Asking Questions Together

Ikeda Center Hosts Second Virtual Dialogue Event

Because it was conducted on Zoom, our June 11 dialogue event was called a “virtual” one. Yet there was nothing simulated or “less than” about the conversations that took place when 250 participants from 19 countries around the world gathered online for “Asking Questions Together: What Is Our Path Forward?” The panel discussion featured Dr. Ceasar McDowell (Professor of Civic Design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Ikeda Center Student Ambassadors Giulia Pellizzato (Postdoctoral Fellow, Brown University) and Anthony Jojola (Masters candidate, Boston College) who shared thoughts on the power and necessity of asking deep and thoughtful questions as we attempt to move forward in the quest for just, healthy, and thriving communities. After the panel segment, participants submitted their own questions, which formed the basis of small group discussions.

To open, Ikeda Center Events Manager Lillian I introduced the mission of the Ikeda Center by sharing Center founder Daisaku Ikeda's conviction that engaging in open-hearted, open-minded dialogue is the surest path to peace. To underscore this point, she shared a quote from Mr. Ikeda’s message to the Center celebrating the 2009 publication of Creating Waldens:

Our objective must be the realization of peace for all people and to support the harmony and progress of global civil society. The way to achieve this, I believe, is, again, through the dialogue of spiritual openness. The key to such dialogue is devoting our very lives to listening and learning from those different from us. This humble willingness to learn is profoundly meaningful, invariably fostering deep, empathetic connections. Not only does this resonance enable us to understand others on a deeper level, it acts as a mighty impetus for our true self — our greater self — to flower within us.

Given the present reality of the commitment, anger, and hope arising in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others, Lillian then asked everyone to engage in a few moments of silent reflection about their feelings, concerns, and what they would like to take away from the event.

Next, Dr. McDowell shared some thoughts about the civic engagement initiative he recently launched, America’s Path Forward (APF), the spirit and methods of which inspired the event. This spirit, he said, was beautifully expressed in Daisaku Ikeda’s dialogue with Vincent Harding, America Will Be! The following exchange revealed the vigorous relationship between the telling of our stories and the creation of a thriving democracy:

Vincent Harding: Our creative capacity emerges from telling stories. And I suggest that we are already living in our own stories, as if we were storied into being. In the same way that food and water are essential to our survival, stories are also essential. Gathering together to tell stories is absolutely necessary for every human society…. I maintain that for every country in the world to develop a healthy democracy we must share our stories as well as listen carefully to the stories of others.

Daisaku Ikeda: The foundation of mutual understanding that emerges through dialogue is the lifeblood that animates democracy. To develop a close, understanding community, we need opportunities for intimate, mutually inspiring dialogue that enables each person to share the story of his or her life. … In a democracy, the people play the leading role. Therefore, democracy flowers from the fertile ground of people who live their own lives believing that ‘My heart is the protagonist in a victorious life.’

McDowell’s method with APF is to use the careful soliciting of questions, especially regarding the relationships between individuals, groups, and society, from the full range of people in various communities, to understand and envision the true “public needs” of a demographically complex country. More than that, APF also emphasizes learning the stories and experiences that are behind the questions. The goal of his work, at root, is to help us move beyond our “adversarial model” of truth seeking, in which “we figure out what our interest group is, [and] we try to get people to join our interest group.” In other words, if we begin with questions instead of answers, we can get closer to grasping the complexity of our stories as well as our collective problems and their solutions.

Zoom gallery photo for June 11 event 

After McDowell’s remarks, Ikeda Center Program and Office Assistant Preandra Noel moderated the panel discussion portion of the event. She opened by saying that at this crucial moment in America, she was thrilled that this virtual gathering could further the “beautifully expressed” goal of APF to “heal our present, honor the roots of our past, and choose our future.” Over the course of 30 minutes each panelist shared the question they had developed for APF, the personal story behind the formation of that question, and other thoughts that arose during the back and forth of the discussion. Here are capsule summaries of each panelist’s thoughts.

Anthony Jojola’s question was, “How can we change the systemic racism, inequalities, discrimination, prejudices in people’s minds and hearts? How can we work on unity for everyone [here] and throughout the world?” He shared that the process of arriving at his question was deceptively complex. You can start with one question, he said, but soon you ask yourself, “What about this?” And then you just keep going “deeper and deeper.” This meant that he revisited many ideas he had thought about since childhood, many of which had to do with matters of identity and complexity being explored during this discussion. Anthony is half Black and half Native American and grew up straddling these cultures and identities in New Mexico. As the panel session was concluding Anthony talked about some of the tensions in his own experience that reveal how complicated our challenges are. For example, when young people like himself seek higher education and success in the wider “White” world, that can be seen by some as a challenge to Native traditions. His hope is that true unity of “hearts and minds” can result when people are able to live with such complexities.

Giulia Pellizzato asked, “How can we ensure that each and every youth has access to empowering education, which is centered on students’ potential and their life long happiness based on their needs?” She said that her question emerged from the dawning realization that it is vitally important to consider how we are teaching our children and to be aware of how systemic racism plays out in classrooms. She said she often thinks of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi's statement that "the teacher is all that stands between [the students] and the cruel discrimination of society." She added, though, that for many reasons, “teachers or educators cannot stand in there because they themselves are struggling or because it’s so easy to label someone else.” And so that made her reflect and want to become capable of becoming such an educator. She acknowledged that to do so she must first embark in a “shared process of learning.” For her, these are questions that have been with her since she was a young student in Italy. “I was grappling,” she said, “with a school system that prioritized the acquisition of information over the ability to think critically and tackle the problems with creativity.”

McDowell’s question was: “Why is it, as a Black man in America, I have hope and love for a country that has mistreated Black people so bad for so long?” He expanded on this, saying “for me that question, the experience … really has to do with just the complexity of what it means to be in a place and realize there are good things about it and there are bad things about it. There is a positionality of hope within it.” He continued, saying, “I mean, I’ve had instances with police and other people where hatred had just been aimed at me for no reason other than the color of my skin. At the same time, I’ve had people who clearly acknowledged the color of my skin and the experience of me and people like me who have embraced me as a human being able to do both at the same time.” He added that one reason he might be prone to seeing hope in this is because of the African American faith community he was raised in.

Dr. McDowell also reflected on his commitment to soliciting questions from as many people as possible to honor our complexity. “I think it’s hard for people not because the act is hard,” he said, “but because we seldom get asked, so we’re out of practice. I think it’s more an indictment of our kind of system of public dialogue.” In this system we typically “ask people to respond to someone else’s question, but we’re not curious enough to know what questions the people are showing up with.” Instead, we give them “three or four choices” to choose from and say “that’s what the public thinks!” In McDowell’s model, it is the soliciting of the authentic voices and concerns of regular people that provides a foundation for the kind of America we want to build.

The panel concluded with McDowell inviting all the attendees to submit their own question about the future of America in the meeting’s “chat room.” Participants then divided into small groups using Zoom’s “breakout room” technology. In their groups, they discussed the following prompts: 1) Share your name and where you’re joining us from; 2) Share the question you submitted and your experience around that question; and 3) Now that you’ve all had an opportunity to introduce your questions and experiences, please share what is resonating for you in each other's questions/experiences.

Some of the more than 100 questions submitted online about the future of America, included:

  • How can we get every citizen to take personal responsibility for moving us forward during this turbulent time?
  • How can a humanities education help us as a society to confront our history without succumbing to rage and despair?
  • Within the framework of grassroots leadership, what can we do so people could start talking with each other, i.e., family members, neighbors, colleagues, friends? How do people start talking with each other about issues that affect each one of us directly?
  • How do we incorporate or trigger a humanistic conversation in the corporate space, where everything is focused on profit and revenue?
  • How will the future of democracy in the world be impacted by the future of democracy in America?
  • How do you reach and speak with people who are resistant to talk about race or face their own biases, in a productive rather than confrontational way?
  • How to stay encouraged?
  • What is the role of dignity in us finding a way to finally unite in the US?
  • How do we overcome the fear of the other and help people of all ages develop empathy for one another?

Time only allowed for some brief sharing of impressions from participants about their small group discussion. One young woman remarked that “being someone of color but also having a lot of privilege…. sometimes I feel like what can I do, what should I do, should I even speak?” Her small group discussion, however, confirmed “that I am not alone and I should just keep peeling away one layer at a time to reflect on what is happening,” and then on that basis to take action. “We could have talked probably for hours in my small group,” said a young man. “I was really impressed by how much dialogue and the exchange of ideas are really needed right now.” Given the wide variety of experiences that exist socially, “we really need to have more dialogue across the board.”

The event concluded with reflections from Ikeda Center Executive Advisor Jason Goulah of DePaul University. He began by thanking Ceasar McDowell for leading the event, calling him "a dear friend of the Ikeda Center” and “a beautiful human being.” He urged people to spend more time with McDowell’s work, which features as a core tenet the idea that “if we support people at society’s margins, then we are supporting everyone.”

Goulah’s remarks built on McDowell’s idea that by emphasizing “diversity” as opposed to “complexity” we too often lapse into self-defeating value judgments, saying that Ikeda makes a similar point. Ikeda’s concern, said Goulah, is “the restoration of humanity” and the embracing of the “interrelationship of all things,” with dialogue steadfastly employed in service of these goals. The key stumbling block, says Ikeda, is illustrated in a quote from Shakyamuni Buddha, who said that “there is a single, invisible arrow piercing the hearts of the people." For Ikeda, the arrow

symbolizes a prejudicial mindset an unreasoning emphasis on individual differences. The ‘invisible arrow’ of evil is not to be found in the existence of other races and classes external to ourselves but is embedded in our hearts. The conquest of our own prejudicial thinking, our own attachment to difference, is the necessary precondition for open dialogue. Such discussion, in turn, is essential for the establishment of peace and universal respect for human rights.

And also like McDowell, Goulah looked to the Ikeda-Harding dialogue, America Will Be!, to offer a vision of hope for our future. In reading that book, Goulah took from it the notion that should Americans succeed in negotiating our enormous demographic complexity by overcoming the “attachments to difference that subjugate some human beings,” then it might truly become “a compass for the world.”

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