Blossoming of Creative Engagement
Aarti Tejuja takes her seat as the Chicago Shambhala Center’s new Director of Social Engagement
by Mabinti Dennis
In 2009, when Aarti Tejuja from the Chicago Shambhala Center was temporarily unemployed, she applied for and received the Shambhala People of Color Scholarship Fund Leadership Award, to attend a dathun and later Warrior’s Assembly. She continued to follow the Shambhala path all the way to Rigden Abhisheka and Scorpion Seal Assembly. She then took a job at the Chicago Shambhala Center. Currently, she is Director of Social Engagement, a new position that was jointly created by Aarti and the center’s Director, Tom Adducci.
As Director of Social Engagement, Aarti has created a host of new programs and ways for people to connect with Shambhala, connections that don’t take Shambhala’s typical approach of open houses and classes. For Aarti, the linear path in which Shambhala is organized worked well, but after learning more about the Chicago community, she started to see there were other ways that people in Chicago could engage with the Shambhala Center.
She says, “The sequential, linear way that Shambhala Training is organized doesn’t work for everyone. Through my work with communities and non-profits in Chicago, and with the ‘Speak Up Chicago’ youth-led program, I have found that people learn a lot just by interacting, connecting, and talking with others. In providing access to dharma teachings, I want to find ways for people to connect that might look different from our typical approach.”
“Speak Up Chicago” evolved from engaging youth who first came to the “Imagining Peace” program in 2013, with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Josh Beltran, a young person from Humboldt Park who attended the program, asked Aarti if he could start to host an open mic night at the Shambhala Center. That first idea has blossomed into monthly open mic nights, contemplative and nature retreats, family dinners, and other community events, drawing hundreds of youth and adults from diverse Chicago neighborhoods. At Speak Up events, youth and adults, no matter what age, race, sexual orientation, income level, or group they identify with, are encouraged to express their creativity and voice through any medium they choose. The Open Mic nights include musical performances, spoken word, comedy, dance—any form of expression is accepted. There was a pair of Mormons who once spoke, and children as young as 6 and 7 years old have performed at these events.
Coming together and sharing in community, using tools like Peace Circles, can help to address the social injustices, trauma, and violence that affect so many Chicago communities. At the core of Speak Up Chicago are fourteen youth and adults who manage the program—the youngest is 12 and the oldest 38. They hold their meetings using Peace Circles. Peace Circles come from the Lakota tradition which, like Shambhala, sees basic goodness in everyone. This approach supports listening from the heart and speaking one’s own truth. It can be helpful in humanizing difficult situations.
Peace Circles were introduced to the Shambhala Chicago community through the local restorative justice community. Kay Pranis, one of the founders of Chicago’s restorative justice work, was brought in to train Shambhala Chicago in Peace Circles. The Peace Circle format is being used in work that the Shambhala Center is doing with young people at Orr High School. It is also being used at the Shambhala Center for meetings, diversity trainings, and meditation.
Recently, one of the Speak Up Chicago leaders, Josh Beltran, went to Shambhala Mountain Center to serve on staff for 3 weeks this summer. His time there spawned an interest in taking Shambhala Training Level One himself. Aarti feels that the experience of community is a key to welcoming diversity to the Shambhala world.
In addition to her work with young people, Aarti has been active with interfaith networks. She recently represented Shambhala in the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in Rome which included an audience with Pope Francis. She was captured on Vatican television offering the Pope a kata. She originally thought that the Pope would know what to do with the kata, but when it was clear he did not, in her bold, brave, and creative style, she thought fast on her feet, and offered the kata on behalf of the Sakyong and the Shambhala tradition. Of her interfaith work, Aarti says, “When I meet someone of a different faith, I never have any intention of trying to change anyone’s path, but rather, I want to find commonalities, our mutual ground. The point isn’t to debate beliefs, but to recognize human dignity, and come together on that.”
Aarti addresses what some may see as shortcomings in the Shambhala People of Color Scholarship Fund. “While some people have problems with the term ‘people of color,’ we must recognize that it’s complicated; of course not all identify with that label, and no one wants to be reduced to a category.” The intention of the Scholarship Fund is to help people in specific under-represented groups move forward on their Shambhala paths. The way that the Fund is currently set up is to be available for people attending more advanced programs rather than entry level programs. Aarti comments that “The way the scholarship is currently administered requires a certain level of training in order to apply. We need to find new ways for people of color to enter the path in the first place, and those might not look the way we are used to.”
Aarti is interested in finding new ways for more people to enter the path at the beginning level. She suggests that Shambhala support inventive ways for land centers to offer entry programs for people of color. Once example is the recent meditation program at Karme Choling, led by Acharya Gaylon Ferguson for recent graduates from Howard University’s Masters of Divinity program. Aarti is currently working on the upcoming Chicago Shambhala program with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and Ani Pema Chodron for Spring 2016. She continues to bring the Sakyong’s vision for social engagement alive in Shambhala.
You can support the Shambhala People of Color Scholarship Fund Leadership Awards by making a donation through the Sakyong Foundation at http://www.sakyongfoundation.org
Mabinti Dennis is one of the founding members of the POC scholarship fund. She has been a member of the Toronto Shambhala Center for over 20 years. Mabinti is involved in the Black community where she is facilitating workshops for youths who are in transition from prison to school, community and home life.