An Interview with Stephanie Tansey
NOTE: Stephanie Tansey contributed greatly to peace and understanding throughout the world for nearly four more years after this interview. Sadly, she passed away March 2019. She continued creating value in her own neighborhood in Washington, DC right up until the week of her death. Read more below, in the three paragraphs added to her biography.
Stephanie Tansey currently lives and works in Beijing, China as an editor with New World Press. She also teaches at Beijing Normal University. There she aids graduate students in developing dialogue skills for creating sustainable communities. She is also a co-founder of the Earth Charter Communities Network (ECCN), which “is a social enterprise that uses dialogue to help people design and develop lifelong sustainable lifestyles for themselves. Its mission is to help people reconnect with nature and with their community.” Stephanie is also the author of a book, Recovery of the Heart, Dialogues with People Working towards a Sustainable Beijing. Her 42 years practicing Buddhism strongly influence her focus on dialogue and sustainability.
As a member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a lay Buddhist organization, Stephanie has extensively studied the writings of the religion’s founder, Nichiren, and those of successive SGI leaders. In our interview, we will explore how her faith and study contribute to her success in establishing educational programs and creating dialogue in not only China but Africa and Israel, locales where her husband Bob served while in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Quarterly: So Stephanie, if I can encapsulate several related themes of what you are involved in, you focus on working with real people—in neighborhoods, to assist them in making their community a better place through their own efforts—using dialogue with one another, rather than pursuing governmental, organizational or higher level intervention. Is that fair to say?
S Tansey: We have not started in communities yet. We are still working on student educators who experience creating change by being in our classes and so gain the experience of how it feels to really help and make a difference. So they can teach from this wisdom in their classes. We are now also, actually my Chinese colleagues are, teaching Nature Education for Urban Children at Olympic Forest Park [a large, man-made nature park created for the 2008 Olympics; it has walking and jogging paths, as well as a lake].
Our curriculum always includes Makiguchi’s1 maxim–reconnect to nature and help your community as well as ancient Chinese principles–such as harmony between humans and nature. We are looking at helping recreate symbiosis–helping children find their deep relationship with nature again.
Quarterly: OK, since you mentioned Makiguchi, let me bring up Daisaku Ikeda.2 Notably, in several of the “peace proposals” he has issued annually since 1983, he has emphasized sustainability and sustainable development. As a practicing Buddhist and a member of the SGI, how much have Ikeda’s proposals and your understanding of Buddhist principles influenced your work?
S Tansey: Daisaku Ikeda’s philosophy of peace has certainly informed my work. His peace proposals stem from this philosophy. This philosophy has its foundation in Nichiren Buddhism. Ikeda, and his predecessors, Josei Toda and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, are great models of putting Buddhist principles into practice. It is also how I live my life so this informs my teaching.
Quarterly: So my somewhat ambiguous description of a “better place,” really results from a focus on sustainability it seems. In addition to Daisaku Ikeda’s proposals your work also relates to the Earth Charter Initiative–is that correct?
S Tansey: I would say sustainability+ because I believe each community could and should have a voice and that voice should be heard–for justice, against injustice, for nuclear disarmament, against war, for the dignity of life, against human and life rights abuses.
Quarterly: Can you explain more on what you mean by sustainability+ and why that is important?
S Tansey: In other words sustainability should mean more than recycling. It has to have a deep sense of spiritual dignity and be how ordinary people come into their own as the rightful conscience and character of the planet
Quarterly: Again, rather than working directly on a global macro scale, you focus your efforts on a local or micro scale—with the assumption, I believe, that this is the most effective means to achieve the desired outcomes—spreading from locale to region and so on. Am I correct?
S Tansey: Yes. Deeply connecting one child at a time, one teacher, creates a voice.
Quarterly: Tell us more about how the various groups you work with and your efforts have already made an impact.
S Tansey: During my husband Bob’s first assignment to China in 1993, I created the New School of Collaborative Learning, a K-12 bilingual school in Beijing. From 1993 through 2004, NSCL educated students in both English and Chinese, as well as teaching math and culture from both the Eastern and Western pedagogical traditions. Makiguchi’s value creating educational principles formed the basis of the curriculum. Our mission was to nurture students to want to be global citizens. In offering a bilingual education, it differed from other schools available to children of diplomats and other people working in China as well as offering the local residents an opportunity to study in English alongside others.
I also created an Earth Charter Dialogue Program for Israelis in the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas while Bob worked there as Environment, Science, Technology and Health Officer from 2004 through part of 2007. Bob’s final posting took us to Nigeria later in 2007 through most of 2009. During that time, I taught dialogue skills at the African School of Excellence in Suleja outside of the capital, Abuja. The principal, Abu Augustine, remains connected to my Earth Charter Communities Network. Together we transformed the school and the community–demonstrating the power of dialogue.
Quarterly: So you returned to China after the stint in Nigeria and began teaching at Beijing Normal University?
S Tansey: Yes. After retiring from the Foreign Service, Bob returned to China in late 2009 to work with The Nature Conservancy. I became an instructor in the graduate program at Beijing Normal University helping geography student teachers train in dialogue skills. We work with BNU’s Environmental Education Center together with others in a project–Friends of Olympic Forest Park–we want to have a Nature Center in the Park. We have begun with Nature Education for Urban Children, but also want to develop Dialogue with Nature walks for groups like mothers with children, families, retired people, citizen scientists, students; as well as businesses looking to learn how and why to develop sustainability in their operations. For example, I work with a local restaurant to let students get the experience of truly helping the proprietor create more sustainable operations in his restaurant.
Quarterly: And your efforts led to your book, Recovery of the Heart?
S Tansey: Yes—well actually it results from our Earth Charter Communities Network initiatives. It is written as a dialogue with nine Beijingers, depicting their struggles and passions. It shows how Chinese wisdom and values interconnect with the future, sustainable Beijing. China’s capacity to create its ecological civilization will depend on such people. It is also illustrative of the differences in Chinese and Western thought on humanity’s relationship with nature.
Quarterly: So what’s next?
S Tansey: Well, we (the ECCN) are working on a Sustainability Education Program that creates travel programs between the U.S and Beijing to deepen outside education–so people can reconnect to nature and give back to their community. This is for Beijing teachers and middle schools students. We want to create a dialogue around nature education between Americans and Chinese. We need diversity in nature education to really transform human beings. For example, harmony through diversity is not an easy thing for Americans to conceive of, yet it is an ancient principle in Asia–but you find it in nature and in the universe. So harmony through diversity should be at least somewhere in the conversation about how to heal our relationship with nature and coexist with each other as well.
Quarterly: And you are working on a second book, about?
S Tansey: It doesn’t have a title yet, but this book will look at sustainable communities east and west. One in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, DC and the other near the Olympic area to the north of Beijing called Feng Lin Lv Zhou apartment compound.
Quarterly: Any parting observations about the influences of Nichiren and the SGI leaders?
S Tansey: I believe that have a unique mission, just like them. My life experiences, now looking back, every one of them, helped lay out my path of self-discovery and revelation of my true worth. At the same time I believe that Dr. Ikeda is right and that, despite all appearances, we are moving towards renaissance of the human species. To get there we must all maintain hope, resolve all issues together collaboratively and help each other do our very best at accomplishing this victory.
Quarterly: Thank you so much, Stephanie! We look forward to that next book.
Born to American parents, she grew up in the Kansai area of Japan, living in a house inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. There she attended the Canadian Academy, an international school for primary and secondary students. The isolating experience of that education later influenced her creation of the New School of Collaborative Learning. Although she modestly claims only some proficiency in Japanese and Chinese, I suspect she knows more. How else could she create and teach at her K-12 school or at Beijing Normal University? I happen to know she also regularly translated lectures on Buddhism from Japanese into English for American members living in the Washington, DC area in the 1970s and 1980s. Her husband Bob served in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1985 through most of 2009. She has two adult children, one who works for the US Agency for International Development in Africa and another who teaches at Dunbar High School in Washington, DC.
Just as she did in countries around the world, Stephanie encouraged and led dialogue among people of diverse racial, ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. She established the Brightwood Community Dialogue Center soon after her return to Washington, DC and co-sponsored an open mic and community dialogue series the Center conducted in coordination with the New Sewell Music Conservatory, which featured music and dialogue for building community.
The Earth Charter Communities Network, which she founded, has closed. But others of her efforts continue. One is the Creative Educators International Network (CEIN)–which Stephanie co-founded in 2003. As it says on its website, CEIN’s a “non-profit NGO dedicated to inspiring educators who are implementing Value-Creating Education in different ways.” Similar to ECCN, it also works on “Sustainable Community Education.” CEIN partners with the Earth Charter International.
From the Buddhist perspective (the faith which guided her daily life for decades) only this temporary existence has ended. Her entity of a life well lived will enter an intermediate stage from which she will be reborn. Affording another opportunity to again spread joy and happiness among her fellow beings.
1 The founder and first president of the Soka Gakkai (not yet international) was an elementary school principal and educator; see more on him in the Buddhism and Pragmatism series in this edition of the Eagle Peak Quarterly.
2 The third president of the Soka Gakkai and later the leader of the SGI, founded January 26, 1975. The SGI links 12 million people around the world in 192 countries and territories.