With apologies to Eleanor Roosevelt, Leymah Gbowee revealed her guiding principle Tuesday night before a sold-out crowd in the UC Irvine Student Center’s Pacific Ballroom: “Do one thing every day that everyone else is scared to do.”
Gbowee was speaking from experience. She led a women’s peace movement that in 2003 helped end the second Liberian civil war. The demonstrations culminated in the exile of brutal dictator Charles Taylor and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state.
Co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Gbowee was the eighth guest in UCI’s Living Peace Series, which hosts international leaders committed to making the world a healthy, sustainable and compassionate place. Previous speakers have included the Dalai Lama, Richard Branson, Charlize Theron and Jane Goodall. The series is co-sponsored by Orange County’s Center for Living Peace.
“You live peace by not allowing evil to triumph over good,” Gbowee told the audience. “Living peace is not a day job; it is a calling. It keeps you awake at night.”
The 42-year-old mother of six travels the world spreading her message of peace and female empowerment. She’s also the Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice at New York’s Barnard College and runs a boarding school for girls in her native Liberia.
Gbowee was cited by the Nobel committee for uniting Christian and Muslim women against her nation’s warlords as head of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. The organization she founded had humble beginnings. In 2002, she rallied women to sing and pray in a fish market in protest of fighting. A year later, they confronted the warlords terrorizing their communities and succeeded in toppling a ruthless leader.
Still, Gbowee shuns fancy titles and honorifics. During her UCI appearance, she admitted to sometimes feeling like an “ornament” at international conferences and lamented the public perception of Africans as “weak victims.”
Countering this, she spoke of achieving “victories out of victimhood” and described working with women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to change the image of their country from “rape capital of the world to the capital of sisterhood.”
“I don’t want my legacy to be all about the Nobel Prize,” Gbowee said. “I want my legacy to be that of someone who lived peace and left a legacy of peace.”
After the talk, Paula Garb and David Snow, co-directors of UCI’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, presented Gbowee with the Citizen Peacebuilding Award, the organization’s highest honor.