Ambassador Mark Green shares ‘Never-Do’ list with graduates

Mark Green
Mark Green

Commencement Speaker and U.S. Ambassador Mark Green addressed the 2023 UW-Green Bay graduating class at the morning ceremony at the Kress Events Center on Saturday, May 13, 2023. The ambassador shared his special connection to UW-Green and the greater Green Bay community.

Watch it here at 1:05:44:  Spring 2023 Commencement morning ceremony

“Chancellor Alexander, faculty, alumni, graduates, families and guests…as African diplomats and politicians say to make sure they haven’t left anyone out: ‘all protocols observed.’

Thank you for those kind words, and your very gracious hospitality. I want you to know how honored I am to share a few minutes with you on this special occasion.

I am also grateful because whether you realize it or not, you have given me a special opportunity to repay a debt of honor that my family owes to this university.

In the early 1960s, my parents, a South African physician and an English nurse, were traveling and working in hospitals around the world. At the invitation of a friend, they came to Green Bay from Australia to help build a new clinic in town.

They thought they’d spend six months or so here before moving on.

But they met some of UWGB’s early leaders, heard their ambitious plans for the future, and fell in love with both the university and what it could mean for this community.

All of you here today, the journey you’ve taken and the promise you bring — you’re proof that my parents, Jeremy and Elizabeth Green, were right.

So commencement speakers usually spend their time offering free advice on what each of you should do with your education and experience.

I’m not going to do that. In fact, I’m going to do the opposite.

Very briefly, I’m going to suggest what you should not do, in fact what you should never do, as you enter this new chapter in your lives. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years, sometimes the hard way. I hope you’ll bear with me.

First…never lose your sense of wonder.

We’re living in a time of virtual reality, AI, CGI… I’m old enough to  remember when it was all still called “special effects.” Every hour of every day, a stream of information —data and messages artificially crafted— tries to capture our awareness. We can become deadened to the true mystery and majesty of the world around us.

There’s a great story about Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president, a man not known for his modesty and humility. According to one of his close friends, when they used to dine at TR’s beloved Sagamore Hill home, after a long evening of talk, TR would take him out on the lawn. He would quietly search for a certain spot in the sky, and then he would say,

“That is the spiral galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as the Milky Way. It is one of 100 million galaxies. It consists of 100 billion suns, each larger than our sun.” Then he would grin and say, “Now I think we are small enough. Let’s go to bed.”

If you slow down, and look carefully, you’ll feel the same way walking through the Cofrin Arboretum or any one of countless lakes and streams in our beautiful state.

Never lose your sense of wonder.

Second…never lose your capacity to cry.

In my days as Administrator of America’s top development institution, USAID, I traveled to Burma and visited some of the IDP camps — internally displaced person camps — not long after the government began its evil crackdown on the Rohingya people, an ethnic minority there. Actions that the UN has called a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ and the US has termed ‘genocide.’

One camp I visited was enclosed by wire fencing and had armed guards all around. I met off to the side with one young Rohingya man, and through a translator, he said, I have a question.

I’m not allowed to leave this place without written permission, which I’ve never gotten. We have no Imam so we cannot worship. We have no teachers so my children can’t properly learn. We have a health center, but the doctor never comes. And the only food is what you give us.

He looked me in the eye, and said, my question is, what do I tell my son? I had no answer.

Our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, once wrote that he felt ‘sorry for the man who cannot feel the whip when it’s laid on the other man’s back.’

As you can see, this story still gets to me 5 years later. Never lose your capacity to cry.

My third ‘never to do’…never seek to avoid talking with or working with those who hold different views than your own.

One of my greatest fears about the times in which we live is that so many people are quick to dismiss the views and voices of others. We not only ignore the opinions we find distasteful, we seem to pulverize them whenever we can.

There’s lots of talk these days about finding agreement and seeking consensus. Oddly, I think that’s relatively simple.

What’s harder it seems is finding ‘constructive disagreement’ — finding ways to disagree with those around us in ways that form the marketplace of ideas and help each of us grow.

Mahatma Gandhi used to say that honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.

When I was in the state legislature, a lifetime ago, one of my democratic colleagues, who like me was an attorney, approached me on the floor of the Assembly.

I remember she said, ‘look I don’t particularly like your bill, and I won’t be voting for it. But looking at the text, I have a few suggestions that just might make it work better.’

That was constructive disagreement.

I once led a global democracy organization chaired by the late Sen. John McCain. I promise you, few people were more passionate about their views and beliefs than him. And he hated to lose.

But greater than that was his overriding belief in America and the marketplace of ideas.

In 2008, he lost a bitterly fought election to Barack Obama. Late on election night, he gave his most important speech — a concession to his rival. He said,

‘Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill…Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.’

Take some inspiration from John McCain: Never walk away from constructive disagreement. Finally, I offer up one last ‘never.’

Another great leader with whom I had the honor of working was the late Gen. Brent Scowcroft. Among other posts, he served as national security advisor to Pres. George HW Bush during an important chapter in world history…the days when Eastern Europe began to emerge from behind the iron curtain. The days after the ugly Berlin Wall had fallen, and some began to dream of German reunification.

Today, of course, Germany is united and strong, and a crucial ally on so many fronts.

Gen. Scowcroft served on the board of that same organization which John McCain chaired. After Scowcroft announced his retirement, I went to see him to express our thanks for his many contributions.

We talked about the world, and the history he had seen — in particular the months after the wall came down. I asked him what he would say about those times to young people today.

He paused, reflected, and said very simply, ‘Tell them it wasn’t easy. We look at things like German reunification, and it seems so logical, so common sense, that it was inevitable.

It wasn’t inevitable. It was often in doubt. It wasn’t easy.’

Graduates, it’s never been easy to bring about change or even make your own way.

My final never is: never give up. Never become disheartened. Never become fatigued or disillusioned or, worse yet, bored. It isn’t easy to make change and build the future, but it never has been.

So, graduates, never lose your sense of wonder. Never lose your capacity for empathy and your ability to cry. Never be afraid to engage and discuss with those around you. And never ever EVER give up.”

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