Williams, Jody (1950—)

views updated

Williams, Jody (1950—)

American who won the Nobel Peace Prize as coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines . Born Jo-Anne Williams on October 9, 1950, in Poultney, Vermont; daughter of John Williams and Ruth Williams; educated in public schools of Brattleboro, Vermont; University of Vermont at Burlington, B.A., 1972; School for International Training, Brattleboro, Vermont, M.A. in Spanish and teaching English as a second language, 1976; Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, M.A., 1984.

Served as co-coordinator for the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project (1984–86); was deputy director of Medical Aid for El Salvador (1986–1992); drafted by the founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation to build a coalition to combat the widespread international use of antipersonnel land mines (1991); served as coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (1992—), an effort for which she and her organization were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace (1997); attended signing of Mine Ban Treaty (December 1997); treaty entered into force (March 1999).

The second child and first daughter of John and Ruth Williams , Jody Williams was born in 1950 in Poultney, Vermont, where her parents owned and operated a grocery store. Christened Jo-Anne as a child, Williams was called "Jodykapody" by her father, and the first part of the nickname stuck; she later changed her name legally to Jody. An excellent student, she is recalled by her mother as an "achiever" who would become visibly upset if she had to miss school. Jody's older brother Stephen was born deaf, and her parents eventually sold the Poultney store and moved the family to Brattleboro where Stephen could receive specialized training at the Austin School for the Deaf. Jody, with younger siblings Mary Beth , Mark, and Janet , attended public schools in Brattleboro, while their parents ran a vending business.

Williams' underlying rebellious nature first surfaced while she was a student at the University of Vermont in Burlington. For Williams, the Vietnam War was "a defining experience." From that point on, she was no longer able to accept the pronouncements of those in authority without questioning their motivations. Her newfound militancy about the war made dinnertime discussions with the family far less amiable than they had been in the past, for her younger brother Mark and, initially, her father were strong supporters of the government's position on the conflict.

Although she was extremely focused on such issues as the Vietnam War, Williams was somewhat less decisive about her own future while studying at the University of Vermont. She changed majors five times, finally settling on psychology so that she could graduate. After graduation, she returned to Brattleboro and took a job as an assistant to an oral surgeon, a position that proved brief after she fainted a number of times during her first day at work. Instead, she decided to pursue studies at Brattleboro's School for International Training, where she earned a master's degree in Spanish and teaching English as a second language in 1976. She then spent some time in Mexico, putting her newly acquired teaching skills to work.

After working for three years in Washington, D.C., as a temporary secretary, Williams returned to school, earning a second master's degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1984. It was shortly after completing her studies that Williams by chance was handed a leaflet advertising a lecture about the cause of the El Salvador guerrilla movement, the FMLN. She attended the lecture and met Mario Velasquez, a leader of the FMLN, and before long was working for a change in U.S. policy toward Central America, frequently leading fact-finding tours in Nicaragua and Honduras as co-coordinator of the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project. Two years later, she became deputy director of Medical Aid for El Salvador, an organization based in Los Angeles for which she initiated and supervised humanitarian relief projects. This involvement in the Central American cause was, for Williams, an epiphany. "The passion of doing what I considered to be the right thing captured me, and I've never looked back," she told graduates in a 1998 commencement address at the University of Vermont.

Williams' tireless work on behalf of the Central American cause brought her to the attention of Bobby Muller, founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. A former marine left paralyzed by injuries received fighting in Vietnam, Muller hired Williams in 1991 to build a coalition of groups opposed to the use of antipersonnel mines. Land mines, potent weapons during wartime, are left behind after the fighting stops or moves away, and some 100 million live mines remain buried in various countries around the world. It is believed that Cambodia, where approximately a third of the population died during the bloody regime of Pol Pot, is seeded with over 10 million land mines, while Angola, after years of civil war, contains 9 million. The vast majority of those who stumble across the left-behind mines are civilians, often farmers or children, and those who do not die frequently require prosthetic limbs that are rarely available in their homelands.

In 1992, Williams left her job at Medical Aid for El Salvador to become the first coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), launched that October with a membership of six nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Under Williams' leadership, the ICBL grew into a coalition of some 1,000 NGOs in more than 60 countries. In a matter of six years, she managed to rally support among governments, NGOs, the United Nations, and the International Red Cross for an international agreement that would outlaw land mines—which kill or injure 26,000 people annually—and also require countries to find and eliminate those land mines (usually unmapped) already buried. The cause attracted such high-pro-file figures as Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana , who brought it much publicity. In October 1997, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the ICBL and its coordinator, Jody Williams. (She then came under attack from some quarters for choosing to keep her half of the million dollars in prize money for herself.)

In December 1997, at the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production

and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, held in Ottawa, Canada, the Mine Ban Treaty was signed by 125 governments. Ratification by at least 40 signatories was required for the treaty to go into effect. It did so in March 1999, and as of June 2001 it had been signed by 140 countries and ratified by 117. As coordinator of the ICBL, Williams continues to pressure both countries that signed the treaty to ratify it and countries that did not sign it to accede it. Among those non-signatories are China and Russia (both huge producers of land mines); much of the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia; Afghanistan, where land mines take a massive toll in human life each year; and the United States. Notable for its opposition to the treaty under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the U.S. became one of Williams' primary targets. She frequently lectures and writes articles and studies for the ICBL, which has also expanded its mission to include assistance to those injured by land mines.


Griffin, Lee. "Campaigning Against War's Legacy," in Vermont Quarterly. Summer 1998, pp. 21–25.

The New York Times Biographical Service. October 1997, pp. 1584–1585.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania

About this article

Williams, Jody (1950—)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Williams, Jody (1950—)