Friday, October 18, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Leymah Gbowee's "Step out of the shadows"

Before you lean in, before you speak up, you have to step out of the shadows. That was the message that Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel Peace Prize winner from Liberia, hammered home in her 2013 commencement speech at Barnard.

Gbowee led a women's peace movement that helped end a civil war in Liberia, and you can read more about that heroic effort in her book Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. But in this speech, she goes to war with women's tendency to support others while staying in the shadows or behind the scenes themselves.

Gbowee tells the stories of several women in this speech: An elderly woman in a small African village who lived in poverty, but earned and sent money to relatives to fuel their education and advancement, without getting public credit. A woman who had been raped, but wanted to tell her story rather than hide in shame. And Gbowee herself, who nearly failed a course because she didn't speak up in class. In each case, she underscores the need to speak for yourself rather than be a shadow, as the elderly woman described herself:
Shadow does nothing.  And as I drove away from that place, I kept thinking about how she referred to herself.  And it dawned on me that this is how all over the world, women think.  They do a lot of the work, but they never really take any credit for what they do.  Their roles in the success or the successes of all of the different things, they always try to keep in the shadows.  Growing up, most times as young women and as girls, regardless of where you come from we are socialized as women to be humble.  In very extreme cases, be seen and never heard.  In some cases, walk on tiptoes. 
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • A little sly humor never hurts: Gbowee weaves in humorous asides throughout her talk. "I have been asked to send you off with some words of wisdom.  I’ll do my best on the wisdom part.  Words you will definitely get," she warns the audience. At the start, she intones, "To God be the glory for another wonderful rainy day." It's just one example of the many sly asides with which she peppers this speech.
  • Share women's voices: The women she speaks about may have started out in the shadows, but by telling their stories, Gbowee uses her speaker platform to make sure they don't stay there. When you're the speaker, you have a particular power to highlight others' stories. So much the better if you choose stories that might not otherwise come to light. Use that microphone for good.
  • Share your own setbacks: This Nobel laureate might have rested on her laurels and failed to share her own struggles with stepping out of the shadows. But because she talked about raising her children in poverty and struggling with her education and confidence, she became a more credible speaker on her topic and created a powerful connection with her audience.
You can read the transcript here, and see the video below. Her speech starts at the 47-minute mark.What do you think of this famous speech?

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