The University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) and its School of Social Work (SSW) celebrated the four-decade career in public service and strategic communications of Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, MSW ’76, during Commencement on May 20, 2016.
Sherman used her education in social work in many ways, such as a child welfare official, as campaign manager for the first successful Senate campaign for fellow alumna and then-Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski, ’65, and as director of EMILY’s List before turning to foreign policy. After leaving the U.S. State Department in 2015, she became a senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, D.C., and a non-resident Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.
(Within days, Sherman would be in the national news again as the Democratic National Committee announced her appointment to the 15-person Platform Drafting Committee.)
In presenting Sherman to receive an Honorary Doctor of Public Service during the UMB commencement ceremony, SSW Dean Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW, noted that Sherman “has worked on some of the most difficult, and most important, negotiations in American history.”
He said former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright “once called Sherman her ‘watchdog’ for separating fact from fiction in real time, global negotiations” and went on to quote Sherman in a National Journal interview. “I joke that I remain a community organizer; my caseload has just changed.”
Barth said, “Whatever the issue, Wendy could be counted on for advice and diplomacy that was smart, realistic, and sure to advance America’s interests and values."
In Sherman's speech to the SSW Convocation, her advice to the members of the Class of ’16 could be summarized as an admonition to “embrace the unexpected.”
Sherman's remarks on May 20, 2016 are as follows:
Dean Barth, thank you for that kind introduction and for the unexpected honor of later today receiving an honorary Doctorate of Public Service. Indeed, that is my main message today to the graduates, family and friends gathered here today - embrace the unexpected and great things will be ahead for all of you. I know this to be true because when I graduated many years ago, beginning in child welfare, I had no idea that some years later I would be negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran.
What do I mean by embrace the unexpected? After all, each one of you has worked hard, pursued your studies and now are graduates of this prestigious university with a Masters in Social Work. Each of you, no doubt, has or are hoping to have the next perfect opportunity to use the skills you have acquired. And I hope that each of you will find exactly what you are looking for.
But, the greatest rewards will come in life when they are least expected and hardest won. Indeed, one needs courage, competence and the clock- timing to be on your side to have the best that life has to offer.
I was lucky, I learned courage early in life. My parents attended the founding of the United Nations in 1945. My father, a Marine, wounded at Guadalcanal, working with my mother, helped to found [the United Nations Veterans League] what would become the American Veterans Committee. These were two young people who never wanted to see war again and did something about it, leaving me with an astonishing scrapbook and a legacy of public service for my life.
My parents moved back to Baltimore and my father began a residential real estate business, college having been interrupted by the war, put aside. My mother [Miriam Sherman], a woman of the post war generation, was thrilled to start a family and settle in.
Baltimore in the 1950s and even 1960s was a segregated city as the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war and Women’s movement were underway. My father [Malcolm Sherman], late to Judaism, regularly went to Friday night services and one night, the Rabbi, who was sitting-in at restaurants with other clergy to insist on public accommodation of African-Americans, gave a stirring sermon about what his congregants must do to bring justice to the world. My father went to see the Rabbi to ask what he could do. The Rabbi said he could advertise open housing in his real estate business, something that had never been done and was not then required by law. My father said it would be economic suicide to which the Rabbi said, you asked; this is the answer. So he and my mother discussed this and decided to do the right thing. And, it did bring economic loss and threatening calls to our house on a regular basis.
But that legacy of the courage to do the right thing - and bear the consequences - was a great gift to me, and to my own daughter who has followed in their path of advocacy. It is a legacy I pass to each of you today, riding on the wings of so many profiles of courage in our lives every day.
My own history ultimately sent me to graduate school to get a Master’s in Social Work, principally in community organizing, although the clinical skills I learned have been extremely helpful along the way with everyone from members of Congress to authoritarian leaders!
Social Work School taught me critical core skills of surveilling the environment, seeing all of the pieces; of beginning where the other person is without sacrificing what you came to achieve; of working for realizable objectives while ensuring that you reach for the moon and push the envelope wherever you can. I learned analytical skills and the importance of academic rigor. In other words, I learned, as you have, a set of core skills that could serve me wherever life’s journey took me. And Social Work School inculcated a set of values, of commitment to community, social justice and human rights.
And oh, what a journey it has been; what an unexpected life I have had so far. I joke that I have always continued to be a social worker, but my caseload has changed from individuals to groups, to states, to the nation, to the world. After some years working in child welfare, politics became not only my avocation but my vocation. I ran Senator Barbara Mikulski’s first successful campaign for Senate, ran Campaign ’88 at the DNC for Michael Dukakis, ran EMILY’s List and became a partner in a political media firm.
Then one Sunday evening, while friends were over for dinner, I got a call from Tom Donilon, a political colleague, who was to become Warren Christopher’s chief of staff in the brand new Clinton administration. Tom asked if I would come see Christopher the next day, Martin Luther King’s birthday. Finding it all rather unexpected, I went to see Chris. The upshot was he wanted me, if the President-elect agreed, to be the Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs. I was honest about my capabilities - something I urge all of you to do always. I told him that if he wanted someone who knew all there was to know about national security and foreign affairs, I was not the right person. But if he wanted someone who knew something substantively, given all of the campaigning, but also did know politics and Washington, I might be the right person. Ultimately, that is what he and the President decided to do.
Since that unexpected call, I have been fully engaged in national security and foreign policy. As assistant secretary, then as Counselor of the State Department for Madeleine Albright, followed by a decade building a global consulting firm in the private sector and then as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs for Secretaries Clinton and Kerry and, of course, for President Barak Obama. Being under secretary was not what I originally hoped to have done at that point in my career, but, again, the unexpected led to perhaps one of the greatest privileges of my life, to head, as political director for our government, the US team for the Iran negotiations, a multi-year, multi-lateral negotiation that demanded all of the skills I had acquired all of my life. And, to do so, while managing the rest of the world and traveling to 54 countries in my four years as undersecretary.
So here is what I am trying to convey.
Have courage or find it in yourself and others. The important things in life, the ones that make a difference are hard and come with costs. That includes, not only your work but your life choices. Having a relationship, having children, is hard and although we can all have everything, it is virtually impossible to have it all perfectly all at once, or ever perfectly at all. When we ultimately retire, we have our memories but most of all we have our family and our friends – one of my dear friends, Joan Zlotnik a Ph.D graduate of the School and accomplished educator is here today – so don’t neglect them, even when it’s hard. And if you’re lucky like me, you will have a partner, like my husband Bruce Stokes, who is truly that.
Take risks because you never know what unexpected and wonderful opportunities will come your way. And know that some of those risks will not lead to success. I have made bad job choices and bad life choices. But failure is not an indictment or even a mistake. Scientists understand that failure is a necessity to discovery and who doesn’t want to embrace discovery.
Competence does matter. Assess your skill set and think broadly about how it can be applied to different environments. There is not one true course in life. At the same time, push yourself to new and unexpected places, while honestly assessing your skills.
Never go it alone. In the Iran negotiation, I may have headed the team, but it was the team that made it happen; a dozen at the actual negotiation and literally hundreds in the US government. The same was true on every campaign I ever ran. And it was certainly true when I was Director of Child Welfare in Maryland where it took even more than a village to protect and nurture children at risk.
Always remember that after the honor, there is the work. Like the work you do and most importantly, like the people with whom you work. You have to get up every day and go to work so how awful is it for you and for your loved ones if you hate the thought every morning. And, for heaven’s sake, make sure you do the job you have rather than spending your time trying to get the next one. A job well done is the best recommendation you can have.
The clock matters and we don’t control it at work or in life. Some of you will have or have had children when it is least easy to do so. You may have missed what looked like the best job in the world because you applied late in the process; or you may get it because you applied late in the process. For two years in the Iran negotiation, we got almost nowhere because, given the leadership in Iran, it simply was not the time. And, missing one opportunity, as I did, may lead to an even better challenge, as it did in my case.
With all of the humility attended in offering anyone life advice, including career advice, one thing is certain. Each of you is living at a time of extraordinary challenge. When I think of the challenges in front of this president, let alone the next one, the outlook is daunting - our economy and the frustration of those who feel left out or left behind; international threats including North Korea, D’aesh, Middle East instability, the future of the European Union, economic slowdown, the rise of China, the challenge of Russia; and, the broader domestic agenda including the deeply unfinished business of human rights and social justice, immigration, refugees and migrants, cyber, the challenge and promise of technology, climate change and more. We have also seen it is a time of anxiety for the American people, and people throughout the world – anxiety about social change, modernity, crime, terror, and most of all good paying jobs and job security.
But it is also a time of extraordinary possibility – technology means increased entrepreneurship and access; girls’ education is on the rise in the world, the single best indicator of progress; D’aesh is being
driven out of territory even as it seeks new venues; there has been recovery in our economy, albeit uneven; more people than not understand the challenge of climate and rallied governments to move; individuals from a Tunisian push cart owner to a Pakistani teenager trying to get an education; to the first African American president ensuring health care and risking a deal with Iran, people are making a difference, people have courage.
So my final words to you are simply to live life with everything you have. Be open to life; if I had not been, this social worker would have never ended up negotiating with Iran. Each of the individuals I’ve mentioned- and many more – have. It is hard, it comes with costs, you may even be called – as I have been – a traitor, a fox, an appeaser and as a woman strident, aggressive and several other names I won’t say here. But if you serve your family, your community and your country with courage, conviction, competence and understanding that, in the end, we control little, including the clock, you will find wonderful and consequential opportunity. I wish for each of you an unexpected and rewarding life.