Former U.S. secretary of state: Great Lakes, environment matter of national security

Rochester — Environmental issues affecting the Great Lakes are a matter of national security, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Thursday.

"It's definitely a national security issue," she said. "I think it's very important that it's framed in that particular way."

Albright made the comments during a discussion on national service, the value of mentorship and the importance of national security at Oakland University.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, participated alongside Albright in the discussion, which was hosted by Oakland University’s Center for Civic Engagement and held at the school's campus in Rochester. The talk lasted about an hour.

Slotkin agreed with Albright's comments on the Great Lakes's importance.

"Beside the Great Lake states, there's not a ton of appreciation for what we have here," she said. "The good news is protecting the Great Lakes is the single most bipartisan issue I have found in Michigan and is widely supported by everyone."

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (left) and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin share a moment as they take part in a panel discussion.

She said the irony is Michigan has issues with water contaminated by lead and PFAS.

"Honest to God, if you can't give your child a glass of water without knowing if they're going to get an early childhood cancer, that is about the safety of your kid and the preservation of your way of life," Slotkin said. "I think we need to reframe the whole way we think about environmental issues. It's as much a threat to us as any terrorist attack."

She also said Michigan has a critical role in getting the rest of the country to see how environmental issues are national security issues. "I think we have a real role to play in advocating and leading and we're in a unique situation to do that because of our situation with our water."

Albright and Slotkin chatted about their experiences in public service as well as several other topics, including gender, how to start a career in public service, democracy, the media, mentoring and the upcoming election. Neither Albright nor Slotkin said they are endorsing any candidate.

The discussion was led by Beth Talbert, special instructor in Oakland's Department of Communication, Journalism and Public Relations and chief undergraduate adviser for the university's communications program. Slotkin's staff said about 500 people attended the event.

DeWitt Dykes, a professor in Oakland's Department of History, said he enjoyed the discussion.

"It was insightful and fascinating to hear about (Albright's) experiences first-hand," he said. "It says a lot about our country that she and her family were refugees and she has achieved so much. She's a great example that merit can rise to the top under the right circumstances."

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speak during a panel discussion, hosted by Oakland University's Center for Civic Engagement.

His wife, Silverenia Kanoyton, joined him at the event. She said the discussion was excellent.

"A lot of things they had to say were very instrumental in my own career," Kanoyton said. "She said if you don't speak up, then your voice is silent."

Albright, 82, the 64th secretary of state, served under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama in 2012.

She is chairwoman of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy company based in Washington, D.C. 

Albright was born in the former Czechoslovakia; her father was a diplomat. Her family fled to Britain during Nazi Germany’s occupation and came to the United States in 1948.

Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official who served in Iraq, was elected in 2018, defeating incumbent Republican Mike Bishop to represent Michigan's 8th Congressional District. The district includes Ingham County, Livingston County and a portion of Oakland County.

She drew national attention for explaining her support for impeaching President Donald Trump at a town hall in Rochester on Dec. 16.

Before the panel discussion, Albright and Slotkin met with 90 high school students from the area who are interested in public service.

Meghan Jones, 17, of Rochester Hills was among them. 

"I was starstruck," the Rochester High School student said after meeting the former secretary of state. "It was amazing. I'm still kind of freaking out about it."

Jones said she was anxious to meet Albright and asked her about her education at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Jones said she's applied to go to school there.

"She winked at me," she said. "And when she asked me my name, it didn't feel real."