Connections: Extraordinary Visitor

The inspiring spark of courage in Ms. Gbowee is impossible to miss

   From time to time, you get to meet extraordinary people, people whose lives have made others better. Such was the case last weekend when Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian women’s rights and peace activist, came to East Hampton to participate at Guild Hall in what is called the Hampton Institute, a two-day series of talks and panels on topics of national concern.
    Ms. Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, a rights activist and journalist. The prize was deserved.
    Ms. Gbowee led the women’s movement that helped bring down Charles Taylor, the brutal Liberian president. You may recall television images of women in white tops and head scarves marching toward the presidential palace in Monrovia and refusing to go away until Mr. Taylor agreed to hear what they had to say. By that time, Liberia had suffered 12 years of civil war and at least 200,000 deaths.
    The prize has brought Ms. Gbowee to international attention and spurred her work for the safety and education of women and girls and for reconciliation and peace. She has founded two organizations, the Women’s Peace and Security Network and the Gbowee Peace Foundation.
    What is stunning when you meet her is not only what she has done and is continuing to do but her ability to cut through the cant, to explain what she is fighting for in simple, often anecdotal, language. Although only 40 years old, she has witnessed war, known child soldiers, been a refugee, and come out as a wise woman.
    Others who took part last weekend were pretty impressive, too. Kati Marton, for example, is the author of some seven books, with a new one about to be published about her life with her late husband, Richard Holbrooke. Dina Powell heads a Goldman Sachs initiative to empower women entrepreneurs. Kirsten Gillibrand is a lively and articulate New York senator. Joe Nocera is a New York Times columnist. Paul Goldberger, who now writes for The New Yorker magazine, is an expert on the man-made environment.
    And there were more, all accomplished and successful in their fields. But the inspiring spark of courage in Ms. Gbowee is impossible to miss.
    The program at Guild Hall was the third sponsored by the Roosevelt Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to “carrying forward the legacy and values” of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Its mission is to “reanimate progressive politics and build a sustainable society.” At Guild Hall, the institute follows a series of somewhat more home-grown panel discussions that were called Hot Topics.
    Ms. Gbowee, who has four children of her own and is mother to two others, recently added the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning to the groups she works for. But she acknowledges that finding peace through reconciliation in Liberia may be even more daunting than reproductive rights.
    “We have a whole generation of young people whose only means of settling disputes is through violence. And then we have a whole generation who have no idea of why we fought, but because of where they find themselves . . . their ethnicity, the social group, their religious group, they have to take sides.”
    Leymah Gbowee’s story is told in a 2008 documentary called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” She has also been assisted in writing a memoir, “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.” I hope some of you will feel compelled to learn more about her.