On March 1, 2023, the Aspire Institute invited Leymah Gbowee to kick off our inaugural Distinguished Speaker Series: Giving a Voice to Youth. Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, spoke about the important role young leaders play in processes leading to peace and nation building.
Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent efforts that brought together Christian and Muslim women and her pivotal role in ending Liberia’s fourteen-year civil war in 2003.
Also Founder and President of Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa (GPFA), in Monrovia, Liberia, Gbowee provides educational and leadership development opportunities for women, girls, and youth. Her other roles include being a board member for the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the PeaceJam Foundation. She also serves as a member of the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning.
A virtual crowd of over 1,000 from the Aspire community and beyond tuned in to listen to Gbowee’s address, moderated by Aspire Institute co-founder Tarun Khanna.
Gbowee’s talk, titled “Partners for Peace: The Youth Factor,” strove to provide a framework for how society should think about our young people as an incredible resource.
“Sometimes we speak of young people as a powder keg,” Professor Tarun Khanna said in his introduction, citing the recent tumultuous elections in Nigeria. “But on the other hand, young people are also our potential.”
Khanna noted that this mentality represents a founding ethos of Aspire Institute.
During her keynote address, Gbowee outlined the ways young people can collaborate in our collective quest for peace.
“Peace is not just the absence of war but the presence of conditions that dignify our lives,” she said.
She spoke about the importance of recognizing one’s agency and potential, especially as future leaders.
“Investing in youth and giving them mentorship opportunities will make our world a better place,” Gbowee said.
A central part of peacemaking is healing, and for Gbowee that was achieved through storytelling.
“Allowing people to tell their stories is the first step to healing,” she said.
This resonated with many of the young leaders in the room who, growing up in a digital age, are finding new ways of storytelling and spreading their voice across the world. Being able to speak up and speak out about the issues that they face, and the realization that much of these experiences are shared, provides comfort in the face of healing and sparks imaginative thinking.
For the Aspire Leaders Program alumni and current participants, in particular, engaging with Gbowee so intimately was exciting and inspiring. There have been many current and past applicants from Africa, and even Liberia who felt inspired by her work. Gbowee paved the way for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and marked a new wave of women emerging worldwide as essential and uniquely effective participants in brokering lasting peace and security.
Gbowee explained that her journey did not come without failure and that every mistake creates a stepping stone to success. She encouraged everyone to avoid fretting on what didn’t work – and focus instead on what can be done next.
“Don’t think about the mistake, think about how you can correct it!” she said.
She emphasized purpose, doing what you love, and chasing what keeps you awake at night.
“Enjoy your life as you go about doing what you do. I love dancing, my feet are dusty from dancing and laughing in the hot sun. Take time to enjoy whatever it is that you do. Celebrate little moments and write your own story — don’t let anyone write it for you.”
Read more about Leymah Gbowee’s work here.