An interview with Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee

Leymah GboweeLeymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist and trained social worker who has emerged as an international leader through her efforts to promote peace, democracy, and women's rights. She is one of three women leaders who were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize "for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." Gbowee delivered a thought-provoking and inspiring plenary speech at NAFSA's 2012 Annual Conference and Expo in Houston, Texas.

International Educator: What inspired you to lead the women's movement to establish peace in Liberia?

Gbowee:Anger can inspire. The civil war lasted so long that my two oldest children, who were very young at the time, only knew fear and deprivation. And all of Liberia's children only knew the same. It made me angry, deeply angry. There were thousands of mothers and sisters and aunties who felt just like me. It was because of my experiences as a mother, social worker, and trauma counselor working with participants and victims of the war that compelled me to devote my life to peace activism. In my work, I listened to hundreds of women share their stories of how the war changed their lives forever. I could not hear their stories and do nothing.

IE: How did you organize Christian and Muslim women to rally for peace together?

Gbowee:We started the Christian Women's Peace Initiative to gather Christian women together to pray for peace. And it was Asatu Bah Kenneth who stood up at St. Peter's Lutheran Church before the congregation, and promised to gather Muslim women together with their Christian sisters to bring peace to Liberia. Unity was not immediate; there were some Christian women who felt that by joining with women from a different religion they were diluting their own faith. But bullets know no faith. Christian and Muslim women joined forces to collectively protest for peace. It took a diverse group of women leaders to bring together diverse groups of women.

IE: You are an example of how one woman can make a difference. What is your advice to young people about how they can impact social change in their societies?

Gbowee: The global economy has created a tight network of major players—multinational corporations, global philanthropies, international NGOs—that operate in a small world. Young people and women cannot afford to advocate for justice in isolation because the forces that drive our countries' economic development—politicians, financial institutions, and corporations—work in concert. We need tight networks, too—to support, to collaborate, to stretch the boundary of opportunity beyond what we think ourselves capable. We have made strides in coordinating our efforts through increased collaboration, communication, and networking forums via meetings, the Internet, and at conferences.

Those of us who are privileged to live in safety and security are required to investigate how their governments, companies, and organizations contribute to unrest and injustice for young people and women in other communities. It is through our collective actions that real change will manifest. As Gandhi said, "Be the change." If young people hope to see changes, they have to step up and make the change or be the change.

This is an abridged excerpt of the interview "Leading Change" by Elaina Loveland, editor-in-chief of International Educator that appeared in the September/October 2012 issue.