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Jul 10, 2017 4:14 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Visits Southampton, Discusses Efforts Of Gbowee Peace Foundation

(Left to right) Brian Kelly, Yvonne Jallah, Leymah Gbowee and Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa-USA chairman Michael Seltzer JULIA HALSEY
Jul 11, 2017 2:39 PM

It’s not every day when a Nobel Peace Prize laureate visits the East End.On Sunday, international peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who led a women’s peace movement that helped end the 14-year Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, visited the Southampton Village home of Chris Burch, co-founder of the Tory Burch fashion line.

Ms. Gbowee shared her vision for building the Gbowee Peace Foundation, which serves to empower women and girls in Africa by providing them with the necessary resources to meet their educational and developmental needs.

The intimate cocktail reception was organized by Brian Kelly, known by many as “The Points Guy” for his digital platform that organizes travel points, miles and tips. He said he and Ms. Gbowee instantly clicked while working together with PeaceJam, an international nonprofit that inspires young people to create positive change in themselves, their communities and the world.

“She is just one of the most incredible people I have ever met,” Mr. Kelly said of Ms. Gbowee, who is one of 15 world leaders involved with PeaceJam. “She’s just a powerhouse.”

Inspired by the work of Ms. Gbowee’s organization, Mr. Kelly—who offered to match any donation, up to $50,000, given to the foundation on Sunday—said he wanted to host something special for his friend.

“When we think about supporting peace in this world, we have to start with our own people and education,” he said. “In this crazy world, it’s really easy to feel unsure of what we can do to help. This event is a platform for people to learn about how even a couple of hundred dollars can go a long way.”

Mr. Kelly is not the only person passionate about the Gbowee Peace Foundation. Another attendee and speaker at the event was Abigail Disney, a documentary filmmaker whose 2008 award-winning breakthrough work, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” exposed injustices in Liberia. The film also shed light on Ms. Gbowee and her movement for peace.

“I wasn’t a filmmaker when I met Leymah,” Ms. Disney explained. “I went to Liberia with a group of American women to offer support, and while I was there I heard this amazing story about what had happened in Liberia.

“When I came home, I was sort of angry that no one had heard of this story,” she continued. “A group of women risked their lives to do this amazing thing and no one even knew it. I returned home kind of obsessed with the story and that’s when I decided to make the documentary on it.”

Coming from a filmmaking family, Ms. Disney steered away from the family business. That is, she said, until she knew she had to do something to let the world know about the women’s peace movement in Liberia.

At the same time, Ms. Disney notes that her confidence was initially lacking—until she stepped foot in the West African Republic.

“I sweated on the airplane all the way across the Atlantic for our first shoot, and thought of all the people I was responsible for and everything that I had to do,” she confessed. “I got off the airplane and walked down the steps, and when my foot hit the tarmac—it was like an electric shock in my leg. I knew exactly how to do this job. I never looked back for a second.”

After an hour of wine and cocktails donated by Wölffer Estate Vineyard of Sagaponack, guests gathered around as Ms. Gbowee shared her personal story leading to the women’s peace movement, which began with her being a young mother while she trained to become a social worker. She explained how nonviolent protests and a unification of Christian and Muslim women brought forth peace in Liberia, and helped put an end to the country’s civil war.

But even after winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, Ms. Gbowee’s work was far from done. “That was not going to be my legacy,” she said.

Searching for new ways to promote the advancement of education in women and children, Ms. Gbowee put all her Peace Prize winnings toward building the Gbowee Peace Foundation in 2012.

The program began with seven students. Five years later, there are 73 students involved, nine of whom have graduated from college. And the program continues to grow: Ten students already are on standby for the next school year.

This year, the foundation is introducing health care for its students and their families. “We’ve recognized that this has moved beyond giving scholarships,” Ms. Gbowee said. “Now, we’re investing in the sustainable livelihood of young people.”

Yvonne Jallah, who attended Sunday’s event, is one of those young people benefiting from the foundation. Ms. Gbowee explained that the two met when Ms. Jallah was a young orphan. Ms. Gbowee recalls wanting to teach her new friend the value of giving back, and then used one of Ms. Jallah’s talents to drive home the lesson.

After observing that Ms. Jallah was deft at braiding hair, Ms. Gbowee agreed to pay for her schooling if she agreed to braid her daughter’s hair twice a week. “I believe in giving back,” Ms. Gbowee said. “That was my way of mentoring her to give back.”

Today, Ms. Jallah attends Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. After graduating next year, she plans to return to Liberia to work for the foundation as a caseworker.

“I have learned that when you throw money at people, it really doesn’t do well,” Ms. Gbowee said while reflecting on her interaction with Ms. Jallah. “We give them money and we journey with them.”

During her talk, Ms. Gbowee offered her insight and reflected on many issues facing the United States, such as the lack of overall concern for human rights. “When a country does not look at human rights as a serious issue, that’s a cause for trouble,” she said.

Though many look up to her and describe her as a hero, pointing to her ability to not only overcome hardship but to find success, Ms. Gbowee dismissed such compliments.

“I don’t see myself as a hero,” said the 45-year-old mentor, activist, peacemaker, teacher and friend to many. “I see myself as a person who sees a problem and dives in headfirst.”

To learn more about The Gbowee Peace Foundation or to donate, visit gboweepeaceafrica.org or its U.S. sector, gboweepeaceusa.org.

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