2012 Commencement Speaker Abigail Disney 2012 EMU Commencement Speaker Abigail Disney, photo courtesy Gabrielle Rever, by Getty Images

EMU welcomed Abigail Disney as the 2012 commencement speaker. Abigail is a philanthropist and scholar focused on women’s issues and peacebuilding. She is also the granddaughter of Roy Disney and grandniece of Walt Disney, co-founders of the Walt Disney Company, and an award-winning filmmaker.

During commencement exercises on April 29, 2012, Disney asked EMU graduates to support a greater role for women in the political arena, particularly in peace negotiations. If more women were at the negotiating tables, suggested Disney, wars would likely end sooner and on terms that permit faster healing.

Her work in philanthropy, women’s engagement and leadership, and conflict resolution has been recognized through the Epic Award from the White House Project, the Changing the Landscape for Women Award from the Center for the Advancement of Women, and the prestigious International Advocate for Peace (IAP) Award from the Cardozo Law School’s Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution.

EMU is a remarkable institution, an island of sanity in a country that often has difficulty crediting the discourse of peace,” says Abigail. “It recognized in Leymah Gbowee an extraordinary gift for activism and principled nonviolent leadership long before either I or the Nobel Committee did, and for every Leymah that has risen to prominence from EMU I happen to know there are dozens of others quietly laboring in obscurity to build peace.”

Passion for peacebuilding and the role of women

Her longtime passion for women’s issues and peacebuilding culminated in the award-winning feature documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” (Fork Films, 2008), produced with Gini Reticker, that shows how Liberian women forced their warring men to arrive at a peace settlement that led to the election of Africa’s first woman president. The film focuses on the peace activism of EMU alumna and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee.

“War has never been a tidy, closed activity, taking place on a clearly demarcated battlefield between two uniformed entities, or when it has, that has been the exception,” Disney wrote on the “"Wide Angle":http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/” PBS website and reiterated at EMU during a June 2011 peacebuilding forum. “Rather, war marches right through the center of everything — through house, hearth and field — ripping a hole into the center of things that can never be entirely repaired.

“To bring a woman’s eyes to the telling of the story of war — to turn the camera around and place it in her hands — is to fundamentally alter the way war looks and sounds and smells,” she added.

She has executive produced other films that address various social issues, including Family Affair, Playground, Sun Come Up (Academy Award® Nominee 2011, Best Documentary Short) and Return, and is involved in several more films in various stages of development and production.

Disney, who earned a BA from Yale, a masters in English literature from Stanford University, and a PhD in English from Columbia University, co-founded The Daphne Foundation, a progressive, social change foundation that makes grants to grassroots, community-based organizations working with low-income communities in New York City. She has served on the boards of the Roy Disney Family Foundation, the White House Project, the Global Fund for Women, The New York Women’s Foundation, the Fund for the City of New York, and more.

She has been a judge at the Tribeca Film Festival, sits on the advisory board of the Independent Television Service’s groundbreaking initiative, Women and Girls Lead, and is a sought-after public speaker.

Fostering female peacebuilders

In 2008 she launched “Peace is Loud,” an organization that supports female voices and international peace-building through nonviolent means. Peace is Loud organized a 2009 Global Peace Tour as part of the UN’s International Day of Peace. The tour brought “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” to hundreds of community screenings in churches, living rooms, community spaces, and forums in the U.S. and abroad, sharing the inspirational story of the women of Liberia. Peace is Loud funded a 10-day project held in three different cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo to help foster female peacebuilding capacity.

EMU first hosted Disney at a June 2011 peacebuilding forum entitled ‘Women, War and Peace’, which featured Gbowee, Disney and other women from around the world who are involved in peacebuilding in their communities. The event included previews of the five-part “Women, War & Peace” PBS prime-time television special, produced by with Disney and partners Pamela Hogan and Gini Reticker, that premiered in October 2011. The series challenges the conventional wisdom that war and peace are men’s domain, and features celebrity narrators such as Matt Damon, Tilda Swinson, Geena Davis and Alfre Woddard.

The June 2011 forum was part of a larger gathering of women peacebuilders at EMU. Disney was one of 20 participants in a three-day conference that grouped female peace workers from nine countries to learn from each other’s experiences and to explore the potential value of an educational program tailored to women peacebuilders.

During the public forum, Disney moderated a discussion by three influential women in peacebuilding: Leymah Gbowee; Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, a Kenyan-Muslim woman of Somali ethnic origin who received the 2007 Right Livelihood Prize (alternative Nobel Prize); and Koila Costello-Olsson, an MA graduate of CJP and the director of the Pacific Centre for Peacebuilding. (Dekha Ibrahim Abdi was lost in a tragic car accident in Kenya the following month.)

Learn more about Abigail Disney and her work