In an era where social media reigns supreme and demands openness from us all, modern diplomacy has become an art-form focused much more on outreach and authentic communication than ever before.
Conveying a sense of mutual respect and cultural understanding, a curiosity to learn from each other and a sense of transparency are important, and reaching out is something we work hard on with the Embassy team every day. In the spirit of this goal we visited two schools last week to discuss a multitude of topics from the U.S. election system to the values of openness, tolerance and what the “American dream” means to us.
I began last Wednesday by giving a brief talk on the United States election system and answering questions from a group of nearly 65 students, ranging from age 14-16, at Enskilda Gymnasiet in Stockholm. The level of nuanced knowledge by the students was impressive, and I was asked a colorful array of detailed questions on the caucus system, the importance of swing states and how the changing demographics of the United States will affect the electoral map, to name a few. I focused on the tradition of open debate in our country that started well before the Constitution was signed, and continues vibrantly today through a wide spectrum of mediums like Twitter, cable news networks, newspapers and blogs. No matter what our political affiliation as Americans, I think one thing we agree on in our democracy is that the best ideas rise out of a competition of ideas and we have been able to overcome many challenges in our country through honest dialogue.
On Friday, Mark and I went to speak to another large and diverse group of students at the Raoul Wallenberg School outside Stockholm in Bromma. Our goal was to convey the importance of story-telling and role models in inspiring the young generation to stand up for their beliefs no matter what stands in their way, just like the legendary Raoul Wallenberg did. We humbly tried to reflect the relevance of Wallenberg’s legacy today by emphasizing his great feats during WWII and the demand for similar courage and humanity in today’s world. We demonstrated through visuals and anecdotes how the leaders of our country, President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton, had joined the leaders of their country in celebrating this unique heroism together.
But the best part began when we tried to break down the barriers of formality and get real. I talked about personal hardships–trying to fit in as the child of immigrants, but sometimes feeling out of place and being made fun of for being different. And Mark discussed similar themes of also growing up as the child of immigrants with modest means but a sense conveyed by his parents that it was not material wealth but wealth of intellect and personal integrity that made you rich. Instead of fancy clothes, he and his siblings had ducks and dogs, learned about bee-keeping and went on rock hunts or blueberry-picking with their parents. My parents told me stories of living in Communist Poland, taught me how to grow tomatoes by tying the vines up with old pantyhose and saved every penny to take me to Europe and teach me about history.
It was when we stripped down the titles of “U.S. Ambassador” and “Ambassador’s wife”, and began an authentic conversation punctuated with laughs and “high fives” that the students opened up too and a deluge of great questions ensued. They asked about the elections, about what we do on a daily basis, if we like Sweden, why Mark wanted to be an Ambassador, who our personal heroes are and even how old we were, and we answered each honestly and happily.
At the end, we asked everyone to come up to the front with us and we took individual iPhone photos with almost every single student. This was the most intimate and moving moment for me of the day. One student approached me speaking Polish— which I still speak today as it is my parents’ native language— and said that she likes Sweden so much but misses Poland a lot and feels displaced sometimes just like I had described. Another student who came from Somalia said she was really moved by the stories of rescuers and also loved Chicago, my hometown which I mentioned. This went on for almost twenty minutes as we tried to connect with every single student and make them know how much their honest communication meant to us.
In the end, this was one of the most fun weeks we have had here (and there have been many amazing weeks!). Reaching out to young people is something we love to do, and something Mark has done all over the country in universities and schools ranging from the north to the south, from Luleå to Lund. We feel fortunate and blessed each day we have the opportunity to connect with and learn from the young generation here in Sweden.