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Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Laureate & Liberian Activist

By Jennifer MacGregor

Leymah Gbowee lived most of her life in war-torn Liberia, where she saw firsthand the devastating effects of what a decade-long civil war can do to a country. She was the subject of the 2008 documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," which was directed by Abigail Disney and won numerous awards, including the best documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The film chronicled how Gbowee organized the women of her town to protest the violence constantly erupting all around them. What started as a protest of women in front of a fish market turned into a sit-in at peace talks that eventually led to the end of civil war in Liberia and the exile of President Charles Taylor. Gbowee was a recipient of the 2009 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her peace activism.

Gbowee spoke to a room of parents at the Marymount School in Manhattan, where she talked about her personal struggles obtaining an education and raising her five children, and how important parents are in creating the next generation of leaders.

Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Who are some of your mentors? How did you get to be a leader?

Leymah Gbowee (LG): In terms of leadership, I come from a background of very strong women. My grandmother, who's 93 now, is a very powerful traditional ruler, or traditional priestess if you want to call it that. She tells us the story of being married off at 15, and then she had her first child at just about that time. And this child was three months old when her husband beat her for the first time, and that day she left him and left the child with him. So this is just to give you an example. In her time, she divorced three times and never remarried after the third time. She raised all of her children on her own and she taught us that for whatever a man can do, you can do. We were never really taught to sit back and wait for someone to do for you because you're all girls. We were taught — you have to take that step. And I think, over time looking at my upbringing, looking at all the challenges these two women went through in their own lives, and they are leaders in their own rights.

As I grew up it came naturally: I would run for office in my school as a young girl and I would win. But then also in this field I read a lot and I continue to read. Unfortunately when I started close to 15 years ago, I was reading King and Gandhi and there was always this question, where are the women? You have this reference made to Rosa Parks, standing up this one time, but then the question was, did it end there, did other women take it on? So you never really see much of the women in these movements. And you have stories even of Gandhi having a woman as one of his closest aides, but she's just that invisible figure. So I read a lot about all of these people, read about some of their qualities, and I think it brought me to a place where I don't want to be one of those invisible women walking in the shadows of men.

PR: Do you think your strength is very special to your family, or is it something that is part of African culture?

LG: I told the girls [at the Marymount school] today that it is a universal thing. I think there's something in every woman. It's just that you have to get to that place where something makes you very angry to bring it out, or something makes you very sad to bring it out. It's like when you pour water, [that] water is a fluid thing within you, and when it comes out, whatever container you put it in is the shape that it's going to take. So for example, if you have this strength in you, and you take it and put it into a violent container, violence will be exhibited in your life and in everything that you do. If it comes out and you say, I am going to use it for social justice, and to strengthen and enlighten other people, is that container of strength and peace, that's the shape that it's going to take.

So I think it's within each and every one of us. It's not just restricted to the men. I think the reason why it's taken us women so long to do some of the things that we're doing is because of our socialization. We've been socialized to believe that you can't be a leader, you can't do this, you can't do that. And that is one of the reasons why I take a lot of pride in working with young people now because we have to convey the message to the young women that you can be a leader.

PR: Tell us just a little bit about your education.

LG: Well, my parents are from very humble backgrounds, but one of the things that my dad especially, who came from a very, very poor background, said was that his children would never go through the kind of struggles that he did. They really worked their butt of to get us to the best high schools that Liberia had to offer at the time. So I went to a private high school. I did very well in school. And I started University when the civil war [in Liberia] came and then I stopped. I didn't go back to school until I had four kids, and after an abusive relationship, everything was lost. I went back and got a college degree. And after a few years I said, I'm going to get a Master's, and I did.

PR: A Master's in what?

LG: A Master's in conflict transformation and peace building. I'm thinking of eventually going into politics but I'm also thinking I want to make a statement, not just to my daughters but to many young women that even after four kids, your life is not over. So I want to do a Ph.D.

PR: Sounds fabulous. Which country do you think you'll do it in?

LG: Well, I don't know, usually I pray to step into these things and wherever the opportunity presents itself. Given now that I have three kids here going to school…

PR: In New York City?

LG: One is in Virginia, one is in Ohio, one is here. I would probably decide the U.S. is the place to stay and do it.#

Leymah Gbowee was introduced by Marymount School Headmistress Concepcion Alvar and received a standing ovation after she spoke.



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