A Baha’i-inspired media project in Toronto had the opportunity to share insights from experience with Shia Ismaili Muslim educators, who are asking questions about the spiritual education of young people and the influence of media on their lives.
The Illumine Media Project began in 2012 in St. James Town, Toronto, as an initiative that engages youth in storytelling and media production. It produces films that reflect the physical and social environments of its creators, and seeks to tell stories that reflect the spiritual dimension of peoples’ lives. The films are shown in community and school settings, where they stimulate conversations about how young people can participate in the process of social change.
Approximately 2,600 youth across Toronto have seen Illumine Media’s films in schools, community centres, and at the Regent Park Film Festival. The roughly 20-person team that creates and produces the films is largely comprised of local youth.
Fayyaz Ali, a Shia Ismaili Muslim community educator, met Esther Maloney, the Director of Illumine, at a conference in Toronto on the role of religion in society. As they talked over lunch, they found that they were grappling with many of the same questions about the spiritual aspirations of youth and the way in which the media they are exposed to and creating reflect those aspirations. Ali invited Maloney to share Illumine’s experience with a group of fourty-five educators from across Canada who gathered at the Ismaili Centre for a yearly Shia Ismaili Muslim Educators Professional Development Summit.
At the summit, Maloney invited the participants to consider what kind of stories youth need right now in order to live their lives. Educators shared the need for stories that inspire a kind of hope that builds the resilience needed to face the many challenges youth are facing. A discussion paper was shared which guided small group discussions on youth, society, and media. Participants talked together about how young people are affected by various forces within their environments, such as materialism and celebrity culture.
“They talked a lot about the forces of truth, knowledge and beauty and how these concepts are reflected in the spaces we and they are creating as educators,” Maloney shared. “We talked about channeling the talents and interests youth have, for example for sports, towards local efforts within their communities or helping the younger generation.”
After these discussions, the group watched an episode of How We Grow, as an example of the way Illumine is learning about integrating spiritual concepts into their scripts and portrayals of youth. One participant noted the way the episode spoke to her own reality, both around making a big decision but also how “it wasn’t a perfectly curated scene, it felt like real life”. Another described the way both the discussion paper and the episode moved away from a deficit perspective of youth, rather seeing them as inherently capable of transforming their communities. Others asked thought-provoking questions related to their own work with youth in communities, imagining ways of drawing spiritual insights into creative work at the grassroots.
The concept of the connection between the spiritual and material aspects of our lives was attractive to several who were present, highlighting a common desire of both Baha’is and Ismaili educators to draw these seemingly separate aspects of our humanity closer together in our efforts with youth.