Commencement Address by Leymah Gbowee
May 24, 2019
It is time for you to have a deep understanding of your stories and motivation, that you can step out and be someone by the choices you made to transform our world.
President Habuki, founder Ikeda, the Board of Trustees, vice president, deans, faculty, staff, distinguished ladies and gentleman, proud parents and guardians and family members, class of 2019: I always say this is another day the Lord has made, and we all rejoice and be glad because there will be never another day like this one.
The Blue Ribbon for Peace Award, the 21st Century Award, the Feminist Majority Leader Human Rights award, the Women’s eNews recognition as a Leader for 21st Century, the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award, the Noble Peace Prize, the Soka University Highest Award and the commencement speaker for the 15th commencement of Soka. No one, no one, absolutely no one would have prepared me for these awards and honors, given that 23 years ago, I was broke, virtually homeless, and a single mother of four children with no outlook of my future. My intention today is to have a conversation about life, the journey of self-knowledge, and its relationship to courage. If you take a theme from this address, I ask you all to remember, “Choices.”
This conversation is directed at the young and not so young leaders in this room. This conversation is directed at those watching online, to the young women in Africa, to the children of immigrants in the US, to anyone trapped by poverty, war, oppression, and violence, and to anyone who has had a crazy dream.
It is important for all of us in this room to know that personal choices matter even during the time of immense stress, warfare, hunger, homelessness, and catastrophic change, that the turmoil the world imposes do not prohibit us from contributing or recreating our circumstances. And that in dark times, it is both precious and essential to have an unshakable faith in oneself and that eventual dawn is sure to come. When I look back at my life, and I reflect on my journey of leadership and raising the next generation to have skills and commitment to live in peace, several experiences with young people come very clearly to my mind.
The first experience in 2009, I went to a refugee camp in Ghana. I arrived in a nice car, wearing attractive clothing, radiating with confidence. I knew I appeared to have come from a very far world, very distantly removed from theirs. My urgent message to those young women at that time: “I, too, have been a refugee. When I had my third child, I slept on the cold floor of a hospital for a week. He was two pounds. I did not have money to pay the doctor bill. He fit in my hand. Our place was on the floor in the hospital. I put him in my clothes to keep him warm. That became his incubator. That two pounds infant who was struggling to breathe on his own, and all of the different things did not lure me into alcoholism and prostitution that was available all around me.” I wanted no girl in the camp to have that same experience on the cold floor and urge them to remember that the refugee experience with all its desperation was just a dark stop on the journey, and they, too, could walk in shoes like mine in the future.
The second memory is of a young boy, perhaps 16 years old, who was a student at an elite private school in New York, where I had been invited to speak. After telling my story, this young man approached me to talk about his own mother and his experience as the son of an immigrant. He felt deeply different between his own life and that of his mother’s life, and how it impacted his relationship with his mother. He was also very conscious of the very different experience of his classmates. He came from poverty; they came from wealth. I ask him if he had been awarded a scholarship, and he said, “No.” I asked him what job his mother did, she was a cleaning lady for some rich folks. I asked him if he owned a Nintendo Wii, he said, “Yes.” I asked him if he owned other gadgets and cell phone like his other friends had. He said, “Yes.” But he still did not understand why his mother did not wear nice clothes, why she did not interact with the kind of people his friends’ mothers interacted with, why would she choose me to send to this school while she would not be like these people? “Your mother is inspired by your future”, I told him. “I think I know what is in her heart because my own son is about your age. More than anything in this life, she desires your success. She never had the privilege of education you have. She never played a computer game. She never knew leisure. She may never wear designer clothes like the friends of your mother or your friends’ mother do they think that they do. But when you become an attorney when you become an architect, when you become a national leader, because of her effort, it would be as though she had all those good things in life and all stories will be transformed.” With tears in his eyes, he told me he understood. But it was the story of my own choices of my life and my family that brought him that understanding, my own self-awareness began to dawn on me about 22 years ago.
Before that conversation, I just returned from Ghana to Liberia as a refugee, where I had abruptly fled an abusive husband, whose victim was all too often my four-year-old son. I was sunk in silent depression. Overwhelmed with finding myself at 25: penniless, mother of four, hitchhiking to my parents’ home. I had no idea how I could continue. Nearby as I lie in a chair that has become my comfort, my sister asked my then four-year-old, “How was your life in Ghana?” He said, “Not good.” “But your mother was there. Didn’t that make it nice?” “No. See how she is sitting there. That’s all she did in Ghana. She just sat. She said she was sick and did nothing.” Hearing his ingenious response to a caring adult, it pierced me like an arrow. For the first time, I saw how desperately he needed me, and I knew I have to rise above my own suffering in order to support my children.
The root of peace requires a coming to peace with oneself, a clear-eye confrontation with reality that takes place on far more private stage than do mass demonstration and continental politics. I would not have been able to inspire you all today, inspire girls in Ghana, gave insight to a young man in New York, or help transform a nation for that matter without my own stark confrontation with the choices that I have made. This meant, letting go of blaming my parents, letting go of blaming the war, letting go of blaming single motherhood for the depression and sense of brutality that engulfed me. It meant coming to grips with the fact that I was the only adult who could think for my children to ensure their care. It meant, escaping crippling hopelessness and in its place building self-esteem step by tiny step. It meant disentangling myself from my abusive relationship, educating myself, finding mentors and angels, and learning to be a warm and nurturing parent. It meant doing all of these things against the dark and relentless backdrop of the civil war.
My story of the private struggle that allowed me to build the foundation of my own role as a national and international leader can be no different from yours. War did not exonerate me from this process although it certainly did inform the entire process. Future leaders whether from conflict zone or not, will surely not be exonerated in their lifetime. Graduates, my story is intended to inspire you, to confront as many young people to encourage them to go on, to care for themselves, their families, their communities, their nations and the world. Young people cannot, you all cannot and will never be tomorrow’s leader unless you first come to terms with your own personal situation and choose to act. My story recounts the step that I took that ultimately put me on the path of where I am today.
I will tell you one last story. Broken, dejected, I decided to enter social work school. For one entire semester, I refused to speak in class. I had no self-esteem to raise my hand. Someone would answer a question and I would say but I knew that. I could have said that. I did not have the strength, because I was abused and repeatedly told that I was stupid. I was given a psychology assignment. I took my whole self, submerged myself into doing that assignment. I told myself this paper is worth 100%. When the professor brought it back to me, I had been given an F. I told myself it was time for me to speak up. I walked over to him and said, “Sir, I think you saw my name and did not read my paper and you graded it.” He said, “I do not think so. I said, “I think so.” He pulled paper from me and said come back next week. When I came back, he handed me the paper, and I had an A+. I walked out of that room and every step I took; I made a choice that no more will people judge me on the basis of my silence. No more will people think that I am not intelligent on the basis of me having no self-esteem. I will use my voice in this world now and always.
As we gather here to celebrate you all graduates, as you put your academic brilliance on display as a result of your graduation today, as you begin your professional dreams and journey, as you begin to count all of your successes to date and into the future, it is time for you to have a deep understanding of your stories and motivation, that you can step out and be someone by the choices you made to transform our world. Join me as we create a better world.