By: Nicole Hicks, PHRGE Program Intern and NU Human Services Student
On February 11th, Northeastern’s Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service and a host of other campus organization presented Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee to an overflow crowd at Blackman Auditorium. Ms. Gbowee answered many of the audience’s implicit questions. How does someone look at the way another person is dressed and decide they are a threat? How can someone read a last name or passport cover and decide to hate the individual it belongs to? Watching the world news can leave anyone asking, “how does this happen?”
“Fear,” says Gbowee. Every fear, assumption, or stereotype you have heard builds a thin wall between you and that person or group. Every time you act on the fear, another wall is built, further inhibiting your ability to see that person, and their humanity. “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,” she told the audience.
Gbowee worked to mobilize Christian and Muslim women in Liberia during the country’s second civil war. With Liberia at war and her community divided, she could not think about human rights without finding a path to peace. Her first challenge was to break down the barrier between women; who came to regard their difference in religion as an impenetrable wall. Gbowee asked the women if the pain a Christian mother feels when she loses a child is different than the pain a Muslim mother feels. If a rebel walked into their meeting and started shooting, would the bullets know to avoid the Christian women, or Muslim women? Slowly, the women began to talk, and were eventually able to look at each other as fellow Liberians united in their cry for peace.
The overwhelming theme of Gbowee’s talk was how fear has begun to limit our lives in new ways each day. We continue to allow metaphorical walls to create boundaries where there are none, avoiding certain places or becoming wary of certain people. We live in constant fear because we refuse to listen; to see the humanity in others the way we do in ourselves.
Proud of her heritage and accomplishments, Gbowee made many references to her family and Liberian culture, but acknowledged that her coalition, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, was being used as a model to teach peace-building around the world, in places like the U.S. and Sweden. It would seem that she has no intention of limiting her reach to Liberia, and understands the global implications of her work.
Gbowee’s parting wisdom included the observation that American women tend to get angry politely, while African women get angry loudly. Perhaps this was her way of subtly imparting her passion and fiery intellect to the many young people sitting in the audience, hoping to “light the spark” in them and inspire social change around the world.