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How a Nobel laureate turned fear into fortitude

Before Leymah Gbowee was able to make significant social change in Liberia, lead the women’s movement there in the early 2000s, and earn the designation of Nobel laureate, she had to break down walls.

Not literal walls made of brick and mortar, but walls constructed using fear and vitriol. Walls that led those in her home country to see one another as things, rather than people.

“When we are persistently told that someone from this group is evil and you act on it, you build a wall between you and that person,” Gbowee said. “Eventually you do not see the individual; you see a thing. And because you are looking at a thing you are able to harm them and treat them in whatever way you want.”


Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Once she and her collaborators began to chip away at those walls, like the ones that separated Catholic and Muslim women in Liberia, they were able to act.

On Thursday evening Gbowee shared her life’s journey and the lessons she learned that made her an internationally renowned activist with a near-capacity crowd at Blackman Auditorium.

Gbowee organized the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace in the early 2000s, a coalition of Christian and Muslim women, to stand against the atrocities of the Second Liberian Civil War. Through the group’s non-violent activism, she and her collaborators ushered in a time of peace in their country and helped get Ellen Johnson Sirleaf elected president. Sirleaf is the first female elected head of state in Africa. Together, Gbowee and Sirleaf were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Tawakkol Karman, for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Once we get to a level of comfort [with eachother], nothing can divide us.”
—Leymah Gbowee

A captivating speaker, Gbowee weaved humorous anecdotes about her family among her stories of fighting for justice and women’s rights in Liberia. Like even how, as a Nobel laureate who holds tremendous stature in her home country, she still answers to her 6-year-old daughter.

The main theme of her talk centered around her dismay at how much fear dictates society today, and how the joys of flying in an airplane or going to a restaurant can be shrouded in fear. “Is this the world we want to leave for the next generation?” she asked. “Fear has taken over our world. All of the joys we experience as people are being taken away from us gradually.”

To move from fear to fortitude, Gbowee said we must deliberately break down those walls and work to see everyone as the individuals they are.


President Aoun and Gbowee embrace on stage at Blackman Auditorium. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

‘A force of nature’

Following her talk, Gbowee was joined on stage by President Joseph E. Aoun for a discussion and Q&A with members of the audience. “You are clearly a force of nature,” Aoun said to her. “I hope you continue to be a troublemaker for the rest of your life,” referring to Gbowee’s remarks earlier that she “won the Nobel Peace Prize for making trouble.”

A student asked Gbowee what advice she would give to someone who is interested in pursing peace and conflict studies. She noted the importance of not limiting their experiences to textbooks, and that they should get involved with peacemaking organizations.

And to prove her dancing skills are on par with her activism skills, Gbowee closed the event by teaching Aoun some African dance moves.


Gbowee and President Aoun bust a move. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Gbowee is this year’s Northeastern University Interfaith Fellow and her talk served as the opening ceremony of the New England Interfaith Student Summit on Friday. This inaugural event looks to delve deeper into themes of interfaith cooperation, peace building, and religious literacy. Northeastern is hosting the summit in partnership with the White House Interfaith and Community Service Challenge, as well as the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office of the U.S. Department of Education, and with partnership from two dozen campuses and interfaith youth and young adult organizations across New England.

You are clearly a force of nature.”
—President Joseph E. Aoun to Leymah Gbowee

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