When Ordinary People Achieve Extraordinary Things

Jody Williams - Fredericksburg, Virginia
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, January 9, 2006
Jody Williams
Photo by Nubar Alexanian

Jody Williams believes extraordinary things can happen when ordinary people decide to take action. Her own activism led to a 1997 international treaty banning landmines and to a Nobel Peace Prize.

Age Group: 50 - 65

I believe it is possible for ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things. For me, the difference between an “ordinary” and an “extraordinary” person is not the title a person might have, but what that person does to make the world a better place for us all.

I don’t know why people choose to do what they do. When I was a kid I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to grow up, have 2.2 kids, get married. And I certainly didn’t think about being an activist. I didn’t even really know what one was.

My older brother is deaf. Growing up, I ended up defending him and I often think that is what started me on my path to whatever I am today.

When I was approached with the idea of trying to create a landmine campaign, we were just three people in a small office in Washington, DC in late 1991. I had more than a few ideas about how to begin a campaign, but what if nobody cared? What if nobody responded? But I knew the only way to answer those questions was to accept the challenge.

But if I have any power as an individual, it’s because I work with other individuals around the world. We are ordinary people — Jemma from Armenia, Paul from Canada, Kosal from Cambodia, Haboubba from Lebanon, Christian from Norway, Diana from Colombia, Margaret from Uganda and thousands more — who have worked together to bring about extraordinary change. The landmine campaign is not just about landmines — it’s about the power of individuals to work with governments in a different way.

I believe in both my right and my responsibility to work to create a world that doesn’t glorify violence and war, but where we seek different solutions to our common problems. I believe that these days, daring to voice your opinion, daring to find out information from a variety of sources, can be an act of courage.

I know that holding such beliefs and speaking them publicly is not always easy or comfortable or popular — particularly in the post-9/11 world. But I believe that life isn’t a popularity contest. I really don’t care what people say about me — and people have said plenty. For me, it’s about trying to do the right thing — even when nobody else is looking.

I believe worrying about the problems plaguing our planet without taking steps to confront them is irrelevant. The only thing that changes this world is action.

Most people tend to get caught up in going to college, then getting a job, buying a house and paying the mortgage. Somehow, I’ve had the desire — and the drive — to do things a bit differently.

I believe that words are easy — the truth is told in the actions we take. If enough ordinary people back up our desire for a better world with action, I believe we can, in fact, accomplish extraordinary things.

Jody Williams is the founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. For her efforts, she shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize with the Campaign. Williams previously worked to build awareness about U.S. policy toward Central America, and did humanitarian work for people in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein, John Gregory and Viki Merrick.