Over the course of its three-year history, the Dialogue Nights series for university students and young professionals had proven itself one of the Ikeda Center’s most dynamic and cherished programs, demonstrating the power of face-to-face encounters among youth.
Then, one year ago, the COVID-19 crisis hit, forcing the suspension of all in-person events. At once, Center program staff set out developing a series of Zoom-based virtual dialogues that would enable individuals of all ages and from all around the world to keep the spirit of dialogue alive, engaging directly with the sorts of issues that the pandemic brought to the fore.
As summer turned to fall, the ongoing success of these groundbreaking dialogues encouraged Center staff to plan and conduct an online version of its annual autumn event, the Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue. Then, as the new year commenced, and with the prospects for in-person events still many months away, it only seemed right to re-launch Dialogue Nights in virtual form. The March 5, 2021, gathering, called “Author a New Chapter – You are the Playwright,” proved the wisdom of that decision.
Rich Reserves of Goodness
It is Dialogue Nights tradition for Ikeda Center Program Manager Lillian I to welcome everyone and offer introductory remarks. This first virtual Dialogue Nights was no different. Addressing the 45 young people in attendance, she explained that Dialogue Nights seeks to give expression to Center founder Daisaku Ikeda’s conviction, gained from his many decades of engagement with openminded, openhearted dialogue, that “rich reserves of goodness … are equally the possession of all people” and that “if we base ourselves on the kind of dialogue that awakens and brings forth that inherent goodness, mutual understanding is possible and a path toward a resolution of the most challenging issues can be found.”* Given the turbulence of the previous year, and the unknown character of the months to come, the wisdom of this conviction could not be timelier.
Nor could the core rationale for Dialogue Nights (DN). As Lillian explained, the program has always attempted to respond to the sad reality “that though we are constantly surrounded by people, most of us don’t have the opportunity to talk openly and from the heart with one another. Either we don’t have time or we don’t even know where or how to start those conversations.” Thus, this virtual DN would seek to do what all have done, which is to provide a space for young people to talk about the “issues that are most concerning and important to us.” However, while Lillian did express enthusiasm for this virtual continuation of this tradition, she did feel compelled to apologize for what would be absent in this new form of Dialogue Nights: all the food that young people never miss the opportunity to partake of!
A Conversation Across Continents and Generations
The Ikeda Center program team didn’t have to search too long to arrive at a focus for the evening. Since January 20th, the day Amanda Gorman captured the hearts and imagination of the country with her thrilling inaugural poem, everyone on the team had been united in wanting to continue the conversations that she has inspired. Introducing the team’s thinking, Ikeda Center Program and Office Assistant Preandra Noel explained that as they engaged with Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” it fast became clear that her words and philosophy contained numerous “parallels and resonances” with the thoughts of Mr. Ikeda, in particular as found in his 2018 joint youth appeal created with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. As they read these pieces, said Preandra, the program team moved rapidly from imagining what a conversation between these two would be like to deciding to actually create one. Thus, they “invited Ikeda Center youth committee** members Ana Pediet and Jason Henriksen to put this idea to the test!”
Working together, Ana and Jay selected excerpts from the poem and the youth appeal that they then recited during the event to bring to life this “imagined conversation” between Gorman and Ikeda, with Ana playing the part of Gorman, and Jay, Ikeda. Here is one of their exchanges, which nicely demonstrates their commonality of purpose.
It is necessary to remember history. Such memory illuminates the present. Through it, we can see that people have the capacity and the strength to create new alternatives and to be beacons of hope demonstrating that “another world is possible.”
For while we have our eyes on the future
history has its eyes on us
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter
After their performance of the conversation, Jay and Ana each offered personal reflections on their passages and the meaning of the conversation. Speaking first, Jay said that “reading Ikeda’s appeal evoked a lot of emotions for me.” This is because frequently when he encounters a statement like Ikeda’s “call to the young people of the world,” he fears it’s just another example of the older generation trying to pass off the problems they couldn’t solve onto the younger generation. But his feelings began to shift when he read these words of Ikeda: “There is no challenge that cannot be resolved if we unite in solidarity.” He understood that there have been people across the centuries who have fought for what is right, and the task of young people is to carry that “torch forward,” adding that “there are countless others today who are looking for us to stand side-by-side with them as we build a better future together.”
Ana built on this point, saying “Amanda Gorman and Mr. Ikeda are 60-plus years apart… . It gives me so much hope that 20, 40, 50 years ago there were people working towards this, and now Amanda, this beautiful young lady, is working towards the same thing.” Commenting on Gorman’s verse, she said she was most moved by her fundamental optimism and resilience, even in the face of suffering. She was especially touched by these lines of the young poet that she had chosen to open the conversation: “We seek harm for none and harmony for all.” And she also identified this passage from their final exchange as her favorite, capturing so well the true spirit of courage: “For there is always light,” said Gorman, “If only we’re brave enough to see it / If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
What Would the First Sentence Be?
Lillian set up the breakout discussions by giving them three areas of conversation to consider as groups. Here are condensed versions of the topics and questions:
- Can you share an example where you confronted your reality and your challenges courageously?
- Building on key lines from Gorman’s poem, what does it look like for you to be brave enough to see and be that “light”? How would that contribute to a new dawn and a better world?
- If you were to author a new chapter now, what would the first sentence be?
After about 25 minutes of small group dialogue, everyone regathered as a full group so participants could share findings from their discussions. To launch things, Lillian observed that in her group the conversation got so deep and varied so fast that as time was almost up, they realized they were still on the first question! Fortunately, they did have enough time to compose first sentences for their “new chapters.” Given the limited time remaining, Lillian proposed that participants share their own first sentences as a final group activity. Here are just a few of their inspiring, provocative contributions:
- Running through the jungle of my mind, I realized I was king.
- The pains I’m feeling are a reflection of the truths I haven’t touched.
- Hope is a decision to continue the struggle – to keep questioning, keep reflecting, and keep imagining.
- And here I am, embracing this new lease of life.
- Sometimes, I think mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation, the full result of which one cannot know in advance.
- The youth are sure, the adults are fearful, but today I am liminal.
- Spring was upon us, and buds made us see it was time for us to grow as well.
To wrap up the discussion, Lillian thanked everyone for bringing their poetic spirit to the gathering, and commended them for having the courage to dare to become playwrights, authoring the next chapter of their lives.
To Begin Again
Offering closing remarks for the first time in his new capacity as executive director, Kevin Maher recalled how, when he, Lillian, former executive director Ginny Benson, and executive advisor Jason Goulah conceptualized Dialogue Nights back in 2017, “we felt excited going into the launch of the series,” but absolutely “were uncertain if anyone would come and if they did, would they return?” They did in fact return, and the program team watched with gratitude as “something special began to unfold.” So, now, one year after COVID closures commenced, they were left to wonder all over again: “Would anyone come? And could we create the same kind of atmosphere virtually as we had been doing in-person?” Kevin’s verdict? “Having now heard your thoughtful and timely reflections and also the deeply moving presentations by Ana and Jason, I honestly feel you captured the heart and essence of the series.”
For concluding inspiration, Maher returned to the sympathetic visions of Gorman and Ikeda. Beginning with Ikeda, he quoted from Ikeda’s recently released 2021 peace proposal, “Value Creation in a Time of Crisis.” Like Gorman, observed Maher, “he centers his encouragement on the power of the individual in unity with the collective.” And, also like Gorman, he employs the notion of authorship to convey our true potential.
I believe that if we muster the limitless human capacity to break through impasses and become the authors of a new history, we will be certain to overcome it. Our shared efforts to respond … serve as a foundation for generating global awareness of the essential role of human solidarity in transforming crises. This can, in turn, shift the trajectory of human history, enabling us to break free from the tragedy of national security approaches that are rooted in, and perpetuate, conflict.
Finally, Maher introduced this excerpt from Gorman’s poem by commending its “beautiful perspective on our history and future,” adding that he would be inclined to adopt these lines for the opening lines of his own new chapter.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert,
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
but move to what shall be.
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free.
* This quote is from Daisaku Ikeda’s message to the first annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue (2004)
** The Ikeda Center Youth Committee is a core group of students and young professionals who serve as youth advisors to the Center in the brainstorm and planning of our programs and events.