Echoes of Our Past, Visions of Our Future: In Tribute to Maathai, Sirleaf and Gbowee

Our past and our future converged as we laid to rest an international heroine of the Pan-African Movement, Wangari Maathai, and the world celebrated the contributions of our women leaders.
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Every so often in the course of our daily lives, momentous events emerge reminding us of the power of everyday people to shape history and our collective future. The burial of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and the joint conferring of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen in October draw together our past and future into a powerfully reflective moment for today.

Dr. Wangari Maathai, a fierce activist from Kenya, founding leader of the Green Belt Movement, a scholar and innovator passed away on September 25th after a valiant struggle with cancer. Although not a household name for African-Americans, she should be. She was the first woman in Kenya to earn a doctorate. But even after attaining the academic world's highest credential, she did not retreat into the ivory tower. Recognizing long before the scientists and pundits that humanity was mostly responsible for destroying our environment, her Greenbelt Movement planted literally millions of trees in Kenya, educating the masses and political leaders about the centrality of protecting our environment. Throughout her long career, she was jailed, tortured and harassed by the Kenyan government, but she persevered becoming a global model of courage and hope through adversity. Her work reminds us that African peoples are leaders of social innovation and activism that impact the world. Women, although often invisible in the history books, are often at the forefront of social transformation.

President Johnson Sirleaf has had a long, distinguished career as an economist and development specialist. Despite a 15-year long civil war in Liberia, she remained committed to democratic public service. After years of exile from various Liberian dictatorships she returned to Liberia to mount and then win an unprecedented campaign that led to her becoming that country's and the continent's first woman president in 2005. She has led the difficult path of recovery after years of violent civil conflict giving hope to people everywhere that change is possible despite the horrors of war. She is living proof that, as she said in a speech last year, "Women are Africa's future and its leaders must invest in women's development if our continent is to advance. It is women like you who can, and will, make that happen."

But Johnson Sirleaf's ascent and Liberia's liberation would not have been possible without the support of everyday women -- homemakers, market women, students -- from all walks of life who mobilized an historic movement drawing on ancient African traditions of women's protest and social change. Leymah Gbowee, now founding executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, is the embodiment of the millions of nameless African-descent women throughout the ages who have risen up to rewrite their communities' future.

Ms. Gbowee, poignantly depicted in the award-winning film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, organized across the diversity that sometimes divides our communities -- class, ethnicity and religion -- to force the Liberian rebels and leaders into a peace treaty that made democratic elections possible. In an interview with PBS's Bill Moyers two years ago, Gbowee's words echoed centuries of Pan-African social protest wisdom: "If you're hungry, keep walking. If you are thirsty, keep walking. If you want a taste of freedom, keep walking. For us, women of Liberia, this award is a call that we will keep walking until peace, justice and the rights of women is not a dream, but is a thing of the present."

Although she has reached the highest levels of political leadership, President Johnson Sirleaf remains committed to grassroots women, inspiring the creation of the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund to support Liberian market women's efforts to rebuild their communities in the post-war period. At the African Women's Development Fund USA and our sister organization, the African Women's Development Fund, we are proud to have supported both the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund and hosted Ms. Gbowee's organizations, providing them their first grants before they were recognized by the international community.

The emerging leaders of poor or marginalized communities are often overlooked. But our communities today are full of Maathais, Gbowees and Sirleafs in-the-making just as they held the Sojourners, Tubmans, and Heights of our past. As black people the world over struggle to solve our common challenges -- among the world's highest infant and maternal mortality, illiteracy, poverty rates to name a few -- let us never forget that the solutions are within. October's Nobel moment reminds us that true social change comes when we fully include the diversity; protect the rights; and promote the leadership of all in our communities, including women.

Our past and our future converged as we laid to rest an international heroine of the Pan-African Movement. The world is celebrating the contributions of our women leaders. Use this time to decide how you will contribute to our collective future, remembering the words of Mother Maathai: "It is the little things that everyday people do that make the big difference."

Let us know your ideas about how we all of us can strengthen the giving of time, talent, treasure and voice of black communities in the US, Africa and worldwide. Join the movement at

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