Madeleine Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, sat in front of a well-heeled crowd in the Hotel Jerome ballroom Thursday night and told her tale of coming to America as a young girl in the years after World War II. Born in Czechoslovakia to a diplomat father who defected because he didn’t want to work for the communist regime taking over his home country, Albright eventually made her way to Colorado, a place she’d never heard of, where everyone spoke a language she didn’t understand very well.
“I am a refugee,” she said, in a talk with New York Times senior writer and national security correspondent David Sanger. “Can you believe that a refugee was the U.S. secretary of state?”
It was a fitting message for the event, the Summer Benefit fundraiser for local nonprofit English in Action, as it underscored two very important points about immigration in this country. First, immigrants, despite what some people in Washington, D.C., might have you believe, are not the enemy, and, second, with the right help and support, anyone from any background can find success here if one is willing to work for it.
“Part of the American dream is that you can come from any circumstance and not be limited by those circumstances,” said English in Action Executive Director Lara Beaulieu, “and Secretary Albright is a living example of that.”
For English in Action, which helps build bridges between the valley’s immigrant and native communities by pairing non-English-speaking adults with English-speaking tutors, it was the second year in a row having Albright as the keynote speaker, and while she was unfamiliar with the organization when she was asked to attend last year’s benefit, this time around she almost didn’t need to be asked to come.
“She didn’t know a lot about EIA last year, but she felt some personal resonance with our work helping people learn English and feel a part of the community,” said Beaulieu. “She was so moved by what she heard last year that she volunteered to come back again this year.”
“I love this organization,” said Albright during the talk. “I think it’s one of the most spectacular ones I can think of in terms of what America is all about.”
The evening began with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails in the Jerome’s Antler Bar, with live music courtesy of a string trio from the Aspen Music School. Then the crowd moved into the ballroom to hear opening remarks from EIA board members Julie Comins and Samuel Bernal, who introduced Estela Lopez Gudiño, a former EIA student who now works as a personal trainer in the midvalley.
Gudiño told her own tale of growing up in Mexico and immigrating to the U.S. with her family in search of a better life.
She came to Colorado knowing no English and was eventually paired with volunteer EIA tutor Polly Pollard. Over the intervening years, the two have become fast friends, and Gudiño has learned to speak English, if not flawlessly, well enough that communication ceased being a problem long ago.
Equally importantly, though, Gudiño found herself a part of a nurturing community that really proved its worth during last year’s Lake Christine Fire, when EIA volunteers called their students to check up on them and ensure they knew about evacuation orders and other details that might have skipped the notice of those with a limited command of English.
Gudiño and her family escaped the Lake Christine Fire unscathed, but ironically, and tragically, they lost their home in a different fire last March. It was a devastating blow, but it was made more bearable by the support she received from Pollard and other EIA volunteers.
“It proved a personal motto that I have had since I was eight years old,” said Gudiño. “We cannot do everything, but what we can do, we can do with love.”
Gudiño stepped down from the dais to a standing ovation and gave way to local developer Jim Chaffin, who hosted a paddle raise that netted $165,000 in donations for EIA. Local business legend and noted philanthropist Boogie Weinglass led the way, pledging $25,000 and greasing the wheels for others to give generously.
“That was a surprise for us,” said Beaulieu. “We did not know before the evening started that that was going to happen. That was huge.”
With the paddle raise over, Chaffin ceded the dais to Albright and Sanger, who started off by talking about the need for an immigration bill that deals with immigrants and refugees from a position of compassion rather than the divisive words, actions and policies that have tainted the issue lately.
“I think what has happened is that the openness of America is under pressure from the people at the top,” said Albright. “It’s a trait of authoritarian leaders that they ally with one group at the expense of another.”
From there, the conversation moved on to the importance of a free press and the danger of terms like “fake news” and “enemy of the people,” a phrase President Trump has used to undermine the credibility of news outlets like CNN and the New York Times.
“I can live with someone calling us ‘fake news,’ even though we’re not,” said Sanger. “But calling the press ‘the enemy of the people’ leads people to think that it’s not really a part of our society, and it’s intended to cast doubt even on true stories.”
“I think democracy depends on a press that can inform the people of what’s really going on,” said Albright. “If our country gives up the role of the free press, then we really are going down the wrong path.”
Fortunately, according to Sanger, there has been some pushback against that sort of anti-press rhetoric.
“This is the first time that I can think of that reporters have seen people come up to them to say, ‘Thank you for your reporting,’” he said.
But he felt that doesn’t mean that the press should take sides on issues, and as an example he cited the Times’ headline following the recent mass shooting in El Paso. The headline in print read, “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism,” a sentiment that many people felt let Trump off the hook. The Times changed the headline for its online version of the story, but the sentiment from liberals was unmistakable.
“Many on the left think that we should be a part of the resistance,” said Sanger. “But I think that’s wrong. Our job should be to report what happened in a non-partisan way.”
The conversation then came back to immigration, and Albright stressed again the need for paths that allow immigrants like Gudiño to come to the U.S. and be contributing members of society.
“There’s no answer for this unless we develop comprehensive legislation,” she said.
In the end, both Albright and Sanger conceded that we’re living in strange and difficult times, but organizations like EIA are a great antidote to much of the hatred and animosity we see, which is why Albright was so willing to do her part to help.
“It’s a testament to the fact that our work is broader than just teaching people English,” said Beaulieu about Albright volunteering to speak. “We’re making a difference in the community as a whole, and there’s a larger impact to what we’re doing.”