Leymah Gbowee doesn’t like to get up early—so it took an event like the New York Women’s Foundation annual Celebrating Women breakfast to get her dancing before 9 a.m.
Gbowee, the winner of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, was being honored by the New York Women’s Foundation along with Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and Rachel Lloyd, the founder and CEO of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services. Each of the honorees received a bead and feather-festooned walking stick—which served as a symbol of her wisdom and her role as a visionary and leader, the foundation said. Although Gbowee said the breakfast’s hour was early for her, she still brought her powerful message of hope: “Don’t just be angry and sit quietly, be angry and don’t lose your steam and make the world a better place.”
“Making the world a better place” was the theme of Thursday morning’s breakfast, their 26th Celebrating Women Breakfast, which not only featured the awards ceremony but also the fundraising campaign. The foundation is dedicated to combatting poverty, providing economic security, advocating against violence, and improving safety issues—as well as health, sexual, and reproductive rights. The foundation vowed to match all donations made at the breakfast up to $500,000—meaning the breakfast as a whole could bring in up to $1 million.
“This is the energy that you need,” Gbowee said. Gbowee recounted how she was visiting Tripoli, Libya just last week—“an eye-opening trip,” as Gbowee called it. While there, she met with an activist who had just come from Misrata, and who had seen a woman so brutally raped that her vagina had been torn in half.
Gbowee admitted that stories such as these can make it hard to keep fighting battles for women when the odds can seem insurmountable. But, she said, “each and every one of us has that moment of awakening, when we realize we have to rise up and make the world a better place.”
Gbowee is the narrator of the 2008 film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about the Women of Liberia Mass Action of Peace. Abigail Disney, an honorary chair of NYWF and also the producer of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, introduced Gbowee at Thursday’s breakfast, calling her “an inspiration to me.”
“I have yet to see [Gbowee] bat an eye, ever see her utter a cliché, and—other then when she asked me about Mick Jagger at Davos, ‘Who is that ugly old man? He looks like a chicken’—other than that one time, I have never seen her say anything impolitic or anything that was not crying out to be said,” Disney said.
Gbowee is also the author of the book, Mighty Be Our Powers, a Beast Book, which is a collaboration of The Newsweek Daily Beast Company and The Perseus Book Company. Newsweek and The Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown received the Vision Award for her significant contribution to women and girls. Brown accepted the award, her ceremonial walking stick, calling it an “incredible award” and joked about the “incredibly subversive” ways she could use it.
Brown noted that the room was full of “movers and shakers and powerhouses,” much like the Women in the World Summit, which was held on April 4-5. Brown described the 2013 summit as having a “wonderful kind of kismet.” The summit featured speakers such as Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Diane von Furstenburg, Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, and Tom Hanks (who paid tribute to Nora Ephron), but Brown also highlighted on Thursday that some of the greatest energy from the summit came from the lesser-known participants such as Me N Ma Girls, a Burmese girl band, Pakistani activist Khalida Brohi, child chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, Argentina anti-trafficking activist Susana Trimarco, and more.
“These women are rockstars, absolute rockstars, and we are not treating them with the same acclaim,” Brown said. Brown said she would use her award to “further the goals” of women and girls.
The foundation also honored Rachel Lloyd, the founder & CEO of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), with the Celebrating Women Award for her work influencing and being a role model for women and girls. Lloyd, a survivor of sexual exploitation as a teenager, started GEMS in 1998 with just $30 and a laptop in a quest to help girls who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. Since its founding—in the days before trafficking became a “buzzword,” according to Lloyd—GEMS has become the nation’s largest organization providing services to victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.
In receiving her ceremonial stick from the New York Women’s Foundation, Lloyd recalled how, in the early days of GEMS, she had just two part-time assistants who had just come in from prison. One day Lloyd asked her one of her assistants for some paperwork, and the woman leaned over and popped a pimple on Lloyd’s forehead—and then went on to get the paperwork. “It’s hard to retain a lot of dignity like that,” Lloyd laughed. But, Lloyd, said, it was a testament to the New York Women's Foundation that they “saw right through that and pretended it didn’t happen.”