“We are storied into being,” said co-presenter Shirley Tang toward the end of the 2022 Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue. She was quoting the late historian Vincent Harding from his dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda, America Will Be! It was an apt choice for a concluding thought, since it encapsulated in very few words so many of the evening’s insights.
Through the telling of our stories, suggests Harding, it is not just that others get to know us, but that we get to know ourselves. And when others tell us their stories, not only do we get to know them, but suddenly fresh light is cast on our own experience and we begin to see ourselves in new ways, ways that, hopefully, create connections among us where none existed before.
These were just some of the ideas explored during “Our Stories Matter: Dialogue As a Way of Knowing, Being, and Becoming,” the first in-person Ikeda Forum since 2019 and the 18th overall since the first forum in 2004. Dr. Tang, who is Professor of Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, was joined as co-presenter by Dr. Karen Ross, who, like Dr. Tang, is also at UMass Boston, where she is an Associate Professor and Conflict Resolution Graduate Program Director. The forum was attended by 85 high-spirited, highly engaged people, and also was live-streamed, with 87 more people joining from around the world.
Storytelling, Dialogue, and Human Becoming
The evening launched with welcoming words from the Center’s Outreach Manager, Anri Tanabe, saying that “we are incredibly grateful and happy” to have this opportunity to bring people back together again at the Center. Along with offering greetings to friends both old and new, she offered a “good evening, good afternoon, and good morning” to those joining via livestream from all around the world. She then turned the stage over to Center Executive Director Kevin Maher for introductory thoughts. After thanking all the panelists and guests he first shared some history on the Ikeda Forum: “Our goal from the start of the series” said Maher, “was to explore connections between life affirming philosophies deriving from literary, cultural, and educational traditions as guideposts for how we might foster cultures of peace in our own diverse contexts.”
Then, after some background on Mr. Ikeda and the work of the Center, Maher described the Center’s history with each of the co-presenters. Dr. Tang first engaged with the Center when she participated in a two-year sustained dialogue project that launched in 2004. “Through that experience,” he said, “we developed a friendship and deep admiration for Shirley’s work with storytelling.” More recently, Center friend and advisor Dr. Winston Langley “shared glowing praise for Karen’s work and how he saw a strong resonance in her ideas and those of the Center.” He continued, saying during the dialogical planning process leading up to the Forum, “we found a striking synergy in the way that Daisaku Ikeda emphasizes the impact that sharing our stories can make on our individual and collective lives,” especially in the ways our “stories highlight common areas of concern, develop trust, and mutual understanding.” All in all, said Maher, our sessions were “energizing, uplifting, and joyful,” qualities that he hoped would be present tonight.
Following a paired icebreaker activity during which participants shared with one another the origin story of their name, or, alternately, what it means to them, Center Executive Advisor Dr. Jason Goulah, who is Professor of Bilingual-Bicultural Education and Director of the Institute for Daisaku Ikeda Studies in Education at DePaul University, took the podium to discuss Daisaku Ikeda’s perspective on the importance of dialogue and storytelling. In truth, said Goulah, for Ikeda, dialogue is “the essential starting point for truly human becoming and the master key for the deep inner transformation he calls human revolution.” Ikeda’s view is that we are born only “in a biological sense” and must “be trained in the ways of being human.” We do this, insists Ikeda, “by immersion in the ocean of language and dialogue.” He also shared Mr. Ikeda’s conviction from his foreword to the Center’s 2018 publication, Peacebuilding Through Dialogue, that:
In order to achieve mutually enriching, deeply connecting dialogue, we need to overcome the divisions within our own hearts that make us unconsciously categorize people and rank their value on that basis. We need to be aware of the danger of categorizing people into such simplistic binaries as good and bad, us and them, and friend and foe.
This, of course, is where the sharing of our stories comes in, as they awaken one another to the full complexity and uniqueness of each and every life. Ikeda’s thoughts on the power of stories, said Goulah, are especially evident in two long “touchstone” quotes from Mr. Ikeda, quotes that helped to focus the direction of the evening’s discussion. [Read full touchstone statements here.] One was from the aforementioned America Will Be! The other was from Mr. Ikeda’s 2016 peace proposal, “Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace.” In this touchstone, Mr. Ikeda observes that for a number of reasons relating to “globalization” and “modern means of technology,”
people end up avoiding interaction with those who are different, including those living in the same community, viewing them through a filter of discriminatory preconception. Society as a whole has seen a lessening of our capacity to appreciate others—as they are and for who they are. I believe that the surest way to change this is by carefully attending to the stories of each other’s lives through one-on-one dialogue.
Panel Discussion: The Power of Our Stories
Following Goulah’s remarks, Drs. Tang and Ross took the stage for an extended dialogue moderated by Center Program Manager Lillian I. Introducing the session, Lillian noted what a pleasure it had been getting together to converse and plan for the event. She also shared a bit more about the co-presenters’ experience. “Dialogue infuses” all of Karen’s research, teaching, and community engagement, said Lillian, which considers how peacebuilding and social justice can be achieved in “more inclusive and democratic ways.” Then Lillian observed that as director of the Digital Storytelling and Asian American Studies Lab, “Shirley is a national leader in developing a model of curricular innovation for digital storytelling pedagogies.” After these introductions, Lillian posed a series of questions to Drs. Tang and Ross, which are summarized here.
How did you become interested in storytelling and dialogue, and how has it influenced you, personally and professionally?
Dr. Ross traced her path to dialogue and peacebuilding to her “lucky” circumstance of having been born into a “multicultural, multinational household.” With a mother from Israel and father from the United States, she spent time growing up in both countries, “going back and forth between them and experiencing cultural differences, cultural divides, and thinking a lot about some of the differences that I experienced.” From an early age she became aware of the serious conflicts present in Israel, as well as how her experiences there contrasted with her experiences in the US. From this she was drawn to peacebuilding, though not initially to dialogue per se. But as she pursued her work, not just in the conflict resolution spaces but also in the classroom, she was just really drawn to the “power of dialogue to create connections, bring people together, to create learning opportunities,” truly embodying a way of “being and becoming.”
Dr. Tang traced her passion for storytelling back to her days as a child in Hong Kong, when she explored the world “beyond the everyday life” while sitting in front of that “small magic box,” the television. But it was not just the stories that inspired her, but that she would watch shows alongside her grandmother. “We loved commenting on everything—the storylines, the characters, the set, the music, the costume designs,” she said, “and we became very good, at just interpreting anything that came our way and, I think there was a lot of co-constructing and co-creating of meanings and knowledges.” Looking back she can see how fortunate that she was to be with “someone who was older and wiser, someone who was guiding me.” All these years later she helps students bring a critical eye to storytelling, often looking for what is buried or hidden because of such factors, or layers, as race or language. The sharing of stories, she has found, is an essential mode of dialogue.
What does it mean to share a story? How do I know if a story is worth sharing? What part of my story do I share? How do the activities of dialogue and storytelling aid knowing, being, and becoming?
“One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the work with the digital storytelling that I do,” said Dr. Tang, “is enabling our students and young people to believe that their stories do matter.” Closely related to helping students to believe in their stories is to develop enough trust so they will even share it, she added. And, as she just alluded, for the stories to genuinely aid knowing, being, and becoming, all those “multiple, intersecting layers” need to be brought to light. This is where dialogue comes in. In processes moving from internal dialogue, in which students engage “with their authentic selves,” outward through various configurations of groups, students learn “to draw out the message and also to identify those many complicated contexts.” These dialogue can be especially powerful when they include “family members, friends, loved ones” that they “may not have seen or interacted with for a very long time.”
In response, Dr. Ross said that Shirley’s remarks inspired her to deviate from what she had planned to say and would instead tell a story of her own “about a young woman I had the chance to speak with in Israel.” The young woman’s story began with her coming to Israel during the large wave of Russian immigration to Israel in the 1990s when “the Soviet Union opened up.” Dr. Ross met the young woman when she participated in a youth dialogue group of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli citizens. During the dialogues, the young woman learned about the many injustices that Palestinians experience in their daily lives. This was eye-opening not only because of what she learned about Palestinian experiences. It was also eye opening because it made her realize how little she knew of her own experience as a Russian immigrant, and how it was never spoken of in schools. The story of the other helped her begin to fully see herself, said Dr. Ross. “And for this young woman who I spoke with,” concluded Dr. Ross, “it completely changed the way that she looked at the world around her. It changed the way that she engaged with others, and it was through dialogue.”
What do the transformations that result from dialogue and storytelling look like? What have you witnessed?
Dr. Ross said that the story she just told is certainly one example. But most often the transformation involves learning to hear something that was hard for the individual to hear before. She recalled how, after the 2016 election, she co-facilitated a dialogue among people from both sides of the political divide. Afterward, a person approached her and said, “You know, I think that was the first time in a very long time that I had a conversation with someone I disagreed with and feel better having had that conversation.” That speaks to a true transformation in how we engage, said Ross. The other transformation she often sees has to do with how a dialogue or story might impact the actions someone takes in the world. Many people criticize dialogue as “just talking,” she said. But in her own research on the impact of youth dialogue in Israel, she has documented many instances of pro-social actions. One special example, she said, was found in the actions of one young man who emerged from the dialogues to lead a whole range of initiatives to help young women and mothers in his community.
Dr. Tang agreed that dialogue can lead to impactful community actions. One good example she said, is the experience of a pair of students who took her class in 2013 and worked on digital stories that tackled domestic violence and other family traumas. After the course ended “both of them wanted to do more. They learned how to name the issue, explore those community structural, family contexts.” With that foundation, they then went out into the community, using their videos to raise awareness and promote dialogue in a wide range of settings. Then, to illustrate the kind of videos that gets created in her program, Dr. Tang showed a six minute video made by the son of a woman who was a refugee from Vietnam. It was powerfully affecting, as the mother shared stories of the intense suffering and violence she endured as she slowly made her way to the United States. It was also illuminating, showing how unexpectedly deep and complex the lives of those around us can be. This illumination also pertained to the son, said Dr. Tang. The video project enabled him to learn things about his mother he had never known. Crucially, she added, the video was the result of a sustained, semester-long process during which the son was able to reflect deeply on what he wanted to achieve.
To wrap up the panel session, Lillian then asked Drs. Tang and Ross to briefly reflect on this passage from the touchstone quote drawn from his 2016 peace proposal: “Society as a whole has seen a lessening of our capacity to appreciate others—as they are and for who they are. I believe that the surest way to change this is by carefully attending to the stories of each other’s lives through one-on-one dialogue” Dr. Ross said she was reminded of the children’s author Grace Lin, who “writes about mirrors and windows and how we can use stories to see mirrors of ourself, but also as windows into other opportunities, other experiences.” So when we “carefully attend” through dialogue to the stories of others “that really creates those windows.” Keying off the phrase “as they are and who they are,” Dr. Tang said that dialogue and storytelling can help us get in touch with “our authentic selves.” This is especially true, she added, when the dialogue and storytelling are “textured, layered, purposeful, deep, and sustained”—which are the guiding principles of her program.
Dialogues, Small and Large
After this inspiring panel discussion, participants were eager to break out into small groups for person-to-person dialogue. Using as a reference point the same quote that Drs. Tang and Ross responded to at the end of their discussion, participants were asked to respond to three questions:
- Can you share an experience where you felt like others have carefully attended to your story or where you’ve carefully attended to another’s story? How did it make you feel?
- What do you think made that experience possible?
- In what ways can sharing our personal stories impact our world right now?
After the small group discussions the whole group reconvened for final thoughts and questions from attendees. The time was short, so just a few ideas and topics were discussed – ranging from one man’s testimony to the value of discovering “common ground” when engaged in difficult conversations to one woman’s reflections on how the video caused her to reflect on how “far I’ve come” from being born in a post-Communist, Romanian orphanage.
Finally, a simple question from the audience presented a perfect way to wrap up the evening: “How do you cultivate dialogue in everyday life?” Dr. Ross stressed the “importance of keeping ourselves open and curious.” As someone who teaches in a university, said Ross, she is very aware how that setting encourages students to use the opportunity of discussion “to show that they are right.” But what we really want is something different. Ideally, we are aware of how we benefit most when we are changed by other’s stories, which means putting ourselves as often as possible in the position of truly “trying to listen and understand” what people’s stories are telling us.
And it was here that Dr. Tang introduced the Vincent Harding quote from America Will Be! that opened this report. In the full quote, Harding’s suggestion that “we are storied into being,” is followed with the thought that “the same way that food and water are essential to our survival, stories are also essential.” In fact, said Harding, the sharing of our stories is also essential to the task of developing a “healthy democracy.” And it was in response to this that Mr. Ikeda offered the words that came to be chosen as one of the two touchstone quotes for the Forum, words that summed up the spirit of the evening well.
As human beings, we share our past, exist together in the present, and aspire to create a common future. And we come to know that, as we have our own precious stories, other people likewise have their own valuable stories. 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.
Photos by Marilyn Humphries