Activism is not easy. It takes dedication, time and motivation to advocate for a worthy cause. To Jody Williams, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to rid the world of landmines, the sacrifice is worth it.
Williams, who delivered the 2012 baccalaureate address in Packer Memorial Church on Sunday, May 20, emphasized the importance of taking initiative. She told students and their families that activism, no matter the cause, is essential to a fulfilling life.
“Working for a better planet for everybody, including myself, is not easy,” said Williams, who also received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the 2012 commencement exercises.
The baccalaureate service opened with a greeting from the Rev. Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain, professor of religion studies, and director of the Center for Dialogue, Ethics and Spirituality; and words from Rabbi Seth Goren, associate chaplain and director of Jewish Student Life.
Students from four religious traditions—seniors Anjan Gupta, Darren Pfeil and Rachel Fieman and doctoral candidate Rami Akeela—delivered messages emphasizing that collective responsibility is necessary to make the world a better place, a theme Williams elaborated upon in her address.
“Pretending that one can survive as an ‘I’ without also connecting with the ‘we’ in this really interconnected world is, to me, an absurdity,” she said.
Taking inspiration from everyday people
As an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont, Williams took part in her first protests, which called for an end to the Vietnam War. She came of age during a time that she says laid the foundation for her future work as an activist.
“It’s pretty hard to be in university from ’68 to ’72 [and] avoid at least thinking about the civil rights movement, the re-emergence of the feminist movement, certainly the Vietnam War activism,” said Williams. “I fully partook in all the things of that time-period.”
In 1991, while working with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, Williams coordinated an international effort to ban landmines worldwide. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) started with two NGOs and grew in a few years to more than 1,000.
In 1997, the IBCL and Williams were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She says the award is a blessing, but her satisfaction comes from the work she does and the people who fight for justice every day, many of whom are not well known.
“People say ‘Who has been my inspiration’ or ‘Who is inspiring,’ and I could name people. Archbishop Desmond Tutu I adore. One of the good things about the Nobel Prize is that I’ve got some cool friends, and they’re inspiring.”
Today, Williams is Sam and Cele Keeper Professor in Peace and Social Justice at the University of Houston, and she chairs the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which supports women involved in activism. Her work has taken her around the globe, including Africa, Europe and Central America, but she recalls a time when, like many young college graduates, she wasn’t entirely sure where her life was heading.
“Like many, I sallied forth with my degree in my hand, and fear and trepidation in my heart about what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” said Williams, who holds degrees from the School for International Training and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“I went from uninteresting job to uninteresting job, went back to school a couple times, freaked out my parents because I wasn’t doing anything of import, and finally, I re-found activism.”
For students unsure where they are going, Williams offered this advice.
“Don’t be afraid to live the life you want to live. Don’t give in to the pressures to live the way other people think you should live.
“To me, the most important thing in life is the quest for personal satisfaction in what you do while at the same time giving back to this planet.”Photos by Christa Neu