It was something of a reunion for International House President Calvin Sims and Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who met on Sunday, September 24, 2017 for their first on-the-record conversation in more than a decade. This latest occasion was an International House Sunday Supper, an institutional tradition of more than 90 years.
In 2006, as a correspondent for The New York Times, Sims interviewed Sirleaf, who then had just secured a historic presidential election victory in her country. The resulting Times video for “The Conversation” series that Sims hosted, featured Sirleaf confident in her ability to reverse the tide of conflict, poverty and insecurity that had enveloped Liberia after decades of civil war.
“How has this all turned out?” Sims asked Sirleaf after they watched the video together on the stage of Davis Hall, in front of more than 300 Sunday Supper attendees.
“After close to twelve years, you can see that I’m younger,” Sirleaf remarked to laughter and applause resonating from the hall.
“It’s been a great journey,” she elaborated.
Maybe those words would come as a surprise, considering what challenges the Harvard-educated economist and first female president of an African nation has had to face in her role. She is set to leave office in October, upon completing her second and final term.
And for International House Residents, Trustees and guests who had the opportunity to see and hear this “Iron Lady” in person, the event was confirming of their admiration. Several credited her as an inspiration to women seeking to become global leaders and change agents.
“I think for [women] she’s a symbol of fortitude, of what women can achieve; and of strength and accomplishment and I think it’s a validation that we can attain what we want to attain if the opportunities are there and if we work hard for them,” said Columbia University student and I-House Resident Weyni Tadesse Berhe of Ethiopia, who performed a blessing before the Sunday Supper meal.
“What [Sirleaf] has achieved in Liberia after this terrible, terrible civil war and succession, warlords doing terrible, terrible things to the people—is truly remarkable.” said Mary Miller, an I-House Trustee and Alumni (’66).
“When you look at the values of I-House and the mission, she demonstrates moral courage more than anyone else I know on earth. So she sets an incredible example for the leadership values that I-House instills in its residents.”
Earlier in the week, Sirleaf was among an abundance of world leaders in New York City to deliver an address to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly. There, she highlighted the almost unprecedented peaceful transition of power the West African nation is expected to carry out when it holds elections on October 10, 2017.
“It will mark the first time in 73 years that political power will be handed over peacefully, and democratically, from one elected leader to another,” Sirleaf said to the U.N. body. “This paves the way for the next generation of Liberians to lead the country into the future.
“The election will signal the irreversible course that Liberia has embarked upon to consolidate its young, post-conflict democracy. Indeed, democracy is on the march in Liberia and, I believe, on an irreversible path forward on the African continent.”
Sirleaf rose to the presidency after defeating ex-soccer star George Weah in the 2005 election. A little more than two years earlier, in 2003, a ceasefire agreement and the resignation of former president Charles Taylor brought an end to the Second Liberian Civil War. Notorious as a theater of child soldiers, what the United Nations referred to as “widespread sexual violence against women and children,” and the mass displacement of the country’s citizens, the war had its roots in conflicts dating back to the country’s Rice Riot of 1979.
From that point, Liberia became mired in “a situation of free fall,” Sirleaf said during the I-House gathering.
And even with the current period of relative stability, the country, originally founded by freed American slaves in 1822, continues to deal with the ramifications of violence and strife—a still struggling but growing economy, public health crises like the Ebola Virus epidemic of 2014-15 and high rates of rape affecting women and girls.
“The issue of rape continues to haunt us. We still haven’t found the means to resolve it,” Sirleaf said. “Because we just can’t understand the psyche that leads to that–young girls being raped–we’re still working on that problem.”
But Sirleaf said she hopes that if she is known for just one crowning achievement, it’s that she governed a peaceful nation.
“If there’s one thing that we’ve done—just think, 30 years of war, death and destruction—15 consecutive years of peace,” she said to more applause.
This era of peace has also included International House Alumni serving in Sirleaf’s administration: former Justice Minister and Attorney General Benedict Sannoh ’87 and current Managing Director of the Liberia Electricity Coalition Foday Sakor ’12. Several other Liberian I-House Alums have worked for non-governmental organizations helping to rebuild the country.
International House President Calvin Sims said he hopes residents can absorb the lessons of leaders like Sirleaf, especially as they decide to pursue careers in public service.
“It’s extremely important to have world leaders come to I-House and inform our Residents who are also future leaders about the challenges of leadership, of leading a country, of leading a movement and what comes along with it,” said Sims.
“[Johnson Sirleaf is] very honest about what success is. You can’t do everything but you can do the things that can be done and often times good policy is not what should be done but what can be done,” he said.
Sims notes that two years ago the I-House Board of Trustees agreed upon a strategic plan with the goal of bringing programs to Residents featuring a robust array of leaders in public affairs, business and the arts.
“Events like these are all important for the I-House. We’ve had [former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize Winner] Nelson Mandela here many years ago,” said I-House trustee Robert Kreftling. “I think for one thing it makes the students realize that they’re part of something really important.”
Faith Woodard, a first year Resident from Tampa, Florida, who is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia, recognized this commitment in the Sunday Supper conversation with Sirleaf.
“The fact that they even got her to come here just speaks volumes to what they’re trying to do here, to really educate young adults, to really impact the Harlem community, the New York community and to impact the world on a global level,” she said. “I think the vision of President Sirleaf and the vision of I-House are just intertwined.”
“We’ve always wanted someone like that: as a symbol, as a role model, as a powerful force in the world. I think her presence is already a big thing,” said Lebogang Mahlare, an I-House Resident and New York University engineering student from South Africa.
At Sunday Supper, Mahlare wore a black dress with colorful beads that matched with her headpiece and her thick necklace, the sort of outfits girls wear when they come of age in the Zulu tribe, she said. She performed “I Am African,” a poem by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, accompanied by fellow Resident and South African Braam van Eeden, who is working toward a doctorate in musical composition at Mannes School of Music.
“In the context of the UN General Assembly this week [Sirleaf has] received a lot of spotlight having been on political affairs and international governance,” Mahlare said. “It’s important for us to draw lessons as Africans… about leadership from an African context and also in the context of the world right now.”
As the Sunday Supper question and answer period drew to a close, Sims asked Sirleaf what the next chapter will be for her as she steps down from the presidency.
“I’m going to sleep eight hours,” she said.