An Experiment In Dialogue

A Report from the 2019 Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue

By Mitch Bogen

The terms intercultural and intergenerational are usually used to describe distinct forms of dialogue or social interaction. Yet, they really are one and the same, aren’t they? Each generation has their own mores and modes of expression, as well as challenges they face that are unique to them, in other words, a unique culture. Thus, it was more than fitting that the 2019 Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue—called “Can Dialogue Save the World: Exploring the Power of Human Connections”—featured the dialogic experiences of eight young professionals who, over the last several months, engaged in ongoing, transformative dialogue with established scholars from the Center’s circle of friends and collaborators.

The participating young people, all of whom are members of the Ikeda Center Youth Steering Committee, were Ana Pediet, Isaiah Moon, Burcu Gulec, Julie Olesky, Leandro Molina, Keegan Stricker, Nandini Choudhury, and Prachi Jain. Ana and Isaiah were paired for a series of five dialogue sessions with Ceasar McDowell of MIT; Burcu and Keegan with Anita Patterson of Boston University; Leandro and Julie with Catia Confortini of Wellesley College; and Nandini and Prachi with Bernice Lerner of Boston University. Center program staff members Lillian I and Anri Tanabe each joined two of the groups to help guide the process.

In their welcoming remarks, Lillian and Anri explained the rationale for the project, details about how the dialogues proceeded, and the overall goals for this experiment in dialogue. Lillian opened by sharing how numerous studies have shown that young people are feeling overwhelmed with the state of our world and as a result are “experiencing intense feelings of loneliness, isolation, anxiety, depression, apathy and the list goes on.” She continued, saying that in Center founder Daisaku Ikeda’s view, “at the heart of these problems is a failure to fully respect human dignity, and to understand and communicate with others on that basis.” Based on this framing, said Lillian, it is clear that “the way forward” must be dialogue-based—as “idealistic” as that sounds. Indeed, true dialogue is not a matter of people simply “talking to or at each other,” she said, but rather “it is an engagement that requires courage, compassion, and wisdom, with the goal of bringing out the best in oneself and the other, whoever they may be, however they may behave.” For Mr. Ikeda,  who has engaged thousands of people in such encounters, such dialogue awakens us and calls forth our potential. Finally, said Lillian, “it is his conviction that when young people resist their own feelings of resignation and engage with one another”—that is, if dialogic transformations occur within the culture of youth—“they can cause a ripple effect of positive change in their community and the world at large.”

Full panel 2019 Ikeda Forum

Anri followed these framing points by talking about the project’s innovative method and process. The project was initially conceptualized in early 2019 by Ikeda Center program staff, giving them enough time to recruit the eight young professionals and four established scholars who would be making two big commitments. The first was a commitment of time—they would meet in groups of three for five ninety-minute dialogue sessions over the course of four to five months. The second was a commitment to the qualities of openness, curiosity, energy, and flexibility that dialogue asks of us, and which each participant did in fact so graciously bring to the project.

In terms of content, the dialogues were open-ended and organically evolving; topics were not preset. Instead, the dialogues proceeded in accordance with what the project organizers refer to as Mr. Ikeda’s dialogic strategies and ethos, which the youth participants studied and discussed in the weeks before the dialogue sessions commenced. The strategies, which were compiled by the scholar Olivier Urbain*, include actions such as creating intimacy with dialogue partners by asking personal questions about childhood memories or about figures that were influential for them. Another is to focus on principles important to you that might find resonance with your partner’s values. A third is to use even disagreement as a starting point for finding common ground. (See full list of strategies here.) Mr. Ikeda’s ethos rests on various convictions, including: that through dialogue we reach deeper mutual understanding; that the purpose of dialogue is to enhance our common humanity; and that because everyone experiences suffering, we can use that as a basis for communicating. (See more about Mr. Ikeda’s dialogic ethos here.)

All in all, this was the most experimental Ikeda Forum ever, both in terms of how the content for the forum was generated and because it was the first youth-led forum. Throughout the project the young professionals sought to answer the core guiding question: “What kind of inner transformation does one experience through sustained dialogue with others informed by Daisaku Ikeda’s practice and philosophy of dialogue?”

Open Hearts, Open Minds, and the Experience of Sustained Intergenerational Dialogue

The main panel presentation section of the forum was devoted to sharing some of the fruits of this experiment in dialogue. Each group of two dialogue partners reported and reflected on their experiences, with attention to their feelings of anticipation going in and how the character of the group conversations evolved over time. They also identified the main aspect of Ikeda’s dialogic ethos or strategies that focused their discussions. And since the scholar dialogicians were not in attendance, the group members shared a bit about their bios.

Keegan Stricker and Burcu Gulec

Keegan Stricker, who grew up in Newton, Mass. and who now does research in cell biology, opened the presentations, saying how “extremely fortunate” he and Burcu were to dialogue with Anita Patterson. Dr. Patterson is a professor of English at Boston University whose research and writings explore American literature, modernism, and the black poetry of the Americas. Keegan noted that “as the daughter of a Japanese mother and a father with Russian-Jewish roots, she has a strong interest in intercultural dialogue.”

For their guiding ethos, Keegan said that this group chose: “keeping in mind that everyone suffers, we can communicate with anyone.” For him, this insight proved indisputably true. Coming in, he had been more than a little intimidated by meeting on equal terms with someone as accomplished as Professor Patterson. However, said Keegan, as soon as the very first meeting, she began to open up and share about “how painful moments in her life had shaken her to her core” and how she still faced certain severe obstacles. He described how then, “almost like a door gently letting light seep into a dark room she would talk about how she was coping and moving forward,” how she “persisted for herself and her family, especially her daughter.” This was moving and transformative for Keegan, who had come into the process with a felt need to be more open and vulnerable in his life but with a strong reluctance to take that risk. As the process unfolded, he said there was a “sort of catalytic openness” that created more and more honesty and trust among he and Anita and Burcu. Keegan concluded that “we may have come from different backgrounds with different levels of self-awareness, but our mutual sharing and embracing of each others’ troubles allowed us to enter this space where we didn’t have anything to prove.” In other words, a space was created for genuine empathy.

“Really being present in front of someone else, listening to them, only for them, is a hard and beautiful task."Burcu Gulec is a vocalist originally from Ankara, Turkey, who moved to Boston to pursue graduate studies at Berklee and then the New England Conservatory of Music. She observed that since she has moved here, to an entirely new continent, “meaningful dialogue has become something really hard to find,” something she especially noticed “when life got a little tougher.” Her dialogues with Keegan and Anita proved to her that such interaction is the right thing to do. She described her experience like this: “Really being present in front of someone else, listening to them, only for them, is a hard and beautiful task and I feel so fulfilled in the times I’m able to achieve this. That’s why an hour of dialogue session can generate a big intellectual and emotional jump towards strengthening my ‘humanity muscle’!”

One thing she found especially moving was the way Anita opened up almost immediately about what motherhood means to her. Since she lost her own mother a few years ago, said Burcu, it provided her with much insight into motherhood she might not have gained otherwise, and even “to an extent” provided her with some closure. Among her biggest takeaways from the experience was that the intention to engage in dialogue is paramount. She observed that “even having the closest people around me” is no guarantee of meaningful exchange “unless I invite myself and others to dialogue.” Ultimately, she said that in the “human space” created by dialogue, “those doubts which came from isolation transformed into curiosity.” This transformative dynamic, she said, holds great promise when we think about global citizenship and the many problems we are facing today.

Ana Pediet and Isaiah Moon

Isaiah Moon is an IT professional from West Virginia whose education and work brought him to the Boston area seven years ago. He and Ana Pediet – originally from Caracas, Venezuela and now a Boston-area real estate agent – were grouped with Ceasar McDowell, Professor of Civic Design at M.I.T. To open, Isaiah shared an episode from Ceasar’s biography—that is, his story—that made an impression on him. It centered on Dr. McDowell’s experience teaching in a small Alaskan community for several years, which taught him lessons about commitment and place. Each year, when new teachers arrived, an elder from the community would ask them if they not only “wanted to live here” but also if they “were willing to die here.” This is the basis of both comfort and trust, the elder explained. In keeping with that idea, for their guiding ethos, this group sought to “learn to know ourselves and others and thus learn the ways of being human.”

Ana was first to discuss their sustained dialogue experience. She opened by asking who else had discovered the Center because of the Dialogue Nights chalkboard on the sidewalk advertising not just the opportunity to engage in dialogue but also to partake in free food! That, and a desire to practice her English and maybe make some new friends, proved enough to set her on the path to the “priceless” experience with the “three very accomplished individuals who wanted to listen to my story, to know me; who also wanted to share theirs and be listened to.” It was the humility that each brought to the process that made it special, she said.

They chose dialogue and were intentional; they respected silence; and they genuinely listened.Explaining their process, she admitted it was “weird at first,” especially since both she and Isaiah were a bit intimidated by Ceasar’s accomplishments. So they started with just simple questions: How are you? Or, here’s what I was reading this morning. Or, I just returned from Florida and here’s what I learned. As the sessions proceeded, though, the exchanges deepened, revealing the truth of their dialogue ethos. “We shared experiences, emotions, dreams, ideas, fears, grieved and hope. We talked about our childhood, about death, love, relationships. We were four people in a room who do not know themselves and suddenly we start learning and knowing things that we maybe have never told anybody else before.” To get to this place, said Ana, they did a number of things: they chose dialogue and were intentional; they respected silence; and they genuinely listened. To conclude, she shared some of the things she learned from her partners in dialogue. From hearing Isaiah’s stories about building a life far from home she learned courage. From Lillian’s accounts of how she has dealt with loneliness and depression she learned hope. From Ceasar’s journey as an African-American man she learned the power of inclusion, even of the simplest kind—which Ceasar calls micro-inclusions—in daily life.

During his reflections Isaiah focused on a couple different dimensions of their dialogues. The first had to do with matters of helping others: where the urge for helping comes from, its possible limits, how to succeed in helping. As Isaiah reported it, in true dialogical fashion, their dialogues focused more on exploration than settling on answers. Their conversations triggered early memories, he said, for example how he would do anything to help his sister, even moving the refrigerator so she could sweep in back. Now as an IT person, he realizes that it’s “easy to solve math but not easy to solve people.” In fact, solving or fixing is just the wrong way to think of it. Everyone is going through their own experience, he said. From their dialogue sessions Isaiah said the best we can do is “listen to understand. Not listen to fix.” The best path is to simply ask, “How can I help?”

The second had to do with matters of voice, which is the key aspect of all of Professor McDowell’s work. During their discussions, Ceasar shared how his family would split their time between Denver and rural Louisiana, and it always hurt him to see how his father’s voice would become more constrained and the less he would talk during their time in the South. And when Ana shared how, when she began to come of age, she was told not to smile so people wouldn’t “get the wrong idea,” he recalled how his own sister changed as she was taught to conform. Isaiah concluded that dialogue creates a crucial nonjudgmental “platform for voice,” a place where “we can stay true.”

Julie Olesky and Leandro Molina

The third group featured Julie Olesky and Leandro Molina reflecting on their experience engaging in dialogue with Catia Confortini, who is Assistant Professor of Peace and Justice Studies at Wellesley College, with particular interest in the contributions of women’s peace activism. Julie was raised in Newton, Massachusetts. She now works at a Boston area software startup, but since her undergraduate studies included a focus on peace and human rights, she was excited to participate in this project. Now based in Boston, Leandro has worked at restaurants and hotels in many cities around the world.

First to speak, Julie said that their group worked with the ethos that “the purpose of dialogue is to enhance our common humanity. To become fully human.” This ethos spoke to Julie because of her concern about “the variety of ways in which humans dehumanize each other on a daily basis.” She is “passionate” about raising awareness of this reality, she said. In their dialogues they discussed “moral difficulties” along these lines: why do we ignore the suffering of the homeless right in front of us? How can we create collective systemic change? Why do we make cruel assumptions about other individuals?

The sustained dialogue process was worth the effort.Julie observed that dialogue asks a lot of us. In dialogue, we come face to face with the ways we ourselves have denied or ignored the full humanity of others, even those close to us. That “can be scary, shameful, and unnerving, and requires vulnerability, which not all of us are willing to make available.” Indeed, she observed that she probably isn’t alone in preferring “to stay home and watch Netflix.” But the sustained dialogue process was worth the effort. “For me, by the second to last session, I felt like meeting with Leandro and Catia was part of my weekly routine, like having Sunday brunch with my friends. It became a place for me to unload and let my heart and mind breathe.” Dialogue is hard, but worth the effort, she concluded. “We already have enough dehumanization to go around in this world.”

For Leandro Molina, dialogue is something that requires practice, and his main message is for us to begin to practice it, to develop our “dialogue muscle” so that it ‘develops strength and effectiveness over time.” He observed that until this project, he had never really “reflected carefully about what I actually say during my interactions with another person.” That kind of analysis was central here, as transcripts of each dialogue session were provided for participants. Reviewing the transcripts, he admitted being “embarrassed” by the number of “ums” and the like spread through his remarks. Ultimately, though, what the transcripts also revealed was how the conversations developed and deepened over time, how the three of them gradually shared more personal information with one another, and how much “human warmth” was created together in the process.

The dialogue “muscles” Leandro exercised during the dialogue process inspired and enabled him to tackle a tough dialogue he had been avoiding in his personal life. He had discontinued contact with his stepmother over the years, presenting “one of those big family-related hurdles” he had been putting off for too long. Push came to shove when his mother needed a kidney transplant last year and it was his stepmother who was the donor! Because he had been experiencing the power of dialogue in his group, Leandro finally “gathered the courage” to reach out. Maybe it was a “smaller hurdle in the grand scheme of things,” he said, but it was an important “first step” for him nonetheless. How many lives, he wondered, can we influence by focusing on the dialogical aspect of life? He concluded by saying that this experience of sustained intergenerational dialogue has convinced him that dialogue practice among youth will nurture and enable them to serve as “catalysts of change” in our world.

Nandini Choudhury and Prachi Jain

Nandini Choudhury opened the final group presentation, saying that she grew up in Delhi, India, has lived in Boston for over five years, and is a researcher with a Nepal-based healthcare nonprofit. She and Prachi Jain, who is originally from New York but who now runs a Boston-based travel start up, engaged in sustained dialogue with Bernice Lerner, who is Senior Scholar at the Boston University Center for Character and Social Responsibility. Lerner’s forthcoming book is a dual biography telling the stories of her mother, who was imprisoned at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and a British doctor who helped liberate the camp. The main dialogue strategy for their conversations was that “we create intimacy with dialogue partners by asking personal questions.”

She said that from the start, Bernice’s interest in biography was apparent, as she asked “down-to-earth but meaningful” questions such as “where we grew up, the paths we had chosen so far, what our families were like, who are the important people in our lives.” This was far from “small talk,” she said. Instead, it felt like “being able to look through a new window into each person’s life and learning something new about them.” As the conversations proceeded, things “flowed organically,” with everyone finding fresh ways to talk about each other’s “lives, beliefs, and hopes.” One highlight was everyone becoming comfortable enough for Bernice to share about her mother’s experience as a Holocaust survivor and what that meant to their relationship.

“Our dialogue would not have been the same without every single question.”To close, Nandini identified two vital aspects of the dialogue experience that made an impression on her. The first is that dialogue is an “equalizing” activity. As those in other groups mentioned, each intergenerational group featured what might be called achievement disparities, with the scholars being further along in their lives and careers. But that doesn’t matter when it comes to true dialogue. Nandini shared how she was especially moved when Bernice asked, with “humility and openness,” for their advice on a difficult personal situation she was facing. (She also was impressed by Prachi’s wise response!) Her other takeaway was that “our dialogue would not have been the same without every single question,” large or small. With that, she urged everyone to use dialogue to get to know others better. The “genuine connection we might be able to build is such a gift.”

Prachi opened her remarks with a metaphor from Mr. Ikeda’s dialogue with Stuart Rees, Peace, Justice, and the Poetic Mind. In it, he says, “Only a diamond can polish another diamond.” She then thanked her dialogue partners for “helping me realize that I have the potential to become a better human being with every conversation that I have.” She, too, was moved by Bernice’s stories of her mother’s experiences as Holocaust survivor who went from being without money and family after the war to raising a family in the United States “with a wonderful man.” During their dialogues it occurred to Prachi that she was conversing with “someone who perhaps would not have existed” if the Nazis had been able to hold out “even a few more days,” adding: “I believe our dialogue would have greatly angered the Nazis.” Today, she said, it is the freely shared ideas, hopes, and aspirations of regular people that “most frighten oppressors” in our “current political systems.”

She concluded her remarks with a recitation of the kinds of questions she now asks herself after her dialogue experience: How many times in a conversation can I listen intently without already having a response or wanting to interrupt someone to voice my opinion? How can I be more thoughtful when I don’t agree with what the other person is saying? If the dialogue process taught her anything, she said, “it has allowed me to understand that every human being also has a complex inner world and that people are so much more than just their personalities.” The dialogue experience has also awakened in her a desire to communicate with her parents more deeply. “Similar to Bernice, I wonder what stories of oppression, struggle, tragedy, hope and humanity I will be able to uncover. And how I’ll spread their message to the world.”

A dialogue participant

Small Group Dialogues Extend the Project’s Spirit

After thanking the panelists for their “inspiring” presentations, Anri Tanabe invited the 117 attendees to break into small groups of three, preferably including “at least one person you don’t know,” to engage in their own dialogues. If that sounds a bit intimidating, said Anri, the main thing you need for this activity “is a willingness to get to know others” and the ability to give the others your “full attention.” You can think of this as our own “dialogue experiment” she added. Then she supplied some guidelines. There would be no set agenda, but for the first few minutes each person should share something about themselves. Based on what you hear, you can think of follow up questions as well as topics the others’ remarks inspired in you. What do you resonate with? What would help you get to know the others better? What would enable you to delve deeper?

The small group dialogues lasted around thirty minutes. These were followed by volunteers from the groups sharing impressions and briefly dialoguing with the panelists about topics that arose in their groups. The main thread consisted of reflections on the art and challenge of dialogue. For example, one man said that because of his experience this evening he now realizes that his dialogues with others sometimes end prematurely because he is silently judging them and giving them cues to discontinue. Another young woman remarked that it was inspiring to hear about the progression the groups went through during the sustained dialogue project. Julie Olesky responded by saying that, as was mentioned during the panel presentations, that progression was something they really had to work to create. Another man made a simple observation that summed things up nicely. Dialogue, he said, is the end of indifference.

Participants were also able to offer impressions by writing thoughts about their dialogue groups and the power of dialogue on paper “speech bubbles” that were then posted to a large bulletin board. The insights were plentiful and strong. (See full list here.) Here are just a few:

  • Dialogue allows for ordinary people to express their extraordinary selves and stories.
  • One more question makes a difference!! Be curious about people around you.
  • Tonight I learned that dialogue enables us to see yourself in another person.
  • I learned how to better use my dialogue to work with my caregivers who all come from different walks of life.
  • Dialogue is fractal.
  • How often are we actually listening, and not preparing what we want to say next?
  • That dialogue in true form is transcending of class, race, religion, and other such challenges.
  • I want to hesitate less in sharing my feelings with some of the people closest to me.
  • That everyone has suffering in common, even if its shape differs person to person. I also began to learn, in my group, that from our suffering, many of us find meaningful goals and paths to follow.
  • Through dialogue, we can recognize our own assumptions of what we believe is right. Rethinking these assumptions opens the way to be more compassionate about others. In this way, dialogue can lead to saving the world.

Conclusion: A Dialogic Pledge

To launch the conclusion to the evening, Prachi Jain shared a pledge she and her dialogue peers composed to express their gratitude for the opportunity this project presented and their commitment to continuing the peacebuilding practice of dialogue with one another and in the wider world.

We may have participated in these sessions in pairs. However, over the last few months, we have also shared this evolution and self-discovery together. We feel immensely privileged and grateful to be up here sharing our experiences with you. The last few months have been transformational, and yet we also know that a challenging path lies ahead. On behalf of The Ikeda Center Youth Committee, today we collectively pledge to allow ourselves to become more human through dialogue.

We pledge to not doubt ourselves in this ongoing journey of self-discovery.

We pledge to engage and come from a place of empathy with our loved ones, instead of shutting them out when we feel uncomfortable or upset in situations.

We pledge to stay humble. We know that dialogue is a powerful tool so we will initiate it while using our emotional intelligence to connect with beings from all walks of life.

We’re going to practice patience, compassion and listening to remove judgments we may have of others.

We pledge to take action whenever we can, especially for those that are oppressed. And most importantly, we pledge to keep this project going. We will continue to meet with each other over tea, food and conversation to discuss ways that we can create a bigger ripple effect within ourselves, our communities and the world. We don’t know what that looks like right now...but we hope you’ll get involved.

Next, everyone watched a video featuring the participating scholars reflecting on their experience with the sustained dialogue process. Each  expressed appreciation for the opportunity to engage in intergenerational, nonhierarchical dialogue, maybe even gaining more from the young people than they did from them, especially in terms of hope for the future.

Finally, Center executive director Ginny Benson offered closing remarks, thanking everyone for showing us “compelling evidence of the power of dialogue in the form of the positive, respectful social space enveloping us now. Look at the atmosphere of joy that’s been created!” The work of the Ikeda Center is aimed at creating cultures of peace, she said, and tonight’s event presents an ideal model of such a culture. Her hope, she concluded, is that in the future, when cultures of peace have at last become the norm, we might then “be counted among the humans that made it so!”

*  See Olivier Urbain, Daisaku Ikeda's philosophy of peace: Dialogue, transformation and global citizenship (I.B. Tauris, 2010, p. 128)

 

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