Leymah Gbowee Visits CRS

With great thanks to David Ives (90-00), we had the honor of hosting Leymah Gbowee, a 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate, at Camp Rising Sun for a day this summer.  Our staff, alumni, and campers spent the day with Ms. Gbowee as she discussed feminism, peacemaking, and how her leadership moved thousands of men and women to join in the movement to successfully bring a peaceful end to the Second Liberian Civil War.  As a result of her dedication and perseverance, she was awarded 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.”

It was an honor to host Ms. Gbowee, whose visit was a significant learning experience for our campers.  She shared that leadership is not tied to a high ranking position or a grandiose title, but l comes in many forms, including leadership through thoughts, ideas, and actions. Furthermore, she showed our campers the power of female leadership and demonstrated that standing up for what you believe in can have a large impact on the community.

By exposing our campers to different world leaders, global issues, leadership styles, and activities that expand their intellectual horizons, we are helping campers become more understanding and open-mined—qualities that are important for any leader.

Ms. Gbowee’s stories opened the eyes of our campers to feminism and peacebuilding and also resonated with the mission of LAJF – to create the future leaders of tomorrow. By exposing our campers to the life experiences of prominent world leaders like Ms. Gbowee, we are developing young leaders who are more understanding and open-minded to the complexities of global issues.

As one of the campers wrote in their reflection piece in CRS TIMES ’17: Week 3, “she taught us the value of perseverance, ‘that even when life is too difficult you should stay put and keep focusing on your goals.’” 

Read the reflection of Alba Gavaliugov-Mendez, former World Affairs & Politics Counselor (’14, ’16) and Evening Programs Coordinator (’17) below.

Anger is like liquid. It’s fluid, it is like water. You put it in a container and it takes the shape of that container. So many people you see in prison, unleashing war on their people, they are angry, and they take their anger and put it into a violent container. Before 2001, I was full of anger and hate, but then I realized my country’s reality could be transformed through a non-violent coalition of women.
— Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Leymah Gbowee, the feminist, the social worker, the mother, the African woman, the Liberian activist, the Nobel Peace Laureate, traveled up the Hudson river to the green hills of Camp Rising Sun Clinton, to disassemble prejudice, build hope, and rethink power together with our young campers.

Gbowee reinvented, back in 2002, the idea of conflict resolution and peacemaking by creating the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Movement, a multiethnic and polytheist coalition of women from all socio-economic backgrounds that managed to help end a 13-year long civil war. The Liberian conflict had resulted in more than 150,000 causalities, thousands of child soldiers, systematic sexual violence against women, made thousands of people refugees in the neighboring country of Ghana and had refrained this west African nation from progressing and establishing democracy for over a decade.

In 2002, the idea of a non-violent end to the war became reality when Gbowee, together with other Liberian women, did the impossible. With a fortune of 10 US dollars in their pockets, they published their first media manifesto and started protesting. There were first dozens, then thousands, and soon they became the greatest all-female social movement in African history.

They began gathering in markets – the place where Charles Taylor, the dictatorial leader of the time, used to recruit children and bring them to the battlefield. The women were first ignored, then ridiculed, and then told to go home, but they did not leave. They protested silently and they went into a marital strike. Soon after that, they would have to go through imprisonment – but they refused to be silenced until they were given the opportunity of speaking with Taylor. They finally managed to arrange a peace talk between the regime’s government and the rebel forces that were in exile in Ghana. This finally culminated into peace-talks being held in Accra.

After six weeks of negotiations, peace-talks were on the verge of collapse and the women were afraid of going back to the seemingly never-ending state of insurgency. They were also aware of the potential deal and took charge by locking the men in a room until the peace-deal was finally signed. The peace of a country turned to be a women’s deal; the hate and anger of the women of Liberia was transformed into a movement that manifested strength and hope, which culminated into the first female President elected in all of Africa.

The women who were out in the markets speaking for peace were now the wizards of peace and not the witches of Africa. Liberia, just like Nigeria or Cote d’Ivoire with other women’s social movements, or Rwanda with its gacaca tribunals, are teaching the world a very important lesson on the possibility of reinventing and reinterpreting the practice of conflict resolution and the process of pacification, while pointing out that when women realize that they too have power, society can change for the better.

In 2011, Leymah Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize for her relentless and brave struggle for pacification and democratization of Liberia, for her efforts to empower local communities, and for her work to improve the rights of women and access to education of young girls in the country.

It would be an understatement to say that the words of Gbowee, an unapologetic and self-declared feminist, resonating in the shadowed outdoor-theatre on Cabin Hill were inspirational. Rather, they were eye-opening, blunt, honest, and most importantly, empowering: “acting small, locally, is what changes the world as a whole.”

Listening to Leymah’s story of ‘glocal’ change was a once in a life-time opportunity for our community to learn about the strength and potential of collective action and of the power of peaceful political contestation. One would easily fall into the belief that a Nobel Peace Laureate would lose herself into idealistic and abstract statements of utopic world paradigms and sweetened narrations. She shared with us stories about her beginnings as a resource-less young Liberian mother and social worker. She also narrated her rapid rise and fall as a political figure in Liberia due to her unbreakable principles and ideals. By the end of her time with us, Leymah—with her crude sense of humor, powerful presence, and humbleness—taught us more about world politics, feminism, and activism than she may have realized.

Gbowee, the Nobel Peace Laureate, was completely outshined by Leymah, the local activist and the global agent of change. I believe, for our campers, just like it was for me, that her visit and her words will not only remain as a privileged memory of the summer of 2017, but they will also be the unconscious reason behind our daily contributions to make this world that we have been given a better place.