Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia, spoke to NCSSM students via zoom.


NCSSM hosts Nobel Laureate President Sirleaf to discuss “Building Coalitions for Positive Change”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is known by several names: Nobel Laureate, Iron Lady of Liberia, and Madame President. But for one NCSSM family she is most fondly regarded as “Auntie Ellen.” And on Feb. 22, she appeared as the keynote speaker before more than 900 people in an NCSSM-organized Zoom webinar called Building Coalitions for Positive Change.

President Sirleaf delivered her address from her home in Monrovia, Liberia, thanks in large part to the family of Darya Bernard, an NCSSM senior from Charlotte and the great-niece of the former president. The Bernard family coordinated with Tonya Smith, a humanities instructor at NCSSM, to plan the event. 

Despite having taught Darya, Smith was unaware of her kinship with the former president until Darya’s mother, Heidi Bernard, revealed the connection during a Fall 2020 Family Day Zoom call Smith was leading with parents of students in her African Studies class. 

“During the call when we had the meeting, she [Smith] was talking about having guest speakers, and I was like, ‘Well, you know, Darya’s father is from Liberia,’” Bernard recalls. “Then the conversation progressed to, ‘Oh, by the way, Auntie Ellen used to be president there.’”

Smith was stunned. “No one knew that Darya was sitting on this amazing family connection!” she says.

It was too big of an opportunity for Smith to keep confined to her African Studies class. She reached out to her colleagues and departmental supervisors with the news, and from there, Smith says, it “snowballed.” Nearly half a year later, and after much planning by a team of humanities faculty, including Smith and her colleagues Liz Peeples and Adam Sampieri, Sirleaf joined the NCSSM community to speak about building coalitions to bring about positive change.

Coalition building is something Ellen Johnson Sirleaf knows a bit about. Prior to becoming president of Liberia, she had worked for many years in a number of national and international roles in finance and government. When she assumed the presidency in 2006 as the first democratically elected female head of state in all of Africa, Sirleaf shared with those in the webinar, she found “a country decimated and dispirited after two decades of conflict.”

The only way for Sirleaf to restore the nation was to form relationships between a wide range of partners; partners that had suffered from, fled from, and in some cases contributed to, the nation’s collapse. 

A small team of young professionals and trusted advisors she initially gathered provided the initial push that was necessary to gain momentum, but it wasn’t enough to truly effect change.

“I needed a broader coalition of all those who represented the various divides if I would succeed in rebuilding the nation,” Sirleaf said. 

What resulted was a wide range of stakeholders from “all parties, religions, and tribes of the divide, from home and the diaspora,” working together to rebuild the country. Women and youth — the two groups that suffered the most in Liberia’s recent conflict-torn past, and who were central to her election as president — were given preference in staffing Sirleaf’s nation-rebuilding effort.

Sirleaf also set about rebuilding the nation’s civil service, creating a system that operated on a principle of fairness and supported professional growth and accountability. 

With two years left in Sirleaf’s final term as president, Liberia was steadying itself. Then Ebola struck. Again, Sirleaf set about building a team to respond. “We built a coalition from the bottom-up, providing the space for everyone to get involved in the ownership of the problem and the solution.” She appealed, too, to international partners to provide additional resources that Liberia could not.

Ebola ravaged Liberia, inflicting upon it the most Ebola-related deaths in all of Africa. But thanks to the partnerships Sirleaf assembled to fight the disease, the country became the first to be declared Ebola-free.

NCSSM senior Essie Acquah, a Raleigh native from Wakefield High School, was able to engage directly with President Sirleaf, asking how one remains inspired after achieving a measure of success. “It was amazing,” Acquah said of the opportunity to speak with the president. “She said to keep pushing past the boundaries, don’t become comfortable in the progress that you’ve made.”

Nina Nair, an NCSSM senior from Cary, was inspired by Sirleaf’s call to “listen to other people who have courage” in order to find one’s own voice. 

“You don’t have to listen to the biggest voices in the world,” Nina paraphrased, recalling Sirleaf’s advice to listen to the voices of those immediately around us who stand up for what is right and just. Be it in response to a societal problem or interpersonal conflicts, Nina says, “I’ve started to notice those [voices] more.”

As she brought her presentation to a close, Sirleaf emphasized a multitude of global challenges that, to be met, will require a banding together of individuals and institutions. The COVID-19 pandemic remains a critical and urgent issue, having taken more than 2.5 million lives worldwide. Sirleaf noted, too, the threat to democracies around the world presented by growing themes of nationalism, populism, and isolationism. Poverty, social injustice and gender inequities, too, continue to divide people all while climate change and nuclear proliferation threaten the stability of humanity’s very existence. It is, Sirleaf said, “a clarion call to come together, to work together to overcome our common challenges.”

“The truth is that what affects all of us must involve all of us, in its solution, for all of us. This is common sense….Sometimes, when all seems impossible, we just have to fall back on common sense.”

A panel discussion continuing the conversation on coalition building followed President Sirleaf’s remarks. Moderated by Adam Sampieri, co-chair of humanities at NCSSM, the panel included Representative Vernetta Alston (NC District 29), Mandy Carter (activist, author, and co-founder of SONG); Zack Fowler (NCSSM alumnus ’12 and Executive Director, WISER International); Barbara Lau (director of the Pauli Murray Center for Social Justice); and Dr. Pamela Scully (Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Professor of African Studies, and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs at Emory University).

 Watch a recording of the webinar, or highlights from President Sirleaf’s keynote and highlights from the panel discussion.

NCSSM would like to thank Donald McIntyre and Lee Welper for their technical support.

This event was made possible through the generous support of the Broyhill Family Foundation.