Nobel laureate urges Detroit crowd to ‘never give up’
Detroit — Whether in success or times of struggle, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams told a crowd at First Unitarian Universalist in a Sunday morning message, “Never give up.”
In the 47 years since she attended her first protest rally in May 1970 in opposition to the Vietnam War, Williams has worked to ban landmines, split the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for that work — the International Campaign to Ban Landmines she helped found took the other half — and has seen what she described as the unthinkable happen with the election of Donald Trump as president.
On Sunday, she accepted the Global Peacemaker Award from Wayne State University’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies and delivered the Max Mark-Cranbrook Peace Lecture before a crowd of more than 100 people at First Unitarian on Cass. She talked about the highs and lows of the 20 years since receiving the Nobel prize, and encouraged those listening to work smart and work together on the issues of the day.
The church, said worship leader Dan Secrest, considers itself a welcoming place for “people of all religions, and no religion,” and “a place that does not focus on judgment.”
Wayne State’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies dates back more than 50 years, said director Frederic Pearson, and the Peacemaker Awards have been granted since the ’80s. Other Nobel laureates to be honored include historian Howard Zinn. This year, in addition to Williams, the honorees include two local community peace makers, John Hartig and Pastor Barry Randolph, along with two lifetime honorees, Stanley Levy and Bernice “Bunny” Kaplan.
Being named a Nobel laureate is “a very bizarre experience,” Williams, 66, said, noting that “I cried for the first five years,” burned out from the many speaking engagements that resulted. Williams was not comfortable with the level of attention that shifted her way, but has come to terms with it as she’s learned to shift the spotlight to other women activists.
“No one person changes the world, I don’t care who the hell you are,” Williams said after her lecture. “If you do not have people walking with you, acting with you, nothing changes. Until the (Nobel), journalists wanted to talk to the people who take the mines out of the ground. They wanted to talk to the organizations that made prosthetic limbs for victims. Then, suddenly, they only wanted to talk to me, and it made me really angry. That was disempowering all of the activists who made it happen.”
Over the years, Williams has learned to use the “access and influence” afforded by the Nobel, and the community of laureates she’s a part of, to “shine the spotlight” on other women and their causes.
Williams is one of eight women who make up the Nobel Women’s Initiative, created in 2006 by the six living female Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Two others have joined since. Now, the women work together to amplify the work other women are doing in their communities, such as “femicide,” the killing of women and girls, in countries such as Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.
Several years ago, Williams was part of a delegation to address femicide issues in those areas.
Once, Williams used her name to get a meeting with Mexico’s minister of the interior to discuss a village that had been attacked and the women raped. This was a prelude to clearing the land so an airport could be built.
“I brought three of the women with me, no education, some with no teeth, literally, and we go to the meeting and I say, ‘Thank you Mr. Minister for the meeting,’ and now the women who are suffering under you are going to speak,” Williams recalled. “I didn’t say a word. It was outstanding to watch how empowered those women felt because they were heard.”
“There are setbacks you have when you work for peace. It can be dangerous to work for peace, as with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat,” WSU’s Pearson said, referring to the leader who was assassinated in October 1981 after working for peace with Israel. “Sometimes the work for peace brings on rejection. Her message is you have to organize. You can’t just talk about it. She takes it seriously and takes the responsibility seriously.”
‘Act, act, act’
If “never give up” meant not resting on her laureate status, it also means continuing to organize. Williams said Trump is her big concern these days. She still can’t bring herself to call him president, preferring instead “the current person who is in office,” “The Donald” or “Donald.”
“Every time I want to scream, I think ‘never give up,’ ” Williams said. “If you give up, what are you? Nothing.”
That doesn’t mean she isn’t frustrated.
“I get up every day and say, ‘What will The Donald do today?’ And it’s always something.”
But she’s been heartened to see that activists have gotten over the shock at Trump’s election and turned out in the streets to protest. Both the Women’s March on Washington of Jan. 21 and International Women’s Day on March 8 inspired hundreds of thousands of women in America to march.
“People are in the streets, saying ‘not in my name.’ They’re not taking this lying down,” Williams said, citing her “thrill” at seeing the number of activists and lawyers who showed up at airports to help when Trump’s first executive order temporarily banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries was signed in late January.
“The last time I saw that level of citizen involvement was Vietnam.”
Williams said she hopes Trump’s election will inspire a broader understanding of Americans’ duties as citizens.
“It’s not just about voting or not voting, and if you think voting doesn’t matter, that’s how we got The Donald, it’s about active citizenship,” Williams urged. “Act, act, act.”
Trey Greene, 70, a member of First Unitarian since 1981, said the teamwork philosophy Williams described is a cornerstone of the church’s belief system.
“The big problems in life, you probably can’t solve yourself," Greene said. "Figuring out the exact way to go about solving them, you probably need to be around some well-intentioned and fairly resourceful people. You can’t get that right just looking at yourself in the mirror.”