Ally Woodard | Lessons for Living – With A View To The Future
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Lessons for Living – With A View To The Future

An Interview with Joanne Tawfilis

Joanne Tawfilis on left, receiving 2011 Human Rights Hero Award Geneva, Switzerland

Joanne Tawfilis on left, receiving 2011 Human Rights Hero Award Geneva, Switzerland

I recently had the privilege to participate in a wide ranging Skype interview with Joanne Tawfilis. Mrs. Tawfilis is a former United Nations Diplomatic level executive. In addition she is Founder/Chair of Board of Directors at The United Nations Association of the United States of America. As a result of her accomplishments as a humanitarian and promoter of worldwide peace, Mrs. Tawfilis has been honored and recognized around the world. Just a few of her national and international awards include:

International Committee of Artists for Peace Award
Earth Society Foundation Earth Trustee Award
Human Rights Hero Award
Bob Marley Peace Award
California Legislature 2013 Woman of the Year

Joanne Tawfilis, 2nd from left, 2013 California Legislature Woman of the Year

She is one of 80 women to be chosen for a leadership program by The White House Project and “O” Oprah Magazine. Mrs. Tawfilis has also been honored at USC by the My Hero Project with a film tribute as “Peacemaker of the Year.”

Mrs. Tawfilis has held the following positions:
Director, Human Resources Management Service, United Nations Environment Programme
Director of the Women of Srebrenica Project – Clinton Administration
Member of the Board, United Nations Association USA San Diego
Co-Founder/Executive Director The Art Miles Mural Project
Co-Owner/Muramid Mural Museum and Art Center
Member US National Commission to UNESCO
Member Oceanside Arts Commission
Member San Marcos Arts Council
Member of the Board PeaceNow

Thus, it was a distinct pleasure to be able to ask her questions and get her viewpoint regarding a variety of subjects, from how young people can position themselves for success to a forecast of the United States future with the UN under Donald Trump.

Joanne Tawfilis, 2017 Skype interview

Joanne Tawfilis, 2017 Skype interview

One of the first questions I asked Joanne concerned the stage in life I and many of my peers are approaching today. So I asked her the following question. For young people getting ready for college and the adult world beyond their safe environment, what are the qualities that impress you in young people that can help set them apart?

I think being OPEN in their thinking, being GLOBAL in their attitudes about the world around them, finding EXPERIENCES that enrich their lives and teach SELFLESSNESS is critical and makes their lives more interesting.  Having EMPATHY and a desire to TAKE ACTION and support JUSTICE and HUMAN RIGHTS will set them apart from those who are only interested in their looks, being popular and being “inclusive in a clique of some sort”.  Being BRAVE enough to express their own INDIVIDUALISM will serve them and humanity well and set them apart.

Next, I wanted to get her worldly perspective based on the fact Joanne interacts on a daily basis with teens and adults from all over the world. So I discussed with her the influence and importance of social media connections that are proliferating worldwide, especially among youth, and asked the following question. How do you feel American teens stack up against their peers in other countries when it comes to social skills and their ability to communicate effectively?

My concern here is that many aspects of social media are incredibly rich and mind expanding.  However, I worry about the lack of personal eye to eye physical interaction.  There are many scams, games and phony/false videos that young people fall prey to and which often distracts them from really paying attention to the TRUTH.  I LOVE the CONNECTION part because having family and friends, colleagues, teachers, taking courses and research is so fabulous with social media.  I think American teens in general do not utilize social media for educational purposes like other countries do, but hopefully that will change in the future.  I have seen how social media in other countries really means connecting with peers in other countries and exchanges, but American teens spend more time using social media for more frivolous sharing of information that is not always educational or reflective of reality.  The best part of social media is that information can be shared often in real time and young people don’t have to rely on faulty or inaccurate news.

That is a sobering assessment of how we, as American teens, may be failing to fully understand the negative consequences of our social media addiction. I must say I do not disagree with her, nor do I feel would our parents!

The next question was the result of my having seen Joanne under many diverse conditions. No matter the situation she always maintains her equilibrium and speaks earnestly and sincerely. She makes personal connections with any audience, whether it’s an audience of one person or a thousand.

So I just had to know her secret. I mentioned her unique ability to make people feel at ease around her, even when she is meeting them for the first time. I wanted to know, do you have any suggestions for helping young people make a good first impression?

I think sincerity, enthusiasm, curiosity, and that open mind is so important.  Also, for me, I have always been told “You always only seem to see the good in people, and not the bad…you should do the reverse so you won’t get hurt or disappointed”.  I see everyone I meet as a person with a story…most of them, good or bad are meaningful to me and that’s what makes life interesting.  That’s also how you can sort out those you want to keep as friends and those you want to avoid.  A first impression is important and I always use my “rule of thumb”….I make decisions based on whether my head, my heart and my tummy are in sync”.  That does happen most of the time when getting a first impression–think about how something is not in sync and that will prove my point…it might be a little thing that bugs you that perhaps (not always) turn into a big thing that bugs you.

Joanne was married to an amazing man, Fouad. They traveled the world together promoting peace and acceptance. Unfortunately, Fouad, the love of her life, recently passed away. This was another challenge added to those of a life spent trying to build bridges between cultures that may not always see eye to eye.

So, we talked about these challenges, especially the latest one, the loss of her amazing husband, Fouad. I asked Joanne, where do you get your strength to keep going when the going gets tough?

My husband Fouad taught me the greatest lesson in life.  That is that if you can remain your own person and believe in yourself, no matter what happens you can move forward.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but just before his death, he had come to the museum (weak as he was in physical strength) and sat on his roller chair in a corner and said to me, “Honey, I just looked around the museum and you have been doing such a great job, I know that if I am not here, you will continue to make it great”.  It is those words that I go by when the days come with the ups and downs of heartache and sadness of missing my bestest friend.  Because of him and all I have been through (experiences!), those things also toughened me up with determination.  I surround myself with good people, hold those good people (like your family) close to my heart, call on them if need be, and know that with the spirituality of those who believe in me and what I do, deserve to not be let down because I might feel sorry for myself.  I have those moments and for the first time in my life I am experiencing what losing the love of my life is really like—painful, but building an even stronger character.  I also have to remember my own thoughts that were shared with Fouad one day when he was feeling low…I told him we can’t feel sorry for ourselves when we have had the time of our lives, having true love, traveling all over the world, sharing great experiences (good and bad), working together, sharing the joy of the Art Miles and all those we meet, and having children and grandchildren and so much more. I told a dear friend just yesterday that I am not afraid of dying because I know we will all do that one day, and that leaving a legacy is all we can work on because we don’t know what will really happen in an afterlife, because no one has ever returned to tell us what that is all about.  So we believe in a creator, but we believe we have to try our best to do best and experience love.

Among other feats, Joanne has built an organization, The Art Miles Mural Project, that has directly touched the lives of over 500,000 people in almost every country in the world, without a paid staff of employees. I asked her, what is your secret for being so productive?

Work. work. work and more work. Finding people who believe in the Culture of Peace like we do.  Seeing results in the form of murals is MAGICAL.  Everyone who does it falls in love and they produce and proliferate and the self and group expression is a joy (as you know) that anyone can get hooked on.  Volunteerism is amazing, but reality is that even Art Miles needs funding to survive and not die because Fouad and I will. so this year my focus is to try to create income generation projects so that our “volunteers” can be compensated as they deserve.  Also, leading by example helps…and recruiting those who become leaders by examples is the key.

As a visionary and global leader, I wondered who Joanne looked up to for inspiration and counsel. I asked her, are there people you have met that you admire, people that continue to influence your decision making when you need guidance?

I admire OPRAH because she is a creative thinker and doer! She’s sunshine to me as is Gayle King…. I LOVE Meryl Streep for many reasons…her talent, her spirit, her courage, her bravery..and more. My overall hero and mentor is Ambassador Chowdhury.  He is and always will be my mentor on anything of great importance.  I didn’t think Hillary Clinton was one of my mentors. Fouad was my full partner, leader, go-to person…and I feel his presence and often talk to him as if he were still here, which helps. I admire Jeanne Meyers from My Hero Project, Mark Princevalle who has helped us all these years in many ways, Bettina Hausmann our President of UNA USA San Diego, Kathy Eldon from Creative Visions. I am lucky because there are good people I can rely on….

The United States provides more funding for the UN than any other country. Some of our politicians are now calling for a pullback in U.S. contributions, due to decisions made by the UN body at large that these politicians do not agree with. So I was interested in Joanne’s point of view on this issue due to her work for the UN, and her continued involvement with the UN Association and UNESCO.

I asked her, is the UN more or less relevant in the world today than when you began your career there?

I think it is critical to the survival of the entire globe…what other body can come together to address issues of environment, human rights, health, peace, preservation, education, development and so much more?  It is MORE MORE MORE MORE relevant than ever with so much of the world in turmoil.

Finally I asked her, how do you see the United States role in the UN evolving under Donald Trump? This one really hit home with Joanne, a passionate believer in the relevance of passionate, peaceful discourse!

OMG. You hit a sore spot with me on this one tonite…I am revising what I was writing and just reviewing from what I wrote above yesterday… I am scared to death with the announcement of Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham wanting to defund the UN.  After I send this to you, my next task is to develop an “op ed” piece for the newspaper and television for our UNA USA SD President to build upon to support our continuing involvement.  They are totally misaligned to the reality of reasoning about the Israeli occupation and increasing illegal settlements and suffering of the Palestinians that were there before Israel was a “state” in 1948.  And the rest of the entire world sanctioned them for this….and that’s a horrible reason for the bill they are introducing to Congress…horrible…and we will suffer if this administration coming in passes it…..the world will suffer because it will seem like we don’t care about world order and peace…

I know personally that Joanne Tawfilis’ wisdom and positive attitude has influenced and inspired thousands of people globally. And after this interview I know her powerful journey will continue.