How a Nobel Laureate Turned Fear into Fortitude

Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee appeared on campus as part of the Scholars Seminar.

by Joe O'Connell, this story originally appeared in Northeastern News

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.”


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 col­la­tion of Catholic 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.”

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.


‘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.


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.