A group of Girls Inc. staff recently heard 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee speak about her experiences in human rights activism and community organizing. Hosted by the University of Indianapolis and Sagamore Institute, the event included a speech by Gbowee as well as an interactive question and answer session. Introductory remarks were made by 2011 Touchstone honoree and University of Indianapolis President, Beverley Pitts.
Women are traditionally underrepresented in the Nobel Prize selection process, but in 2011 the Peace Prize went to three women. Gbowee shared the award with two other women working for human rights – Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa, and Yemeni activist, Tawakkul Karman.
I was excited to learn more about Gbowee’s work in Liberia. The country had been torn apart by ethnic conflict for more than a decade, and women suffered disproportionately. Rape and sexual assault were commonly used as weapons. Eventually, however, women were also the great catalyst of change. Public protests of women from different ethnic groups and with different religious traditions banded together to demand an end. In Gbowee’s words, women put their broken bodies on display to tell another side of the story. Women who believed they didn’t know how to be advocates fought for the future of their children and their nation.
She emphasized the importance of helping one person at a time and working from the specific needs of each community. She preached the importance of solidarity in sisterhood. In spite of all of our differences she said, “If we allow ourselves to be divided by politicians, where will we be?”
I enjoyed learning about her work in Liberia, but I was most struck by her call to action in my own community. During the question and answer session, a member of the audience asked her opinion of foreign aid to nations such as Liberia. She answered with a story about a past visit to a university in Philadelphia. She said that whenever she makes appearances in the United States, her hosts try to impress her with their own service projects. Prior to a speaking engagement, her Philadelphia hosts told her about a special program that sends students to Kenya to build houses for the homeless. She replied, “No offense, but have you been to downtown Philadelphia recently?” She didn’t understand why students went all the way to Kenya to help the homeless when their own community was visibly suffering.
As an Americorps VISTA member, I was so inspired by her common sense approach to community organizing, social justice, and conflict resolution. If you want to learn more about Gbowee’s activism, consider reading her 2011 memoir, Might Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.