Before Leymah Gbowee was able to make sig­nif­i­cant social change in Liberia, lead the women’s move­ment there in the early 2000s, and earn the des­ig­na­tion of Nobel lau­reate, she had to break down walls.

Not lit­eral walls made of brick and mortar, but walls con­structed using fear and vit­riol. Walls that led those in her home country to see one another as things, rather than people.

When we are per­sis­tently told that someone from this group is evil and you act on it, you build a wall between you and that person,” Gbowee said. “Even­tu­ally you do not see the indi­vidual; you see a thing. And because you are looking at a thing you are able to harm them and treat them in what­ever way you want.”

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Nobel Peace Prize Lau­reate Leymah Gbowee Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

Once she and her col­lab­o­ra­tors began to chip away at those walls, like the ones that sep­a­rated Catholic and Muslim women in Liberia, they were able to act.

On Thursday evening Gbowee shared her life’s journey and the lessons she learned that made her an inter­na­tion­ally renowned activist with a near-​​capacity crowd at Blackman Auditorium.

Gbowee orga­nized the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace in the early 2000s, a coali­tion of Chris­tian and Muslim women, to stand against the atroc­i­ties of the Second Liberian Civil War. Through the group’s non-​​violent activism, she and her col­lab­o­ra­tors ush­ered in a time of peace in their country and helped get Ellen Johnson Sir­leaf elected pres­i­dent. Sir­leaf is the first female elected head of state in Africa. Together, Gbowee and Sir­leaf were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Tawakkol Karman, for “their non-​​violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full par­tic­i­pa­tion in peace-​​building work.”

Once we get to a level of com­fort [with eachother], nothing can divide us.”
—Leymah Gbowee

A cap­ti­vating speaker, Gbowee weaved humorous anec­dotes about her family among her sto­ries of fighting for jus­tice and women’s rights in Liberia. Like even how, as a Nobel lau­reate who holds tremen­dous stature in her home country, she still answers to her 6-​​year-​​old daughter.

The main theme of her talk cen­tered around her dismay at how much fear dic­tates society today, and how the joys of flying in an air­plane or going to a restau­rant can be shrouded in fear. “Is this the world we want to leave for the next gen­er­a­tion?” she asked. “Fear has taken over our world. All of the joys we expe­ri­ence as people are being taken away from us gradually.”

To move from fear to for­ti­tude, Gbowee said we must delib­er­ately break down those walls and work to see everyone as the indi­vid­uals they are.

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Pres­i­dent Aoun and Gbowee embrace on stage at Blackman Audi­to­rium. Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

‘A force of nature’

Fol­lowing her talk, Gbowee was joined on stage by Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun for a dis­cus­sion and Q&A with mem­bers of the audi­ence. “You are clearly a force of nature,” Aoun said to her. “I hope you con­tinue to be a trou­ble­maker for the rest of your life,” refer­ring to Gbowee’s remarks ear­lier that she “won the Nobel Peace Prize for making trouble.”

A stu­dent asked Gbowee what advice she would give to someone who is inter­ested in pursing peace and con­flict studies. She noted the impor­tance of not lim­iting their expe­ri­ences to text­books, and that they should get involved with peace­making organizations.

And to prove her dancing skills are on par with her activism skills, Gbowee closed the event by teaching Aoun some African dance moves.

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Gbowee and Pres­i­dent Aoun bust a move. Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

Gbowee is this year’s North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Inter­faith Fellow and her talk served as the opening cer­e­mony of the New Eng­land Inter­faith Stu­dent Summit on Friday. This inau­gural event looks to delve deeper into themes of inter­faith coop­er­a­tion, peace building, and reli­gious lit­eracy. North­eastern is hosting the summit in part­ner­ship with the White House Inter­faith and Com­mu­nity Ser­vice Chal­lenge, as well as the Faith-​​Based and Neigh­bor­hood Part­ner­ships Office of the U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion, and with part­ner­ship from two dozen cam­puses and inter­faith youth and young adult orga­ni­za­tions across New England.

You are clearly a force of nature.”
—Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun to Leymah Gbowee