Finding the right words

For a brief moment in the spring of 2000, Shezadi (also known as Shelly) Vallani (MES ’03) was at a loss for words. The young apprentice of Islam, development activist and lover of art and architecture was preparing her application for acceptance into the master’s program in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Right: Shezadi (Shelly) Vallani

“I wanted to find an appropriate aphorism with which to begin my personal statement that would attract the attention of the selection committee. What I needed was a guide to inspirational sayings. In my search for such a guide in bookstores and libraries, I realized they were few and far between. It was at this point I decided that the task of compiling inspirational sayings would be mine.”

Vallani’s book, Power of the Written Word: An Anthology of Inspirational Sayings and Daily Reflections, to be published this spring by the Glenn Mollette Agency in the US, is the tangible result of her search for words and phrases that affect her with their beauty and deep meaning.

Left: The cover of Power Of The Written Word

To find the right words, she scoured every source she could locate – books, magazines, the Internet, broadcast talks, her friends’ suggestions, notes taken during lectures and seminars she attended. The collecting activity went on most intensively during the two years she studied in the master’s program.

“Everything I put in the book has meaning for me personally. If I don’t fundamentally believe in the saying I didn’t put it in the book,” says Vallani. “The sayings come from everywhere. I have used some from Chinese spiritualists, some from Japanese Zen masters, some from Indian gurus and some from my own Muslim tradition. The majority are from Western sources, and a few of the poems I have written myself. As someone who loves words and feels passionate about what I hear and read, I have always faced a challenge when presenting material to my peers.

“‘How shall I begin?’ ‘What will capture the attention of my target audience?’ ‘How shall I conclude?’ This book is a natural extension of my love for words.”

Admitted to York’s MES program in 2000, Vallani focused her studies on another of her passions – Third World development. She specialized in the relationship between gender, poverty and environmental degradation. Not content with just studying global development, she has had hands-on experience with poverty projects in Indonesia and Pakistan and has produced reports on development needs in the Arab region for the United Nations Development Program.

Back in Canada she applied her energies to coordinating World Vision of Canada’s 30-Hour Famine appeal to raise funds among Canadian students for overseas relief and development programs.

Even as a social science undergraduate at the University of Western Ontario, Vallani was outspoken on social issues and received a President’s Award for raising consciousness on campus about violence against women, HIV/AIDS and other social concerns.

It was while she was a student in the MES program at York that Vallani learned she had been selected into the International Waezeen Training Program (IWTP), an initiative of the Institute of Ismaili Studies and the Aga Khan Council in Britain. This rigorous training program, capped by exams, assignments and presentations before an international panel, prepares highly committed young Shia Ismailis to serve their communities in voluntary roles. In Vallani’s case, the core of that service is imparting knowledge about the values, principles and ethics of the Islamic faith in order to provide awareness to the broader community.

Right: The Aga Khan

Since completing the IWTP in the summer of 2003, Vallani has used the works of psychologist Erik Erikson to address Muslim youth in Toronto struggling with their identity and has spoken to religious audiences on the need for historical thinking when studying the development of Islamic civilization. Her goal for this summer is to organize a workshop on the relevance of art and architecture in Muslim societies.

Reflecting on her time in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, where she won six awards and research grants, she says simply: “It changed my life. FES taught me skills and offered me a window to further my work in sustainable development. I owe a lot to the Faculty.”

It was the Aga Khan, the global spiritual leader of Ismailis, whose words inspired Vallani to seek a place in the MES program. “He spoke about wanting to have a positive impact on social and development issues and building ‘an environment in which people can live in peace and productivity, within an ethical context’,” said Vallani. “This is what I strive for.”

No loss of words there.

This article was written by Maxwell Brem, director, External Relations, Faculty of Environmental Studies.