Nobel laureate shares message of empowerment with students in Portland

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PORTLAND — Nearly 200 high school students last week heard a Nobel Peace Prize winner describe how she empowered women in her native Liberia, despite all odds.

Leymah Gbowee came to Portland on March 21 to speak to students from across the state at the Council on International Educational Exchange.

Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her part in leading the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, an effort that brought together Christian and Muslim women in a non-violent movement that helped end the Liberian civil war.

In the early 1990s, frustrated by seeing young girls abused and joining the sex trade in her community, Gbowee began inviting girls into her home to do homework and talk about what they were seeing around them.

“The anger in me made me embrace these girls,” she said. “I invited them to come into my living room to have a conversation. We had about eight people and they started calling it Auntie Leymah’s Bible Study. We sat down and talked about bodily integrity, because there was not a single parent among the girls who had taken the time to talk to them, so the level of sex they saw in the community was confusing them and sooner or later they would have fallen prey.”

She said eventually the group began to discuss the changes the girls were seeing in their bodies, doing homework and praying.

Gbowee calls this group her first work in social activism, but it wasn’t until she read a book by Hillary Clinton that a fire was ignited in her to create more change with the girls of her country.

She worked with a second group of girls later in the 1990s who competed for and won $1,000 to complete a reading room at their local high school. The group of girls was empowered by each other and worked day and night to get the reading room off the ground.

In 2002, Gbowee became the spokeswoman and an inspirational leader with the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which protested the reign of then-President Charles Taylor. The group traveled around Africa and put pressure on several warring countries for change.

“If you don’t take charge of the things you want to see happen in your life or your community, you may never see change,” she told the students. “I get different questions from young people, like ‘what can I do?’ ‘How can I make change?’ Sometimes it is not in the elegance of your dress or in the way that you speak, it is the passion and fire with which you come.”

At the end of her presentation, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan presented Gbowee with a key to the city.

“It is obviously anticlimactic for me to be speaking after you,” Brennan told Gbowee. “But I am very pleased to be here to present a key to the city to you in recognition of the work that you have done.”

He added that he was very happy to give the key to a fellow social worker, and that he could pick up some tips from Gbowee about working with the City Council.

“I know you have a masters in conflict transformation, so I’ll have to talk to you about that because I haven’t quite mastered the part of taking conflict to transformation,” Brennan said.

Amber Cronin can be reached at [email protected] or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.

Sidebar Elements

Leymah Gbowee, a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, addressed 200 students at CIEE in Portland on March 21. She told the students they all have the power to change the world; they just have to do something small and inspiring every day.