On February 15, Sagamore Institute had the great privilege of welcoming 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee to Central Indiana for a two-day speaking tour that proved to be inspirational and informative. The mid-day lunch reception drew some 40 community leaders including Sagamore Board Members, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s Director of Economic Development Gina Sheets, and representatives from the offices of Congressman Andre Carson, Mayor Greg Ballard, and Governor Mitch Daniels. To honor her efforts to end the Liberian Civil War and her continuing work in peace, reconciliation, and women’s empowerment, Mayor Ballard’s office presented Ms. Gbowee with the key to the city, and the Governor’s office officially named her an Honorary Hoosier. (View pictures from the event here)
Following the reception at Sagamore Institute, Ms. Gbowee spoke in front of packed audiences at University of Indianapolis, DePauw University, IUPUI, and Indiana Wesleyan University. In addition to discussing how she learned to be effective in her work in peace, reconciliation, and women’s rights, Gbowee also spoke about the events that led her to her current work and the personal struggles that she has faced. She noted her Christian faith as the primary motivator for her work in peace, truth, and reconciliation.
“[The work] consumes your life,” she said while speaking at DePauw, “it's part of you; you can't rest until you see good come out of something.” Certainly Gbowee is consumed by her commitment to peace: in addition to running her organization Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), she also serves as head of Liberia’s National Peace and Reconciliation Initiative, and as a member of the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning. Additionally, Gbowee recently launched the Gbowee Peace Foundation.
In her remarks, she emphasized that anybody can make a difference by focusing on empowering communities “one person at a time.” Driven by this conviction, much of her energy has recently gone into enabling West African girls to attend school. Gbowee’s Peace Foundation was launched primarily to advance this effort. West African girls who get an education are empowered to change their own lives and have a positive impact on their communities at home. In the collective, this contributes to closing the gap in Liberia’s overall capacity needs.
Despite her tight schedule, Gbowee made it a point to take a number of questions from the audiences, largely composed of ambitious college students. At the University of Indianapolis she gave advice to a student wanting to know how aid work can be more effective. “If you want to solve a community’s problems, ask them,” she said. “It must be on the terms of the community. Don’t come in with ‘We know it all.’” Speaking at Indiana Wesleyan University, she encouraged listeners to take an active role in bringing about the changes they wish to see in the world around them. “If you take the dream that is building in your head and pass it along to someone you feel is better placed to carry it out,” Gbowee said, "The next time you see your ideas, you won’t recognize it. Because that person will probably take it and turn it into a monstrous thing that you never intended for it to be." In dealing with the character of a peacemaker, Gbowee stressed the need for that person to be free of bitterness. At IUPUI, Gbowee noted that a peacemaker must have a generous spirit. In response to a question on government in Africa, she emphasized the need for good governance and selfless leaders of good character.
From Gbowee’s short but rigorous speaking tour, it appears that the stage has been set for future collaboration. Before introducing Gbowee, University of Indianapolis President Beverley Pitts announced that the university will offer a two-semester scholarship for a Liberian student to study in Indianapolis, an offer that was quickly matched by the University of Indianapolis campus in Athens, Greece. Additionally, Ms. Gbowee was encouraged to have her girls apply to the newly established Sagamore Fellows Program, a leadership workshop focusing on development, good governance and character formation. As she continues her work in peacebuilding, security, and women’s empowerment, we hope that Gbowee’s relationship with Indiana will expand, adding to the many contacts between Indiana and Africa.
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