How 10 days at the ASHA Centre Transformed, Inspired and Enriched the First-Ever World Zoroastrian Youth Leaders Forum
In the heart of pastoral Gloucestershire, England, the transformational ASHA Centre played host and facilitator for the first World Zoroastrian Youth Leaders Forum. Uniting 20 Zoroastrian youth leaders from a myriad of views, backgrounds and geographies – the Forum aimed to form a vision, mission and action plan for tackling some of the most contentious issues facing the vibrant but diminishing worldwide Zoroastrian community.
Article by Jim Engineer
March 16 – 25, 2018 (Gloucestershire, England) —The first gathering of our group felt wonderful outside London’s Victoria Coach Station, where we met to embark on our three-hour journey to the ASHA Centre. It was at the ASHA Centre where we would spend the next 10 days deep into introspection, bonding, consensus building with no shortage of laughs and hugs to make each moment an instant memory.
This timely and purposeful Zoroastrian ‘coming together’ of next generation leaders would not have been possible without the devotion, dedication and leadership of Sanaya Master. Sanaya, who helped organize the Sixth World Zoroastrian Youth Congress alongside fellow New Zealander Tinaz Karbhari (also a WZYLF participant), took on an internship at the ASHA Centre in 2017. Important related aside: Sanaya’s mother, Farida Master, is the noted author of an acclaimed biography on ASHA Centre founder Zerbanoo Gifford, An Uncensored Life. It ultimately would be Sanaya’s energy and leadership that turned ideas on paper into transformative life experiences for all of us.
Located in the heart of lush, rolling, pastoral English countryside dotted by sheep and heavy dairy cows, the ASHA Centre is a restored Georgian home located next to the historic Gunn’s Mill, currently under preservation as a United Kingdom historical site.
On one side of the property is an expansive farm catering to the grazing needs of its many wooly sheep, and on the other side, nothing but spectacular trees surround the ASHA Centre, which sits neatly in an enclave within the heart of the magical Forest of Dean. This ancient woodland is believed to be the inspiration behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s mysterious woods of Middle Earth.
The Centre is comprised of two large dining halls, a library, cottages to house large visiting groups, and a kitchen fueled by the passion and dedication of staff and volunteers from around the world. Their energy, generosity, wholesomeness and joy exuded through the colorful medley of meals they cooked.
What defines the Centre are endless rows of stunning rose bushes, tulips, a rich green grass expanse and stunning foliage. The Centre nurtures large biodynamic vegetable patches and greenhouses. Adjacent to the forest are pathways that lead to a labyrinth and an Eco Lodge for meditation and relaxation. But most intoxicating is the stream that runs through the property from the top of the Forest of Dean and the famous landmark, St. Anthony’s Well (pictured below).
Leadership, Courage Defined the Past
The harmonious sound of the stream, the purity of the water, and the relentless zeal of the stream to never stop running for thousands of years is a reflection of the spirit and courage of Zerbanoo Gifford. Zerbanoo has been a progressive, forward-thinking champion of social justice, women’s rights, racial equality, interfaith tolerance and environmental sustainability for decades. Faced with death threats when she ran for elected office in early 1980s London. She went on to serve as a Councillor for Harrow and chaired the Race Relations Forum set up by the Home Secretary leading to a storied career championing human rights causes. Her example of courage and depth of historical context provided rare color to our efforts, as we sat in awe of Zerbanoo’s trailblazing example. Our goal was to celebrate our interconnectedness as a group, to trust each other, to respect each other’s views, and to form a vision for future Zoroastrian generations living in harmony and thriving as a united community.
Zerbanoo at the outset spotlighted the contributions of legendary Iranian and Parsi Zoroastrians who went beyond the Zoroastrian community to lead the world. She described her admiration for her heroes: from the iconic Dadabhai Noaroji, Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and Jamsetjee Tata, to well-known modern-day Zoroastrians including Ratan Tata, Zubin Mehta, Freddie Mercury, and authors Bapsi Sidhwa and Rohinton Mistry. Zerbanoo’s example is tied to going beyond one’s traditional comfort zone, to affect change in the world, and to pursue our dreams and endeavors without fear or favor.
Every big endeavor, from grassroots movements to a sea change in thinking, is ultimately challenged by naysayers and doubters; by a small few who aim to polarize and marginalize a more silent majority, instead of uniting and coming together in spite of our differences.
It is through this thread of common decency and mutual respect for one another that we were able to maintain a focus on our shared obligations: to form the fabric for an interconnected working group inspired to turn ideas into action and fostering dialogue focused on our commonality and shared beliefs.
Circular Living and a Forming a Vision for a Sustainable Future
Each day would bring an introduction to our surroundings at the ASHA Centre. The Centre itself is a model for sustainable living and consistent with the Centre’s circular design at almost every turn. The cottages where we stayed were laid out around the Centre, adjacent to the Energy Room. Two large greenhouses and the garden shedsit atop two large and hearty vegetable gardens surrounded pathways that lead to a bonfire pit, Eco-Lodge for meditation, a Labyrinth for meditation and soul searching, and eventually the stream.
It would be the stream’s beauty that simply intoxicated the landscape. The water’s flow, form, relentlessness and continuity made it particularly poignant when we celebrated water on Ava Roj and Ava Maino, gathering by the stream and led in prayer by our young Mobeds: Erv. Karl Desai (Australia), Erv. Jehaan Kotwal (India), Erv. Jimmy Madon (UK/India), and Erv. Sheherezad Pavri (India). The next generation of Zoroastrian priests, the role they play in our community, the enormous responsibility they have, and the obvious pressure of the community’s many complexities, was simply profound and we as a group stood in awe of them.
The daily introspection we gained, individually and as a group, was stimulated by our surroundings. We never watched TV, were rarely in front of our computers or on the phone; we were not stressed or distracted and always open to new ideas, techniques, and methods for achieving consensus and unity as we began to form our vision for the future.
The ASHA Centre achieves and imparts purpose through a myriad of techniques: the written and spoken word, meditation, visualisation and the arts, all aimed at building trust between one another and most importantly building consensus on the issues challenging the global Zoroastrian community.
Discussions during the day were hosted and facilitated superbly by the Centre’s co-directors Mark Gifford (left) and Adrian Locher. Mark is one of two sons born to Zerbanoo and her husband Richard. The couple’s youngest son, Alexander, serves as the Artistic Director at the Gloucester Theatre Company. Adrian, a leading visual artist and Executive Producer at the Gloucester Theatre Company, would be invaluable alongside Mark for boundless leadership, generosity, thoughtfulness, creativity, sensitivity, and a depth of understanding that enabled us as a group to not just work together, but to cultivate, map and prioritize the maze of issues challenging our future.
It all started with a vision. As we began to envision our ideal Zoroastrian future, perhaps 50 to 100 years from now, we used meditation to produce visuals that ultimately would form a valuable experience. Specifically, we were given poster sized sheets, scissors, tape, glue and boxes full of old magazines and began collaging pictures, words and other visuals to best represent our vision for an ideal Zoroastrian future. Omnipresent through the collages were themes of sustainability, care for the environment, strengthened relationships and an abundance of food, love and nature.
The lens through which we viewed the Forum was worldwide in scope, yet our experiences were tied to our home continents and regional involvements. Each one of us brought a unique perspective, view and level of leadership that qualified our involvement and enabled us to speak ardently on behalf of our experiences, and eventually on behalf of one another as a group.
Tackling the Issues
With our vision in place we set our sights on identifying and mapping the most critical issues to us individually, and then collectively within small groups as a means to achieve consensus. We consolidated redundancies and issues that overlapped within an even larger group setting. This process allowed us to create a visualization of issues of highest concern to us.
Before we tackled the issues, however, we participated in the LSD exercise: Listening, Summarizing and Deepening our levels of conversation. Living in a world of sound bites, elevator pitches and quick conversations required us to slow down and focus on our interpersonal communication skills.
Mark and Adrian also helped us channel and sort through three primary forms of energy humans typically exude: Sloth, Tiger and the ideal, Swan. Each of us can embody these energies at any given time, and the exercises and discussions we pursued on these energies helped us communicate and comport ourselves in a manner that supported the consensus building around the issues mapping initiative (left).
Our issues were vast, interconnected, interdependent, and complex. The most daunting category: Dwindling Numbers. We explored ways to tackle such pressing issues with common sense ideas, structural policy recommendations, and ideas and action items to help move the needle.
Central to our thinking was coming together on key themes: mutual respect for geographical boundaries, ideologies and practices – in essence, Zoroastrians all over the world worship and practice the religion and espouse both orthodox and reformist views through a prism of ethnicity, geography and adaptation into new societies.
Preserving the religion’s philosophical teachings; Iranian and Parsi Zoroastrian cultural traditions and practices; disenfranchisement and a lack of participation; preserving and sustaining our historic fire temples and other places of worship; building new Dare Mehrs, consecrated fires and places of worship from North America to New Zealand; environmental preservation and sustainability; the governance of world, regional and local Zoroastrian organizations; gender equality in community leadership and within the priesthood; and most critical to our time, the inclusion of non-Zoroastrian spouses and their children.
Perhaps no other issue or theme was more touching, omnipresent, and critical to discussions on dwindling numbers from increasing disenfranchisement. The topic of inclusion brought about a sense of empathy for Zoroastrians and their non-Zoroastrian spouses and children, who are questioned on their identity while attempting to simply worship peacefully.
Their lives in some geographies are impacted and shaped by stringent beliefs and ideologies; and as populations of Zoroastrians continue to migrate and build new infrastructure in North America, Europe, South-Central Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the concept of respecting geographic boundaries became critical to finding common ground.
Ultimately no one country or geography has a monopoly on views, or the ability to dictate who can be a Zoroastrian and who cannot.
The beliefs, customs and traditions in India will be different from those in the Western diaspora, and change if it is meant to take place, must take place organically and from within rather than through external forces and bodies.
From a next generation perspective, we can only move forward by respecting one another and accepting that some views and interpretations will never be resolved. Through mutual respect we are able to find commonality, build bridges, and work to achieve a more perfect harmony and unity as a global religious community.
Mission, Vision, Lift Off!
Our final few days were focused on forming our go-forward Mission, Vision and Guiding Principles & Resolutions or key learnings/takeaways from this truly transformative event in our lives. Beyond finding our own interconnectedness as a group, we developed a kinship that we expect will reverberate among Zoroastrians worldwide. Our experiences at the World Zoroastrian Youth Leaders Forum will shape our involvements and decision making over many decades to come. In just 10 days, a number of us were able to rekindle our internal flame to burn brighter than ever, and to embrace with optimism a future that is worthy of our beautiful and ancient religion.
In keeping with all our exercises, we achieved group consensus in drafting and finalizing our formal Mission and Vision statements, and in the way we came together to express our vision for the future.
Our WZYLF Vision:
A harmonious Zarathushti community flourishing through righteousness.
Our WZYLF Mission:
To connect today’s Zoroastrian youth leaders, fostering dialogue, and empowering diverse voices into action.
On our final formal day of work and bonding, we had the unique opportunity to present our Guiding Principles & Resolutions, comprised of our vision, mission and our model for sustainability, harmony and growth as a more united community.
We aimed to resolve the host of issues with future-focused common sense ideas, and in some instances, structural policy recommendations to help organizations locally and globally to usher in a new generation of Zarathushti leadership and work toward a more inclusive future driven by responsible governance.
To start, we adhered to a circular model featuring the cog of our wheel as our state of Frashokereti, the Zoroastrian doctrine of a final renovation of the universe, when evil will be destroyed, and everything else will be in perfect unity with Ahura Mazda.
Surrounded by the cog of our wheel are the Vision and Mission statements, and seven interconnected wheels we attributed to the seven Amesha Spentas:
- Asha Vahishta (Truth & Justice) to live the values of Zoroastrianism;
- Vohu Manah (Good Mind) to improve tolerance and open-mindedness;
- Haurvatat (Wholeness) to encourage greater engagement and participation;
- Ameretat (Immortality) to have a healthy and thriving Zoroastrian population;
- Spenta Armaiti: (Devotion) to achieve greater gender equality in our institutions;
- Kshathra Vairya (Righteous Power) to improve the way we collaborate globally;
- Spenta Mainyu (Spirituality) to cultivate knowledgeable Zoroastrians connected with their religion.
(Design by Tinaz Karbhari)
Envisioning the Path Forward
By March 25th, day 10, our Forum concluded and we returned to our pockets of the world galvanized and emboldened. We are all enriched for getting to know one another and build the interpersonal relationships we did; and to be facilitated and mentored by leaders like Zerbanoo, Mark, and Adrian; by World Zarathushti Chamber of Commerce Chairman Edul Davar; by the passion, hard work and dedication of Asha Centre volunteers; the financial support of Zoroastrian organizations and individuals around the world. And we leave with a faith and trust in each other to advance our resolutions and operate as a cohesive, well-informed, connected group.
Among so many incredible takeaways, one in particular stood out. I had never meditated or thought about my perfect vision for the future, until I came to the Asha Centre. If you get the chance, take about 6-8 minutes to close your eyes and focus on your inner light – to envision your life in 25-50 years and the perfect vision for your life, religion and community.
Who are the people around you? What’s the environment like? Will your family look the same or different? Are we more or less dependent on technology? Are we more or less dependent on sustainability? How has our infrastructure developed? How are our fire temples preserved? Are our customs, traditions and religious education being imparted to future generations?
Through our ongoing leadership and involvements, professional and social networks, use of technology and above all, well-informed judgment, our inner flames have been kindled and we look forward to getting to work. We realize that we can only advance, by doing so together; by listening to one another, deepening our conversations, strengthening our interpersonal relationships, respecting our geographic boundaries, striving for inclusion, and living the good Zarathushti life.
Each of us today remains ambassadors and agents of change working hard on behalf of our causes, organizations, and the World Zoroastrian Youth Leaders Forum. We have since started development of our web site at www.wzylf.com, chronicled the Forum by video, formed active working groups, and use social collaboration tools and messaging services to communicate and execute on ongoing initiatives.
As a group we are thrilled to impart, infuse, engage and challenge the next generation of Zoroastrian leaders and community builders to go beyond their comfort zones and challenge themselves to envision a future that is thriving, connected, and unified.
Heading to the 11th World Zoroastrian Congress in Perth, Australia, June 1 – 4? Look for us, as we look forward to meeting you and to updating the global Zoroastrian community on our efforts.
During the writing of this article, just weeks following the Forum, Zerbanoo’s mother, Kitty Irani (nee Mazda), sadly passed away at the age of 93. Zerbanoo chronicled her mother’s storied life in this beautiful obituary: https://parsi.wpengine.com/individuals/kitty-irani-in-memoriam/17483/.
This article is dedicated to the memory, spirit and life contributions of Kitty Irani, and the legacy she continues through Zerbanoo, Kitty’s six grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.
Participants of the First World Zoroastrian Youth Leaders Forum included:
Diana Bharucha, Seattle USA
Karl Desai, Sydney Australia
Jim Engineer, Chicago USA
Tanya Hoshi, Toronto Canada
Kayras Irani, Vancouver Canada
Narges Kakalia, New Jersey USA
Tinaz Karbhari, Auckland New Zealand
Jehaan Kotwal, Mumbai, India
Shazneen Limjerwala, Mumbai, India
Jimmy Madon, Lemington Spa, UK
Sanaya Master, Auckland, New Zealand
Layla Mazdayasni, San Diego, USA
Shazneen Munshi, London, UK
Shireen Patel, Lahore, Pakistan
Sheherazad Pavri, Mumbai, India
Cyrus Rivetna, Chicago, USA
Arashasp Shroff, Toronto, Canada
Benafsha Shroff, Denver, USA
Cainaz Vakharia, Washington D.C., USA
Arzan Sam Wadia, New York, USA
Photo credits: Tinaz Karbhari, Jim Engineer, ASHA Centre