Saturday, June 15, 2024

Africa: My Roots Are in Africa's Soil; My Ambition Is Limitless

Cambridge, MA — ‘Rootedness’ has always been a concept that intrigued me. I often wondered how one’s life journey could develop and evolve while preserving a sense of rootedness that doesn’t limit or stifle ambition.

My life journey has taught me that rootedness is a source of resilience and determination, and it has taken me beyond the borders of my own country of Liberia. However, my roots have remained deeply planted in the soil of my beautiful country and my beloved Africa.

As a young girl growing up in a family that valued education and hard work above all else, and as a woman president leading Liberia toward peace and reconciliation, I have taken strength from my African heritage and the legacy of Liberian and African women leaders who preceded me. Thanks to this foundation, I could dream, believe in myself, and break down many barriers that seemed impossible to overcome.

Today, I want to give back to my fellow Liberians and to Africa – our mother continent. I want to impart the empowering beliefs and experiences that have defined my journey as an African woman leader to the next generation of Liberian women and girls and to all Africans who dream of a better future for their nations and the continent.

African women who dream of a fairer future are empowered by examples of leadership.

To do so, I have decided to make my personal and professional records publicly available through a partnership agreement with Harvard Library. I want these records, which reflect my life as the first democratically elected African woman president, to be a comprehensive and freely accessible reference to Liberians and to all Africans – whether they live on the continent or are part of the global African diaspora whose roots are firmly planted in Africa’s soil.

This decision is born out of the belief that there’s no better teacher than an example. As leaders, we don’t find ready-made guidelines on how to make a decision or govern. The only guidance we have is the experience of others. By adapting these experiences to our own context and aspirations, we can turn them into powerful tools for achieving our goals.

I am hopeful that my personal and professional records will showcase, educate, and inspire in equal measure. They will show the hardship and obstacles that women leaders can encounter and the power they have to overcome them. They will offer examples of my writings and communications in domestic and international governance contexts. They will present articles and publications that describe my journey and what I achieved. They will be a rich resource for Liberians and all Africans who desire to connect with their roots and learn how African women are making headway in leadership on the continent.  Select items will also be available in the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center and Library in Monrovia, Liberia, once the building project is completed.

The collected papers can show Liberians and other African women living on the continent or in the diaspora that they, too, can become African leaders.

Why Harvard Library?

My evolution as a leader did not start or end with my tenure as president of Liberia. It took me far beyond the borders of Africa – and back to my country. My time as a student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; my years gaining professional experience both as a public servant in Liberia and as an economist in the United States; my period of incarceration in Liberia and subsequent exile; and my presidency are all part of my journey.

Young women must write their own stories and create their own legacies.

My Harvard University experiences were among the most formative of my life. There, I explored the rigors of academic thinking and the principles of good governance. Since then I have built strong connections with this institution and its students, with whom I engage regularly – particularly the African students among them – on various topics and issues, including good governance, democracy, equity, and justice.

To entrust Harvard Library with the safekeeping of my personal and professional records is a way to encourage younger generations of women leaders in Liberia and elsewhere. Entrusting these papers to an institution that has the resources to preserve them and make them available through a state-of-the-art digital portal is a way of connecting with both my own past and with younger generations – and helping them prepare for future leadership.

Furthermore, having these papers available through a world-renowned higher education institution will make them a reference and resource for researchers, scholars, and teachers globally. Education has changed my life, and my passion for advancing women’s and girls’ education – and women’s leadership – knows no boundaries.

The next chapter

The next chapter is up to the next generation of Liberian and African women leaders, just as I wrote the next chapter after the powerful women who preceded me. The records that will be preserved at Harvard Library will be there to tell Liberian and African women all over the world: write your own story, create your legacy, and keep connecting with your roots. If you are an African woman, your story will be different from mine, but the constant factor will be Africa and its people.

Ellen Johnson is former president of Liberia and founder of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development. In 2007, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civil award, for courage and commitment to expanding freedom and improving lives. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.


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