Nobel laureate urges grass-roots activism; will speak in Guilford next week

Saturday June 22, 2013

GUILFORD -- Jody Williams was just the 10th woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and she has been named one of the most-powerful women in the world by Forbes Magazine.

She also happens to have 16 honorary doctorates to her name.

But the Vermont native, Brattleboro Union High School graduate and worldwide anti-land-mine activist is not interested in being placed on any sort of pedestal.

"Anyone who pretends that they alone changed the world probably is on drugs -- or should be," she said.

Instead, Williams remains a strong believer in the power of ordinary people and grass-roots activism. She'll bring that message to an appearance scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Guilford Community Church.

She also will be discussing her new autobiography, "My Name is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl's Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize."

Williams traces the origins of her passion for justice and social change -- and her aversion to bullies -- to her childhood in the Green Mountain State.

When she was a young girl in Poultney, she noticed other children being "horrifically mean" to her brother, Stephen, because he was deaf. On one day in particular, a thrown can hit her brother in the head, cutting his scalp.

Williams writes that "righteous indignation overpowered my fear, and I went after them, screaming like a banshee."

She didn't catch the offenders. But in her book, Williams recalls returning home to find her mother "looking at me as if some other kid had taken over my body."

"When I was young I never raised my voice. Mom swears that when I was a baby, I almost never cried," Williams wrote, adding that "I remember myself that day as a girl transformed."

That transformation, Williams now believes, was not temporary.

"I slowly began to learn by that experience and others that, if you step up and do what's right, it becomes easier and easier," she said.

The family moved to Brattleboro just before Williams' seventh birthday so that her brother could attend Austine School. Williams recalls feeling like Brattleboro was a "megalopolis" compared with Poultney, but she eventually settled in and had another important experience in a high-school class led by teacher Chip Porter.

"I've actually e-mailed him to thank him for his role in my life," Williams said. "He talked about the U.S. in a very different way from any other teacher I ever had. He started critical thinking on my part."

Critical thinking led to activism at the University of Vermont, where Williams was a self-proclaimed "college hippie" who protested the Vietnam War. She later attended SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro and earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

It was in Washington in 1981 that Williams was handed a leaflet asking whether El Salvador -- where a civil war had attracted U.S. involvement -- might represent another Vietnam.

She attended a meeting on the topic, "and it changed my life," Williams said. "I signed up ... and I became an activist."

She was deeply involved in Latin American activism for about a decade. Then came a request: Would Williams start a campaign dedicated to eradicating land mines?

She acknowledges that she knew nothing about land mines at the time. But she accepted the challenge, founding the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in 1992 with "two non-governmental organizations and a staff of one" -- Williams.

The ICBL grew rapidly to include more than 1,300 organizations in 95 countries, with many activists dedicated to removal of hidden mines that continue to maim and kill civilians.

Looking back, Williams believes the timing was perfect -- especially with the end of the Cold War -- for worldwide action on land mines.

"Everything was right at the right time," she said.

In September 1997 -- little more than five years after the campaign was founded -- an international treaty banning anti-personnel land mines was announced. About three months later, 122 states signed the treaty.

The same year, Williams and the ICBL won the Nobel Peace Prize. Just after receiving the award, Williams said her work had been a "privilege."

"Very few people are allowed the luxury to decide that they want to do something out of the mainstream. Many people tend to pretty much go to college and get a job and buy a house and pay the mortgage," she sold PBS' NewsHour in 1997. "For whatever reason, I've had the luxury of deciding to do things a little bit differently."

She has continued to treat her work and her public profile as a privilege: Williams and other female Nobel laureates in 2006 launched the Nobel Women's Initiative, which aims to promote activists, researchers and others who are "working to advance peace, justice and equality for women."

For Williams, "peace" isn't defined by a lack of war among nations.

"Sustainable peace is really a peace based on human security -- not national security," she said.

In accordance with that theme, the Nobel Women's Initiative last year launched the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict. The idea is to focus on the personal safety of women worldwide.

"There is a global pandemic of violence against women," Williams said.

Williams' busy schedule includes continuing work as an ambassador for the ICBL. But she also has taken up a new cause -- "autonomous weapons."

These machines, Williams believes, are even more dangerous than drones because they can operate without human supervision. The campaign, which is backed by organizations including the Nobel Women's Initiative, is pushing for a "pre-emptive and comprehensive ban" on fully autonomous weapons.

The campaign launched in April in London and has a website,

"It's taking off in a way that is almost quicker than the land-mine campaign," Williams said. "It's exciting."

So, while Williams' work is far from done, she says she penned a memoir in order to "show that ordinary people can still work with others and contribute to dramatic change."

Too often, she argues, that sort of change is portrayed as the product of larger-than-life figures working alone. The reality, Williams says, is far messier and also more encouraging.

"We're all full of flaws, foibles, good and bad," she said. "I think when people are put on a pedestal ... it makes people feel like they couldn't possibly do anything like that."

Williams believes "everybody is passionate about something if they really think about it." And she has some simple advice.

"Get up off your butt and do something," she said. "Whining with your friends about something is not a strategy for change. Caring isn't enough. It never was."

Mike Faher can be reached at or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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