Scholars Investigate the Productive Tensions of Global Citizenship, Part I

| Mitch Bogen
Photo of the 2024 Global Citizens Seminar with Professors Harang and Chowdhury

For the fourth iteration of the annual Global Citizens Seminar, seven Boston-area doctoral students gathered at the Ikeda Center to share their own stories as global citizens and engage in dialogue on key issues and challenges in the endeavor to create local and global cultures of peace. For this two-part seminar, held on May 31 and June 7, 2024, participants drew from two primary sources: Daisaku Ikeda’s 2018 Peace Proposal called “Toward an Era of Human Rights: Building a People’s Movement”; and Sara Ahmed’s article, “Feminist Killjoys (and Other Willful Subjects)”. 

The sessions were co-moderated by Elora Chowdhury and Alexander Harang. Dr. Chowdhury is Professor and Chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her yearslong engagement with the Ikeda Center includes speaking at the 2018 Ikeda Forum on the practice of human rights and contributing a chapter to Peacebuilding Through Dialogue. Harang is Distinguished Adjunct Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the Soka Institute for Global Solutions at the Soka University of America (SUA). In 2024 he became Senior Peace Researcher at the Ikeda Center. 

The participating scholars represented diverse fields and institutions. Abiodun Baiyewu studies in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Global Governance, and Human Security at UMass Boston; Mamfatou Baldeh in the Department of Human Development, Learning and Teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Annie Boniface in the Department of History at Harvard University; James Fisher in the Department of History at Ohio University; Cam Morose in the Value Creating Education for Global Citizenship program at DePaul University; Carla Ribeiro in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil (1); and Josh Steinberg in the Department of Clinical Psychology at Harvard University.

Session One: May 31, 2024

Introducing Daisaku Ikeda’s Ideals and the Seminar Readings

The Center’s Executive Director Kevin Maher welcomed everyone to the first session, expressing “deep appreciation that you all took time to join us for our annual Global Citizens seminar at this busy time of year. We’ve been looking forward to this for weeks now and are eager to learn from each of you.” In a sense, he said, the seminar “hearkens back” to the Center’s earliest days when, from its original small office in Harvard Square, it hosted regular seminars featuring interdisciplinary scholars who would engage in dialogue in order to “examine pressing themes in global ethics.” Now, as then, the dialogues have been informed and inspired by Daisaku Ikeda’s conception of global citizenship, based as it is on “recognition of our common humanity, emphasizing the importance of empathy, understanding, and collaboration in addressing the complex challenges facing our world.” Then, to help kick things off he shared Ikeda’s own thoughts on our global task, as expressed in his 2000 peace proposal:

If we take to heart the lessons and warnings of the tragedy-filled twentieth century, we must make “action” and “solidarity” the keywords for the twenty-first. The problems confronting humankind are daunting in their depth and complexity. While it may be hard to see where to begin—or how—we must never give in to cynicism or paralysis. We must each initiate action in the direction we believe to be right. We must refuse the temptation to passively accommodate ourselves to present realities but must embark upon the challenge of creating a new reality. The human spirit is endowed with the ability to transform even the most difficult circumstances, creating value and ever richer meaning. When each person brings this limitless spiritual capacity to full flower, and when ordinary citizens unite in a commitment to positive change, a culture of peace—a century of life—will come into being.

Next, the Center’s Senior Program Manager, Lillian Koizumi, explained that the new tradition for the Global Citizen’s seminar is to devote much of the first session to getting to know one another. This practice was introduced during the 2023 seminar, and proved inspiring and fruitful. It also demonstrated the wisdom of an exchange from Daisaku Ikeda’s dialogue with Vincent Harding, America Will Be!, which extolled the value of sharing our stories and our journeys. “Every human being lives out a story that gives meaning to his or her existence,” said Ikeda, “a story that depicts a precious, irreplaceable life history. When we listen with an open heart to someone’s story, we can learn from [their] rich store of experiences and wisdom conveyed in a narrative entirely different from our own. This can stimulate and expand our creative capacities, enabling us to weave new, vibrant stories of our own.”  

Dr. Elora Chowdhury facilitating the 2024 Global Citizens Seminar

Professor Chowdhury helped set the stage by sharing some of her own journey and how it informs her own human rights-centered teaching and scholarship. First, she said that in her own work she has valued such sharing as a way to discover our connections. She also introduced the readings from Ahmed and Ikeda, saying that each in their own way—Ahmed by encouraging feminist storytelling, and Ikeda by emphasizing informal educational approaches to global citizenship—are helping us to think in fresh ways about interpersonal relationship and transformation. Personally speaking, Dr. Chowdhury explained that she grew up in Bangladesh in the aftermath of its 1971 war of independence, during which East Pakistan gained liberation from the control of Pakistan, at which point it became Bangladesh. As she grew and matured, she went on to develop what she called a cross-border consciousness, beginning with her childhood and continuing through her studies in India and the United States. Throughout, her main interests have been combatting gender violence and researching and celebrating the contributions of Third World feminism to this cause. Referencing the Ahmed piece, she said that a central insight for Ahmed is that “one cannot look away from what is often looked over,” suggesting that the feminist cause, like all efforts for justice, requires us to face uncomfortable truths.

For his remarks, Professor Harang focused on summarizing some of the main attributes of Daisaku Ikeda’s peacebuilding ethos—individually, socially, globally.  At the heart of his vision is an emphasis on personal agency. Instead of focusing on group characteristics, Ikeda emphasizes the “infinite potential” of each individual to grow and contribute to cultures of peace. In terms of his own history as a peace studies researcher and teacher, Professor Harang said that we are not studying war to win wars but to make peace. In terms of his own view of things, Harang said that he likes to boil things down to essentials. And for him, this means that the most important question of all, when conceiving of global citizenship and a global culture of peace, is the question of whether we choose violence or nonviolence. Especially with the specter of nuclear war, we take great risks if we don’t commit to the nonviolent handling of our conflicts. The “end game” for all of this is to “foster” true global citizenship. 

Seven Journeys

The first to reflect on her global citizenship pathways was Mamfatou Baldeh, whose research at Harvard addresses intersectional identity development in Black communities and how this can contribute to community thriving. To open, she offered a statement that contextualized in a mystical way not only her presence in the seminar but also, conceivably, the nature of human life writ large. As she thought about what brought her to this space, she realized that everything happens how and when it’s supposed to, and not just for her, but everyone in the seminar. A big part of why she felt herself to be in the right place, she said, is that she’s really been “following her excitement” in grad school. She also was very glad to be in the seminar, since grad school can be so “isolating,” which is ironic since her work is community oriented. One positive development for her in life has been to figure out how to contribute to the world while being true to herself. Her goal is the “alignment” of who you are, what your values are, and what success looks like for you. 

Participants of the 2024 Global Citizens Seminar

Next, Abiodun Baiyewu spoke about the unpredictable and open-ended path her journey has proceeded on—a journey that brought to mind Baldeh’s notion of alignment. Her current work focuses on researching the relationship between maternal fatality and the existence of violent extremism in a culture or community. This direction materialized after she came to a “crossroads” in her career as an attorney. Law had never felt quite right to her, and each May is a little bittersweet as she recalls graduating from law school, but accompanied by so much doubt. Seeking a mission within that field, she focused on human rights law. Not content with that, however, she moved into doctoral studies where she works to shed light on all the inequities that cause violence. Also echoing Baldeh, she said that we are not who the “social constructions” say we are; rather we are who we choose to be.

James Fisher’s research focuses on the history of the Senegambia region of West Africa and the intersection of politics, popular culture, and education in West Africa and the Atlantic world. He also serves as a researcher for the Generous Listening and Dialogue Center at Tufts University. He said that when he read Ahmed he thought of the term “rabble rouser,” something that is a bit of a “family tradition” for him. One vivid memory for him is protesting against the Iraq War when he was a kid. Another influence is having grown up in a home with divided politics, which helped spark his interest in those things we don’t talk about and what too often remains  undiscussed. 

Carla Ribeiro said that for her, research is about self-discovery. Her PhD work is in social anthropology with a focus on the institutionalized material culture of Africa and the African diaspora in Brazilian museums. But it was when she needed money and took a job on a cruise ship that specialized in diasporic tourism in Senegal in Africa, that things became personal. As a Brazilian with a black father and white mother, she could relate to people looking to connect with and understand their roots better. And she got more familiar with the dynamics of how certain “racial markers” impact how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you. Ultimately, she learned that within what might seem like a homogenous group of people with African roots you encounter “conflicts” and “contradictions” but also a common history and sense of belonging.

A doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Harvard University, Josh Steinberg is focused on researching and developing mental health treatments for youth that can be scaled up by various means, including technologically. He was motivated to pursue this path because of his own experience as a youth with a disabling disorder, followed by recovery and growth. He asked: What was happening in my brain and actions that created this disabling disorder? Why did the treatment work for me, but not for others? How can we make treatments available to more people? Above all he wants for his work to have real world impacts. For example, he is working on digital “interventions” for children in Ukraine and Poland, where many have fled to. He also is working at the Boston-area’s renowned McLean Hospital a few days a week and finds that very meaningful.

2024 Global Citizens Seminar Participant Cameron

Speaking next, Cam Morose said that his current work was also motivated by his own mental health struggles as a youth and in college, where he struggled with loneliness, being too critical of himself, and panic attacks. From his work at a youth development organization he learned how much he loved community and working with kids, and how much his earlier experiences enabled him to empathize with those who were struggling. Now he works in Boston as a school psychologist. In this role, he is passionate about drawing from what he is learning in his doctoral work at DePaul and finding ways to bring peace philosophy and education into the Boston Public Schools. 

Finally, Annie Boniface discussed her path to becoming a PhD student in history at Harvard University. After undergraduate studies in journalism, for practical purposes she tried a career in private sector consulting, but found it unfulfilling. Enrolling at Harvard in 2020, she soon found herself carrying forward part of the legacy of her grandfather, who was a psychiatrist concerned about what he saw as an impending mental health crisis in the US. In her own work, she focuses on the history of US mental health policy, especially as it relates to the military and the experiences of veterans. Her goal is for the stories she tells to be seen as cautionary tales that will enable to help us get past our reflexive glorification of war.

Questions and Complexities

Dr. Chowdhury opened the general discussion session by thanking everyone for sharing their vulnerabilities, which, she said, can be very helpful given that earning a PhD can be a “lonely journey.” She then offered general reflections on the two core readings. For her, the Ahmed piece mirrors her own journey in feminism, which was characterized by a coming into consciousness of certain realities of women’s experiences that called her to be that “killjoy” that Ahmed speaks of, sometimes manifesting as being a “cause of distortion” in social settings. In terms of human rights discourse, she added, we need to acknowledge that the original human rights principles were originally developed when a considerable number of people were considered less than human, so there are ongoing tensions relating to the meaning of human rights as more and more people proclaim their humanity. As for Ikeda, in his peace proposals, observed Chowdhury, he consistently challenges nationalism and statehood and urges a new solidarity among groups, including those who have been marginalized. In her view, the perspective of feminists could help in this endeavor. 

Professor Harang contextualized Mr. Ikeda’s peacebuilding ethos by asking: For Ikeda, what is it that connects us? The answer, he said, hinges on his emphasis on humanism, which, he added, is what connects the two texts. Fundamentally, this means that each person, as well as humanity as a whole, represent a “net positive.” Time and again he urges us to ask: Where is the place that we unite? What are our allegiances? Ikeda always answers these questions in the most inclusive way possible, said Harang, and it is the commitment to inclusive humanism that unites Ahmed and Ikeda.

Next, the scholars were invited to pose questions based on their reading that could help to shape and inform the guiding themes for the second session. Among the key questions raised were these:

  • Considering how much the world has changed since the pieces were written, with much less active warfare taking place then, how can their insights inform our current situation?
  • What is it that divides us when doing this work, and what is to be gained? Is it the marginalized among us who are most at risk if we don’t proceed with the work of global citizenship and peace?
  • Can Ikeda’s notion of shared joy coexist with Ahmed’s notion of killing joy?
  • Is it possible to stop seeing the person that raises a problem as themselves being the problem?
  • Are human rights and global citizenship efforts hindered by the powerful wanting to protect their own seats at the table? In that case, is a new understanding of human rights needed?
  • What is the impact of people in dominant groups being unaware of how they benefit from freedom from discrimination?
  • Can the disruption of interpersonal peace contribute to greater peace? Do we need to be constantly zooming in and out between levels to truly understand peace?

With these and other questions now in the mix, Harang and Chowdhury offered some contextualizing remarks to help prepare for the next session. Professor Harang said Ikeda agrees that there can be conditions of superficial social “harmony” which don’t necessarily constitute peace. Yet, given the inherent complexity of peacebuilding in the world as it is, with all its differing agendas, Ikeda holds that we will benefit if we agree on a “common denominator” for peace work, which for him is an absolute commitment to nonviolence as a means of conflict resolution. This is the most effective way, said Harang, to move from a “negative” peace characterized in which surface calm coexists with “structural violence” to a positive peace characterized by the presence of justice and widespread human flourishing. 

Chowdhury agreed that we must be vigilant in not settling for the absence of violence as the meaning of peace. But even more than that, she asked everyone to think about how peace, when conceptualized in a shallow sense, can itself constitute an oppressive structure. She also asked everyone to consider a point made by Audrey Lorde and others, which is that emotions like rage and anger can be constructive elements in our endeavors toward a truly inclusive society. Above all, said Chowdhury, what she hopes that everyone will think about for the next session is how efforts in the cause of peace and liberation can benefit from “complicating the conversation.”

During a working lunch, participants continued the dialogue, touching on themes such as the historical relationship between violence and decolonization movements. Another key subject was the centrality of imagination and visioning to the movements for peace and liberation if they are to succeed. This insight, said Kevin Maher, was at the heart of Mr. Ikeda’s peacebuilding ethos, as exemplified in this quote from his essay “Our Power for Peace.” (2) “Imagination,” wrote Ikeda, “is the wellspring from which hope flows. It is the power of imagination, the power to imagine different realities, that frees us from the mistaken notion that what exists now is all that will ever exist, and that we are trapped inside our problems.”


1. At the time of the seminar Carla Ribeiro was also concluding a year as a visiting researcher at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

2. See Hope in a Dark Time—Reflections on Humanity’s Future, edited by David Krieger (Capra Press, 2003).


Forthcoming: Report from Session Two