2020 Ikeda Forum: Overcoming Challenges Through Value Creation

2020 Ikeda Forum panelists

The first ever “virtual” Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue demonstrated the very concept it explored: value creation. There is no replacing the particular energy and sense of connection that define good in-person events. But there is true meaning to be found and fresh experiences to be had in the creative responses to the pandemic that has altered daily life around the globe in ways both painful and tragic, unimaginable just one year ago. This 16th annual Ikeda Forum, which was called “Value Creation: Our Unlimited Power to Face Overwhelming Challenges” and held on December 10, demonstrated this truth vividly.

There is a special kind of excitement that comes from knowing you are coming together online with more than 300 other global citizens, representing 27 countries around the world, who share Daisaku Ikeda’s conviction, voiced in his 1996 talk at Teachers College, that “our daily lives are filled with opportunities to develop ourselves and those around us. Each of our interactions with others—dialogue, exchange and participation—is an invaluable chance to create value.” Indeed, the demands of social distancing have proved to be a value-creating opportunity for the Ikeda Center. The series of online events held over the course of 2020 have actually increased awareness among the public of the Center and its mission and have also enabled Center staff to engage directly with the ideas of people worldwide they might never have heard from.

The large size and reach of the event, while welcome, did mean that attendees wouldn’t be able to see their counterparts on screen; nevertheless, the joy and deep feeling manifested by the panelists was more than enough to spark a sense of occasion. The panelists were two scholars, Anita Patterson of Boston University and Jason Goulah of DePaul University, and three young people from the Ikeda Center network: Anna Lane, William Moody, and Vivian Suhanosky.

Welcoming Remarks: Hope is the Starting Point

As is the custom with all Ikeda Center events, program manager Lillian I kicked off the proceedings. In addition to welcoming the worldwide attendees and the panelists she shared some background on the Center’s work and mission. She emphasized founder Daisaku Ikeda’s “hope that people from all walks of life, all different faiths, ethnicities, backgrounds, experiences, can come together to engage in open-hearted, open-minded dialogue, which he believes is the surest path to peace.” She also invited everyone to use the power of their imaginations to envision everyone together, “in a room or in front of the fireplace or wherever you imagine us to be, really sharing, listening, reflecting, and learning together.”

Kevin Maher, Ikeda Center program director, followed Lillian with some background on the Ikeda Forum series, which was founded in 2004 with the “aim of exploring connections between hope-filled philosophies deriving from literary, cultural, and peace traditions.” He also offered some thoughts on how the theme for this year’s forum came together. Essentially, when the program team began brainstorming topics earlier this year—“a year filled with one pressing challenge after another”—the team quickly came to agree that “the most fitting focus would be to examine how to find and make meaning in the face of such challenges. How do we create value in a year such as this?” He also thanked all the panelists for all the “time, input, and reflection” they put into the forum planning process, a process that itself was an instance of value creation: “deeply stimulating, joyful, and hope-filled.” Maher concluded his remarks with a quote from Ikeda’s message to the first-ever Ikeda Forum (2004) that speaks to the fraught nature of the year that is concluding and served to introduce the spirit of the discussion to follow:

For what is common to the ills that afflict us is the rejection of dialogue, and I firmly believe that the more severe the challenges we face the more crucial it is that we persist in dialogue because dialogue has the power to break down the walls of mistrust, hatred, and division in the hearts of people everywhere.”

After an online icebreaker, Lillian opened the panel discussion section by observing how, during planning sessions for the event, she “was so blown away to see this idea of value creation completely come to life as each panelist engaged with the concept and applied it in their own lives and then came into these sessions sharing just incredible experiences.” She then invited the panelist to briefly introduce themselves and to identify one “overwhelming challenge” they’ve had to deal with during 2020 that might benefit from the use of a value creating approach.

Anita Patterson, professor of English literature at Boston University, said her challenge has been to “maintain a hopeful perspective for my daughter as well as me.” She explained that as someone from a “mixed racial background” who is also in an interracial marriage, she worries about what her daughter’s experience in our society will be. “I want her to be,” she said, “in a place where there is a lot of affirming of dialogue and resolution of differences in that manner rather than through violence.”

Anna Lane, who works as a tutor and nanny, said that her “overwhelming challenge has been to fight the urge to throw in the towel and just give up and just sleep or … relax.” She added that while relaxing is important, the truth is that she is truly struggling with avoiding reality. Each day, she fights this urge to give up, she said.

William Moody is a kindergarten teacher in New Orleans. He identified his core challenge as “maintaining belief in my own ability to continue to be hopeful and to really be able to inspire others in my environment.” A related challenge for him is to overcome his tendency to “not really listen deeply to others.” Just the experience of preparing for the Forum has helped him with both of these, he said.

In what she called the “spirit of value creation,” Vivian Suhanosky opened by saying she is practicing “land acknowledgment,” in this case the Massachusett/Pawtucket land where she resides in. A nineteen-year-old college freshman, she has struggled with having so much free time to just “sit with myself,” which has forced her to face a certain “self-destructiveness which often manifests itself in stress.”

Finally, Jason Goulah, joining from Chicago, said he has had to resist getting too comfortable being at home all the time. He is also focused on “not allowing all of these external forces that seem beyond my control to somehow snuff out my belief in my own agency to change things.” Dr. Goulah then set up the main discussion by citing the idea expressed in Ikeda’s Teachers College address that value creation is simply “the capacity to find meaning, to enhance one’s own existence and contribute to the well-being of others, under any circumstance.” He also explained that Ikeda’s 2014 peace proposal identifies three concrete aspects of value creation: 1) value creation that takes hope as its starting point, 2) value creation of people working together to resolve issues, and 3) value creation that calls forth the best in each of us. Ultimately, he said, Ikeda insists that value creation is open to us all, at any time, and is manifested by our own determination and through the practice of dialogue.

Panel Discussion: An Active Moment-to-Moment Process

For the first question to guide discussion, Lillian I asked the panelists about their experience with value creation and how their understanding of it has evolved. Patterson said she has come to realize two things about dialogical value creation. First, is that transformative, “soul baring” dialogue is hard, but that there is much value in the relationships that emerge. For her, the dialogues leading up to the Forum were especially valuable in helping her deal with her mother’s illness. Second, she said that engaging in dialogue has reminded her of Martin Luther King’s notion that at the core of peacebuilding practices is an awareness that we are joined in “a single garment of destiny.” The world actually is “woven,” she suggested, through dialogical practices that create “profound bonds and connections.”

Viv spoke about how she came to appreciate the “ever-evolving” nature of value creation. One way that her understanding changed over the course of pre-Forum discussions was that she came to see that value creation is “a free choice,” something we choose to take on. This act of choice, she said, “directly values our existence.” Further, “challenges feel different when you decide to take them on rather than when you are forced to take them on.” This choosing makes everything seem easier, she added.

Anna followed up, saying she was inspired by this idea that value creation is “not finite,” but rather is an “active moment-to-moment process.” She felt empowered by the idea that she doesn’t need to figure everything out either all by herself or once and for all. This lesson can apply on a macro level, for example when we look at American history with all its flaws, or on a micro level, as when she looks at her own life. Now she can see how “I can really create value even out of situations where I wished I acted in a different way.”

Will opened the next phase of the discussion by talking about a specific challenging experience that he engaged with recently using the value-creating framework. At Thanksgiving, he ended up having an argument with his dad. Things weren’t going as he hoped, and he “overreacted” and left in anger. Normally, said Will, he would take an experience like this and “act like nothing happened.” However, the next morning he engaged in dialogue with his sister about it, and came to the realization that “I have a tendency to cling to expectations,” and when things deviate “it disrupts me.” In this small way he came to see that value creation requires engaging with situations rather than avoiding them.

Dr. Patterson shared that engaging in these dialogues prior to the Forum inspired her to take chances with how she teaches about the internment of U.S. Japanese during World War Two. As always, she and her class were reading Mine Okubo’s writings on the camps. However, now she decided to take a step further and bring in the experience of her mother, who was interned then. She went to open up a crate that contained her mother’s items from that time. One document brought up a mix of shame and pain for Patterson. It was about teaching internees to use knives and forks. Yet, when she shared it with her class, they had incredibly rich discussions about what Americanization means for different people. And the value creation continued as she reached out to engage in dialogue with her mother about her internment experience. In the process, she learned that her mother had actually met Okubo!

Jason Goulah added that the main thing for him has been to see that value creation is a fundamental orientation of life: “rather than life happening to you,” it is possible “to be an agent of my life no matter what circumstance I’m faced with.” The key, as Will and Anita pointed out, is to be willing to get “out of our comfort zone.” This can lead us to feel a new fullness in life that “drives us to create value in other circumstances.”

The next segment of the panel discussion asked panelists to look ahead and briefly talk about how a value-creating orientation might be relevant in 2021. Anna opened with a unique twist on the subject, observing that we do well if we learn to “think about [hope] in a hopeful way.” What she meant is that it never helps to “put too much pressure on ourselves,” even when your objectives are positive. “So it’s so great to be talking right now,” she said, since it’s “helping me get out of my own head.”

Jason also drew a nearly-paradoxical distinction when he observed that, while value creation always takes hope as a starting point, we can nevertheless encourage hope in others even when “we are struggling with our own.” Value creation, he added, “doesn’t have to be on a massive scale.” Often it happens “in the moment,” talking with someone who is struggling, helping them to find the courage “to take one more step” and to “move forward in some way.” This is something we can all “actualize” in 2021.

Wrapping up this part of the discussion, Viv extrapolated on Ikeda’s notion that “value creation is the capacity to find meaning.” She said that for her this “directly translates into the capacity to ask questions.” This is how she gets beneath the “surface level,” where true meaning is found. The key, though, is not to stop here, she said. This is where it is vital to “activate your imagination” to envision solutions and paths forward.

The panel discussion then concluded with each panelist sharing the “value creation motto” that they created during the event planning process:

  • Anita: “Now is the starting point for everything… I am uniquely situated and must be willing to give history an unprecedented turn… striving to create that value which is mine alone to realize in order to benefit all humanity. Now is the starting point for everything.”
  • Will: “With courage and hope, every negative can become a positive!”
  • Jason: “Every moment of life is pregnant with possibility of real value. The task is how much value are we going to create out of it. Are we going to create little value or something of great value. That ultimately is where agency lies. The beauty of value creation is no matter how old how young what context, value creation is possible. The scale of your life expands at equal measure in terms of how much value you create.”
  • Anna: “Take one step forward. Never give up.”
  • Viv: “Listen to your inner child. Imagine and ask questions. Nothing is ever set in stone. Recognize your own value because only then can you be able to create it.”

Whole Group Q & A: We’re Not Alone

The whole group discussion portion of the evening featured panelists responding to questions submitted throughout the virtual event by the global participants. The first participant asked about value creation as “an active mindful process that we engage in each moment, every day.” Specifically, this person asked how we can help students and young adults “feel assured” that they are truly practicing value creation each day, given how hopeless many of them feel in the face of “our current economic, social, and political circumstances.”

Anita Patterson replied first, saying that this is something “I think about a lot as a college teacher.” For her, it’s really who you are more than what you say that inspires others. So if you are “not creating value” personally, or if “you’re not feeling hopeful and positive, you’re not going to communicate that to your students no matter what you say.” She added that if older generations truly wish to inspire young people, they themselves must remain hopeful and forward looking.

For Jason Goulah, the question of value creation is a part of everything he does at DePaul, including having a whole program there devoted to the topic. Further, “I always ask students, well, how do you create value from that. And pre-service teachers, are you asking yourself, how do I create value from this? And are you asking your students: based on what we learned in class today, now what value can you create from that?” He added that he consistently hears from the students of his that are teachers that the value creation orientation has both “revolutionized” their approach to teaching but also to make a “beneficial impact both on their own lives and on society.

The next questioner asked: How does the concept of value creation help us to “enrich the myriad technocratic solutions to environmental and justice issues?” Responding first, Will said he is reminded of how Mr. Ikeda links wisdom and compassion and how this understanding enables us to “live a contributive life,” one capable of meeting challenges of the sort mentioned by the participant. He shared two ideas in this regard that Ikeda champions: first the Buddhist maxim that “When we light a lantern for others, we light our own way forward,” and second, Ikeda’s insistence that “Wisdom wells forth in inexhaustible profusion when we are moved by a compassionate determination to serve humankind, and to serve people.”

Jason built on these points, drawing everyone’s attention to Ikeda’s 2014 peace proposal, which, he said, contextualizes value creation “within a sustainability approach, for civil society and the world.” Even when addressing technical policy issues such as those relating to the UN Sustainability Development Goals, observed Jason, Ikeda always emphasizes value creation that takes “hope as a starting point,” commits to “people resolving issues together,” and focuses on bringing out the “best in everyone.”

Viv joined in, offering an ecological perspective. She shared how she has learned that trees actually communicate with one another in a symbiotic relationship facilitated by fungal mycelium spreading through the soil. “I just thought the relationship was so beautiful,” she said, adding that “I don’t think we see symbiotic relationships enough in our human population.” Her suggestion is that we need a “symbiotic relationship with value creation. Because creating value in our lives will create a network,” one that will expand to a size large enough to tackle our biggest problems. The heart of the matter, she said, is that we must learn to “root ourselves in nature.”

The final question was a simple but profound one: “How do we create hope given how hopeless our reality is?” Anna responded first, saying that “honestly I gain a lot of hope from reading Mr. Ikeda’s writings.” His writing, even “a short sentence,” can help her get out of her “own head,” where, if she’s not careful, she can “spiral into so many places.” She also gets beyond insular or negative thinking by “reaching out to a friend.” As an example, she shared how, when she was struggling with her graduate thesis, it was an “ordinary” but meaningful conversation with a friend that helped her “turn a corner.” The secret? “She just listened to me,” and in that simple act she provided immeasurable hope and confidence.

Anita built on this, saying that “I profoundly feel that looking to one’s community and feeling those connections” is key. “it’s easy to feel totally alone,” but “we’re not alone,” she added. Referring to Anna’s thoughts on reading and conversing with others, she said: “Reading Daisaku Ikeda’s writings—that’s a dialogue!” And she cited Emerson, who celebrated the power and promise that comes “whenever I converse with a profound mind.” We must always believe in and seek “profound connection.” We have hope when we don’t feel alone.

To wrap up the Q & A, Jason offered this insight on the meaning of hope recently put forth by two of his graduate students at DePaul:

They just wrote a chapter about hope based on Daisaku Ikeda’s ideas. And they break down the Japanese word, the two characters for hope. The first means “rare” and the other one means “look out far over the future.” They write that in order to have hope, we have to be able to imagine a possibility that may be rare. And that requires of us not just understanding what is, but what can be. And by having that sort of possibility we can move ourselves forward.

Conclusion: Expressions of Gratitude

As prelude to the event’s conclusion, Center Program and Office Assistant Preandra Noel asked attendees to offer their own value creation mottos using the Zoom chat function. Here are a few of the more than 100 inspiring statements that were submitted.

  • Value Creation to me is a commitment to turn obstacles into opportunities.
  • Value Creation to me means to be the change I want to see in the world.
  • Value Creation is finding hope in every moment.
  • Value Creation means to use all the realities to create harmony and peace, as to build good, beauty and gain.
  • Value Creation is not only to be reactive, but to move always the needle forward with courage and hope!

Ikeda Center Executive Director Virginia Benson then brought the evening to a joyful conclusion with some thoughts on what the discussion showed about “the unlimited power of value creation” in this time of “overwhelming challenges.” First, she thanked “every last person who took time from their busy, over-Zoomed lives to join us tonight!” She also expressed her gratitude to the panelists for their commitment to creating a successful Ikeda Forum, all of whom spent many evenings together prior to the event studying Ikeda’s writings and exploring the many meanings of value creation.

She recalled how Anita Patterson called the meetings “inspired communal gatherings,” adding that they “truly were” because between meetings each panelist was dedicated to finding opportunities for value creation in “their own day-to-day lives.” The “honesty and enthusiasm” that all the panelists exhibited during planning sessions leading up to the Forum, said Benson, were evident in the way the event unfolded tonight.

Benson also praised the impact on the event of the Center’s youth steering committee, “who have been sharing with our young staff the issues they are facing in today’s world.” Thus “tonight’s forum was not just youth led, but youth initiated, too.” The core message of these young people, she said, was their insistence that so many people actually “see hope even in the midst of all the turmoil and suffering going on in our communities,” yet “find very few opportunities to talk about it.” “Tonight,” she said, “we have learned together, thanks to these young people, how value creation relates directly to those concerns.”

To conclude, Benson shared the exciting news that, as of January 1, the Ikeda Center will have a new executive director, Kevin Maher, whom she described as having “worked tirelessly at the Center with great skill, sincerity, and organizational brilliance for the last 18 years.” Having served as the founding director of the Center and as executive director for 19 of its 27 years, Benson told the global attendees that she “rejoices in the knowledge that the Center will have youthful energy and fresh ideas in the forefront—and with all of you, I hope, right along with us, helping to build cultures of peace through learning and dialogue.”