Abigail Disney gives the Steven Neuwirth Lecture: Sept. 8, 2009
Abigail Disney has devoted herself to making the world a better place. A scion of the Walt Disney family, she spends much of her money to help people who are poor and shut out of political power. In Disney’s latest project, she produced a documentary about a group of women who ended the civil war in Liberia. “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” was shown in Ives Concert Hall before Disney’s talk.
The movie tells the story of groups of women who met separately in their churches and mosques and then came together to tell both Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and the warlords fighting to overthrow him that after years of murder and rape committed in the pursuit of victory, they had had enough. Their message was simple: It is time for peace.
It took years of daily sit-ins at a marketplace in the capitol of Monrovia for either warring faction to pay attention. Eventually, the efforts of the women, now calling themselves Liberian Mass Action For Peace, led to peace talks in Ghana. The women followed the powerbrokers there and when the talks broke down, they occupied the hotel where the negotiations were taking place and refused to let either side out. Within days, an agreement was brokered.
Taylor went into exile and a transition government of warlords took over. They were corrupt but allowed elections, which were won by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected head of state in Africa. Sirleaf gives credit for her election to the women who ended the war.
When she arrived in Liberia, Disney was not intending to make a movie, but started hearing stories about the women, stories that had not been reported in U.S. media.
When she met a man who had been involved in the peace negotiations, she inquired about the stories.
“I asked is it true that these women sat in a field for three years and is it true that they held you hostage at the peace negotiations,” Disney related. “He said not only is it true but we wouldn’t be sitting here in peace without them. Not only is it true but Ellen wouldn’t be president without them and not only that but CNN has footage of me sneaking out a window at the hotel.”
Disney said that although she had never made a movie before, she wanted to tell the story of these individuals who made a difference through personal action.
“If this story is not remembered, it would be a huge crime against these women,” Disney said. “We chose not to forget this one.”
She made a point to the students in the audience:
“The deal is, no one expects you to save the world by yourself. What you have to do is become part of the collective — the constructive movement — that moves forward to make a difference. Together you can save the world.”
Disney appeared at WestConn to give the annual Steven D. Neuwirth Arts & Sciences Lecture, named for Dr. Steven Neuwirth, a Professor of English and a specialist in Early American literature and history, who made significant contributions to academic program development in English, American Studies, the Honors Program, and academic advisement at WestConn from the 1980s until his retirement in 2003.