A Discussion with Maria Lucia Uribe, Executive Director of Arigatou International Geneva
With: Maria Lucia Uribe Berkley Center Profile
April 10, 2020
Background: Arigatou International centers its efforts on working for children’s rights and well-being globally through interfaith and intercultural collaboration. Its programs to promote ethics education and the skills required to live in harmony in diverse societies stand out as creative and disciplined efforts with a global reach. Arigatou International, an entity supported by Myōchikai, a Japanese lay Buddhist community, has its oldest international office in Geneva, with others in Nairobi, New York, and Tokyo. Maria Lucia Uribe has many years of experience both with Arigatou programs and in international relations and leads the Geneva office. She works to ensure that values-based education is integrated in programs to respond to the prevention of violence and the promotion of peace building and interfaith and intercultural collaboration. She also works to develop partnerships to support Arigatou International’s engagement in child rights initiatives with UN agencies and child rights focused NGOs. This discussion with Katherine Marshall (by zoom) took place during the COVID-19 shutdown. It focused on Ms. Uribe’s career path and current work focus. The latter (Arigatou’s ethics education approach and peacebuilding and children’s rights more broadly) has particular relevance for ongoing work that WFDD and BRAC University’s Center for Peace and Justice are undertaking in Bangladesh. The issue of preparing children to live in active harmony with people from other backgrounds has heightened relevance in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, for Bangladesh and other countries. Arigatou’s and Ms. Uribe’s experience have much to teach in a critical area. Likewise its strong focus on including and hearing the voices of children and young people offers an interesting example. This discussion ranges widely, from the significance of ethics education to the challenges that will face children and those who support them in the post-COVID world.
"Colleagues talk about the enemy: the COVID-19, and the war against it. For someone who has been working with peace building for so long, I feel strongly that that language needs to be changed. We are not fighting a war. We're not fighting an enemy. We even see that language in the statements of several faith-based and interfaith organizations and leaders. How we think about the other is so much in people’s mindsets
." -Maria Lucia Uribe
Let’s start at the beginning. Where do you come from and what has led you to your current position in Geneva with Arigatou?
I was born in a city called Ibagué. That's in Colombia, in the Andean mountain region, in the middle of the country. It’s a small town, well not so small perhaps, but small compared to mega cities. We have about a half million people and nice weather. It was a very pleasant place to grow up in at that time, when Colombia, of course, was in the middle of constant conflicts but Ibagué was not very much touched by that reality. I have two sisters and one brother, and my father and my mom and I grew up in Ibagué, studying at a Catholic school. That, I realize now, very much marked what I am, and who I am today.
I studied with the nuns in my school, which was for girls only. I studied there for 12 years, so the formative years of my life were very much in that school. I got very close to the nuns (Dominican sisters), and when I was around 13 years old, I wanted to become a nun. They were kind of grooming me to that end. I was invited on Sundays to do things with them, to eat and play basketball. I got an inside view of what it was to be a nun outside school hours. I liked that insight, because they were so stiff with the kids in school, but outside, it was totally different. They were fun and laughing. The sisters were very much in a common mold, where everything was about charity and service.
From the very beginning, the leadership that they inculcated in me was a leadership of service, which means for me that it doesn't matter what you do or who you are, but as long as you are serving others, you are already leading in a way. That notion has been very close to my heart all my life.
I grew up in a middle class family. My father had a factory. He came from a rich family in another city, but my mother came from a poorer background. I always remember, from my mother, that whenever we ate, not a single grain of rice was wasted at home. We ate what was there and if they were leftovers, she would pack them up and give them to a poorer family. It was always like that.
My life was, as I look back, very much marked by the wealth gap in Latin America, between rich and poor, and how difficult it is for the poor to get access to the basic things. My mom was always reminding us of that: “you have school, you can do things, we can travel, but many who are close to you cannot. That was something that was always in my mind.
When did you leave Ibagué?
I moved to Bogotá for university, where I studied finance and international relations. So I left behind the path of trying to become a nun! You become a teenager and then life becomes different.
In Bogotá I lived alone and I joined an organization for leadership development, AIESEC, which is the largest youth organization in the world working for leadership development. They do it through intercultural exchanges and learning. I was with this organization for seven years in Colombia, first while I was at the university (the bachelor degree is for five years), then two with the organization. I traveled to many parts of the world. While I was in university, I lived in Poland for six months and in Japan for a couple of months. When I finished university, I went to Sri Lanka to live for a year, as part of the organization. Poland was very Catholic, so it reminded me of everything from home: churches on every corner, very Catholic, very traditional. Sri Lanka was very different and it was a milestone for me, living in a place that was so different from Colombia.
Before I lived in Sri Lanka, I knew nothing about Buddhism, but there were statues of the Buddha, large ones, everywhere. This was in many ways very shocking for me, a first experience of being with people of other religions and other cultures. I had never had the time or the opportunity to experience anything like that in Colombia, not even being part of AIESEC. I had traveled to many parts of the world but that was more superficial, as were the relationships I had with young people, because we never talked about religion or other deeply felt topics. It was more being able to do things together and no one really talked about religion. But being in Sri Lanka, people’s religious identities were very marked in the way people live. That was very touching for me and a great learning opportunity. While there, I lived with two Jewish people who came from Slovakia. I also got to meet and closely interact with Hindus and Muslims, as well as many Buddhists.
What were you doing while you were in Sri Lanka?
I came there as part of the AIESEC’s national leadership. I was responsible for human resources and learning. That meant that I was in charge of the selection of the members to the organization and for developing their learning opportunities. This involved doing social work. The organization did cultural exchanges, so we had people coming from other parts of the world to work in companies, NGOs, or schools, and then people from Sri Lanka who went to other countries. I was in charge of the learning activities of everyone involved in AIESEC, including the integration of those coming from abroad into the culture, through activities like doing projects to support the community and society. I also worked for a year with UBS, leading a project called “Employable You” in partnership with AIESEC, training university students at Colombo University in leadership skills that were must needed in the job market, and that they could otherwise not gain by just studying.
During that time, my whole thinking was transformed and focused on the importance of learning about other cultures, learning about parts of life that are so much interrelated with the religious part. That was part of my own learning. When I had to do training for others and prepare learning activities for AIESEC members, I first had to learn myself.
Were you in Sri Lanka during the December 2004 tsunami?
Yes, I was in Sri Lanka when the tsunami happened. That was perhaps the most difficult event I had experienced up to then. I was in Colombo and I remember how our group, all the foreigners who were living in Sri Lanka at the time, was planning Christmas and post-Christmas festivities. There was a group of us who wanted to stay home in Colombo and cook and be together, but another group wanted to go to the beach and have a party and do more. So we divided and some went and the others stayed. The Tsunami happened the day after Christmas. Fortunately, no one got hurt and no one from the group died. But those who had gone to the beach were stuck there and they had their own experiences.
Some of the people who were in Sri Lanka left the country to be with their families. There was a lot of panic in Sri Lanka because 70 percent of the coastal areas there were destroyed. The country was not prepared at all, and for the first two or three days after the Tsunami, there was no properly coordinated response. The government was paralyzed and could do almost nothing. It was largely volunteers, grass-root organizations, or people called by radio and TV channels, who began collecting food. We, as a peace organization, also started to collect food. We went to the houses around us and collected water, food, and clothes.
But then we didn't know what to do with the supplies. We went to a TV channel collection place to drop them off. This was just the day after the tsunami. But they said, "We are looking for volunteers to go and drop these things at different places." They were targeting the temples because it was at the temples that support was being provided to the people. A couple of friends and I said, "Yes, we can do it." We had to sign a document saying that it was under our responsibility, and then we got into the back of the lorry with the food and everything, five of us, and we drove for the entire night trying to find a hospital in Galle and a temple up in the mountains. It was a very strange trip, because you could see the boats in the middle of the road, dogs walking without one leg, and people, just massive numbers of people, walking along the road, with the face of fear and disaster and hopelessness.
We found the hospital and that was a very horrible, horrible, horrible experience. When we came to the hospital, it smelled so bad. All the bodies were lying there: dead people. It was hard to care for them with any dignity. There were no fans or AC. So just imagine how and why it smelled so bad. As we entered the town we asked "What was that smell?" So, the hospital was full of bodies that were dead, and just across this hall there were sick and injured people. We distributed the medicines and then went to the temple, but of course, the roads leading there were destroyed. We could not find the temple, and had to stop in a military base where we slept. The next day we set out again to find the temple. When we came to it, we helped the monks to give out food and clothes. As we were leaving, we could see all the people running after the lorry, hanging on to it to get food. We could see people running with TVs on the shoulders. The whole experience made a very deep impression on me.
Back in Colombo, the people I lived with rejected me. I lived with around ten foreigners in a house, and they were all terrified. A couple of them told me, "What are you doing here? You are bringing diseases here. You should not have gone out to the affected areas. They wanted to leave and go home.
I couldn't believe that people would act like that in the face of such need. But there was a lot of fear in Sri Lanka, and there had been no preparation of any sort to help any people to cope with what happened. It was, I think, normal that people would react like that, staying home and trying to protect themselves. And then, a week later, I got dengue fever, still in Sri Lanka. That was also very hard, because I spent ten days in a hospital.
During that time, with the tsunami and the dengue, I became much closer to the people in Sri Lanka. I had been taking care of Sri Lankan people, and then Sri Lankan friends stayed with me at the hospital. I was so sick that one of my friends had to bring a priest to pray for me, because my blood platelets went down very badly and I was bleeding from my mouth. Yes, that was very tough.
But I think it was through that experience that I realized that there is a deep spirit of humanity and solidarity in difficult times. When people struggle with the basic things that is where you find more humanity in others. I think the experience was so different for some foreigners living there who were not touched by the Tsunami directly, because it was not their land, it was not their people who were dying. But those who actually experienced it were more touched to care for the other. Sri Lanka has always been so close to me, in my heart, because of this experience that in a way changed my life. I created some of the strongest and more meaningful friendships in my life. I was instilled with the meaning of empathy, the meaning of caring for the other.
That was a turning point in my career. Before that I had always wanted to work with the private sector and with companies and production systems. I had studied finance and management and that was to be my path. But the Sri Lanka experience changed the way I see life and the way I experience life. I decided to move more into the field of education and to work on education for social change.
Can we go back just a little way? As you think back to growing up in Colombia during a tumultuous period, how did you experience divisions in Colombian society? Or was it only later that you came to see them?
I think having been born, growing up, and living for 25 years in a country that always experienced war, we Colombians, throughout our lives, are always affected mentally and emotionally by the conflict, and by for example, TV shows and news showing the recurrent violence and the underlying polarization. Not a single person we know has not been touched by the consequences of the war. There have been people kidnapped, people killed, poor families that experienced bomb explosions, or victims of this violent culture and so on. My family was not foreign to that either. Even as an upper middle income family, we were part of this. But I don't think people really tried to understand what it meant in life in specific ways, because it's normalized. We grew up as if violence is simply part of life and you just deal with it: "Oh, we cannot travel that way because they put a bomb there." So you just go another way. You manage your life in this way, as so many people are doing in many countries at war. I grew up at a time when these issues were very present. The drug dealing culture was very much part of life at that time. This was the time when Pablo Escobar was killed and that was in the daily news. Everyone talked about these matters and the culture that allowed it. I think I saw the worse sides of a culture that was created and allowed. It was a culture where you could do anything; the law doesn't really exist. It permitted a certain politics as well as a way of life. And that permeated and affected all relationships, families, and social life. You could see that very much in the social havoc, in Colombia, how people just do things without caring about law and order. That's very much, I think, what moved me towards the study of peace and conflict transformation. I still want to see transformation of the culture that allows and facilitates violence.
What you said is also true. It's only when you get out of the country that you start to reflect and understand your own culture. When I was in Sri Lanka, I found myself comparing Sri Lanka and Colombia all the time. I learned more about Colombia being in Sri Lanka than when I was at home, because I detached myself from Colombia. As I became more critical about the conflict in Sri Lanka and what it meant, it made me realize that even though what was happening in Colombia was not a religious conflict but an ideological one, it has many of the same patterns and the same polarization that I saw in interreligious conflicts in Sri Lanka.
That thinking took me over, then, in Sri Lanka, and later, when I studied peace and conflict transformation. It helped me to unlearn, in a way, this normalization of violence that I think all of us experienced growing up in a country at war.
Let's go back to Sri Lanka. What happened after you survived the tsunami and dengue fever?
That was in January 2005. I stayed in Sri Lanka until June 2005, and then I moved to Geneva. I got engaged to my now husband, Paul. I had met Paul in Los Angeles.
That's a wonderful story that I heard you tell!! We’ll follow that up another time. Back to 2005.
I was engaged. My time in Sri Lanka was to be for a year, so I needed to move on. I do think that if I had not been engaged, I would have stayed in Sri Lanka for many years. But I went back to Colombia in June, and then I went to Sweden to get married. Paul was already stationed here in Switzerland working with CERN [European Organization for Nuclear Research], so I moved to Geneva.
How did you come to work for Arigatou International?
While I was in Colombia, I looked for jobs in Geneva and Googled “social work” and other random things: education, etc. And this “Arigatou” came up. I wrote to them. I was only 24 years old at the time. I just wrote and said, "Hello, I want to work with your organization and I'm interested. Here's my CV, please let me know when I can have an interview." I was so naïve! I simply thought I could write an email and they would hire me. Two weeks, three weeks passed, with no answer. So I wrote again: “I sent my CV and I would like to have an interview with you.” I met the director at the time [Agneta Ucko] when I got to Geneva. She replied very nicely, apologizing for not replying and inviting me to meet. I met her in September, and we talked for three hours, about my experience in Sri Lanka, the work I did. She told me: "We are doing a project on Learning to Live Together, a program for ethics education." At the time, Arigatou had already started to write an introductory section of “Learning to Live Together”, which is the conceptual basis, prepared with Arigatou’s Interfaith Council. They needed then to go and test these ideas with children and thought I would be well placed to help with that. Agneta asked me to go to Sweden to facilitate a workshop, and immediately after another one in Colombia, and many others that followed.
During the workshop in Sweden, we worked on four values: empathy, responsibility, reconciliation, and respect, and we were testing the draft manual to see how far the programs aligned with the core values. We did some workshops with children and young people on respect, empathy, and so on. I was asked to do the one on empathy. Vinu [Kezevino Aram] was doing one on responsibility, and someone else was working on respect.
How was Vinu Aram involved at the time?
Vinu was a member of the Interfaith Council at that time. The members of the Arigatou Interfaith Council were all people from the interfaith movement, so it included Hans Ucko, Azza Karam, Heidi Hadsell, Swami Agnivesh, Deborah Weissman, and others. This circle were the minds behind the whole Learning to Live Together project. Exposure also to these great minds was very important for me in moving into the interfaith movement.
When I joined Arigatou I was very new to it all at the time. I didn't have exposure to the interfaith movement as such. My exposure was more to intercultural learning with young people, and of course empowerment of young people and education.
I was asked to coordinate these pilot workshops with children and young people and to draft the practical part of the Learning to Live Together manual. Thus I was to take the conceptual part and draft the learning modules, the activities, the pedagogy, and everything. We started with workshops in Sweden, and then I went to Colombia, Tanzania, India, El Salvador, Panama, and Spain for other workshops. We went to around 10 or 15 countries doing workshops that were national and regional.
Working with Agneta then was lots of fun. She is such a great woman, always empowering young people. Though I was only 25 at the time, she trusted me a lot. She trusted my feelings, my sense of how this should be done, with what was really a very light leadership: not imposing but really guiding the process. That was very empowering for me, being young in this field. She gave strong leadership when it came to ideas. She had strong ideas about where we were going with the project, so that sense of direction was always there. That was I think very important for the way our efforts and thinking emerged.
Part of what I believe, now, was the breakthrough that Arigatou has moved ahead was bringing a concept of interfaith education through the ethics lens. That was not very clear at the time. We were making it popular, down to children and young people. At the time the interfaith movement was more framed and articulated for the religious leaders. They were the ones doing interfaith dialogue, the ones coming together and thinking in the terms and the ends they articulated.
I spent five years with Arigatou during that period, starting in 2005. I left in 2010. I had given a lot to Arigatou and developed myself in multiple ways with and through the interfaith movement. I had achieved a lot: I coordinated the development of the program through pilots and the work with children and youth, and drafted modules and good practices. I started the trainings of facilitators and trainers and developed new ideas to work closely with children and youth. But I felt that I needed something more and different, to look beyond.
What did you do next?
I decided to do a master’s program in Peace and Conflict Transformation. I wanted to have time to reflect and receive learning and knowledge. The master’s program at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, was new at the time. It was organized with Johan Galtung, the founder of peace studies. I got very much into this, because I had read a lot about Johan Galtung and his theories of peace, and I registered for a one year program. It was a combination of practice and theory, a program tailored for practitioners, thus people really in the field who are working for peace in different ways in their communities. The program was carefully tailored to different needs. Every week a professor came from different parts of the world to teach. There were modules with different teachers with different specialties.
I did my thesis about Colombia and peace education: the title was “From Peace Education to Peacebuilding Education”. The idea was very much based on my experience with interfaith learning with children. It is not enough to have education from books, to have a curriculum and a textbook, because that will not transform. But how do we move to peacebuilding education, which looks at what's your role in the community to build peace? That means not just transforming the curriculum, but transforming relations and structures in society. We need to ask how education can help to do that.
Johan Galtung was actually my advisor and my thesis supervisor. That proved to be very challenging. I had a bad start with Galtung. He's an expert on Colombia, and speaks Spanish. He has done a lot of research and analysis about the conflict in Colombia, and had coined the term peace journalism. In one of his classes, when he spoke about peace journalism, I expressed doubts, saying that I really did not believe that peace journalism was the only option or the best approach; his definition of peace journalism was that it centered on a different narrative, one that people would not read about in the mainstream media. I argued that in countries like Colombia where the media is controlled by the most powerful economic groups in the country, tightly linked to politics, it would be very difficult for people to read non- mainstream media. So I was challenging his idea. He got so angry, as he doesn't like to be challenged by anyone. I had said it very nicely but he raised his voice, calling me “Maria Darkness" (my name Lucia of course means light). He belittled me publicly in this class and three more, asking "Maria Darkness” whether I had something to say. I could not believe that someone like him would do that to a student.
One day a class focused on understanding conflicts, looking at the past, the present, and the future. He said that “Maria Darkness” would explain how this happened in Colombia, putting me on the spot. I think he wanted to test how much I knew about the conflict in Colombia and what my views were. It was bad for him to even put me there because, being Colombian, you are always affected by the conflict. It was very emotional for me to talk about the past in Colombia and what it meant to me. I had to apply his model and it touches very much on the personal. At the end, he came to me and apologized for having called me Maria Darkness. We spoke and he encouraged me to write about Colombia and education, which was what I wanted to do. I was still uneasy to focus on Colombia but he persuaded me and gave me good feedback. This was the start of a very good relationship with him.
This program, focusing on very different theories of peace, influenced my work, alongside my experience with ethics education and the interfaith movement. I saw many inter linkages between the fields. The interfaith movement lacks a bit of what the peace theories offer, particularly on structural violence and the cultural violence that you see very much in inter-religious relations and also in the conflicts that are fueled by religion.
That was another piece that influenced my path.
After the master’s program, what did you do?
I started to work with the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). I was based at UNHCR, coordinating what they call a working group on education and fragility. This was an organization that was created by UN agencies, governments, and civil society organizations, all working for education in emergency situations. All the major donors are there, with UNHCR, UNICEF, and UNESCO, the three main UN agencies that are part of it. I was coordinating one of the two working groups at that time: education and fragility, thus education in the most fragile contexts. That meant coordinating a group of 30 agencies, including the governments, civil society, and the UN agencies on how to influence policies to ensure education in fragile contexts and applying principles of “do no harm”, but also to ensure that education has a conflict sensitivity lens, meaning going beyond not doing harm to really help transform society.
I found this job somewhat by chance. It very much clicked with what had been my path and experience, with my master’s program and my thinking about education through the whole Arigatou process, which had very much marked me. I worked for the organization only for a bit more than one and a half years. I found myself in the middle of education challenges in fragile, conflict affected contexts. We did programs in DRC, South Sudan, and many other fragile contexts in Africa, running regional round tables. We looked at policy dimensions also. For example, at one summit we invited the Ministers of Education of more than 30 countries, thus at a very high level. We were really there to influence the policies, trying to provide very concrete inputs or recommendations to governments. Our ideas and practice were being articulated with the big donors and the relevant human development agencies and organizations working in the area.
We saw many positive results. For example, in DRC when we had policy round tables and meetings, we were working with the Global Partnership for Education and could help to ensure that the education plans at the national level had all the components needed to ensure that education was conflict sensitive. The Global Partnership for Education then funded implementation of the recommendations. These inter-linkages between influence in politics, having the governments involved, the donors, the civil society organizations, and then the UN agencies providing technical support was heartening.
What brought you back to Arigatou International?
Agneta Ucko, the Director in Geneva, was retiring from Arigatou at this time. She called me and asked if I was interested in taking over the position in Arigatou as director. I hesitated. I felt that my cycle with Arigatou had ended, and I had done what I could do there. Arigatou was small, very small at that time, and I had already jumped into working in a bigger league with many people, developing wider networks. I was learning a lot. I would get calls from different agencies, and needed to know what was going on with education in many conflict-affected areas. I feared that if I went back to Arigatou, I might lose this. I questioned going back to the same organization, going back to a smaller organization, going back to maybe doing the same work. The Geneva office was only doing the Learning to Live Together work at that time, which I had already done for many years. On the other hand, the time I had spent in Arigatou had a larger impact for me than the time spent in other organizations. I saw a large potential for growth. I thought about it for some time. Agneta’s suggestion was only to propose my nomination to Tokyo which made the decision, and I doubted that they would want a director of one of the main offices of Arigatou to be a young person and a woman like me. I agreed to the proposal, doubting they would accept me. I was very surprised when they said yes. It had a lot to do with the trust they had in Agneta, who emphasized that I would be able to continue the legacy. So I came back as Director of Arigatou in 2013 and started a very challenging job. The office was small and Agneta did not have at that time any other people working for her. As she said, she left everything empty for me to build my own team.
I had my first meeting with Reverend Miyamoto, President of Arigatou International, in Japan in August 2013. I remember his words well: "Don't be afraid to fail." I was afraid of meeting him, young as I was and taking over. The Geneva office was really the main office of Arigatou at that time. He didn't say much. He doesn't speak English, so direct communication with him is limited, but he listens. He listened to me, but the only words that he said were to reassure me that I should allow myself to make mistakes. That was really empowering and encouraging to me, meaning I could continue working and doing things and opening to ideas and starting projects and initiatives.
Trusting young people represents what Arigatou does with children and young people. We empower children by trusting them and giving them opportunities to do things. Reverend Miyamoto is good at trusting you. Once you receive his trust, that gives you a sense of responsibility which empowers you and makes you do things better.
That's rather unusual in Japanese culture. Do you have any sense of how he came to that or why he places so much emphasis on children and young people?
Arigatou of course is very unusual in Japan. Created by Myochikai, a Buddhist lay movement founded by a woman after the Second World War, makes it a very unique organization, particularly in the Japanese society where women have traditionally had a less prominent role. Arigatou International is colored by the very humble approach of Myochikai. They give so much and seek so little recognition. I think this spirit has been at the core of Arigatou’s principles from the start, with Reverend Takeyasu Miyamoto, its founder. When Keishi Miyamoto, his son, was younger he was entrusted with the responsibility of taking over Arigatou, even while Takeyasu Miyamoto was still living. Keishi Miyamoto, who is now the spiritual leader of Myochikai and the President of Arigatou International, was the leading force in the last years of Takeyasu Miyamoto. I believe because it was done to him, he believes in treating others in a similar way. It's reflected now as he prepares his son, who is maybe 32 years old, to represent him around the world. In the same way, Reverend Miyamoto trusted me when I was only 32 years old, when I took over the office in Geneva, seven years ago.
This is very much the culture of Arigatou: humility and trust in young people. One of the reasons that I came back to Arigatou is this spirit of a family doing something together in meaningful ways, that makes you feel that you are part of something greater, and carries you with the belief that we are making a real contribution to the world. Myochikai has a motto from the founder. I don't remember the exact words, but in essence it says that a ray of light can make so much difference in the world. Mitsu Miyamoto, the founder, said that you need to be a ray of light for others.
We do small things, but those small things change the lives of many others. For me it has transformed my leadership in Arigatou, how I see things, and how I empower my staff to do things. The things we do are small but if we work with others it will have a multiplying effect. We start with this approach, believing that it doesn't matter if there is recognition. What matters is that we're doing something to have an impact on others.
How would you describe the focus of the Ethics Education program?
We focus on the question: what is citizenship? We develop inspirational but practical guidelines on current and educational approaches that citizenship might involve. Arigatou began to work on the concept of ethics education for children in 2003. At the time these were quite new concepts for some people: to spur critical thinking in children, and launch an explicitly ethics education approach centered on living together and highlighting common values between people. Arigatou put together a high level coalition that included experts on child rights, UNICEF, UNESCO, representatives of different religions, and laureates of the Nobel Peace Prize. The aim was to build an ethics education pathway that would nurture children’s spirituality to enable them to learn to live together with people of different cultures and beliefs.
We have put together a manual that focuses on four values that are common to people of different faiths: respect, responsibility, reconciliation, and empathy. Our advisors argued that some values that are taught in schools and society today can deflect from the central need to teach children to live together. They may encourage people to retreat back into their own societies. But they saw these four values as those that are most important in understanding the other, reaching out to the other, and learning to work and live together. Even if people do not consider those as values, we see them as something that you look to for a particular purpose. They insisted that those four values, including reconciliation, should not be seen just as a process, but as a way of being with the other. The core attitude acts in some fashion as a reconciliatory approach towards the other, when problems and conflicts arise. It opens the way to asking, always, how do you try to move forward to reconcile issues with the other?
Arigatou worked to elaborate the four values selected for about three years. A piloting process involved work in around ten countries, with regional and national workshop with children from all kinds of religious groups, including indigenous people and minority groups. As the workshops were to test ideas, we involved the national teachers and local people to come up with ideas, together with us. As we reviewed materials that were available at that time (this was 2004-2005), we realized that actually not many materials were available on the interfaith approach, and most of what was available came from either a Christian or a secular perspective.
What do you see as the contribution you were making to interfaith work?
I call what we were trying to do “track two interfaith”, an interfaith movement from the ground up, with the capacity to influence our relationships and society. It involved working with young people and children, bringing that approach together with the broader thinking of the interfaith movement. Something that was very clear for me from the start was that we were not going to talk about religion in the way adults would do. What we were going to do was to make sure that children’s religious identities were shared and uplifted, and they were not afraid of speaking about them. These topics became so normal for children in speaking and in dialogue that we learned how they understood their own religious identities, how that was manifested, or how for some their faith was not influenced by a religious ideology but by their belief in a common humanity. That was the basis for our initiative, and we popularized it through the basis and rationale of the traditional interfaith work, but in ways that were relevant for children and young people and gave them a voice, space, and leadership in challenging divisions in society based on religion or culture, and re-creating and re-imagining their relations with others and their roles in transforming their societies together.
When we started, we did a whole set of pilots where we drafted activities and other materials. I really appreciated that Arigatou International was not in a hurry to do something and deliver, in one year. They agreed that we needed to take the time, and we took four years to develop the Learning to Live Together manual. We took the time with patience to listen to people. We piloted, we worked with children and young people, but also with parents and with teachers. We collected information and of course listened to the voices of experts. We brought the findings of the pilots to them, and then they complemented. So between the scholars and the field and the practitioners and the children, we had constant interaction that led to the development of the Manual.
Vinu always asks whether a process follows a “praxis model", where theory and the practical come together all the time. In pedagogy the added value of the work we did was in really connecting the pilot experiences and ethical reflections. The challenge was that ethics in a way was understood solely in academic terms, but through our work we tried to bring it to a practical level, to children, without being imposing, without moralizing that something is right or wrong, but really focusing on creating spaces for them to reflect and discern how their behaviors and what they do influence the other and society.
This work became, in many ways, my life, because that's what I did all the time. I was convinced that the key to developing these manuals was really to mobilize the children and young people, and bring them together.
So I started what we call the Youth For Peace workshops. We created a network of young people who had been in the pilot workshops. We called the pilot “Learning to Live Together” and connected different groups of children and youth. I used social media: Facebook and whatever platform we had, and could connect us. The children that were part of this pilot, now young people, are still connected today. Some of them are part of our work; some became trainers and facilitators of the Learning to Live Together program. Some are working with us now. Ornella [Barros] who is with the New York office, started when she was 12 years old and she actually married 12 years later one of the youths who were in the later cohort.
These connections were very powerful. Creating this interconnectedness among young people, working so that they are not afraid of speaking about religion, and coming together to transform their communities, that is very powerful.
What is the size and function of the Arigatou Geneva office now? How many people work there?
There has been a lot of growth during the last years. When I started it was only me, and then the administrative assistant, who I helped to hire just before I started. Now, we are ten people in the Geneva office: two program officers, one program coordinator, an administrative assistant, an accountant, two communications officers, one managing youth communications and the other general communications, and a program assistant and interns supporting particular projects.
There are many challenges. Being young and a woman from Latin America in this field has not always been easy. I have the trust of Reverend Miyamoto, which is rewarding and helpful. With Reverend Miyamoto it is always so different, for small things and large. I can feel his trust and how proud he is of the work that we do in the Geneva office. Working in the interfaith and international field as a young woman is, however, not always easy. I had not come from the interfaith field. In my early work I was often working from behind the scenes, even as I was growing the movement of children and young people. It has especially been difficult when working with previously established mechanisms that were operating under a different approach and were disconnected with the vision I have for the office. This often left me with the feeling of disempowerment. Fortunately, we now have a new structure, with an overall advisory group, that works much better.
Unless you have the space, the trust to do things, you cannot succeed. It is rather ironic that many people in this field, and even within the organization, who talk about empowering young people still treat those who are younger in condescending ways. This has and still happens to me with people who patronize me, at times, I believe, without even realizing. I believe the wisdom of Reverend Miyamoto and his genuine interest and support to young people, is a step forward towards change.
It always surprises me how much Reverend Miyamoto sees things. He knows exactly where he wants Arigatou to go, and he gives advice where it is appropriate. He's focused on immediate issues but he’s also ahead of his time. An example of his vision is connecting Arigatou’s work both on the rights of the child and violence against children with the work of the global technology companies. This idea becomes even more relevant today with so many children using online media and when many of their rights are under threat. He's always ahead of time in his thinking and prioritizing. His questions always make you ask why. This approach and vision is what has inspired me to move the work of the Geneva office from the focus on the Learning to Live Together program to actually creating a knowledge hub, what I prefer to call a knowledge and action hub, on ethics education for children.
The goal has always been to move towards a situation where education for children on ethics becomes more mainstream, and also building this mainstreaming into the interfaith movement, empowering young people. It should work at different levels, not just with the 12-18 year olds that we were working with before. We are now adapting the Learning to Live Together manual for smaller children (six to eleven years old). We have launched a new international consortium on nurturing values and spirituality in early childhood for the prevention of violence with many partners. The Geneva office also manages the youth segment of the GNRC [the Global Network Religions for Children].
The GNRC is managed from our Nairobi office. The GNRC Secretariat works primarily with the organizations that are members of the network, giving them the support to do activities for the wellbeing of children, particularly fostering interfaith collaboration. I have been working, since I joined Arigatou International, for children and youth to be more at the forefront of our work. Particularly after the Fifth Forum in Panama [May 2017], we got so much recognition on how children were involved in the Forum and how genuine that was. That facet of the Arigatou work has now been brought back to the Geneva office, so now the whole youth participation and empowerment programs are managed from my office for the GNRC. I have always wanted the Geneva office to be more central in creating synergies with the other offices.
The structure of Arigatou International presents some interesting challenges, because we are quite dispersed, geographically, in our learning and the way we work. We are now working to work more in synergy between offices. The goal is to break the silos in Arigatou, trying to work more closely together, though that can mean in some fashion sacrificing our own egos. We want to grow the organization and not ourselves, focusing not on individuals and separate projects, but working together to grow the mission and disseminate the vision. Hopefully that is now becoming the approach.
One last set of questions. How do you see the role of Arigatou, but also some of the other organizations you're involved in during the present crisis? We are all trying to rethink and redirect our efforts. What is your early thinking here?
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, my focus and concern has been what happens afterwards for children, in particular. Starting the first week, when I began homeschooling Manuela [my daughter], I was concerned. In the beginning, she started to sleep with us all night, sleeping on top of me, and I could sense the fear also in her. I was quite relaxed, but I think it's normal that children sense our tensions. Most of my staff are young women as well, and they all have children. We have a continuing discussion about how it's affecting children. But also, what happens after this? Will they live in environments where there will be frustration, a sense of fear?
We started to sense acutely the brokenness of the social fabric, with human rights violations and many policies of government restricting freedom. How this will affect children? It's not just the protection of children from violence in the home, which is of course of paramount importance now. More serious is the implications for empowerment of children for this new world that is being formed, is being created.
I think we are not understanding how the world is being shaped and how we are preparing children during this moment, to respond to this new world. Maybe, and I might be negative here, it is a world that we will have to rebuild. It will be a world with fear, a world where borders have been shut and might take a long time to reopen fully, where people are very inward looking, a world where we need to work hard to challenge divisions that we are already seeing.
I believe it will take us time to rebuild this world. And children will be in the middle of this world that will be in a transition, maybe towards the better, but still. I think we will have to cross through a dark period, and that for me calls for an ethical reflection. Yes, how can we protect children and nurture them, but how can we also empower them to think critically of this world and our interconnectedness? A world where we are in empathy with one another, in relation to the other. Now we are saying that during this period we cannot any longer be physically connected with the other, because we have to keep physical distance. So how can we challenge this disconnect and make children think ethically about the repercussions and the role they have in rebuilding our society now and after the pandemic?
I see matters very much from that angle. I see our role in that light. I feel that PaRD, for example, could be doing more in this period. We are still missing in action. We want the voices of the governments in this and PaRD can bring those voices. While we hear voices of many organizations and UN agencies, but we don't hear the voices of the government. Governments of course are now very preoccupied with the immediate responses, so it's very difficult to get them to think. But it's time for the governments to interact with different groups so all are part of the broad reflection.
Overall there is much duplication of effort. I don't think people have realized that we cannot continue business as usual. It requires, not that we create new initiatives, but that these initiatives that are structurally different can truly complement one another. Unfortunately, a lot is about funding and money. Organization campaigns are colored and driven by where the funding comes from and the business model they practice. In this moment when we should all work together I find it ironic and even unethical that collaborations are conditioned by individual ideas and agencies ‘egos, instead of working towards a common cause to make sure that efforts are multiplied and not duplicated.
A reflection of serious flaws in the situation is that so many people in their speeches and documents talk about this crisis as fighting a war. Colleagues talk about the enemy: the COVID-19, and the war against it. For someone who has been working with peace building for so long, I feel strongly that that language needs to be changed. We are not fighting a war. We're not fighting an enemy. We even see that language in the statements of several faith-based and interfaith organizations and leaders. We should not be talking about a new enemy. How we think about the other is so much in people’s mindsets. After this is over, we must not continue with that warlike way of thinking and acting, if the world is to change for the better. We urgently need to work together: not with duplicating efforts, telling similar things in different documents and initiatives, but reaching out to one another to lead this must needed transformation together. The duplication and silos reflect an overall lack of global leadership.
I like your comment. I find myself trying to not to use the language of war and campaigns and battles, because they're so much part of the language around challenges. We need a very different language. A terrible war analogy is that we face a circular firing squad where everyone is basically sniping at everyone else: Nice words in people's faces and very nasty words behind the scenes.