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Reviving Nonviolence in a Violent World

Greeley Scholar Challenges Listeners to 'Speak Up'

Leymah Gbowee and Chancellor Meehan
Chancellor Meehan joined Leymah Gbowee in calling for a peaceful campus and world.

By Julia Gavin

Political movements have held the world's attention for the past few months with images of protesters desperate to achieve their goals. Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies, Leymah Roberta Gbowee, spoke at the UMass Lowell Day Without Violence about how these conflicts could be better resolved through peaceful means.

"As we look around our country, we could certainly use a day of peace, or a week, or a year, maybe even a world of peace," said UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan in his introduction for Gbowee.

Gbowee, executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, is a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding. Gbowee's work in Liberia has led to several peaceful resolutions in recent years, including the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003.

"I wish we could have a world without violence, not just the physical violence we all know, but the structural forms that lead to the inequality which then leads to physical violence," said Gbowee.

Reviving the Movement

Gbowee warned listeners that reviving the non-violent movement will require changing societal policies and the way we treat each other. Gbowee referenced unfair treatment of people for their appearance, religion or ethnicity as an all too common form of structural violence.

"If you call yourself a peace activist, a nonviolent activist, or someone who wants to change the world, you have to start speaking out against these policies," Gbowee said of discriminatory practices. "We must speak up for each other."

Gbowee has been inspiring people in Africa to do just this by engaging women in peace talks. She said that once people band together and stand up against structural violence, then they can end the accompanying physical violence.

Training and Empowering Youths

One of Gbowee's major areas of work has been with youth in poor areas of Africa. Gbowee said that she has hope for younger generations, but they need to be taught to encourage each other. She and her fellow educators recently trained one group of young women who then mentored another group who went on to present their struggles to the local government.

"It's not often that a young girl can stand in front of the government and say, 'I am a teen prostitute ... this is how you can help me.' The girls who trained the others were so proud, they looked like expectant parents," Gbowee said of the mentoring program.

Aside from the structural violence she helps young people dismantle, Gbowee also believes that kids should be praised when they turn to nonviolent means instead of violence, instead of ridiculed.

"Kids who want to use nonviolence are told they're wimpy or girl-like. No one would ever call Martin Luther King Jr. wimpy or girl-like. Or Rosa Parks. And no one in here would ever call me wimpy or girl-like," Gbowee said to her nodding audience.

Hope for Africa

Gbowee will return to a home continent in turmoil after her residency, but she has faith that Africa can have a positive, nonviolent future.  In Liberia, where her work found success in calming relations between different ethnic factions, Gbowee has seen the cycle of structural and physical violence halted by peaceful protests.

"When freed slaves came from America to Liberia in the 19th century, they saw the resources available and thought that the indigenous people didn't realize what they had. Everything they learned as slaves, they brought back and practiced against the indigenous people," Gbowee said of the decades of discrimination that followed.

Now, after years of struggle, Gbowee sees Liberia as a success story, though some areas still need improvement such as employment and ending sexual harassment. Unfortunately, violent struggles in Libya, the Ivory Coast, and other African nations threaten peace.

"If world leaders would negotiate with African leaders as equals, that would be a change. There are good African leaders, but no one wants to listen to them," Gbowee said of struggles between corrupt and dependable leaders.

Moving forward, Gbowee said that Africa and the rest of the world need to understand that the continent is home to "sound people" who should be involved in peace talks instead of cut out of violent intervention by outside forces, such as the current actions against Libya.

Closing her talk and explaining her thoughts on why leaders should not stay long if office, Gbowee shared a fitting African parable.

"Take a drink of your water. Hold it in your mouth for ten minutes. By then, it will have turned to saliva and you will have swallowed it as your own," she said while holding a bottle of water. "This is what happens to leaders when they are in power for too long -- they see the palace, the power, and the people as their own and swallow them up."

Gbowee concluded with a thought from an aide of the Dalai Lama.
"You can never hold bitterness in your heart," the aide said, "because it will make your work ineffective."

Leymah Gbowee will be speaking at several other events throughout April, which may be found at the Peace and Conflict Studies Institute website.