The three students waiting to walk onstage chatted about Model United Nations. One held a large red bow that dwarfed the small black box beneath it. Another hoped she wouldn’t mispronounce her words.
They were typical high school juniors, if not better dressed than most, and they were about to share the stage with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Albright was at the Denver Art Museum Friday to promote her collection “Read My Pins,” which opens to the general public Sunday and runs through June 17.
As Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001 and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations before that, Albright was known for her pins and how they shaped her diplomacy.
“Other ambassadors would ask, ‘What is going to happen today?’ and I would say, ‘Read my pins,’” Albright said. “I always tried to make foreign policy more interesting to people.”
Denver area students descend on DAM to hear Albright
Albright didn’t need to do much to peak the interest of more than 200 students from Denver area schools, all at the DAM for a special Q&A session with Albright. When it came time for questions, the moderator told students not to be shy and approach the microphones: she was shocked when the lines stretched from the front of the 275-person auditorium to the back.
Jhonatan Netzahuatl Cuamatzi from Alameda High School, Catherine Puga from Cherry Creek High School, and Ryyan Chacra from Kent Denver School were the three students pre-selected to share the stage with Albright and ask the first questions. All plan to pursue international relations at the college level and feel lucky they were picked for such an honor.
“My (Advanced Placement) Government teacher knew some of the coordinators so he had everyone in the class pick a number between 1 and 20,” Puga said. “I picked 17 and it was the right number.”
Chacra was picked because of his role as an executive team member of his school’s Model UN club. Netzahuatl Cuamatzi says he is a fan of art and just wanted to come.
Twenty-six schools participated in the Q&A session and asked questions ranging from personal to policy-focused. Students brought up Cuba, Iran, the Arab Spring and the war in Afghanistan so that Albright could weigh in on each situation. But Albright said, more than any of fears related to those issues, the economic situation is the biggest threat to the United States, and the biggest global issue is the gap between rich and poor.
Terrorists are able prey upon people who feel disenfranchised from their communities.
“Poor people know what the rich have,” Albright said. “People that are completely alienated are recruitable, and it’s just not right.”
Albright stresses importance of social media
Albright, 74, stressed the importance of social media when trying to change the world and cracked jokes to brighten the tone for the teens after discussing heavy issues.
“When I went to school back in the Dark Ages, it was somewhere between the invention of the BlackBerry and the invention of fire,” Albright said. “I was a bit of a nerd.”
For the future leaders in the audience, Albright recommended being a nerd.
“You need to know what you are talking about, nothing can be done without hard work,” Albright said. “You can’t be a good leader if you think you know what everybody wants without talking with them.”
Albright revealed it never occurred to her she could be the Secretary of State until it happened. Now, her 7-year-old granddaughter doesn’t understand why it was a big deal because, apparently, “only girls are Secretary of State.”
As Albright left the stage to a standing ovation, a teacher in the audience called to bring her back. The student with the box had forgotten to give Albright her present. It was a pin—a Sun Devil, the mascot of her high school alma mater Kent Denver.
Editor’s note: Check back soon for video of some of Albright’s answers.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.