Abigail Disney (right) was part of a June 2011 forum, "Women, War and Peace," featuring EMU alumna and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee. Disney will give the annual commencement address at EMU. Photo by Lindsey Kolb.

Disney Heir to Speak at Commencement

Her ties to the first family of entertainment are strong but this Disney focuses on brave women in peacebuilding rather than cartoons and children’s films.

Abigail Disney, a philanthropist, scholar and award-winning filmmaker, will give the annual commencement address at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Sunday, April 29, at 1 p.m. “EMU is a remarkable institution, an island of sanity in a country that often has difficulty crediting the discourse of peace,” said Disney.

“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.”

More than just a last name

Granddaughter of Roy Disney and grandniece of Walt Disney, co-founders of the Walt Disney Company, Abigail Disney intertwined her longtime passion for women’s issues and peacebuilding in her first film, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” (Fork Films, 2008). Directed by Gini Reticker, the film 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” PBS website. “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, sounds and smells,” she added.

Previous ties to EMU

Abigail Disney will give the annual commencement address at EMU. Photo by Gabrielle Revere/Contour by Getty Images

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

The 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 explore the potential value of an educational program at EMU tailored to women peacebuilders.

During the public forum, Disney moderated a discussion by three influential women in peacebuilding: Leymah Gbowee; the late 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 the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU and director of the Pacific Centre for Peacebuilding.

Fostering female peacebuilders

In 2008, Disney launched “Peace is Loud,” an organization supporting female voices and international peacebuilding 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.

Disney is the founder and the president of The Daphne Foundation, a progressive, social change foundation that bestows grants to grassroots, community-based organizations working in low-income communities in New York City.

Disney earned a BA from Yale, an MA in English literature from Stanford University, and a PhD in English from Columbia University. 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.

Learn more about Abigail Disney and her work