As the only journalist granted an interview by Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was serving as the 2012 commencement speaker at Vassar College last month, I was deeply honored. Perhaps it was because of my long-term dedication to writing about women's empowerment, or because my son was a member of this year's graduating class. But, whatever the reason, my seemingly thorough preparation for the interview did not prepare me nearly well enough for what I was about to learn.
Self-described as "a warrior without a weapon," Leymah Gbowee was responsible for leading a peace movement where Christian and Muslim women joined together to bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, a war initiated by then-Liberian president Charles Taylor who militarized children as soldiers against the country's civilian population.
Leymah talked about how she learned from historic peacemakers, like Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi, about how to use non-violence as a weapon to create change. "It's not about you as an individual. You have to think beyond your personal comfort," she says, recalling the many days when she and her fellow protesters went without water, often in 90-degree heat. "But when you get to a place where death is better than life, you have nothing to lose."
Honored with the Nobel Peace Prize "for (her) non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work," she also recalled how there was never a point during the Liberian uprising when the women considered using violence. "It was never an option," she says. "We were prepared to even have our bodies walked on if it would bring about peace." And perhaps it was their refusal to bear arms that proved the most disarming to their oppressors. "The opposition did not know how to embrace our brokenness," she says. "We weren't living at that time; we were only surviving. We were glad to wake up in the morning, but scared to be alive, happy to see night fall, but afraid to fall asleep." These horrific conditions are what ultimately compelled Leymah to organize and rally women to transform their pain and suffering into revolutionizing their communities. "These women were concerned about one thing -- securing a future for Liberia by creating a safe space for their children to grow up and be what they, the parents, could not be for many reasons," she says. With no budget, no strategic plan of engagement and no international backing, they stepped out to change the situation for their children. "Our only agenda was to repeatedly shout from the streets, 'Peace for Liberia Now!'" Leymah says.
And these four words not only became their non-violent "battle cry," but the armor that ultimately shrouded them in safety. Today, almost a decade later, their peaceful resistance has since led fellow Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ellen Johnson Sirlead to serve as Liberia's new president, the first African nation with a female leader. It has also enabled Leymah to follow-through on her heartfelt commitment to transforming the future for West Africa's children. "I am continually reminded about the promise of education in creating bright futures for our children," she says. It was actually only in the few days preceding her commencement address, in fact, that she was again reminded of how crucial education is to empowering women. While in Thailand for the Rotary International 106th Convention, Leymah recalled how, "In a ride to the convention center, the young lady who was responsible for protocol asked me, "Leymah, how do you as a young woman respond to bosses who have a problem with 'smartness?' I told her, "Keep being smart. Don't apologize to anyone for your intelligence."
It therefore seems only fitting that, as the first higher-education institution for women to receive accreditation, Vassar College was selected for her first college commencement speech since receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. As expressed by Catharine Bond Hill, Vassar's 10th president who has long-focused on affordability and access as a leading economist, and on economic development and reform in Africa, "Vassar was originally founded to offer a superb liberal arts education to those for whom it was previously unavailable, which, at that time, was women. We have continually broadened its notion of access in the decades since." As such, Vassar has also agreed to provide full scholarships for two West African young women to earn their college degrees. The institution is currently working with Leymah to identify promising candidates who meet Vassar's admission requirements, and who would qualify for the college's need-based financial aid program. The scholarships will further cover all expenses necessary for the students to study at Vassar for four years. "Scholarship unlocks intelligence," Leymah says. "And not nearly enough women in West Africa have support to follow their dreams." She is particularly pleased that Vassar is providing full four-year scholarships to two women rather than the more common one-year scholarships offered to more women by some other colleges, often leaving these students without the funding to complete their degree. "I believe in quality over quantity, since the girls who graduate can then provide a strong symbol of hope for other girls that they can achieve too," she says. "This, I feel, provides the strongest impact."
As for celebrating her own honor as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Leymah says she has not done so yet, choosing to instead view this time as one of reflection. "I want to be able to look back on this honor and see women who are now standing on their own because of me. Now that I got it, I have to earn it," she said.
And for the women who will benefit from the paths to education she continues to pave, she would, and should, expect no less.
Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is an educational psychologist, founder of Work Life Matters magazine, and co-author of Flex Primer for the New Future of Work (2011).