Estoril, 29th May 2017. A full auditorium is listening to a panel of 5 Nobel Peace Prizes at the Estoril Conferences. At the back of the room, a few dozens of military youth in their impeccable uniforms are confronted by a passionate panelist who yells: “We have to stop glorifying war. War is not glorious. War is not heroic. It is dead people, it is dead babies, it is destruction – what’s glorious about that?”.
The statement came from the only woman on stage, Jody Williams, who won the Peace Prize in 1997 for presiding the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Jody is now the Chairwoman of The Nobel Women Initiative, which brings together six women peace laureates to promote the work of grassroots women’s organizations and movements around the world. “There’s never been a Nobel men initiative, I just wanted to point that out.“, Jody added defiantly to her fellow male panelists sitting beside her on stage.
Jody Williams is a powerhouse. She’s straightforward, fearless, and unapologetic. She says what’s on her mind – no filters, no regrets. That’s what I told her when I found her outside the auditorium in the end – “Thank you for not giving the politically correct answers like everyone else. You are the epitome of the authentic, purposeful individual I’d like to portray [on Sonder Minds]. What are the odds I could interview you?”, I asked. I was humbled and surprised when she answered: “I’d say around 100%!“.
A few months later, we shared a 1-hour wide-ranging conversation over Skype. The best bits are transcribed below.
Hope you enjoy it as much as I did and, in the end, feel compelled to fight and act for what you believe in, like Jody has been doing her whole life.
I could start by introducing you with all your career achievements and awards, but I’d rather have you introduce yourself, in the way you feel best describes you as a person.
My name is Jody Williams, I’m a grassroots activist born in the state of Vermont [USA]. I first became involved as an activist protesting the war in Vietnam. My first protest was in 1970.
What called your attention for Vietnam at the time?
It was a massive social movement in my country at the time. There was a lot of disagreement in the US about the War.
And then when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the news media — he was like the Edward Snowden of the time, everybody compares Snowden to Daniel — he released the papers from the Pentagon that revealed that — shock, shock — the Government had long made arrangements in order to get more involved with the war in Vietnam, which of course raised more protests against the war, etc.
It was also the time of the Civil Rights Movement, of the Women Rights movement… All of that combined made me look at my country in a different way.
Later on, you were given a pamphlet saying “El Salvador, The New Vietnam”, which made you join the organization behind it to protest against the US intervention in El Salvador.
Did you feel that because it was your country intervening in El Salvador, that you should go and do something about it?
After the Vietnam war, foolishly, I believed the United States learned something and wouldn’t intervene.
So when I learned about El Salvador, it shocked me.
It made me realize how naïve I still was.
And I went on to work in El Salvador, and later a bit in Nicaragua as well.
What were you doing there exactly?
I started in Washington DC first, trying to educate US citizens about our involvement [in the war].
And then I worked around Nicaragua for a couple of years. It was a US NGO with delegations to help the citizens of Nicaragua, in opposition to the Sandinistas. And to make sure everybody made their own decisions about what was really happening in Nicaragua.
While you were there, was it a life-threatening situation for you?
I never felt threatened in Nicaragua, it was El Salvador that was dangerous.
What made you be willing to put your life at risk?
Because what my country was doing was wrong.
I really believe in doing the right thing.
I’m an activist, I just… I don’t know how to do anything else but being an activist.
And then when you went back to the US, how did the landmines campaign appear?
I worked on Central America stuff for about 11 years, and I was really burned out, I felt I had done all there was to do.
Actually, at that moment, I thought I could get a real job, a typical job like other people.
Fortunately, I was saved from myself by 2 organizations that asked if I would consider taking on the campaign to ban landmines.
One in the US – the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation – and one in Germany, that I knew from the Salvador work. They asked if I would try to create a civil society campaign to ban landmines.
It was just 2 organizations, but one was American and the other German, so I could call it a very big name: the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). But there was really only one person working on it, and that was me.
How long did it take until you were successful in banning landmines?
We officially launched the campaign with a group of organizations that formed the Steering Committee in October 1992, and the campaign grew to about 1,300 NGOs in about 80 or 90 countries.
We never had an office or dedicated staff and, shockingly, it only took 5 years to ban landmines.
You once said: “I have a problem with the idealizing of human beings, of the glorification, deification in some ways, of making the individual bigger than life.” You’ve also stated you love the unsung and unseen heroes.
After the Nobel, were you angry you were being glorified, and no longer an unseen hero? Did you feel too big a responsibility to be a Peace symbol?
I firmly believe that the ICBL deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. We did exactly what Alfred Nobel wanted to be done. And I recognize why they also nominated me individually – because it makes it easier for people to identify with an individual, it’s less amorphous.
But yes, for me it was hard because I’m an introvert by nature.
Before the Nobel, the Media – and everybody – wanted to talk to various people in the campaign who had different skills — the de-miners who took the mines out of the ground, the handicapped international friends who worked with the prosthetics, etc.
But then, suddenly, they only wanted to talk to me, and that made me angry.
Did it affect your personal life as well? Did you feel people were looking at you differently?
Certainly, people look at you differently. Some people always disliked me, I don’t care.
I never believed my life was a popularity contest, I do what I do because I believe it’s right.
If people don’t like me I really believe that’s their problem, not mine. But I had a hard time adjusting, really. Until we created the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which brings 6 of us [female Nobel laureates] together, to use whatever influence and access have come with the Nobel prizes to put forth and fuel the work of women and organizations around the world working for sustainable peace with justice and equality.
Was it the best thing the award gave you?
Well, no… I mean, it really helped the landmine campaign, no question about it.
But when we created the Nobel Women Initiative, I really felt comfortable with the Peace prize.
I felt like I was sharing it with women around the world, and that made me very happy.
I assume that being a Nobel Laureate gave you access to many influential people. Is there an episode you want to share with someone that impacted you in a special way?
But the people who inspire me are the people who are women, particularly, who are uneducated, living in the conflict, and yet struggling every day to make a life for their families and their communities.
No one will know them, but they are, I think, the people that are the bravest in the world.
Those are the unsung heroes…
So, what is Peace for you? What are the necessary conditions for Peace to exist?
There has to be a fundamental change in thinking what creates security in the world.
I see peace tied to a shift from national security to human security.
Human security means meeting the needs of the people in their daily work lives. For example: access to health care, to full education; access to the ability to earn a decent living; housing; clean drinking water.
In my view, if the basic needs of people are met, there is less frustration, less rage, less anxiety…
You mentioned health care, which, of course, along with basic conditions of life, have been improving over the years. But do you think the World is more peaceful today than it was in your youth?
Well, given Donald Trump, given the increasing destabilization in the world, the involvement of all these so-called Eight Great Powers in the Middle East for generations… This has obviously created a very volatile situation in that region.
It became much worse with George W. Bush illegally invading Iraq, which led to the creation of ISIS. It’s all complicated, it’s hard right now, with Mr. Trump…
Right now you are engaged in the campaign to stop killer robots.
Do you think Technology is doing more harm than good in terms of security and peace worldwide?
Well, it depends on how you define security. It certainly is making the work world unstable.
For example, in the US, in the car industry — many of the jobs the people used to do now are being done by robots. People had a way of living, they had retirements, etc, and now they have nothing.
Some other companies, like McDonald’s, are thinking about using robots in their facilities instead of humans. If we keep doing that, what work can people do? How will they be able to buy goods? That makes for an unstable world.
You mentioned Edward Snowden before. He talks about the issue of privacy and mass surveillance of citizens, which is also fueled by technology, which Governments justify as a means for security.
Where does security end and privacy start?
I agree completely with Snowden when he says that fear is used to take away liberty.
Whenever the Government wants to do something that deprives people of their liberty, it talks about security. I don’t agree with mass surveillance. I should be defending our Human Rights, not surveillance in the name of security.
You’ve said before that “activism is not pushing a button to sign a petition online” — I think this is a very relevant quote for my generation, who believes we are doing something good by just signing petitions.
What would you say is our responsibility as the future leaders of the world?
I think everybody should learn how to be active citizens in the life of their countries. That means voting, it means being active in the social and political life of your community, your province, and your nation.
I believe that when people know that something is wrong and they do nothing to make it better, they are part of the problem.
If I just say that what Mr. Trump does is wrong, is a lie, is eroding the democracy of my country — then I am complacent in giving him more because I do nothing to try to stop him!
So what can we do? To stop Mr. Trump, for example?
ACT! ACT! I started in the Salvador work as a volunteer, for God’s sake! I started volunteering with an organization a couple of hours a week, instead of going shopping at the mall! Or sitting in a coffee shop.
Stop arguing about the problems of the world and go do something about it.
Complaining to your friends in a bar, or in a coffee shop, or over dinner at your house is not a strategy for change. It is irrelevant!
If all I do is complain and I do nothing, my complaints are irrelevant, and they only serve to make me think I’m more righteous because I understand the problem. It is irrelevant.
It’s always good to hear that, now I feel very irrelevant. And I should.
On a more personal note, when you’re in the midst of these very disturbing and revolting issues, where do you find your inner peace?
When I’m in Vermont, with my family. And I escape by reading. I’m a bookworm. If I want to really relax, I just lay down — my favorite way to read — I lay down, pick a book, and read. I forget about the time.
Tell me about a book that impacted your life in a profound way.
I couldn’t possibly pick one. I can answer it kind of differently — you know when people ask the question “If you were alone in a desert island with no escape, what book would you bring with you?”
Ok, that’s a good way to put it. What book would you bring?
The Dictionary! You know why? Because with the Dictionary you would always find new things to discover about words, write words and sentences in the sand… keep challenging your mind! If you just took a book? You couldn’t read the book before you went crazy and got sick of reading the damn book!
Growing up with an aggressive schizophrenic brother, having to stand up to him at times, and stand up for him (against the bullies) at others — how did you deal with that paradox? Could you separate the illness from the person?
Oh, God… It’s very complicated… I defended my brother when he was young and the neighbors would be mean to him. He wouldn’t develop the violence and schizophrenia until he was 13 or 14… Once he became violent, he became a different person and wasn’t properly diagnosed until he was in his 40s. He turned 70 in August.
How did that impact the way you see Mental Health, and why you wanted to become an activist?
I get angry about mental health because people are stigmatized, because there is not really adequate care for people with a wide range of mental health issues.
Standing up for my brother made me understand that we, as individuals, can intervene to stop bullying.
Then I started doing that in grade school when bullies were mean to kids. And then, you know, it just became the world.
Did you start to see the world governors as bullies as well? Like Mr. Trump?
Sure, they are.
Why doesn’t Mental Health make it to your agenda as an activist? Or does it?
It does only to the extent that I mention it. At one point, I thought I wanted to be a teacher to the deaf. And then… it just is too much. I decided I couldn’t save my brother, so I was going to save the world. Or I would be as crazy as he is.
And how did you change your approach, from wanting to beat up the bullies, to advocating for non-violent protest?
Just years of experience… I mean, anybody gets angry, and I still want to kick people, for God’s sake, I get angry… but I recognize that it is not the useful way to approach life.
Violence is, of course, more severe, and more predominant when it comes to women…
You are a strong advocate for Women Issues as well. What makes you so passionate about it?
Because women are treated like shit around the world.
And I believe every human’s rights should be recognized. It’s about equality. It’s obscene that women are more than half of the population and yet are mistreated around the world.
It really is about Human Rights for everyone. I don’t care if you’re the President or the Pope, you should have the same Human Rights, you should be respected.
That is the motto of the Feminist movement. Do you consider yourself a Feminist, or do you prefer not to use the word?
Yes, I am a Feminist. I don’t understand why people are afraid of the word.
All it means is fighting for the equality of everyone. By promoting the Human Rights of women, I am promoting Human Rights for all. That’s all it means.
What do you believe is true but most people don’t agree?
Oh dear, there are too many answers…
For example, that my country was born on the genocide of the indigenous populations when the pilgrims landed and discovered the new world.
The United States was built on the destruction of the indigenous populations who lived there.
Most people in my country don’t accept that vision. We were told they were savages who tried to kill us. No — we committed genocide, we stole their land, we put them on reservations and we denied them their rights.
I could go on, but that’s one good one.
Finally, what advice would you give to me, as a 22-year-old young woman? Is that the same advice you would have given to your 22-year-old self?
The world was different, darling, when I was 22… We didn’t have access to information the way young people have now.
I think that because there’s so much access to information, young people now have a bigger responsibility to do something.
They simply can’t pretend they don’t know.
You mean we should stop reading stuff on the internet and act more…
I mean you can’t change everything in the world at the same time. What you need to figure out is what to change — is it poverty, is it the lack of education, the war, Human Rights, LGBT rights?
I don’t know what it is for you, just pick out one issue and work on it. That’s how you’ll figure out if it’s something you really want to work for — and then if it isn’t, just pick something else and try again.
There’s nothing magic about being an activist. All you need is to act.
If you enjoyed this Mindful Chat, read other great testimonies from inspiring Minds here.