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CHICAGO—“In this world we have so many ways of categorizing each other,” said Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, during the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2012 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition held here. “This is not only sad; it is unfortunate.”
In 2003, the Newsweek Daily Beast columnist helped organize and lead the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a coalition of Christian and Muslim women who sat in public protest, confronting Liberia’s ruthless president and rebel warlords.
“It’s time we stand up and set aside divisions,” she said, using the 2012 U.S. presidential election as an example. “After Nov. 6, there is a country that you call home that you need to focus on. There are people that are your people that you need to focus on,” she said. “It is important for all of us to see the good in someone. It is important for us to move beyond our political affiliation and start to see people for who they are.”
People need to stop looking at hairstyles and beards and crosses on necks with suspicion, she continued, and instead embrace diversity, rather than just tolerate it.
“Try to understand what people are truly made of … see beyond their dress,” she said. “Regardless of the color of your skin, what you eat, what you wear … we are all one people,” she said.
Gbowee said her early childhood exposed her to different languages, ethnic groups and religious beliefs in a place where “the houses were so close together you could stand on your porch and look into someone else’s bedroom.”
Liberia in those years, she said, was a place where the children belonged to everyone. “When one person cried, everyone cried.” It was true diversity and inclusion, she said.
Then Liberia “disintegrated from a place of diversity, inclusion and peace,” she said, to a place where people divided themselves into “them” and “us.”
Gbowee’s experiences are chronicled in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers (Beast Books, 2011), and in the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell."
Other countries have since experienced the kind of brutality and war Liberia faced during its civil war, she noted. Yet instead of learning lessons from these wars, “people have built fake individual walls between themselves and others,” she said.
Life as a Nobel Peace Prize Winner
Gbowee said she never expected to win any prize for her work, “much less the Nobel.” She heard about the award when she checked her phone for text messages after a flight from San Francisco to New York where she was seated “next to a very well-dressed gentleman in business class.” She was dressed much more casually and noticed that her seatmate kept moving away from her during the flight. When she learned the news she turned to the man and said “Sir, I think I just won the Nobel Prize.”
Gbowee is reminded of the progress that needs to be made every time she encounters suspicion as an African woman travelling around the world. When people focus on differences rather than similarities, it leads to disintegration of communities, churches and offices, she said.
“Those that promote divisions do not really suffer … they are not the ones who are killed,” Gbowee noted. It’s the ordinary people and the children who are caught in the crossfire. “We are the true victims.”
The prize “still hasn’t sunk in,” she said, but she thinks that helps keep her humble. She said Desmond Tutu told her that “great men and great women never focus on themselves; they focus on people. And that should be your focus.”
Quoting an African proverb, Gbowee said, “When spider webs unite they can tie up lions.”
Advice for Diversity & Inclusion Professionals
During a question-and-answer session, an attendee asked Gbowee for advice on how practitioners can “speak truth to power” as they strive to make changes in their own workplaces. She said it’s important to figure out what you want to mobilize around. She suggested getting a group of people together to talk about their impressions of the workplace. “Until you can get an agenda item that everyone believes in, it is hard to get started,” she said.
Building a collective community is a priority in Liberia, she noted, because one individual’s problem can quickly become a community problem. This can occur in the workplace as well, she added. Even issues that start off as private problems can become community problems. As another African proverb says, “When it rains it doesn’t touch just one roof.”
“We have a wonderful world. Our world is upside down. It will take a few brave people who do not see skin color, hair color or dress code to turn our world back up right.”
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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