People & Places

Vermont Nobel laureate Jody Williams redefines national security in a Covid world

Nobel laureate Jody Williams speaks this month outside her alma mater, Brattleboro’s grade K-6 Green Street School. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Vermont-born Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams may be temporarily benched from her globetrotting work, but the laureate isn’t letting the coronavirus pandemic stifle her trademark candor.

“If somebody said, ‘Are you feeling secure in this Covid world?’ I bet the first thing that comes to mind isn’t, ‘Oh, my God, we need killer robots and modernized nuclear weapons,’” she says. “You can have 800-jillion nukes — it cannot change Covid making us all sit in our houses and go stir-crazy.”

Williams was safely asleep in Putney Oct. 10, 1997, when a predawn phone call reported that she and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines — the global network of nongovernmental organizations she helped launch — had won the world’s most prestigious humanitarian honor.

Nearly a quarter-century after hosting a resulting press conference barefoot on her front step, Williams is back in her native state celebrating her 70th birthday by continuing to speak out.

“We have to stop thinking that militarizing our borders is going to keep us safe and secure,” she said, for example, in a recent online visit with the Windham World Affairs Council. “If people don’t want to believe it, talk to Covid. We have to start thinking differently or we will kill ourselves off.”

Williams questions why nearly 60% of President Donald Trump’s $1.3 trillion discretionary budget request for 2020 (money outside of such requirements as Social Security and Medicare) is targeted for military defense, with twice as much allocated for nuclear weapons as for vaccine development.

“When most of us hear the word security, we think of national security,” she says. “The trend should be toward more money going to help people, not to build bigger, better, faster weaponry.”

Williams has worked for peace almost her entire life. Born in Rutland Oct. 9, 1950, the one-time “quiet kid with a tendency to fear authority” remembers how childhood neighbors in Poultney would literally throw stones at her deaf brother.

“I wanted to just smack them,” she says.

Williams took her first public action shortly after her family moved to Brattleboro, where she witnessed one Green Street School classmate try to bully another.

“Suddenly I knew if I did nothing, I’d feel like less of a human being, even if I couldn’t put it that way at the time,” she wrote in her 2013 memoir “My Name Is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Returning to the grade K-6 school this month, Williams recalled challenging her classmate to stop.

“I opened my mouth, and pretty much have kept on opening it ever since,” she told current students and staff. “That is what really started me thinking about: What kind of person do I want to be?”

Williams eventually enrolled at the University of Vermont in Burlington, where she changed her major five times before graduating, then held odd jobs ranging from Howard Johnson waitress to oral surgery assistant, quitting the latter after fainting at the sight of blood.

Moving on to earn master’s degrees from the School for International Training in Brattleboro and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, she worked as an activist in Central America before veterans’ advocates invited her to create the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1991.

Jody Williams
Jody Williams speaks around the globe as chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, an alliance of eight laureates “united to promote peace, justice and equality.” Provided photo

The one-employee operation grew over six years 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 accepted her 14-carat gold Nobel in a sale-rack dress before continuing her fight against weapons, currently targeting drones and other devices through the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

“What human being thinks it is OK to give machines the power to decide, algorithmically of course, who gets to live and who gets to die?” she says. “There are scenarios where people believe it will lead to nuclear war. We have to do something.”

‘I say I’m from Vermont’

Before the pandemic, Williams split her time between homes in Westminster and a Washington, D.C., suburb and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.

“I am something of a global citizen, but I don’t think of myself that way. I consider myself a Vermonter. I never say I’m from the U.S. I say I’m from Vermont.”

Check her Twitter page and her latest post thanks the state Legislature for adopting the Global Warming Solutions Act.

“We have to start thinking about the impacts,” she says. “Otherwise I can see Mother Earth breathing a hell of a huge sigh and thinking, ‘Thank God they’re gone’ because we aren’t here polluting the water, polluting the air, building weapons that nobody wants except for the companies that are building them.”

Jody Williams greets reporters outside her former Putney home Oct. 10, 1997, after learning she and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Brattleboro Reformer file photo

When Williams pulled on a tank top and jeans to meet the press upon her 1997 Nobel win, she just as casually labeled then-President Bill Clinton a “weenie” for not endorsing the landmine ban. Her bluntness when speaking to power hasn’t changed. Take her current thoughts on Trump.

“If you don’t want to see patriotism being used to advance authoritarianism,” she says, “elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”

The United Nations fares no better.

“The idea of an international body where states come together is marvelous, but the reality is, as it is constituted today, it is essentially worthless. It’s another forum for states to fight with each other for dominance. And the permanent five (members) having an upper hand over everybody else because they can veto anything — how can anybody call that a rational means of changing the world?”

‘So many people I don’t like’

Williams also bristles at stars who promote causes on glossy magazine covers.

“I have a real thing about celebrities and activism. I hate it when famous people are looked upon as the hero when the heroes are the ordinary people working their butts off every day to make a difference. I’m not special. I just care enough to take action to bring about change, to make the world better for everybody. Even people I do not like, and believe me, there are so many people I don’t like.”

Take CEO Jeff Bezos.

“He’s going to be the first trillionaire. It’s an obscenity that five billionaires from the U.S. control 50% of the resources of the freaking planet. Why does anybody think that’s OK?”

Then there’s Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“I’m trying not to look at Facebook because … I won’t even go there, because that’s a whole different conversation.”

Williams instead speaks fondly of fellow Nobel laureates the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Nobel laureate Jody Williams’ jacket features the words “Fiercely Peaceful.” Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

“They’ve said essentially the same thing — that men have been making something of a mess of the world for millennia and it’s about time to let women take a lead.”

Then again, Williams, one of only 17 women in more than a century of Peace Prize winners, is happy to include everyone.

“I think it takes both sides of the coin to advance issues. It’s better if we can find ways to work together, men and women who believe in the same things, who believe that equality matters, who believe that diversity matters.”

Williams will appear online this month at a “Diversity matters: Gender and inclusion in peace and war” program organized by the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. Grounded by the pandemic, she sees such internet interaction as a fact of life — although, she cautions, not the sole means to an end.

“You can feel good about tweeting something if you wish, but it is not a strategy for change. The root of the words ‘activist’ and ‘activism’ is ‘act.’ It doesn’t mean you can’t curl up in a ball on a weekend and read, which I do when I’m feeling freaked out. But action is the only thing that matters. The world has to change, or we will go down. But it will not change unless we make it change.”

Nobel laureate Jody Williams adjusts her mother Ruth’s raincoat hood during a visit to Brattleboro’s grade K-6 Green Street School. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Kevin O'Connor

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