What we learned from our friend Madeleine Albright

Written by Rye Barcott, Co-Founder & Chair, CFK Africa.

It’s been moving to see the outpouring of love and support for “Madam Secretary” Madeleine Albright who was laid to rest after her funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC this morning at 11 AM ET. 

Madeleine played a significant role in helping CFK Africa as a supporter of our work for the past decade, an annual Junction member, and most recently a member of our Global Advisory Council. She also had an outsized impact on my life. I wrote the personal reflection below for our CFK community.

What we learned from our friend Madeleine Albright

Growing up my family had an evening ritual. Most nights, the three of us — my parents and I — ate dinner around our circular wood table in the kitchen and watched the national news with Tom Brokaw on a tiny TV. Then we discussed what was happening in the world.

In 1994, when I was 15, one night we watched aghast as a terrifying scene played out in Rwanda, a country I didn’t know existed. It anchored for me a lingering question that eventually propelled me to Kibera: how was it possible for teenage boys to kill innocent people with machetes?

At that time, Madeleine Albright was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. I felt angry and confused at our government. I didn’t know what the U.S. could do, but I believed we should be doing more. Years later, she reflected to me (and many others) that our nation’s response to the Rwandan genocide was one of her greatest regrets.

In retrospect, this had become even more personal for her. She had discovered an existential secret her parents had kept from her.

She thought she was Catholic when she fled Czechoslovakia as a girl at the outset of WWII. In fact, she was Jewish. Many of her relatives, she discovered, had perished in Nazi concentration camps. She later wrote about this in a memoir, Prague Winter. I’ve recently revisited this compelling book via Audible, which she narrates.

I started college at UNC-Chapel Hill shortly after Madeleine Albright became Secretary of State, at the time the highest-ranking position a woman had held in U.S. history.

Her name came up frequently in discussions about U.S. foreign policy, which as an NROTC midshipman probably felt more relevant to me than for many of my peers who planned on civilian careers after graduation. Secretary Albright had clashed previously with a hero of many of ours, General Colin Powell, about the appropriate use of force to solve problems overseas. A war in Kosovo was breaking out, and there were reports of ethnic cleansing. I didn’t know the answer to the weighty questions about the optimal level of power the U.S. should project at such a moment, but I respected her strength of conviction and perspective. I remember her incredible presence standing in colorful dresses at four foot ten and making her points, pointedly and typically among men in suits and uniforms.

Many years later, as America’s own tribal political divisions drove a wedge in our democracy, I joined an event with her and Colin Powell. I found it impressive and reassuring that they had become close friends. She introduced me to General Powell when I co-founded With Honor, and she joined our first advisory board. When Powell passed away last year, she delivered one of his eulogies at the National Cathedral. Her eulogy included these words:

“This morning my heart aches, because we’ve lost a friend and our nation one of its finest and most loyal soldiers. Yet even as we contemplate the magnitude of our loss, we can almost hear a familiar voice asking us — no, commanding us — to stop feeling sad, to turn our gaze once again from the past to the future and to get on with the nation’s business while making the most of our own days on Earth, one step at a time.” 

After following her service for the first decade of my adult life, I first met Secretary Albright at a global conference about democracy and youth leadership, two topics that anchored her life. She got a kick out of the fact that I presented at a fancy conference without shoes on to make a point about life for many kids in informal settlements like Kibera. I pointed out that the camera was far enough from the audience that people couldn’t see my gnarly toes. “Oh they can’t be that bad,” she said before looking down for a closer inspection. “Have you heard of a pedicure?” she laughed. She loved to laugh and was great fun to be around.

Clinton Global Initiative

We spoke about Kibera and a visit she had made there after the intense ethnic clashes of 2007-2008. She took a tour of the bustling local Toi Market with one of CFK Africa’s Peace Ambassadors and the economist Hernando de Soto, who has campaigned globally for property rights in informal settlements.

The Chairman of Toi Market converses with Madeleine Albright in Kibera
Secretary Albright in Kibera with the Chairman of Toi Market, who was one of the Community Peace Ambassadors trained by CFK Africa after the post-election violence of 2007-2008. (Credit: CLEP Archives)

That was 2011. I wasn’t sure if I’d see her again. Shortly afterward, CFK received a personal check in the mail from her, with a handwritten note in her signature, looped cursive. We started a correspondence, overlapped at a couple of additional conferences, and shared a connection with my boss at the time and mentor Jim Rogers. I asked her to speak with a group of young leaders Jim and I were pulling together when she was in Charlotte for another function. She drew energy from young doers striving to make an impact on the world, and she often noted how important it is that youth are invested in democracies, especially in Africa, where 2/3rds of most populations are under the age of 25. The youth demographics are even greater in Kibera and the five other informal settlements where CFK Africa now works.

I had recently returned from Africa as an election monitor during a Kenyan presidential election. We chatted about this and her work helping to co-found NDI to promote democracy around the world. NDI leads election observation missions to emerging democracies and builds host nation capacity around the world through citizen participation, openness, and accountability in government. Her description of NDI’s approach sounded like “participatory development,” the concept from Anthropology that forms the foundation for our work with CFK. It’s the driving reason, I believe, why our NGO has been successful in difficult environments where others have floundered and been rejected by the communities they intend to serve.

In her 21 years after serving as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright kept busy. She chronicled in her last and most recent book, Hell and Other Destinations (where she also wrote about her visit to Kibera). But she did have favorites, as she would say, and NDI was at the top of her list. She chaired the board, and she told me she was interested in bringing on some younger members. “So, would you be interested?” she asked. There was only one answer to that question. I joined a half-year later after going through a process meeting other board members, all of whom shared their own special relationship with our Madam Chairman. It’s been mainly through six years of board service with NDI that I’ve received a more in-depth and personal look into her leadership.

What did I learn from this special opportunity to observe her leadership? I’ll share three things that also relate to our work at CFK Africa.

#1 Partner long-term. How did she do it all? By “all,” I mean all of it: starting and chairing a thriving business while teaching at Georgetown, writing books, serving on multiple nonprofit boards, chairing NDI, traveling around the U.S. and the world meetings from dignitaries to young doers. She formed deep partnerships with friends and colleagues who enabled greater service together, and stuck together for years, often decades. In DC you sometimes hear people ask what does one’s staff think of “their principal”? I haven’t met a former staffer to MKA who not only had only good things to say, but also stayed in touch. I’m sure there are examples of people who worked for her and it didn’t work out. It’d be impossible to be in so many leadership positions and be effective without that. But Madeleine both sparked as well as sought out relationships that could evolve into long-term partnerships be it with staff, friends, colleagues, or world leaders. They were her great enabler, and she was often theirs.

This was certainly true in my case. She went out of the way to help by introducing me to other partners, such as Senator Chris Coons, the only Swahili speaker in the Senate, and a leader who has helped form a bipartisan coalition with Representative David Price and Senator Thom Tillis to expand CFK Africa’s public health infectious disease platform in informal settlements with the CDC and UNC’s School of Global Public Health. A former CFK volunteer and one of my closest friends from the Marines, Major Brad Fultz, took Madeleine’s seminar the “America’s National Security Toolbox” at Georgetown as he recovered from injuries sustained in combat in Afghanistan. Brad then completed a Congressional fellowship with Senator Coons. This is a photo of a happy memory together with the three of us along with CFK Junction member Abby Kohn, the daughter of one of our initial fiduciary board members, Professor Richard Kohn.

#2 Live your values. Madeleine spoke frequently about democratic values that nations struggle with and strive towards: transparency, accountability, and equality. I never heard her speak about her personal values, or moralize about them to others. But I watched her live those values. This was the bedrock of her unshakeable integrity. It inspires me and many others I know.

#3 Keep on the go. “Some people pursue enlightenment by sitting quietly and probing their inner consciousness. I make plane reservations,” she wrote in Prague Winter. Intense travel isn’t for everyone, but it definitely was for Madeleine Albright. It energized her, made memories, and gave her insights that informed her work. Traveling with friends builds and grows relationships. She would often comment at NDI board meetings that her favorite moments occurred during the meetings we made overseas, typically to emerging democracies. Energy is infectious. The way she kept on the go motivated those around her, and vice versa. It’s also part of the reason why her passing is such a shock to so many of us. She kept on the move until the end. It was just weeks ago that she was penning this important NYT oped about Ukraine with her colleague Jacob Freedman, and shortly before that this moving reflection on a secret to life that the Washington Post published posthumously.

Partner long term, live your values, keep on the go. These are some of the things I’ll carry with me from the great good fortune of a friendship with Madeleine Albright. I’ll carry these along with many memories, including one of our last conversations. She called to give condolences after my father’s passing. I was in my car with my mother. It was Veterans Day, and she shared a reflection that while she had not served in uniform she first arrived to the US as a refugee from WWII on Veterans Day and viewed it as sacrosanct. Democracy has to deliver, she would often say, and it has to be defended. She appreciated his service, and the establishment of CFK’s Lux Sit Fund to invest in the next generation of leaders who can live their values and make the world a better place.

CFK co-founder Rye Barcott and Madeleine Albright
On the Russian – Georgian border during a 2017 NDI board meeting.

Rest in Peace, Madam Secretary, and thank you.

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