March 21, 2013

Nobel winner to Portland students: Tap into 'fire within'

A Liberian peace activist tells Maine students that following their passions can change the world.

By Jessica Hall
Staff Writer

For Leymah Gbowee, one of three winners of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, social change started with small steps, fueled by the nagging feelings that kept her awake at night.

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Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, spoke to students, teachers and employees at CIEE, a Portland-based nonprofit that focuses on international education and employment.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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Shadigo H. Ali, a student at USM, asks a question of Gbowee following her talk.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

During an informal 90-minute talk with high school and college students in Portland on Thursday, Gbowee urged the crowd to follow their passions to create positive changes in society.

"The pathway to leadership is not wide, not fancy, doesn't take a lot of money. It's the fire that burns in you. If you find one crazy buddy to join you, you've already succeeded," Gbowee said, addressing a crowd of about 150 students. "You may not win a Nobel Peace Prize but if you want to make an impact, if our world is going to be a better place, we have to tap into that fire within us."

Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist who organized a sex strike that helped bring an end to that country's civil war in 2003, said her movement grew out of her anger about young women and girls being used for sex. She said she could have dwelled on her own abusive relationship, but she chose to fight the unjust treatment of young women in her community.

"The anger in me made me embrace those girls. I invited them into my living room and we had what we called Auntie Leymah's Bible School. No one had ever talked to them about sex and their bodies," Gbowee said. "You may not see that kind of change if you don't make the change yourself. Sometimes, it's not in the elegance of your dress, it's the passion in your words and spirit."

Gbowee, who spoke at the Council on International Educational Exchange as part of the University of Maine School of Law's second annual Justice for Women Lecture, urged students to start small and focus on the issues that nag at them.

"Speaking up on little things will bring you closer to speaking up on bigger things," Gbowee said. "If you see something going on in your community and you can't sleep -- that's a call to leadership."

When asked by a student how to start a social movement, Gbowee said, "You don't need 10,000 persons. You need two people of like minds. We started with five women, 10 U.S. dollars and our conviction."

Gbowee's efforts in Liberia grew into a lifetime of work advancing women's rights. Among other efforts, she founded the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa and co-founded Women, Peace and Security Network-Africa. Gbowee, a single mother of six children and a social worker, also wrote a memoir, "Mighty Be Our Powers."

Gbowee urged students to follow their beliefs even in the face of obstacles or criticism.

"No idea that was going to make history was applauded from the beginning," she said. "Do something and recognition will come. Start working on it. Bombarding your governor or mayor with petitions or paperwork. It takes perseverance. It may be hard. Nothing easy is sustainable."

One way to start making changes in society is to battle everyday issues, like bullying, by reaching out to those who are different, she said.

"You must exhibit an attitude of oneness. Walk and talk and treat people right and it will be catching," she said.

Gbowee, who got a standing ovation from the students, got some members of the audience to think and dream.

"She inspired me to go back to Ethiopia someday to teach men and boys about the rights of women. I want to go back and educate people that women's rights are important," said Lydia Tsadik, an Ethiopian native and a student at University of Southern Maine.


Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:


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