Education: A Transformative Potential

by Maria Guajardo



Maria Guajardo of Soka University considers the connection between education and empowerment.

Children in the Amazon rainforest region of eastern Ecuador [© Dieter Telemans/Panos Pictures/Uniphoto Press]

Empowerment is the human endeavor of tapping into the limitless potential inherent in our lives. How is the path of empowerment opened, discovered and revealed? Education is one way of opening this path. A formal education is the gateway for many children and youth to acquire knowledge and an understanding of themselves. Yet, for millions of children a formal education is unattainable. As we experience the globalization of the world, the distance between myself and that small child with no access to education grows shorter and shorter. This proximity will begin to affect both of our lives, theirs and mine. There is no avoiding the fact that those individuals who were seen as “the other” are part of our world on a daily basis through the world news, the continual expansion of markets or social media and the Internet. This proximity prevents us from turning away.

For poor and ethnic minority children, there continues to be hope that education will be the gateway to a better future. This was the promise I grew up with and believed as a little girl, the daughter of immigrant parents who could not read or write and whose struggle revealed the invisibility created by the lack of a formal education. As a poor Mexican child growing up in the United States, I felt invisible. I was “the other.” Like any child, I, too, wanted to grow and blossom. Education proved to be the path that allowed me to discover my abilities; it nurtured my curiosity and defined my passion for justice. Education was a powerful catalyst.

I was eight years old and in third grade when I was assigned an essay on my father’s occupation. My father was a migrant worker, and I was embarrassed to write about this. My embarrassment turned to mortification when I was asked by my teacher to read my essay to the class. As I finished reading, my teacher, Mrs. Garcia, acknowledged the importance of my father’s work, saying that because of his efforts many had food on the table. At that moment she affirmed my existence. She “saw” me, and that gentle support empowered me to move ahead in my studies.

Making the Invisible Visible

related article Transforming Lives: The Power of Human Rights Education Transforming Lives: The Power of Human Rights Education “Transforming Lives: The Power of Human Rights Education” raises awareness of the vital role of human rights education in promoting dignity, equality and peace and in preventing human rights violations and abuses. Education can make the invisible visible in the same way that empowerment transforms powerlessness. Education that can spark that transformation, that can ignite one’s passion, is education that can transform the world. As our lives become more entwined and interconnected globally, the advancement of such humanistic education becomes ever more vital. The relationship between education and empowerment is complex. At best, one fuels the other. At worst, narrow definitions of education, which confine us to prescriptive roles that lessen who we are, serve to disconnect the two.

As dean of the Faculty of International Liberal Arts at Soka University, my goal is to strengthen the connection between education and empowerment. This goal is propelled by the vision of my university: to uncover each student’s potential. The founder of Soka University, Daisaku Ikeda, states: “The greatest resource that humankind has is to be found within human life itself. This treasure can be endlessly mined and developed. To believe in and encourage youth, bringing out their wisdom and strength; this is the challenge and purpose of education.” His perspective as a Buddhist philosopher whose humanistic purpose is to believe in and encourage those around him aptly captures the power of inner transformation. He writes: “A great human revolution in the life of one person can change the destiny of humankind and our planet.”

This perspective on empowerment and the purpose of education takes a complex relationship and lifts it up to a broader plane that is not limited by economic scarcity or environmental constraints. It encourages individuals to become aware of their power and to use it for a greater purpose, a purpose with value that can lead to a transformation of one’s environment. This is the gift bestowed upon us by education if we have the courage to embrace this possibility. At Soka University, I see it as my job to raise the next generation of global leaders, a new generation of young leaders who will be dauntless in their efforts to transform their environment.

Agents of Change: Empowered Individuals

A primary school in Quito, Ecuador: education that sparks an inner transformation is a powerful source of empowerment [© Dieter Telemans/Panos Pictures/Uniphoto Press]

Changing the destiny of humankind for the better can be accomplished, step by step, person by person. We are seeing empowered individuals transforming the world in various fields and sectors. Their courage to create is paving new pathways for humanity. One such individual whose work illustrates this for me is Shahzia Sikander, a Pakistan-born visual artist. A woman whose work crosses many boundaries and is constantly developing, she says: “I felt empowered, and it was precisely that inspiration that I held onto and which allowed me to continue taking risks and transform my work for more than two decades.” She speaks of an inspiration that fuels the courage to take risks and transform ourselves and that allows us to create a new future, a new perspective, a new artistic piece.

Empowerment unleashes our inner potential and brings forth our true self. Daisaku Ikeda describes this when he says: “To lead a life in which we are inspired and can inspire others, our hearts have to be alive; they have to be filled with passion and enthusiasm. To achieve that, we need the courage to live true to ourselves. Rather than borrowing from or imitating others, we need the conviction to be able to think for ourselves and to take action out of our own sense of responsibility.”

Education can propel us on this path of empowerment. One by one, empowered to transform ourselves and our environment, we become the critical mass of change. Empowered, courageous, creative individuals are the human capital of change and the hope of the future. Our children and youth are our link to the future. So how can we best respond to their hopes and dreams? By recognizing, honoring and promoting the education that can tap into the rich potential of their lives: wealthy, poor, brown, white, male, female.

related article Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching by  William Aiken,  director of public affairs, SGI-USA Reflecting upon the SGI-USA community, William Aiken provides a Buddhist perspective on the future trends for religion in the US. We are individuals, “creative capital” from diverse communities living in a rapidly changing world. Sikander’s example encourages us to think creatively and respond to the complex realities of our present-day world. This is the same challenge being presented to our students at Soka University. They are being prepared for jobs of the future, jobs that do not yet exist!

Dr. Linda Sanchez of Colorado State University-Global Campus states that the purpose of education in the future should be to strengthen global interconnections that challenge cultural and political boundaries, boundaries that are temporary. Education will allow us to imagine new, interconnected realities. Our rapidly changing world will present us with challenges of a global scale. These are challenges I want to face courageously and creatively, alongside others who no longer feel invisible. And while I am no longer that little girl feeling invisible, I recognize that there are many who have not yet gained access to their inner potential.

The challenges of our time call on us to become the “creative capital” that creates broad access to empowering education that will enable us, individually and as a global community, to break through even the most difficult realities. Let no child remain invisible. Let no adolescent feel powerless. Let us open a path to empowerment through education.

Maria Guajardo

Maria Guajardo is dean of the Faculty of International Liberal Arts at Soka University in Japan. She was previously executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Education and Children in Denver, Colorado. She is a graduate of Harvard University and has a Ph.D. from the University of Denver. She is a member of SGI. [© Wayne Armstrong]

Courtesy April issue of the 2015 SGI Quarterly.

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