May 20, 2012
by Leymah R. Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate
President Hill, Trustees, Deans, members of the faculty and staff, officers, graduating students of the Class of 2012, proud parents, guardians and family members, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, one and all.
This is the day the Lord has made and we are all meant to rejoice and be glad in it. I would like to thank the administration of this great college for the invitation to speak at the 2012 commencement. This is my first U.S. commencement address post-Nobel Peace Prize.
A few days ago, I was in Thailand for the Rotary International 106th Convention. During the ride from the hotel to the convention center, the young lady who was responsible for protocol asked me, and I quote, “Leymah, how do you as a young woman (and I assume she thought I was young because I looked so pretty) respond to bosses who have a problem with “smartness”? I told her, “Keep being smart. Don’t apologize to anyone for your intelligence.”
Young people – especially young women – who are in the process of launching a career or have decided to enter a particular field have asked me this question countless times. It is a known fact that people who feel a sense of calling in a particular field will bring more enthusiasm to their work than those who are performing 9:00-5:00 get-on-with-it, make my money, and go home. There are clear distinctions in the way they perform their duties. The ones who feel a sense of calling blossom, while the ones who feel it’s 9:00-5:00 work, make money. In most instances, they leave trails of dead leaves.
I bet you are thinking, “What is this African woman trying to tell us?” Just stick with me patiently for a moment as we journey together on the theme, “BLOSSOM WHERE LIFE PLANTS YOU – or if you are a person of faith like myself, BLOSSOM WHERE GOD PLANTS YOU.”
Wars, famine, tsunamis, and manmade and natural catastrophes have left our world in a state of need today more than in any other period in history. Many countries going through such disasters have challenges that overwhelm their communities, institutions, and even faith.
My own country, Liberia, was in a similar situation from 1989-2003. Life in those days was horrible. We weren’t living; we were only surviving. We were glad to wake up in the morning, but scared to be alive, happy to see night fall, but afraid to fall asleep.
In 2003, a group of us decided we would use our pains and our sufferings to transform our communities. When we started the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace campaign, we got many suggestions on how we could raise funds and get international partners to validate the work we were about to do. We spent hours planning how to engage donors, and get them to buy into our struggle. Everywhere we went we faced a closed door. Many weren’t sure we would instigate any important change or make any impact on the crisis.
After days of trying, we decided to do what we felt we were being called to do – change our deplorable and shameful life conditions. With no budget, no strategic plan of engagement, and no international backing, we stepped out to transform the situation for our children. Many nights, we gathered to evaluate our work and plan for the next day, without the first thought or the slightest idea of where our next funding would come from. We would gather the next day, and even in temperatures of over 90 degrees (if you think this [today] is hot), we sometimes had no funds to provide water for the women who came to protest. But for most of these women, water wasn’t as important as making change.
When it was important to protest at a specific venue, we walked when there wasn’t money for transportation. The attitude of the women was, “This is where we have been planted and we must make the most of it.” After many months of smiling through our hardship and following our calling, peace returned to Liberia. Globally, the women of Liberia have been credited as major contributors to the peace in Liberia. What is important to note [is that] the women’s movement would not have been successful if those women were not committed and passionate about what they were involved with. No one took a salary, no one was coerced, and everyone came to the action willingly, knowing that they had been planted at that point to make change. Many of the women abandoned their businesses to be involved. Protesting was a way of life for many months. These women were concerned about one thing – securing a future for Liberia, making a space safe for their children to grow up, and be what they, the parents, could not be for many reasons. They had no social or political agenda; their only agenda was, “Peace for Liberia Now!” Today, the story of the women of Liberia is told in many places, as a means of inspiring people to take a stand.
Many of us here today have seen many situations that we believe need to be transformed. There are many social and political issues that leave a lot of us sleepless at night, from Syria to Afghanistan, to Iraq to Southern Sudan, to Darfur, Mali, and Guinea-Bissau, just to name a few.
My work has taken me to many places and I have never been to a place or a country on this Earth where my curious eyes – and trust me I look around – has not seen a situation in need of change, even in this great America, from homeless people, to teen mothers, to drug addicts, to corrupt political leaders, to military dictatorship. All of these, in these communities, make life very grey. For many individuals, a smile is difficult to come by. Hope is lacking in their vocabulary. Like Liberians a few years ago, many of those living in these places, thought life has no true meaning.
However, if you look very closely in these communities you will see everyday heroes and “sheroes.” They are the ones who are symbols of hope. They are the only ones who can extract a smile from a mother who has no idea where she will get money for medication and money for food. These are men and women who have committed their lives to bringing relief to those in pain. Some are doctors, bankers, corporate managers, community workers, or peace activists; these are men and women who know where they have been planted and their purpose is to blossom.
Dear graduates, it is my hope and prayer that the dreams of changing the world that many of you had in your head when you left high school and entered college will still be the driving force and passion as you deliver services in whatever field you have been called to impact.
Have you been called to teach? Be teachers who will inspire dreams of young people regardless of where they come from. Don’t be those teachers who enter the classroom and already know which race can be a scientist and which can be a cleaner. Have you been called to do humanitarian work? Conduct it in a way that people you connect with will remember you as that passionate problem solver. Those called into professional fields are the ones who people are attracted to like bouquets of colorful and perfectly organized flowers. They are difficult to ignore. People are drawn to their infectious beauty and talent.
I’m reminded of a community activist in Liberia called Mrs. Page who walked into my office a few days ago and said, “Leymah, I want you to come and speak at my program.” And she had a black diary in her hand and [said], “I’m looking for a date that you can give me.” And I said Mrs. Page, I don’t think I have time. And she said, “Check, Leymah, you’ll find time.” And then I said, Mrs. Page my June is full. “And I’m saying to you, Leymah, check, for these girls need you.” And we sat there conversing. She told me a story of living in this community where this little girl is the same age as her daughter. And she said, “Every night, peeping through my window (okay, I’m a spy, I spy on young people), peeping through the window I see this little girl come home with one different man after the other. And this night I got so fed up, because she was sitting in the car with this almost 6o-year-old man. I walked out of my room and opened the door and told her ‘Get out of the car.’ And the girl said, ‘What is this?’” And she [Mrs. Page] answered, “This is what you’ve seen. Get out if you want to see more.” She said several days later she went back to this girl’s house and said to her, “I came to take you to an empowerment program for young girls.” And the girl was like, “What is this? Leave me alone!” And she said, “No, I’m not going to leave you alone.” She said, “Leymah, I hand-delivered her to this empowerment program and carried her for three weeks until she got adjusted. Today she is an auto-mechanic and she tells me, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Page.’”
And I ask Mrs. Page what was your drive? She said, “Let me tell you something. If you think there are social problems and you are comfortable in your fence, trust me if you don’t help to address those problems they’ll come knocking at your door. And I was thinking about it and said, “Really?” And she said, “Yes, let me tell you something, if that girl had many children and lived in the community where I look around and I see those hungry children and if I have a plate of rice I have to share with those children.”
She’s right. Many times in the work that we’ve done in our different communities the attitude we’ve all taken is it is none of my business. I’m getting on with my life. But if you look around the world none of our business has really made the world an upside down place.
Step into the world and shine. Step into the world and exert yourself. You may encounter bosses who will expect you to act dumb to make them shine. Remember that you have to blossom, not for yourself but for the people you will be serving.
Study the lives of great men and women and you will see a common trait: Whatever they did, they did with dedication and passion. It was always others before self. They were never self-promoting. Their work spoke for them. People who encountered them left with indelible memories of their few moments together. Their conversations with poor and rich alike were similar. The views of those with whom they were interacting were more important than theirs.
Some of these heroes like Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Mother Theresa are among the many who walked this road and inspired change in the world. They have shown us all how to blossom by following our calling.
Parents and advisers, many of you have hopes for these graduates. Every one of you has an image of where you think life would take them. If you’re African like myself you’re sitting here and calculating the financial gains of the field they intend to get in, because we have children in Africa and we say they are our insurance policy. Some of their callings may be less lucrative, but will put your family’s name on the map forever.
When I decided to go into social work immediately after the war – four children, single parent – my mother looked at me and said, “You’re setting yourself up for poverty. Social work in this republic? I don’t see how you will make it.” I felt like this is where I was being planted and this is where I wanted to go. I followed my calling. I’m not rich, but you see where I am.
Some of these children’s callings may not put you on the map, but they will make you proud to be affiliated with them. Journey with them, even if it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes for us parents it never makes sense. Encourage them, pray with them, and your support will definitely help them blossom.
I would like to join these young graduates in thanking you for your support over the years. To the Vassar faculty and staff, thank you for following your calling and helping these graduates find their way. You, too, have left legacies.
Mahatma Gandhi, another person who followed his calling and blossomed, said and I quote, “The future depends on what we do with the present.”
As you step out there and follow your calling it’s not always bright and sunny like today. You’ll have some tough days, but I want you to remember one thing. As long as you’re making impact in the lives of people there will always be encouragement at the right time.
I was sitting in Brussels about to deliver a speech on girls’ education and my cell phone goes – text message received. And most times when you have six children in one part of the world and you are in another part, every text message is an anxious moment. So I picked up my phone and read my text. A young lady that we had helped out of prostitution several years ago, who graduated from college, decided that morning she would send me a text. And the text read: “Thank you, Auntie. It’s because of people like you that some of us have a new lease on life.” And I was speechless. And I said this is truly the working of God. I’m exhausted. I really don’t want to give this speech. I have no idea what I want to tell these policy makers that they haven’t already heard. And now here is a text from a little girl thousands of miles away who we invested in. Who now has a job mentoring other young people and she chose this morning to thank me. I felt like, whatever I’ve done, I’ve received my pay.
You may not get millions of dollars as I said earlier. You may not get to be written in the Guinness Book of World Records as someone who has changed things. But in some tiny community, in some tiny schoolroom, and in the minds of some great person, you have blossomed. You have made the change, you have helped to make the world a better place.
There are many people out there waiting to encounter you, distinguished graduates. You are the future and the hope of America, the hope and future of the world. Find your calling. Help change the world. Leave legacies big and small. I thank you.