On April 21, the DePaul University Institute for Daisaku Ikeda Studies in Education welcomed Cynthia B. Dillard to deliver the 2021 Ikeda Lecture, “Black Feminism and Society for Education.” The Mary Frances Early Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Georgia, Dillard is an internationally renowned author and educator and has written on critical education, spirituality, endarkened feminism and African American studies in education. Due to the continued coronavirus pandemic, this year’s lecture was held on a virtual platform and attended by more than 1600 participants from 22 countries.
The evening opened with a welcome by Institute director, Jason Goulah. The annual Ikeda Lecture series features renowned scholars engaging with themes in Daisaku Ikeda’s work in the fields of peace, culture, and education. This year’s lecture commemorated the 20th anniversary of Ikeda’s proposal for a paradigm shift from education serving society’s interest to society serving the essential needs of human education. Highlighting the resonance between Dillard’s work in Black or endarkened feminism and spirituality and Ikeda’s educational ideals, Goulah stated:
By education, Ikeda does not mean just schooling, but rather the process of being and becoming that is the mission of every individual in society, and for Ikeda, as for Cynthia Dillard, this kind of transformative education depends on deep penetrating dialogue: dialogue with oneself, with one’s ancestors in the past, and with a profoundly internalized other across difference and borders. Dialogue is the loadstar, the surest and the most courageous and powerful form of activism and truly human becoming.
Goulah concluded, “Dr. Dillard’s work resounds with tonight’s theme and reminds us that the orbital shift that Ikeda envisions requires all of us to remember and (re)member what and how we know.”
Dillard opened her lecture by sharing her encounter with Ikeda’s work. When she was living in Japan as a doctoral student, she was handed Letters of Four Seasons, a collection of letters exchanged between Ikeda and Yasushi Inoue, a renowned Japanese writer. One of the letters, titled “Teacher and Taught,” was particularly important to Dillard. In it, Ikeda discussed “the absolute necessity of relationship in educational endeavors,” and stated “the basis of friendships whether student to student or student to teacher is only effective and respectful if they presume that human life is priceless and that we are all part of a larger human family that extends into what we call the past that rests in what we call the present and looks to what we call the future.”
In her lecture, Dillard discussed the core themes and ideas in Ikeda’s 2000 essay and how they intersect with her work in education in Ghana. She shared that both Ikeda and endarkened feminist theories of education emphasize that “schools and systems of education will change only when we attend to the human spirit within society, to that thing that animates education, what Ikeda refers to as the bonds and interactions between people.”
To show an example of a society that can nurse schools, she introduced the ethos embraced at the school she built in the village of Mpeasem in Ghana, where, based on the idea of Sankofa, understanding who one is in the great circles of life requires one to remember the past. She argues that “in order for societies to be well so that schools can then be well, we must start stories of our multiple pasts, at their root for Black people. That is on the continent of Africa, and our ancestors are calling us to act to be responsible and response-able to that past, this present, and to our future.”
At her school in Ghana, she explains, anyone would be greeted by the spirit of Black people in the children, teachers, and community who are prepared and ready for their visit. Underneath their invitation is the spirit of Ubuntu: I am because you are. She described the warm invitation and spirit of her students in Ghana:
Come here, we have prepared for you. You are welcome. I exist because you do. I appreciate your life stories even if they’re not my own, and I’ll make an effort to learn about you so I will know how to best care for you. I recognize that your life stories are gifts to me, sacred and worthy of reverence. As part of the human story, they are my stories too. Fundamentally, I grow larger and better able to serve when I know how you are.
Such readiness for the spirit of Black life in the U.S. starts with “understanding and being conscious of and paying attention to the order, power, and unity that flows through all of life that encompasses and energy and responsibility greater than ourselves.” She adds, “for a society and schools to be ready for Black children, we must be spiritually and morally healthy enough and courageous enough to wade in the water of those histories that had brought us to this point. That is part of that ‘self-reflective attitude’ that Ikeda called us towards.”
To reimagine education in the spirituality of Black people, Dillard shared her framework of (re)membering, which she elaborates more in her forthcoming book: The Spirit of Our Work: Black Women Teachers (Re)member. The first lesson is that “we both, society and its teachers, must be willing to (re)search.” The parentheses around “re” indicates that it is a doing again. Dillard said “(re)search requires us to face the good, the bad and the ugly within ourselves through deeper engagement and interactions with unapologetic Black people and Black life again.” The second lesson is that “through this search for deep engagements with Black culture and heritage knowledge, we will (re)vision as teachers what we think we know about Black people.” Third, “we must begin to (re)cognize, that is to think differently, and quite literally change our minds about who Black people are, what Black people have accomplished, and the cultural and social brilliance of Black people from the continent to the diaspora and back again. The fourth lesson is that “we must actually (re)present or represent ourselves as teachers in new ways.” And lastly, “we must be willing to (re)claim African heritage and culture as part of African American culture in the spirit of Sankofa from Ghana. We must go back and get what we need from African history and bring it forward for use in our present.”
Sharing how children and teachers in Mpeasem created the society and schools for Black children, Dillard closed her lecture encouraging us to create such spaces for Black children across globe.
The lecture was followed by the Q&A with Dillard moderated by Goulah. One of the questions asked was how to teach and cultivate such a sense of spirituality in schools. Dillard answered that the spirituality she discusses is not about subscribing to any particular religious teachings or doctrines, but more about learning “to be and then by extension [learning] to be together.” She encouraged us to gain a better understanding of what animates a person and their work, what brought us here, and what else we need to know to understand those who we don’t know. She called these kinds of notions deep spiritual notions and stressed the importance of exploring these notions especially now when multicultural education and culturally sustaining and culturally relevant education are being promoted.
To find more information about Dillard’s book and the newly published book on Daisaku Ikeda’s educational philosophy, please see below:
The Spirit of Our Work: Black Women Teachers (Re)member
You can order this book from here.
Hope and Joy in Education: Engaging Daisaku Ikeda Across Curriculum
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Order from US: rebrand.ly/HopeAndJoyTCP
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