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A plaque honoring its most famous alumna, Nobel Laureate Jody Williams, was recently installed at the entrance of Green Street School in Brattleboro.

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Nobel laureate honored with plaque

Jody Williams, who has led worldwide efforts to ban land mines and autonomous killer robots, returns to the place where her journey began: an elementary school in Brattleboro

Lissa Weinmann directs the People, Places and History of Words in Brattleboro, Vermont Project (a.k.a. the Words Project) and is co-owner of 118 Elliot, a gallery and community space in downtown Brattleboro. The Words Project sponsored the Oct. 2 Green Street School event with Jody Williams and her plaque. People will soon be able to listen to Williams’ story on the Brattleboro Words Trail — a mobile app and website offering free, self-guided audio tours of sites important in the history of words in and around Brattleboro. For more information, visit BrattleboroWords.org.

BRATTLEBORO—Rain fell softly and a light breeze dropped leaves to form a golden path as Jody Williams walked toward the front door of the Green Street School on the morning of Oct. 2.

Her brother Mark held an umbrella to protect their mother Ruth’s hair, done especially for the occasion — the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the Nobel Peace Prize her daughter received in 1997.

“I’m not the crying type, but that plaque makes me kind of want to cry,” Williams said. “I’ve been introduced in places around the world where I go for work, but I have to say, this moves me more than any of them.”

The Nobel Peace Prize isn’t given to just anyone, even though anyone can be nominated for one.

Since 1901, 90 men and 17 women have received what is perhaps the most prestigious accolade in the world. It is reserved for the most courageous, most tenacious individuals and groups defending humanity in game-changing ways.

Williams did that when she founded and led the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. She continues to harness her organizing power and prestige today to counter a new wave of weaponry — autonomously programmed killer robots — through the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

She’s also working with Pope Francis to help shift the notion of peace itself from something that occurs momentarily in between wars to a process that actively looks toward achieving the real human security we all want, which means less spending on the military and more on human needs.

That’s a tall order, but for this straight-talking daughter of Vermont, it all began by stepping up to a fourth-grade bully at the Green Street School.

“I knew if I didn’t do something, I [would be] as bad as he was,” she said. “That is what really started me thinking about what kind of person I wanted to be. Do I want to be a person who’s quiet? And let people be mean to people? Or do I want to be a person who steps in and helps?”

“It was only many years later that I realized what an important moment that was for me in my growth and development,” she continued. “And forever, I will thank Green Street school for that.”

* * *

Williams’s strong character was also shaped by the school of hard knocks. Born in Poultney in 1950, her family moved to a house on Western Avenue in Brattleboro on the eve of her seventh birthday so her older brother Steve could attend the Austine School for the Deaf.

“I didn’t feel poor. We were on the ragged edges of the middle class. My father worked several jobs at the same time, often to make ends meet,” Williams said. Neither of her parents had been able to finish high school.

“I remember not wanting new clothes but wanting enough money so we could build a bomb shelter,” she recalled. “I remember the siren going off at school and having to get under the desk and roll up into a ball and wait there.”

Williams said she now thinks of those experiences as an adult and describes as “absolutely terrifying” the notion that they could “trick children into believing that doing that would save you from a freaking nuclear bomb.”

“I imagine that has something to do with how I feel about weapons and war and the absurdity of it all,” she said.

* * *

Williams graduated from Brattleboro Union High School in 1968. She was 17 the first time she met a Black person, a summer Fresh Air Fund program visitor. Her first taste of protest was against the Vietnam War at the University of Vermont.

She got a job at the School for International Training and then a degree in teaching English as a second language there before securing a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1984.

But her real international training came from 11 years in the dangerous Cold War cauldron of Central America’s bloody civil wars.

“I began to think I wanted to do something about U.S. policy and how it behaved in the world,” she said. “But it really wasn’t until the 1980s when I started working to stop U.S. military intervention in Central America when I learned about what the U.S. was doing in Nicaragua and El Salvador.”

“It was shocking to me,” she recalled. “I thought that the country had learned something from Vietnam. But what it learned was to not send American boys to get killed and have body bags come home and freak out the public. So they started using other forms of manipulation.”

It was frustrating for her when people didn’t care enough about what was happening in other parts of the world.

“I was strident and thought I knew everything like every person whoever finds their righteous indignation,” she said. “I remember coming home for Thanksgiving and my parents and my siblings were like, ‘Please, let’s just hope she shuts up.’”

* * *

When the Cold War ended, new challenges presented themselves.

“Some people actually bought the theory that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the world would be a better place,” Williams recalled. “Money wouldn’t be spent on weapons; some would be diverted to the greater good.”

“I never believed that for a second,” she said.

And, of course, the U.S., instead of trying to make the world a better place, worked for full-spectrum dominance of the military arena.

“People were seeing parts of the world that had been closed off because of the Cold War and the two sides and all that,” she said.

Meanwhile, tons of land mines had been used in those wars. And, of course, the war ends and the soldiers go home, but the land mines don’t.

She got a phone call from Bobby Muller of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, who asked if she would be interested in trying to create a civil society–led campaign to stop land mines.

“It was new, it was global, and I’d have to study more diligently the laws of war,” she recalled. “So I said yes.”

Williams said that in five years, the campaign “went from nothing to a treaty” — the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction — signed in Ottawa, Canada, in 1997.

“In diplomatic terms, it was like snapping your fingers and getting the job done,” she said. “It was really fast. It was mostly fun.”

One of the big decisions that made hammering out the Treaty of Ottawa go so fast was Williams’s leadership and the decision to circumvent the bureaucratic torpor of the United Nations in new and creative ways.

“Those diplomats were used to looking at a piece of paper, you know, and changing a comma to a semi-colon and thinking they’ve done great stuff in negotiation,” Williams said.

Meanwhile, “we had landmine survivors in the conference room,” she said. “If you have a double amputee in a homemade wheelchair, sitting in front of you and telling you what it’s really like, it’s very hard to look away.”

To further drive the points home, Williams and her team also created a fake minefield.

“You’d have to walk across it to get into the conference room,” she said. “And if you stepped on a sensor it would make the sound of a land mine blowing up. It was scary.”

“There were some delegates who would not go across the minefield,” she said. “They went into the back door.”

* * *

The Nobel committee that granted the 1997 Peace Prize to Jody Williams and the Campaign to Ban Landmines, with which she shared the prize, said their work “made it possible to express and mediate a broad wave of popular commitment in an unprecedented way.”

“I was thrilled for the campaign, because I knew we deserved it,” Williams said. “Personally, I found it difficult, especially near the end when [President] Clinton refused to sign the treaty. Here I am, an American woman, calling him a weenie and stuff. I think that put more focus on it than it might have been if it hadn’t been Clinton and me.“

She had a hard time adjusting to the life of someone who had won the Nobel Prize. Suddenly, she found people wanting to talk only to her, not to others in the organization, which “really enraged“ her, because “we all together brought our best to it.”

But with the founding of the Nobel Women’s Initiative in 2006, she “started enjoying having the Peace Prize, because I feel like we share it with women around the world,” she said.

* * *

Williams recently joined with the Pope, and other activists, for a renewed push to end a nuclear arms race that has been heating up in recent years and to support the 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

But her main work today is on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots — an organization dedicated to banning weapons that can decide to kill without human intervention.

“I think there is some moral and ethical depravity when human beings think it is OK to create weapons that on their own can kill human beings,” Williams said. She also wants to open people’s minds to how our tax dollars are spent and what constitutes “human security.”

“Fifty-seven percent of the U.S. discretionary budget goes to the military,” she said. “What does that tell you about the focus of the government? It’s not about living together in the world. It’s about ‘we got all this mean stuff and if you don’t do what we want, you’ll pay.’”

“And what really makes me angry is that the Democrats are as bad as the Republicans when it comes to the military,” Williams continued. “We could do free education, we could have free health care for everyone. But nobody asks the question. People have to understand why the government is the way it is and what their place is in it.”

That’s one reason Williams describes herself as “a citizen of the Republic of Vermont.”

“I’m really proud to be from Vermont,” she said. “I feel like it’s part of my blood in my bones. I like how straightforward people are here.”

“Live and let live, but help each other when you need help,” Williams said. “It’s not much better than that.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #582 (Wednesday, October 7, 2020). This story appeared on page A4.

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