Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee Outlines Rewards and Struggles of Promoting Peace in Ubben Lecture

Originally posted: February 15, 2012

“Dedicating your life to peace is one of the most beautiful things, but it’s one of the most difficult things,” 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Leymah Gbowee told an audience at DePauw University tonight. Gbowee, who was honored for her activism to promote women’s rights and peace in her native Liberia, described her “journey to empowerment” in a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture. A standing room only crowd of more than 450 people filled Meharry Hall in historic East College for her speech, “Dedicating Your Life to Promoting Peace.”

Gbowee, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemen’s Tawakkul Karman were honored in December as the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipients “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” in the words of the Nobel Prize committee.

As the founding member and former coordinator of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, Gbowee brought together women to hold non-violent demonstrations — including sit-ins and even “sex strikes” — that are credited with bringing an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003 and ending the rule of President Charles Taylor.

In her Ubben Lecture, Gbowee recalled that she initially became an activist because of anger, not unlike Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and others who came before her. But she quickly learned, as they had, that “you can’t do peace work with anger,” and began a “journey to empowerment” that took her “from village to village, town to town,” to meet with women from all walks of life to discuss Liberia’s civil war and what they could do to bring peace to their communities.

“There is no way you can dedicate your life to peace without having a sense of a higher power,” the 40-year-old Gbowee told the crowd tonight. “You need that. I’m not saying you need to be a Christian, I’m not saying you need to be a Muslim, but I’m saying you have to have a sense of a being that is more supreme than you are.”

Describing what she called “a spirit of generosity,” Gbowee said, “Even if you’ve gone through abuse, even if you’ve been misused, you’re still able to reach out your hand and pull those who offended you in ways the world cannot understand to say, ‘Come, let’s take this journey of peace together.'”

Compassion is also needed, Gbowee added. “You have to be able to look the godfathers and godmothers of violence in the eye and see some bit of good in them. Even if you don’t want to recognize it, you have to see it, because you don’t want to be like them.”

And, she warned, “Dedicating your life to peace is not a day’s job, it’s a calling. You can never do this work if you think it’s a 9-to-5 thing, trust me, I’d be in bed by now.” Having traveled from Africa early this morning to make the trip to Indiana, Gbowee spoke of how she has worked tirelessly for years in the name of improving the human condition, often at the expense of personal and family obligations. “It consumes your life. You have to reach a place where sometimes you say to yourself, ‘Slow down.’ Because you’re biting your nails as you’re following some of the conflicts you worked on, and you’re being called constantly by people in those conflict situations but you never, ever stop. It’s part of you; you can’t rest until you see good come out of something.”

Leymah Gbowee was featured in the award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell and authored the recently-published memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. She was recently appointed by President Sirleaf as head of the new peace and reconciliation initiative in Liberia, and has launched a new foundation which will work to promote peace.

“No one leaves a legacy by being quiet, you have to risk being a troublemaker,” declared Gbowee, who received a standing ovation from the packed house at the conclusion of her speech.

“Every soul has a bit of darkness,” Gbowee stated. “What happens to all of us is that we make conscious decisions to either build on our bit of light and lighting those who interact with us, or build on the darkness that we have and destroy people.” She added, “Everyone, in the journey of promoting peace, you have to find that place. Because if you’re able to see that light, you can tap into it for the good of your community.”

In 2007, the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government recognized Gbowee with the Blue Ribbon Peace Award. In 2009, Gbowee and the women of Liberia were given the Profiles in Courage Award by the Kennedy Library Foundation.

She was the ninth Nobel laureate and seventh winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to be welcomed to DePauw as an Ubben Lecturer. The previous visitors included Oscar Arias, F.W. de Klerk, Mikhail Gorbachev, Shimon Peres, Willy Brandt, Elie Wiesel, Leon Lederman, and Ferid Murad, a 1958 DePauw graduate.

According to Gbowee, the value of being a Nobel laureate will be gauged in the future by “how many young people, young women, I’m able to carry along. Ten years from now I want to look back and see this stage full with women who will say to me, ‘Ms. Gbowee, because of you I am this thing.’ Then I can celebrate.”

Gbowee’s visit was made possible with the assistance of Stephanie Paine Crossin ’87 and Sagamore Institute. Prior to taking the stage, the Nobel Peace Prize winner met with a group of DePauw students for an informal discussion and posed for pictures with undergraduates before and after her address.

Established in 1986 through the generous support of 1958 DePauw graduates Timothy H. and Sharon Williams Ubben, the Ubben Lecture Series was designed to “bring the world to Greencastle” and presents events which are available for students, faculty, staff, alumni and the local community to enjoy.

Previous Ubben Lecturers have included President Bill Clinton, who delivered a November 18, 2011 address to a crowd of 5,000 people to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the series. Other guests have been Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, General Colin Powell, John Major, Barbara Bush, Spike Lee, Naomi Wolf, Mike Krzyzewski, Oscar Arias, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, Ross Perot, Jason Reitman, Gwen Ifill, Mitch Albom, Peyton Manning, General Wesley Clark, Andrew Young, Bob Woodward, Paul Rusesabagina, Paul Volcker, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ralph Nader, Harry Belafonte, Jane Pauley and many others.

To view a complete roster of Ubben Lecturers — which includes links to video clips and news stories — click here.

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