March 8, 2004

Nobel Laureate Delivers Keynote for Commitment

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Jody Williams, winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace prize, addressed a capacity crowd in Kennedy’s David L. Call Auditorium on Friday. Williams delivered the keynote address, “The Individual’s Impact on Social and Political Change,” for the Cornell Commitment Convocation. Three themes that ran throughout the entire ceremony, which Williams addressed, were leadership, service and commitment to social change.

“Our speaker has recognized the need for change, and she has applied her talents and passions on the global level,” said Jesse Corburn ’03, a Cornell Tradition alumnus who introduced Williams. “Ms. Williams received the Nobel Peace prize in 1997 for her work and dedication to eliminate anti-personnel landmines. She is currently serving as the campaign ambassador for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the ICBL, which she helped to create. She continues to teach the world to strive for social change. She is an activist for human rights, a writer, a reader and a true leader.”

Williams used her time at the podium to give a description of her background and to analyze the most effective methods of creating change on both social and political levels. “For more than 20 years I have been an activist on issues related to human rights, socio-economic justice and war and peace,” she said.

According to Williams, her work has been driven by personal dedication and high standards to achieve change in a particular cause. “I believe that each and every one of us, no matter what our role in life, can be an agent of positive change in this ever-increasingly small planet. I believe that each of us, no matter what we do, must be motivated to do our best by the highest ethical and moral standards,” Williams said.

Such determination has helped Williams to overcome obstacles, which she has encountered throughout her career as an activist and especially in her work with the ICBL, she said. “Every single government that I met with in the first days of the campaign mumbled, after I explained what we were trying to do, words like ‘utopia,’ ‘dreamer,’ ‘it will never happen.’ But at my core, I believed in the rightness and righteousness of our effort to eliminate this indiscriminate killer. I did not hear those words as insurmountable obstacles, but as problems to be dealt with as the campaign grew, and as we worked toward our goal of a mine-free world,” she recalled.

The defining accomplishment of the ICBL came in Sept.1997, when an international treaty banning anti-personnel landmines was signed during the diplomatic conference held in Oslo, Norway. The treaty was the result of the campaign’s cooperative effort with governments, United Nations bodies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Today, 150 countries support the treaty, while 44 countries remain unsigned — including the United States, Iraq, Cuba and North Korea, among others.

Regarding her achievements, Williams said, “I believe to this day that what made us successful, in large part, was commitment, follow-up, and follow-through. From our very humble beginning, we grew to be a campaign that now encompasses about 1,300 non-governmental organizations working in 85 or 90 countries around the world.”

The campaign has continued its work since the 1997 treaty, however, in an effort to extend the agreement to those nations which remain unsigned. “I think people expected we would see victory in the treaty and walk away. Another thing I’ve learned about service and commitment for real change is that you stick with the job you started until it’s done,” Williams said.

Like the governments Williams encountered early in the campaign, many people view her efforts as striving towards utopia, an ideal Williams outright renounces. “I totally reject the idea of the utopia. I don’t believe that building a better world or hoping for a peaceful world comes about through utopian dream. Building a better world, building change, is the absolute result of hard work every single day to make the world be the way you want it to be. It does not happen because you sit back and visualize world peace. It happens because you get up and take action to create the world in which you want to live.”

Such principles have shaped Williams’ ideology, which has provided the foundation for her work towards change. “The core beliefs that have motivated me for much of my life — I believe that the world definitely can and will be a better place. I believe that we can leave it a better place than how we find it today. I believe that each and every one of us has the capacity, in his or her own way, to make significant contributions for the global good. I believe that passion and emotion for change, without taking steps to make that change happen, are largely irrelevant,” she said.

In closing, Williams encouraged the members of the audience to recognize that they are each part of the global network of people, and that the contributions each person makes are built on the contributions of those that came before them. “Finally, I would end in saying that each and every one you, who is part of the Cornell Tradition and the Commitment, has the capacity to embrace your own passion and put it into action to help create a better world for us all,” she said.

Prior to Williams’ talk, student described the three programs that comprise the Cornell Commitment. Sheena Lee ’05 spoke about The Cornell Tradition, Andrew Reisenberg ’05 described the Cornell Presidential Research Scholars program and Allison Miller ’04 detailed the Meinig Family Cornell National Scholars program.

Following the introductory portion of the convocation, Todd Hilgendorff ’02 presented the Debra S. Newman Cornell Tradition Community Recognition Award to Noel Desch. “For the past three years Mr. Desch has volunteered hundreds of hours to complete a regional solution for water waste treatment. He worked with six municipalities in Tompkins County to protect Cayuga Lake and encourage economic development for low and moderate housing and business growth,” Hilgendorff said. Desch will select a charity to receive the $1,000 that accompanies the award.

After the presentation of the Newman award, Corburn ’03 described his current work with the Teach for America Corps. and reflected on his experience as a Cornell Tradition student. “The secret that brings us all here tonight is that nobody in this room is satisfied with the way the world works right now — that everybody in this room is in a constant search for inspiration, for open doors, for ways that we can each impact other and create change,” he said.

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo