Vermont Nobel laureate Jody Williams eyes a new generation of peacemakers

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams speaks Tuesday to the 800 current students at her alma mater, Brattleboro Union High School. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Scan Jody Williams’ credits in her 1968 Brattleboro Union High School yearbook (Choir 1, Usher 2 …) and you won’t see any clues she’d grow up to be a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Rebel With a Cause.

“In high school, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t swear, and most definitely, I did not cut classes,” says the Vermonter who was barefoot in a tank top and jeans during her award announcement.

But Williams learned how to upend the establishment by the time she helped launch the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a global network of nongovernmental organizations that won the world’s most prestigious humanitarian honor in 1997.

A quarter-century later, the 71-year-old has relocated from her longtime home outside Washington, D.C., back to Windham County, where she came full circle Tuesday to share her life story with 800 current students at her alma mater.

“We’re hit with a barrage of news — climate change, Russia invading Ukraine …” the laureate, wearing an “Unarmed Civilian” hoodie, told an assembly on the football field. “Sometimes it seems so overwhelming, a lot of people just say, ‘I can’t do anything.’ But I can only think if people stand up to injustice — nonviolently — what we can do.”

Williams, one of 18 women who’ve won the Nobel Peace Prize over the past 120 years, has worked for the cause almost her entire life. Born in Rutland in 1950, the one-time “quiet kid with a tendency to fear authority” took her first public action shortly after her family moved to Brattleboro. There, she witnessed a classmate at the grade K-6 Green Street School try to bully another.

“I opened my mouth,” she recalled in a 2020 visit to her elementary school, “and pretty much have kept on opening it ever since.”

Williams eventually enrolled at the University of Vermont in Burlington and earned master’s degrees from the School for International Training in Brattleboro and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She then worked as an activist in Central America before veterans’ advocates invited her to create the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1991.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams speaks Tuesday at her alma mater, Brattleboro Union High School. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

“Sometimes I’m introduced as ‘Jody Williams, a woman who changed the world by herself,’” she said. “No, I didn’t. I changed the world working with 1,300 nongovernmental organizations. Nobody changes the world alone.”

Instead, Williams grew her one-employee operation into a global network that won passage of a 162-nation treaty prohibiting the use, production, trade and stockpiling of explosives that, often forgotten, continue to kill or maim an average of two dozen people a day.

Williams had traveled to every continent except Antarctica before the pandemic spurred her to stay put the past two years in Vermont. She and the Windham World Affairs Council now are set to launch a PeaceJam program at her alma mater to nurture young leaders committed to positive change.

“Sometimes we need to talk about stuff to learn about it, but chatting with your friends is not a strategy for changing anything,” she told students. “Change happens because we act.”

In an extemporaneous speech salted with a few swear words, Williams addressed everything from racism and LGBTQ+ rights to her German shepherd, Harry.

“He’s beautiful, but he talks too much — like most men,” she said, sparking her biggest round of applause. “He has a vocabulary, and I am not exaggerating, of 25 barks. I sometimes think he’s mansplaining.”

But Williams didn’t respond with too much bite.

“In our climate right now, it’s too easy to buy into hate,” she said. “I believe that hate happens because a person is insecure. If I am confident in who I am, why do I have to hate anybody else? I believe in live and let live. So long as you aren’t oppressing me, I won’t be bugging you. That’s kind of a baseline for me and why I do what I do.”

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