Two years ago, I was working on a television show about the increasing violence against women around the world for Houston PBS. For years, I had been trying to interview Jody Williams, the 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate who had led the international campaign to ban land mines. As a Professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Houston, she conducts lectures here twice a year.
When I finally got a hold of her, she was surprised I had not reached her before. I thought she had avoided my requests because of her celebrity status. I was wrong. She was one of the most kind, authentic, and humble people I had ever met.
I have interviewed admirable people in my lifetime, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Dominique De Menil, Alice Walker, met Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and other lesser-known human rights activists, but Williams truly surprised me. Like all of them, she is dedicated and fearless, but when you are around her, you feel like she could be your next-door neighbor who you can trust with your children. She has no airs whatsoever. She is not afraid to speak her mind, nor does she mince her words. To me She is a modern day grassroots peaceful warrior. What you see is what you get.
When her book “My Name is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girls Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize came out, I quickly got a copy and I was not disappointed. I got to meet Williams at a more personal level in January of 2012. I was invited to be part of her delegation of the
Nobel Women’s Initiative (which she leads with all the women laureates) and Just Associates (JASS) on a fact-finding mission. The goal was to hear from women confronting violence in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. We were to investigate the impact of the war on drugs and increased mining operations on the lives of women.
According to the report released in June of 2012 on that mission.
“The delegation found that violence against women is reaching crisis dimensions in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. In the last decade, femicides have risen by alarming rates – as much as 257% in Honduras. Indigenous women and women human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to attacks, which include rape, torture, murder, and forced disappearances.”
On that trip, Williams was focused, passionate, quietly driven to get answers and empowering the women we heard. Most had suffered atrocious violence. I believed she helped them find their own voice, with her compassion, knowledge and assurance something would be done.
I didn’t know much about her personal life until I read the book. She was raised in Vermont with a very close and modest Catholic family and early on, discovered her own activist soul by chance.
The turning point came when she was handed a flyer about the Salvadoran war and the US role in it.
The following years, she spent time in Central America for different causes, generally helping the forgotten victims of violence and war.
In her memoir, and with great candor she shares her family’s ordeal with her mentally ill brother, a failed marriage with her high school sweetheart, her frustration with the US Governments’ role in the Vietnam and Central American conflicts and her ultimate as she sees it, “average America girl” response through social justice activism.
In a very easy to read and conversational style we also learn about her rape by a Salvadoran Death Squad member, her roller coaster love life and how she ended up working to ban landmines.
It happened unexpectedly in 1991, when she met executive director Bobby Muller of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation who along with Thomas Gebauer of Medico International, a German Humanitarian organization felt “she was the right person to build a political movement to ban landmines. “They just knew I was going to be able to bring together non governmental organizations to put sustained pressure on governments to make them get rid of the weapons forever.”She said and they were right.
The next few years she would dedicate her life, passion and determination to ban landmines, while learning everything she could about international law and surrounding herself with activists around the world with the same goals and perseverance. She was awarded the Nobel Prize along with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1997.
Williams paid a lot of personal prizes for her activism, but she reminds us peace is not something you just imagine, or just talk and sing about. It is something you fight for. To understand peace, she says you must understand the causes of war. “Human security requires directing our resources toward providing for the basic needs of human beings so they are secure in their daily lives.” She reminds us peace is not for the faint of heart.” You have to fight for it! She has certainly proved that in how she has lived her life and how she continues her relentless pursuit of justice wherever she goes.
If you are in New York on April 18th. She speaking about her life at the Paley Center. For more information, here’s the link.