Maliha Chishti, Bhante Saranapala, Jim O’Mara, Lesra Martin, Bindu Dhaliwal and Duff Conacher
For Maliha Chishti, director of the Hague Appeal for Peace in New York, Oct. 31, 2000 stands out as the high point of her career. On that day, the United Nations Security Council endorsed an initiative to protect women in areas of armed conflict and to include them in all levels of decision-making in the peace-negotiating process. “The last century is considered the bloodiest in history,” says Chishti. Citing examples of rape in Bosnia and forced prostitution in Sierra Leone, she says, “We can see the intense impact of war on women…it is essential to include them in all levels of discussion concerning a conflict.”
The Hague Appeal is the UN campaign that carries out the mandate for peace education of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Its honorary board includes Nelson Mandela, Queen Noor of Jordan and Bishop Desmond Tutu. As director, Chishti, 28, sees education playing the key role in building a lasting peace. “We want to establish peace-education centres around the world,” she says. She is inspired in part by the progressive work being done by OISE at the U of T, where she earned her MA last year studying education, community development and transformative learning. She will return to OISE in the fall to begin her doctoral studies in the same program. – Hilary Davidson
Just as celebrities such as Leonard Cohen and Richard Gere created media hype when they discovered Buddhism, Bhante Saranapala, a Buddhist monk, discovered that he generated some celebrity buzz of his own while attending U of T. “I went to class as a monk and it was unseen at the university,” says Rev. Saranapala, 29, who earned his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy last year at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. “People were surprised and curious. They said I looked pretty cool.” Much like the Buddha himself, he soon was in demand as a spiritual adviser.
“I only had one negative experience. It was a group of students who said, ‘Look at that’ and used a bad word, which I can’t repeat,” he says, chuckling. “I was not upset. I was smiling. I said, ‘You know as a human being you’re supposed to respect other human beings, and you have to understand I am a Buddhist monk.’ The next day, people from the group came to me and apologized.”
Born in Bangladesh, he became a monk at age 12, as all boys following Buddhist tradition do. He expected to stay at the monastery a few weeks; instead, he found his calling and spent 10 years studying at a Sri Lankan monastery before coming to Canada to teach at the Westend Buddhist Centre in Mississauga.
Pursuing an MA at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Saranapala lectures across North America and conducts meditation sessions at U of T, McMaster and the Westend centre. “Teaching is my life,” he says. “It gives me tremendous happiness.” – Margaret Webb
Jim O’Mara earned two bachelor’s degrees at U of T – one in phys. ed. in 1998 and the other in education in 2000 – but it was his connection to the Newman Centre that would provide him with a job upon graduation. When the centre’s chaplain, Father Tom Rosica, became CEO of World Youth Day 2002, he invited O’Mara to join his team – which included U of T grads Larissa Gray (BA 1997 Trinity), Chris Radziminski (MASc 2000) and Roger Halfacre (BA 1984, MTS 1993 St. Michael’s). “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event of such huge importance,” says O’Mara. The 17th annual World Youth Day, to be hosted by Toronto in July 2002, will involve a 10-day pilgrimage that will include a papal visit. For the first five days, foreign delegates aged 16 to 35 will visit dioceses in Canada. The second half of the event will be set in Toronto, and will feature workshops, service projects (like Habitat for Humanity) and special masses. The expected attendance of the final vigil and mass, both led by Pope John Paul II and open to all ages, is 750,000 people.
O’Mara, whose job involves computer support and registration, was one of 12 delegates sent to Rome in the summer of 2000 to work at its World Youth Day celebrations. While there he had the opportunity to meet the Pope. “There was a group of Polish orphans ahead of us, and the most amazing thing was watching them laughing and playing with him,” says O’Mara. “That affected me deeply.” – Hilary Davidson
How far can a book take someone? In Lesra Martin’s case, from a New York slum all the way to the Crown attorney’s office and the Academy Awards.
Shortly after coming to Canada at age 16 and discovering that he was functionally illiterate, Martin (BA 1988 Innis) came across The 16th Round, boxing champion Rubin Carter’s account of his wrongful imprisonment for murder. The book lit a fire in Martin’s heart. “What is illiteracy if it’s not a type of prison?” Martin has written. “You’re locked in your own mind.”
Martin wrote to Carter in prison, initiating a friendship and campaign to reopen Carter’s case that would eventually lead to the boxer’s release. The story was recently celebrated in the film The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison (BA 1949 Victoria). It garnered an Oscar nomination for its star, Denzel Washington, and considerable attention for Martin’s personal journey: from U of T where he earned a BA in anthropology, to Dalhousie University where he received a law degree, to a career as a Crown prosecutor in Kamloops, B.C.
Last year, Martin left his legal career to concentrate full time on championing the cause of literacy and is at work on a book about his own experiences. He wants to reach out to teens much like himself at 15. “I’ll never forget where I came from,” he has said. “I am who I am because of my life in the ghetto.” – Margaret Webb
When Bindu Dhaliwal was 19, she decided to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing as a youth delegate. The only problem was, she needed to figure out how to fund the trip. She and her friend Denise Campbell decided to create a series of learning tools about challenges facing young Canadian women. “I felt a great responsibility…there is a lack of emphasis on the issues women face,” says Dhaliwal, 25. She set about collecting first-person stories from young women around the world, then produced a book, video and CD-ROM package called Challenge the Assumptions, which has found a place in women’s studies programs in universities and high schools.
Dhaliwal (BCom 1998 UTM) received a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case (the 1929 case allowed women to serve in the Senate). She was, in fact, the first-ever recipient of a new category of the award, which was created for young women activists.
Having just completed her second year of law at Queen’s University, Dhaliwal is as busy as ever. She is working with the Young Women Connect Project, which engages women in dialogue about issues of race, violence and poverty. She is also creating other learning tools through the group. – Hilary Davidson
After Duff Conacher graduated from U of T’s law school in 1991, he looked high and low for a group that worked on democracy-related issues, such as government ethics and corporate accountability. When he couldn’t find one that he liked, he decided to create his own, and in 1993, Democracy Watch was born. The Ottawa-based citizen advocacy group is non-profit and non-partisan, and it has tackled a variety of issues.
One of its key interests has been in the area of campaign finance reform: Democracy Watch is trying to convince legislators to ban secret donations, which are allowed in federal politics. “It’s not democratic to say wealth should be the driving force in the political system,” says Conacher, 37. “Wealth drives the marketplace, but it should not drive politics. No one person should be able to have more influence [because of money] than another.” In a similar vein, Democracy Watch has opposed former elected officials becoming lobbyists.
Conacher’s active defence of democratic principles is rooted in a love of his homeland. “Canadians are far too modest,” he says. “Both government and schools have failed to let Canadians know about their world leaders and accomplishments.” To that end, Conacher co-wrote a book with American consumer advocate Ralph Nader entitled Canada Firsts, published in 1992. It was followed in 1999 with More Canada Firsts, which Conacher wrote alone. “Too many people think you have to go to the U.S. to be a leader.” – Hilary Davidson