Like most children, Winifred Gray-Johnson didn’t pay much attention to what her father did for a living. She knew he often traveled from their home in Monrovia, Liberia, to the United States. She knew he occasionally visited a place in Virginia called Eastern Mennonite University.
But she never imagined her father’s participation in the 2009 Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) would so directly impact her own future. Winifred, a junior economics major, spent the summer as a community assistant at SPI – the very program that first brought her father to EMU.
SPI director Bill Goldberg knows both father and daughter. “Wilfred fills up the room,” said Goldberg. “He is very outgoing … and tall. Winifred is quieter, but there is definitely a presence that they both share.”
As a community assistant, Winifred has offered support and information to the many international citizens who stayed on campus this summer. SPI employees accompanied participants to the grocery store, and on trips and tours over the weekend. The assistants were also available around the clock should someone need help or advice.
“They are incredibly dedicated to the participants,” said Goldberg. “They are always willing to answer questions and provide help whether they are working or supposed to be off.”
Her experience at SPI this summer has further solidified her commitment to follow in her father’s path of peacebuilding work, Winifred says. “It’s blown my mind how great everyone has been. Watching the dynamics between people from all over the world, the way they connect with each other – it makes me want to do good things.”
SPI plays ‘a critical role’
Wilfred Gray-Johnson, executive director of the Liberia Peacebuilding Office of the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund Secretariat (LPBO), attended SPI in 2009 and 2014.
“SPI has enormously enhanced my theoretical knowledge and application in peacebuilding, which has contributed to the level of success of the LPBO,” he said. “We are responsible for coordinating the Government of Liberia peace and reconciliation programs, and lead the development of various peace and reconciliation strategic policy frameworks. SPI, having built our skills in the areas of conflict and context analysis, as well as restorative and other forms of justice, continues to play a critical role in our work.”
Gray-Johnson has also sent members of his office to SPI every year since 2009. Participants from the LPBO include Sunny A. George, training and conflict sensitivity officer; Togar S. Tarpeh, national early warning and early response program officer; John R. Dennis, national monitor and evaluation officer; Matthew B. Kollie, who now works with the Governance Commission; and Victor Smith, who currently heads a USAID project in Liberia.
It wasn’t always apparent that Gray-Johnson was bound for Virginia. Soon after she graduated from high school, her mother passed away. Wanting to remain close to her father, two younger siblings and 10 extended family members, she attended a local college in Liberia for two years, after which she sat down with her father and had a long conversation.
“It seemed like the best thing, for my education,” she said. “At that point I needed to get away, to focus.”
Her father agreed. “EMU’s campus environment is conducive to focus and learning, par excellence,” he said. “I applaud the school for its multicultural environment that encourages respect for diversity, while remaining distinct in championing moral and ethical values.”
Winifred says her father’s familiarity with – and affection for – the campus made a hard decision a little easier. “My father loves EMU. He has so many friends here,” she said. “He wasn’t afraid to leave me here on my own.”
While her father’s connections to the campus drew her to EMU, they didn’t smooth her transition from Liberia to Virginia. The cultural transition, food and the winter weather proved the highest hurdle.
“I had a keen sense of being alone,” she emphasized. Furthering this feeling was a discomfort with certain social norms. “The hardest thing to adjust to was addressing my professors and supervisors on a first-name basis. I probably went for two months without saying their names. It just wasn’t comfortable for me.”
But frequent Skype conversations with her father helped ease her. ‘“We weren’t always close,” Gray-Johnson said. “Now we are close. We have become good friends.”
They are, however, good friends who haven’t seen each other for the past year. Though Wilfred Gray-Johnson was able to visit his daughter in Maryland last summer, where she was staying with her aunt, the two haven’t been on campus together since he dropped her off at the start of her first year. “I’d love it if he was on campus with me. Then he could introduce me to everyone he knows,” she said.
For his part, her father plans to attend an SPI session next summer. “Hopefully my daughter will be an SPI community assistant once again, and we can spend time together then,” he said.
Help for home
Nor has Gray-Johnson been able to return to Liberia, due to the Ebola outbreak in the summer of 2014. Watching from afar while the disease threatened her family and her father worked on the front lines of the crisis in Liberia, Gray-Johnson rallied the International Students Organization (ISO) to sponsor a fundraising event to supply aid and raise awareness of the devastation in her home country.
The group reached out to Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, MA ’07 (conflict transformation), a fellow native of Liberia, and who knows and has worked with Wilfred Gray-Johnson. Winifred first met Gbowee when she was the 2014 commencement speaker (her son Joshua Mensah graduated with the class of 2014), and was eager to bring her back to campus.
To the group’s surprise, Gbowee accepted their invitation, donating her time and services to the cause, waiving even travel fees. Bolstered by Gbowee’s attendance, ISO raised over $4,000 to assist in fighting the Ebola epidemic. In addition, student participation in ISO events rose significantly over the remainder of the semester. “We had so much involvement,” Gray-Johnson said. “It was really wonderful.”
And when Liberia was declared Ebola-free earlier this summer, Gray-Johnson offered a prayer of thanks. “When I heard that, I gave a long exhale,” she said. “I was so relieved.”
Her summer experience has contributed to a long-term plan that she hopes one day leads back to Liberia. In the meantime, she’ll spend the next year as president of a newly invigorated International Students Organization.
Following graduation from EMU in 2017, she’d like to spend a year interning or volunteering in a French-speaking country, to learn the language. And after that?
Gray-Johnson contemplates graduate school, maybe even at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. That thought gives her pause, though. “My father is so well known there, I am worried the level of expectation will be too high,” she said, a momentary frown crossing her face. Then she shrugged and smiled. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Pausing, she reflected for a moment on her father’s love for SPI and EMU, and his eagerness to share both with her. She nodded. “Now I see what caught his attention.”