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Vermont Quarterly

Jody Williams

working hard for peace fifteen years after the Nobel

Jody Williams

Milestones are many for Jody Williams ’72 these days. It’s twenty years since the founding of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Fifteen years since the Mine Ban Treaty was signed by 122 nations. And fifteen years since the October 10, 1997 morning when her phone rang with the news that she and the ICBL had been selected for the Nobel Peace Prize, a call that would bring international media up an unlikely mile-long dirt road in Putney, Vermont, and change Williams’ life immeasurably. All are captured in My Name is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize, just published by the University of California Press.

Williams currently co-chairs the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which brings the shared influence of the six living female recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize to bear on issues of peace, justice, and equality, work that includes their current focus on an international campaign to stop rape and gender violence in conflict. Last May, she also helped launch a campaign to halt the use of fully autonomous killer robots. The many working on this effort include her husband, Stephen Goose, a colleague in the land mine work and current director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch.

Vermont Quarterly editor Tom Weaver talked with Williams on the phone the morning of December 12, shortly after she’d returned home to Fredericksburg, Virginia, from a long round of travel that took her to Geneva and Berlin for anniversary events. After excusing herself early in the conversation to take a moment to let her German shepherd Sophie in from the yard and towel off  her muddy paws, Williams fielded questions with her typical frankness and humor.

Jody Williams talks with Tibetan students in Dharmasala, India. Jody Williams talks with Tibetan students at an October 2009 event in Dharmasala, India. Photograph by Judy Rand

VQ Interview

VQ: Why did you want to write the book at this point in your life?

Too often for my taste, giants of change are stripped of the flaws, weaknesses and complexities that make us all human and the focus is solely on their strengths. Then, all buffed up and made almost earthly saints, they are put on a pedestal where they seem far beyond the reach of “ordinary” people. They become intimidating and hard to relate to and it’s hard to believe they are or were as human as we are or that we mere mortals could ever accomplish such things, too.  

In all honesty, I wanted to write this book because I know how many people think they are powerless in this world with so many issues challenging us. I know they are not. They just need to understand about activism and change and that we all can find ways to contribute. I am an inspiring speaker—much comes from the fact that I talk straight with people. I do the same in the book. I am who I am, and I don’t try to pretend I’ve not made good and bad choices like everyone else I know. I think I help people realize that they, too, can make changes in the world without having to turn into a saint to do it.  

VQ: You’re candid in the book, and have said the same in past talks at UVM, that you were in search of a major and a focus during your college years and didn’t really find it until years after your graduation. Do you think that’s an important message for students to hear?

Yeah, I don’t think you have to decide who you are when you’re eighteen, for god’s sake. I think there is too much emphasis these days—at least from my perception outside—that you have to know what you want to be, that you should really try to do something that can earn you tons of money, and that you should, you know, “stay on the path.” I think that helps to diminish critical thinking and makes students really narrowly focused.

VQ: How was it working on the book? Do you enjoy writing?

Yes. I haven’t in a while, but I also love writing poetry. I have a stack of poems from different periods in my life and I’d like to get back to that. I, obviously, do lots of political writing. There are a few things I do well, I think. I’m a good writer; I’m very good at building coalitions; and I’m an excellent public speaker. I believe you should focus on what you do well, because there is not that much time in life to try to perfect things you can’t do. For example, I’m not a good manager of staff. I suck at it, frankly. I knew I just couldn’t do it, didn’t want to do it, so I didn’t do it.

VQ: You mention being petrified for your first public speaking experience?

I don’t know many people who actually are thrilled the first time they speak publicly.

VQ: True enough. I was looking at your Ted Talk and it’s clear that you have that ability to just “talk” rather than “deliver” a speech.

Yes, I think I’ve only delivered a speech twice. One was in Japan where they insisted I had to write something so they could translate it. It was horrible, just staring at the paper and reading it aloud. Really terrible.

VQ: You write in the book, “For me, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize hasn’t been all joy and wonder. At first I was perplexed about how to understand it in relation to my work…” Tell me about that period and how you came to terms with it.

Just because one can speak coherently in public does not mean that one is an extrovert, right? If I tell people that I’m an introvert they look stupid about it, to be honest. Then I have to take a lot of time to explain what an introvert is, that you can still develop a public persona—which doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t rather be sitting home reading a book.

I had been very happy coordinating the campaign. I saw the job as I described it in the book; everybody knew what they were supposed to do. I spoke, certainly, but the focus wasn’t on me. But then, suddenly, with the prize I was the only one people wanted to speak to. And that enraged me for everybody else in the campaign who had always had a voice. Suddenly, we’re looked at like I had this gigantic staff or something, instead of that we were colleagues in the movement.

That angered me a lot on behalf of all the people who made the ban happen. That wasn’t just me; I was part of it. That lack of understanding made me nuts. Also, all of a sudden, I am invited to speak as a Nobel Laureate. I didn’t know what that meant. What did that mean?

One time I was together with Archbishop Tutu at a Nobel conference in Virginia, and somebody asked him what changed after the Peace Prize. He said, “Before I spoke about the same things over and over and over, and nobody listened. Suddenly, I got the Peace Prize and everything I said was a pearl of wisdom.”

I didn’t like that. I didn’t know what to do with it. I cried a lot the first few years. I’m not the only one (laughs), but I won’t say who else cried. It was just confusion. Sometimes I’ll still come home and cry, but it’s not crying the same way. It just takes so much of my energy to do these things that I come home and kind of fall apart. The longer I’ve been on the road, the longer it takes me to be alone at home and get some more energy to go back out and do what I have to do.

VQ: In the book you write about effectively using a fax machine as a “techno-sexy” way to advance the work of the ICBL. That feels like a long time ago, I bet. Have you continued to harness technology in ways that aid your work?

Sure, I tweet and do all that stuff. I still see it as a tool; I don’t see it as an end in itself. I say this when I public speak: People who think that signing a petition online is activism, don’t understand activism. They massage their sense of having to do something by pushing a button on a petition and feeling they’ve done great good in the world. I’m not saying they’re not useful tools. But to believe that is activism, I think, is a little dangerous.

In Egypt, for example, when there was this sense that the movement that got people into Tahrir Square was all about the cell phone—it wasn’t. The cell phone was a tool to communicate with other people so they’d turn out at the same time. If nobody had turned out into the square, there would have been no movement. I spend a fair amount of time trying to get people to understand that.

VQ: You mention that you’ve come to see your role as “an international social worker.” What do you mean by that?

A social worker, in theory, is trying to advance the needs of human beings in their community or in their home, getting their basic needs met at least. And I guess that is what I do in the world. I believe in human security, not national security. Not that there shouldn’t be national security, but I think that the emphasis should be on human security—which means serving the basic needs of individual human beings, not protecting the structure of the state. So it’s kind of the same to me. I didn’t think about it this way until I taught at the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston.

VQ: You’ve spoken out on the need to reclaim what “peace” means. Could you elaborate a bit on this?

You know the terms—peacenik, tree-hugging liberal, all that ridiculousness—those are words that try to emasculate and disempower people who believe that sustainable peace is a possible reality. It is to make you look like a weakling, somebody who “doesn’t get it.” I think that we need to tackle that head on and affirm that building peace is damn hard work and that you have to do it every day.

I give the examples of Martin Luther King and the years in the streets and the people he helped motivate to work against racism, or Mandela, or all the icons you can name in the world. What they did was hard work every day. They didn’t sit around and sing “Kumbaya” for god’s sake. They were strategizing. They were putting their bodies on the line. If you think that’s wimpy and tree-hugging and a peacenik, then I don’t know how you think.

Valmara 69 anti-personnel landmines ‘Valmara 69’ anti-personnel landmines lined up for safe demolition in Iraq. Photograph by Sean Sutton, Mag International"

The long march to a turning point

by Jody Williams

BRESCIA, ITALY. There were so many moments during the campaign when we experienced awe and inspiration, but some really stand out for me. One was an action by the Italian Campaign to Ban Landmines, in Brescia, Italy, the home of Italian landmine production. The experience was made more meaningful because of the inauspicious start of the Italian campaign.

We were all anxious to see an Italian landmine campaign take off. Italy was one of the biggest producers and exporters of landmines in the world. When I picture a mine, Italy’s Valmara 69 is always one of the two or three that come to mind. It was a modern version of the German “Bouncing Betty” used during World War II.

The relatively big body of the Italian mine is buried so that a few prongs on the smaller top barely emerge from the ground. When a person steps on a prong, the mine bounds up out of the ground to about waist high. Then, it blows up, and the eviscerating results are not pretty. If Italy stopped producing and exporting its landmines, it would be a huge step.

So when Nicoletta Dentico asked me to come to Rome in December 1993 to support the launch of the Italian campaign, I couldn’t say no. Even though that was really what I wanted to say. I’d already been traveling a lot. That, coupled with a strong sense that the Rome launch would be a flop, made me want to offer compelling reasons not to go. Instead, precisely because it might be a less-than-inspiring beginning, I knew it was important to go. We had to send a signal that a strong Italian landmine campaign was important to everyone in the ICBL.

It was as tragic an attempt to get things going as I’d imagined. Of the few people who showed up for the Rome meeting, most were not from Italy. It was disheartening and didn’t bode well for getting the Italian government to move anytime soon on landmines. Six months later, in June 1994, in a burst of creative activism, the Italian campaign gained steam and blasted into the Italian public’s consciousness.

They managed to convince the most popular Italian television talk show to devote time every day to the issue of landmines. The several-week-long series culminated with members of the Italian campaign and the Italian minister of defense appearing together on a show. There, the minister made the surprising declaration that Italy should ban the use of antipersonnel landmines and end their production.

Italian campaigners didn’t stop there. They also managed to convince representatives of workers at Valsella Meccanotecnica, one of the world’s biggest mine producers, along with the trade unions of Brescia, where Valsella was located, to issue a press statement stating they “agree with and support the campaign to ban landmines. It is mandatory to eliminate the production of every type of antipersonnel mine, including the so-called self-destructing and self-neutralizing mines.” Trade unionists asked the Italian government “to take immediate initiatives to stop landmine production and trade, and support all the humanitarian actions in favor of the victims.”

We were in complete awe of that work. And more so when the defense minister quickly followed through on his public declaration. In a letter to a pro-ban Italian senator, the minister said he’d given the “necessary instructions to start the procedure that will bring Italy to the unilateral commitment not to produce and export antipersonnel landmines.” Then on August 2, the government said it would “observe a unilateral moratorium on the sale of antipersonnel mines to other countries” and was readying “the necessary instruments for stopping production of such devices by Italian companies or companies operating on Italian territory.” It was positively outstanding.

The Italian campaign wouldn’t rest with this unexpected and tremendous success. Pressing its advantage, it was planning three days of activities in Brescia in late September. There’d be a concert to raise money for the Italian campaign, a daylong seminar on landmines, and finally a march to Castenedolo, the town where Valsella’s production facility was actually located. Again Nicoletta asked me to come. Again I wasn’t excited about it.

Not that they weren’t doing fabulous work, but I’d just been there. There were many other campaigners in lots of countries asking me to come and support their national campaign efforts. I couldn’t be everywhere at once. And frankly, the thought of marching to a place where landmines were produced didn’t inspire me much. Despite what the Italian campaign had accomplished, I imagined that only a handful of people would turn out for the march, especially since their government was moving forward so quickly. Again, however, I caved in and went back to Italy.

The concert was standing room only, and the seminar was solid, full of people, and informative. But what moved me to tears was the march. The march, to this day, remains a high point in my memories of activities by national campaigns to get their governments to ban landmines.

We started out at the town square in the early morning fog. “We” were as few as I’d imagined we’d be. I anticipated a reprieve, with a blessedly short march route, and that the whole thing would be over quickly. No one had bothered to mention it was seventeen kilometers to where we were going. Ill prepared, I was wearing cowboy boots that definitely weren’t designed for a 17K march.

We’d not gone far when I began to notice that people kept appearing, seemingly out of nowhere, to join as we continued to walk. At some point when I turned to look, the line of marchers was so long I couldn’t see the end of it. It continued to grow all the way to Castenedolo, where we joined up with thousands more already in its town square. There were speakers, there was music, there was joy in taking action to support the positive change the Italian government was making on landmines. And there were four heroic women from the landmine factory.

As the rally continued, a hush began to settle over the crowd. Everybody was turning toward the water fountain in the middle of the square. Standing there, in front of the fountain and facing the church, were four women. They didn’t say a word. The long banner they were holding said it all: “We will not feed our children by making landmines that kill other people’s children.” The cheers in support of the women’s action reverberated through the square. I cried. Not a single man from the production line at Valsella joined them.

Excerpt from My Name is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize. Permission University of California Press.

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