“The question we need to ask ourselves is: What do we have in common and how can we pull that together to for the greater good of the community?”
That’s what Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told the audience in Straub 156 on Friday night during her lecture called “Mighty Be Our Power.” She spoke about bringing about peace through a recognition of a collective humanity.
Gbowee is an activist known for uniting Liberian women to bring peace to their war-torn country. Her mobilization of Muslim and Christian women against warlords helped end the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003.
Gbowee was in Eugene this weekend for PeaceJam conference, where she lead a two-day conference at the University of Oregon for kids aged 14 to 18. The conference is part of the PeaceJam Foundation’s initiative to educate and empower young people about leadership and peace, according to its website.
After receiving a standing ovation from the crowd, Gbowee began with an anecdote of growing up in her West African community, sheltered from many problems. When she moved to a new town, she said, she saw more hungry kids and her family helped to feed the children.
She said her experiences growing up showed her how a community could come together to celebrate and help children. She saw the collective good of her community.
Through several anecdotes, Gbowee illustrated her experience not only of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, but more recently of her experiences of being stereotyped in airports or Sunday schools. She detailed how most people stereotype others, and gave examples of how she does so herself.
“Every time you act on a stereotype,” she said, “you build a wall between you and the person you stereotyped.”
Gbowee continued with a story about her grandmother, a Christian woman, who was best friends with a Muslim woman.
“We have more in common than we tend to give ourselves credit for,” she said.
One of her key points was that we, as humans, need to move past our differences to overcome problems like racism and sexism to move toward peace and tolerance of one another.
“We are one. It is in our oneness that we can make this world a better place,” she said, ending her lecture.
Members of the audience were then given a chance to ask Gbowee questions.
One audience member asked, “how do you teach people to be a warrior of peace?”
Gbowee responded by saying we must teach children, and learn for ourselves, how to respect one another, regardless of differences. “It is respect that brings tolerance and acceptance,” she said.
Another brought up the invisible “walls” people build up while discussing stereotypes and asked how those relate to real walls. He also asked if it is right to talk with people who clearly have different views from you, and gave an example of someone wearing a confederate flag sweatshirt in Eugene.
“The invisible walls I talk about lead to actual walls,” she said. She advised finding a moment to engage with the person and hear their perspectives. “There will definitely be something you have in common,” she said.
To end the evening, a woman asked if Gbowee could share a time when she felt those invisible walls break down. Gbowee shared an anecdote about working with former children soldiers. At first, she and the young men didn’t get along because of their differences, but eventually, they became good friends.
“There’s freedom in tearing down the wall,” she said. “Let’s try it. Go out there and engage with someone, you might just be surprised at the beauty behind that wall.”