it never occurred to me that one day I would be traveling to such far-flung places as Tunisia and Ukraine and Kazakhstan to promote acceptance, respect, and tolerance in general and to monitor and combat anti-Semitism in particular. But as I look back over my own life and career, I offer you this advice. Everything we do, every decision we make has consequences. Our actions have consequences for ourselves and others; our voices can be raised up to heal or to hurt; our silence can help or harm.

Since 2007, Madison Area Technical College and the Department of State have been connected through the Department’s “Community College Initiative” program. Through this collaborative agreement, the Department places several hundred disadvantaged international students from strategic partner nations in education programs at American community colleges such as your own. They are selected in their home countries based on their potential for leadership and commit to a program that includes both occupational training and a rigorous program of study and discussion of American governance, required volunteer service, and an internship placement. These international students enroll in a wide variety of programs, including Journalism/media, Information Technology, and Hospitality/Tourism and pledge to return home upon completion of their studies to help share their knowledge and skills in their communities.

Your educational institution is to be commended for participating in this program with its strong global leadership emphasis. Today, 19 students will graduate from this Department of State-sponsored program, including 12 from Egypt, two from Indonesia, two from El Salvador, and one each from Brazil, Costa Rice, and Turkey. I understand that in August, 14 new students from such countries as Pakistan, India, Ghana, and South Africa, will arrive in Madison to begin their academic studies and their American experience right here at Madison Area Technical College. It’s true – all roads do lead to Madison!

Dear graduates – you have studied hard to reach this day and soon it will be time for you to move on to new opportunities. Madison Area Technical College has prepared you well to be “Real World Smart.” Some of you will continue your academic studies toward a four-year degree while others will enter a new profession. Regardless of where you travel in the years to come, always remember that you have been well-equipped here to claim your own future and embrace lifelong learning in whatever form that might take. You have it within yourself to create a better world.

I leave you this morning with another quote from Margaret Mead to send you on your journey: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” Congratulations on your many academic accomplishments. Godspeed as you embark on new adventures. Now, go out and get busy, changing the world one encounter at a time!