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Making a Change in My Community

by Jennifer Isidore
UK

Mr. Tanno at workJennifer with her son (left), her daughters and a school friend

In the summer of 2008, while taking a shortcut home from work, I became caught up in a clash between two groups of young people. I watched a gang of about 20 boys, aged between 11 and 17, run right across the path in front of me, pulling masks over their faces. They ran into a nearby park where another group of local boys, also teenagers, were playing football. One of the youths grabbed at the T-shirt of one of the footballers, and began to attack him. As more boys began to arrive, it was clear to me that this was the sort of incident that could easily result in someone losing their life. I shouted at the boys to stop and some of them, hearing me, slowed down, but one boy took the branch of a tree and began to beat one of the footballers until he was covered in blood. I called out to a local man to use his mobile phone to call the police. The man called for assistance and a gang member approached me and asked if I would be a witness to the fact that he had decided that he did not want to be involved in the attack.

The footballers broke free and made a run for it, while the young man explained to me that his father had died recently. Overcome with grief, he had drifted into trouble. He told me that he could see that I really cared and I explained that my concern sprang from the fact that I had a teenage son, and that any one of these boys could be a son to me. By now some of his friends had joined us and when I told them that the violence had to stop, because ultimately they were destroying their own lives, they agreed with me.

By speaking out, I felt I was making a cause for change by creating the opportunity for one young man and a small group of friends to acknowledge that they wanted to do things differently.

Around this time I also met an acquaintance who told me that his younger brother had been fatally stabbed outside a subway station in North London. I expressed my deep sorrow at hearing this and said that I would chant wholeheartedly for his family’s happiness. I told him about my Buddhist practice and our desire to create a peaceful world. We established a friendship and I sent him encouragement when I could, and chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for both him and his mother. These two incidents affected me profoundly and I decided I wanted to do something more.

At that time, I was working at a leading London-based arts organization as press and marketing officer for a large music festival, featuring the work of outstanding artists from diverse communities in London. I had specifically chosen to work for this organization because I admired the way they created opportunities for heart-to-heart intercultural dialogue. I felt this exactly matched SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s vision of the role of arts and culture in society, and I felt deeply satisfied with my job, even though the hours were long and the money limited.

I was particularly impressed that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001, this arts organization staged a major Islamic festival that brought together a large number of Islamic artists from all over the world with the aim of creating deeper understanding of the diversity and complexity of different Muslim communities. The festival represented the facts about Islam and counteracted the hysterical images that were being reported in the media.

As a gift, I gave a copy of the book Global Civilization: A Buddhist-Islamic Dialogue between Majid Tehranian and Daisaku Ikeda to my boss in thanks and recognition for all the work he had done to make London a more harmonious and peaceful place to live.

At this time, within my local SGI group, we began planning to hold an exhibition created by Morehouse College in the USA, titled “Gandhi, King, Ikeda--Peacebuilders.” Knowing this, my boss asked me to accompany him to the launch of the Festival of Nonviolence which was to be held by the Gandhi Foundation at the British Library. At the event, I was introduced to one of the UK’s leading experts on Gandhi, who was also the author of an influential governmental report on the future of multicultural Britain.

In a society where violence is accepted as inevitable, it is the youth who often suffer the most. Whilst the national press reported deaths in the conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq, local newspapers regularly carried reports of young men losing their lives on the streets of our own towns and cities.

After the 2005 terrorist attacks in London, tension, often leading to violence, was particularly high. Around this time, I was invited to attend a course for work at the Saint Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in Bishopsgate, in London. The center was built on the site of a small church that was completely destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993.

During the course, which was based on the work of Martin Luther King Jr., I learned more about the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s and about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, tenacity, courage, strength and his determination to stand up to violence and oppression through peaceful means. This matched my belief as a Nichiren Buddhist in the power of human revolution to create social change through the transformation of the inner life of individuals. I felt that all these opportunities were arising out of my efforts to support our exhibition about peacebuilders, and my desire to find peaceful solutions to the conflict that I saw around me.

The organization I work for was awarded its first ever BBC media partnership for a music festival, along with very good coverage in the local and national press. When I finally left my job, I was deeply satisfied that I had achieved everything I had set out to do. I was pleased to discover that we had been nominated for the Routes Princess Margaret Award for Cultural Diversity 2008 from the European Cultural Foundation.

I have since embarked on a new phase of my journey and have just started training with the School of Social Entrepreneurs in London. I am developing my own project to support and empower a generation of young people committed to making positive change. The project, based on the principles of the Earth Charter, combines traditional storytelling techniques alongside a program of arts-based workshops. It aims to create an online educational resource cataloging art work and examples of people who have embraced the principles of the Earth Charter in their daily life. I see this work as a continuation of my desire to make a difference for the young people in my community.

Basing action on strong prayer for the happiness of our families and communities, I know that everything we do on a daily basis to reach out, speak up and forge bonds of friendship and understanding serves to break down the limitations of fear and mistrust that can reside within us all, and step by step, helps create a peaceful world.

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