Q&A: Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jody Williams on What It Takes to Change the World

Jody Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 alongside the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. This work to clear anti-personnel landmines involved the collaboration of over 1,000 organizations in 60 countries. Today, Williams serves as chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a group of female Nobel Peace Prize winners dedicated to supporting grassroots women activists around the world. She is also the author of My Name Is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize.

Williams spoke with Ms. about her journey, advice for budding activists and how wide-reaching partnerships can change the world.

In your memoir, you share stories about your brother. How did your relationship with him form your approach to injustice at an early age?

My oldest brother was born deaf. We were living in a small town of 1,200 people in Vermont. Billy and Bobby, our next-door neighbors, got off on being mean to him. They liked hearing his sounds of fear and just laughed because it was so strange sounding. That enraged me. I tried to beat them up once which was ridiculous. I must have been six and these were nine and eleven-year-old boys. They would have pounded the crap out of me if I had caught them. But I was so mad, I had to try.

After that, I couldn’t stand doing nothing when people were bullying somebody who — for any reason — didn’t have the wherewithal to defend him or herself. And you know, once you defend somebody and cause a bully to stop bullying, you realize what I do and say matters. That grew into the larger philosophical question of: do you sit back and do nothing in a world that is so unequal and so unfair? Or do you do something? I ultimately found the path to doing something. I still am about five decades later.

Your book describes a pamphlet that got you involved in activism. It said “El Salvador… another Vietnam?” How can the framing of an issue make a difference?

For me, it was a very personal response to the framing. I had protested the war in Vietnam so when I saw the little pamphlet comparing El Salvador to Vietnam I couldn’t imagine what that could possibly mean. I thought the U.S. had learned something and wouldn’t meddle in other countries wars anymore. So mine was a gut response. I ended up at the meeting, which was shocking at that time. I was a full-time teacher in Washington. I was so moved and enraged that when they sent around the volunteer sheet, I signed up for a couple hours a week. That’s how I started.

Activists sometimes struggle with ways to humanize issues for policymakers. What strategies did you use to convey the reality of landmines?

Many of us were frustrated in the years the landmine issue was being debated in Geneva. The diplomats seemed to sit around all day and do nothing. You know, they felt really excited if they changed a comma to a semi-colon… that’s how I used to describe their vigorous work. I often wished that I could pick up the room, take it right out of Geneva, and put it in a massive minefield somewhere. And not let them leave the minefield until they actually negotiated a ban.

Since we couldn’t do that, some of our campaigners built a minefield. It had grass and shrubs and sensors underneath. When someone stepped on the sensor it would make a bang as if it were a landmine. We put it in front of the door where the conference was being held so the diplomats had to walk over it. Many did, but there were quite a few who tried to step in through the back door so they wouldn’t step on it. It was powerful; one of the many things that the campaign did.

We were really fortunate in that we recognized different people brought different ideas and creativity and strengths. And as you know, some of our strongest campaigners were landmine survivors. They advocated for the Mine Ban Treaty because they didn’t want other people to experience what they had.

It seems like forming partnerships is one of your strengths–especially in your work in the Landmine Campaign, and now with the Nobel Women’s Initiative.

In any work you’re doing, if you can bring people and organizations together with different perspectives, you’re making an overarchingly strong network. When we created the campaign to ban landmines, we had Human Rights Watch look at the legal aspect. I spoke with Handicap International, an organization that works with landmine survivors and prosthetics. Mine Advisory Group, which took mines out of the ground, is another example. Because you want voices that can address all of the aspects of a problem, right?

I’m often introduced as an example of one person who changed the world. And it irritates me because I did not change the world. We were able to achieve the Mine Ban Treaty because thousands of people in many ways, great and small, made it happen. Anyone who tells you that they changed the world alone is a megalomaniac on the scale of The Donald.

That was actually my next question. Do you think there’s a misconception that change happens from one person, or happens overnight?

The “change happens overnight” part can be very disempowering to people. People look at the world today which is particularly horrific. You think “my God, if I can’t change it overnight, why should I do anything?”which is why you have to help people understand that everybody adds a little element and then things change. It can seem sudden, but there’s nothing sudden about it. The process flows and then you reach your goal. But it takes time. And reaching the goal might not even happen in your lifetime.

Your memoir includes a difficult passage about sexual assault. What inspired you to share your experience publicly?

We all know that women who suffer sexual aggression are often re-victimized in how they’re treated after. Whether it’s a woman raped in war or a date rape at university where people say: What were you drinking? What were you wearing? Why did you go outside with him? I wanted to speak out to let women know that the person who is guilty is the perpetrator. The person who’s the horrific being is the perpetrator, not the survivor. So I talked about it. I don’t beat it to death. I just to try by example to let women know that life isn’t over. You can claim what happened and turn yourself into a survivor spokeswoman who doesn’t want it to happen to anybody else. Like the landmine survivors I mentioned earlier. They wanted to be advocates because they didn’t want to see it happen to anybody else.

How did the Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI) come about?

Shirin Edabi from Iran and I were on a break at a conference and started talking. We realized many of us women who have received the prize are alive. In the entire history of the Nobel Peace Prize there have only been sixteen women. And ten of us are alive today (six are now part of NWI). So anyway, Shirin said: “why don’t we do something to advance the rights of women?” And it just so happened that the next day we were having tea with Wangari Maathi from Kenya who won in 2004. She thought it was a good idea.

What types of issues do you focus on?

The essential core of the NWI is to use the influence and access we have because of the Peace Prize to shine a spotlight on women. These are women working around the world in conflict situations. They are generally aligned with other women’s organizations in their countries, trying to find justice and equality which are the fundamental underpinnings of sustainable peace.

For example, we’ve done delegations. Two years ago we did one in a route with refugees in Syria. Last year, I led a delegation to Palestine and Israel bringing women across the divide. I’ll be leading a delegation with Rigoberta Menchú Tum this October to Honduras and Guatemala. A lot [of the causes we support] look at issues of the extractive industries. And the horrific violence against activists protecting their own land. We highlight women’s voices who are working on issues of concern to us all because it’s usually men who are allowed to speak.

Do the laureates have varied approaches to activism? Do you learn from each other?

You can imagine that the six of us are very strong personalities. We share the same core beliefs, but occasionally trying to get us on the same page is a challenge. Just in terms of style. We don’t have disagreements on major issues generally. But when I think about it we’re all cut from a similar cloth. Straightforward speaking. None of us care if we’re popular. We care about doing the work we believe should be done for the greater good.

What advice do you give people who want to make a difference? 

Focus on one or two issues that grab you in the gut. Find an organization working on those and volunteer. See what it feels like. You never know what it’s like to be an activist (being an activist is simply one who acts) until you do it. The more you learn about the injustices and inequalities in the world—interacting with people not just reading the newspaper—the more you get a basic understanding. When you start acting, it’s pretty hard to stop.


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.