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2010 Creative Careers in the Arts Interviews : Ashfaq Ishaq Interview

Creative Careers in the Arts Interview

International Child Art Foundation's Ashfaq Ishaq

Harnessing Children's Imagination for Positive Social Change

By Chris Dunmire

Ashfaq IshaqI first met Ashfaq Ishaq online in 2003 when he wrote On the Importance of Creativity for Creativity Portal, and I immediately became a supporter of his work with the International Child Art Foundation (ICAF). When he followed up with Children + Creativity = Peace about Children's Peace Day on September 11, 2003, I realized how much potential ICAF had to shift consciousness in children and adults with its focus on developing more creativity and compassion in our world.

This winter, Ashfaq graciously allowed me to interview him, so I ask what impact he feels ICAF has made since its founding in 1997, 13 years ago. His response is hopeful.

Our children are like little plantings eager for the nourishment of light and love to make them grow. Teaching them compassion by our own example and allowing them to fully express their creativity will go a long way to reaping benefits, now and into the future, collectively as humankind. Please read on for the entire interview.

Q: Ashfaq, you founded the International Child Art Foundation (ICAF) in 1997 "to harness children's imagination for positive social change" based on the belief that "creativity and empathy are preconditions for a more just, prosperous and nonviolent world." What in your background led you to arrive at this place and how did your vision for ICAF initially unfold?

A: I am not an artist, far from it, but as a child I was one, briefly. I attended a British-type school from the colonial era in Lahore, Pakistan which emphasized disciple above all. "Pin drop silence!" the teachers commanded upon entering the classroom, transforming us into silent dummies. One day a new art teacher joined the school, young and pretty. In our 3rd grade art class we sat with primary colors and brush on the ready, silently staring at the blank easels. "Why don't you paint?" she inquired. We looked at each other. "What shall we paint, Ma'am?" someone answered. "Paint anything."

Her profound words gave wings to my imagination, which soared to the skies. I began to paint a kite-flying scene. Kite-flying was prohibited in our school where boys in uniform played cricket, hockey, rode horses and practiced butterfly strokes in an Olympic-sized pool. I loved flying colorful kites that swam like fishes in the skies. Kites were dirt cheap, for the poor not for the gentlemen. The art I painted must have caused a sensation that it appeared in The Pakistan Times the following week. I painted for another year before transferring to a much less-expensive school following my father's sudden death from a heart attack. At the new school the sciences became my focus as I dreamed of becoming a physicist like my father. Years later I switched to economics, to cure poverty I thought, and gained admission to George Washington, the university closest to the World Bank headquarters.

Washington, DC in early 1980s was gradually transforming into a cosmopolitan city — gentrified, diverse and connected. In contrast, the World Bank was going "native" with its new focus to develop small businesses in communities instead of only financing the largest public sector projects setup by foreign companies. The bank acquired a new IBM 360 mainframe that could read hundreds of punch-cards in a flurry and employed me so I could run my simultaneous regression models at a mind-boggling speed. My thousands of printouts led to an Oxford University Press book on success in small and medium scale enterprises which I co-authored. The research on the determinants of entrepreneurial success revealed that creativity was vital. I did not fully comprehend the interplay of creativity and globalization, or the need for empathy in a world that was inexorably shrinking.

On a perfect-for-kites DC summer day, an artist friend visiting from Pakistan and I began visualizing the majestic National Mall between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument as a place for children's art. Child artists from around the world could convene there, affirming their hope for a better future and confirming their shared concerns through their native universal language. It was a great idea, worthy of work. I had left the bank and joined the faculty of economics at GWU by then. In the ensuing months, between lecturing and lonesome research in the computer room shared by departments of economics and political science, I drafted proposals for Unesco and Unicef requesting their help and guidance to setup and organization for children's art. I never heard back. I researched suitable foundations and corporations and wrote to them, but no one replied.

How could an assistant professor on a shoe-string establish a global charity? A new immigrant alone in the United States has no support network at all, no familial connections and no social roots that could sprout into fans and supporters. Grudgingly I abandoned the idea of children and art. I no longer wanted to teach so I launched a consulting company. Unlike a charity, business is based on tangibles and transactions. I was already experienced in startups, having started my first enterprise at the age of fifteen, which actually helped pay my first year of tuition at GWU prior to me gaining a full scholarship. After five years of struggle, the business finally took off, and eventually provided the initial resources needed to launch the International Child Art Foundation in 1997. I believed I could do well and do good at the same time. But this proved unviable. After two years of burning at both ends, my wife and I decided to close down the business (which had been our asset) and focus solely on ICAF (our liability).

ICAF continues to be a work in progress. On September 11, 2001, I was in midtown Manhattan attending a conference. I experienced the pandemonium in Midtown, where fearful of another attack on a skyscraper NYPD cleared one block, and then another, with people running from one street corner to the next. Later that evening, ensconced in my hotel room watching TV all the time, I started to think that creativity alone was not the answer. Something else was missing. It was empathy.

Later that year we developed a Peace through Art program to reduce the trans-generational transmission of trauma and hatred that invariably poisons the next generation. In June 2002 we field tested our approach on ten Greek-Cypriot and ten Turkish-Cypriot youth who lived on the same island but had never met each other until they arrived in Washington. In 2006 the U.K.'s leading medical journal The Lancet invited me to write a piece on our approach to peace-building.

The work in progress didn't end with man-made conflicts. On December 26, 2004 the Asian tsunami killed nearly a quarter of a million people. Two days later I received a frantic call from ICAF's partner in Sri Lanka requesting that ICAF must do something for the children. I instinctively knew the power of the arts to heal because art was my escape following my father's untimely death. I turned to the psychologists in New York City who had helped the children traumatized by the 9/11 attacks. A few months later we launched Tsunami Healing Arts Programs in Sri Lanka and India. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina stuck the U.S. Gulf Coast and soon thereafter we were helping American children with the knowledge and experience we had gained in Asia. In April 2010, we launch the Haiti Healing Arts Program to aid in the recovery of the children traumatized by the earthquake of January 12, 2010, which lasted only 35 seconds but affected an estimated three million people. We might work in Chile as well where the biggest ever earthquake has affected two million people. We stand ready to aid in the recovery of child victims of natural disasters.

Continue to Interview page 2 »

Updated 1/8/14