by Alex ’16 and Natalie ’16
2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and women’s rights advocate Leymah Gbowee encouraged Marlborough students and staculty to take action in the face of injustice and see the humanity in everyone when she addressed the community at an All-School Meeting last Tuesday. Gbowee urged girls to stand up against violence in all forms, small and large.
“After I leave this room, I will have 500 activists who will be telling the world, ‘I see your humanity. I will treat you with respect. I will walk with you for justice. I will help you bring peace. We will shape our world. We will make it better. We will say ‘No disrespect for women in our spaces,’” Gbowee said.
Many girls said they would always remember Gbowee’s message.
“I think that she spoke to each and every one of us,” Isabel Monroy ’17 said. “I think that we’ll all remember her as we go through life, thinking about how we can be activists in small or big ways.”
Gbowee is an acclaimed peace activist, most notably for her work in ending the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. She united Christian and Muslim women in nonviolent protests, which culminated in the exile of then President Charles Taylor and election of Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In 2012, she founded the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, which works to improve girls’ access to educational and leadership opportunities.
Girls Go Global club co-presidents Annie ’16 and Christina ’16, along with Head of Special Projects and history and social sciences instructor Cathy Atwell, met Gbowee at the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women in May.
“She is such a phenomenal speaker and has such an incredible story,” Annie ’16 said. “I think that she does a really good job of both giving insights from her lessons as an international leader but also as a mother and a normal woman, so she’s good at both speaking about how to be an activist but also how to be a woman.”
Although she has touched the lives of millions of people, in Liberia and beyond, Gbowee said she believes advocacy should start with small actions against injustice. During her talk with parents the night before, Gbowee shared her adapted version of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote to “do one thing every day that scares you.”
“Do one good thing every day that everyone else is scared to do,” Gbowee imparted.
She described the injustice and violence of the world as a big ball. She explained that every person’s small actions can chisel away a piece of the ball. With these simple actions, the ball will soon disappear. The best way to act, according to Gbowee, is to constructively interfere – to be an activist, not a bystander.
“If we are not bold for good, others will be bold for evil,” Gbowee said.
When Gbowee spoke to students in Caswell Hall, she connected with girls to make her big message more personal, leaving the front of the room to walk up and down the aisle. She pointed at girls as she walked, at one point sitting down in an empty chair among the freshmen. She welcomed questions from girls in all grades. When a seventh grader asked Gbowee how she got so far in her work, Gbowee responded warmly.
“I wish that I could come over and give you a hug,” Gbowee said. “Every little good you do in this world will make a lot of difference.”
Head of School Priscilla Sands said that she hopes girls will take to heart Gbowee’s message to be brave in their everyday lives.
“When you’re called upon to make the big, brave, bold statement, you get there by practicing, by taking baby steps along the way,” Sands said.
Gbowee said that the courage to act comes from anger at injustice. Gbowee said that the strength of the movement she led in Liberia came from the shared anger and sisterhood of the women whose lives had been ravaged by murder and rape. She said that her fearlessness came from living in a reality of death and destruction and her courage to act came from her anger at the war.
“When abnormal becomes normal in your life, for some reason you become fearless. When death is your reality, you’re not afraid of death anymore,” Gbowee said. “Anger is neither good nor bad. Our expression of the anger is what differentiates the heroes from the villains.”
Gbowee explained that Marlborough girls must decide if they will pour their anger into a violent or nonviolent container, illustrating her message with water bottles belonging to girls in the crowd. In an interview with the UltraViolet, Gbowee said that Marlborough girls, who live in a world of privilege, must find what makes them angry in order to do good.
Gbowee advised that girls should think about what keeps them up at night if they want to change the world. This anger and restlessness will fuel their activism.
“No one will deliver peace and justice to you on a silver platter,” Gbowee said the night before. “In your communities, you have to get pissed. You have to get fed up, and you have to stand up.”