By Issa Shulman
Antony Charles Lynton Blair, born May 6, 1953, served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007—and is now British Labour Party politician and well-known philanthropist, working with a number of different organizations.
The African Governance Initiative works with countries like Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Liberia to catalyze progress and growth; the Office of the Quartet Representative aims to resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the Tony Blair Sports Foundation tries to get people off the couch and into a sports club; and the Breaking the Climate Deadlock program is strategizing how to tackle climate change.
A little closer to home, though, is Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation—or, as we know it, the Face to Faith program, in which students from all over the world meet with other foreign students in an organized video conference.
“Face to Faith works across the world delivering a pioneering education program to help prevent religious conflict and extremism,” their website says. “[They] help students embrace an open-minded approach to others, to diversity and to difference that can lead to tolerant stable societies.”
It was through SA’s connection to this program that humanities teachers Brandon Spars and Kerry Hanlon were invited to one of Tony Blair’s events. The fundraiser piqued Brandon and Kerry’s interest because of the accompanying dialogue on the roles different religions are playing in conflicts around the world.
The main focus was on Palestine and Israel—and ISIS—and to what degree religion is playing a role in such conflicts. “Because I teach the Middle East as a subject, I want to get involved in Face to Faith—one of the schools that you can have a conference with is in Palestine, and we have a unit on Israel and Palestine. They also have a school in Israel that we could talk to… so, there’s lots of potential,” Kerry says.
She also has connections with a parent who knows Tony Blair. “This conference was on September 18; Kerry and I flew down to Los Angeles. We had 10 minutes to get dressed, because traffic was so horrendous,” Brandon says.
“We made it to the Montage, Beverly Hills, which is where the event was. It was high security—so the event was texted to us right before we were told the general area it was going to be held (in), but they wouldn’t release the location…they advertised [the event] as somebody’s wedding, and we walked right past that, and it was this event. They gave all these sort of false fronts to it.”
The high security—men with headsets and dark sunglasses patrolling about—was not the only reflection of the function’s importance; the price of the tickets was yet another.
Tickets were over 1,000 dollars per person, though Brandon and Kerry’s probably cost even more, as their tickets allowed them to sit at Tony Blair’s table itself. However, the man was not as intimidating as the security that surrounded him.
“He (Tony Blair) was easy to talk to—very approachable, as you might imagine; he’s a politician par excellence, he puts people at ease. I was seated next to the discussant; the man who got up and asked Tony Blair questions,” said Spars.
“Tony Blair was four seats down from me, so I did get to interact with him, but I had a better conversation with Rabbi Peter Rubenstein—another leader in promoting world understanding and acceptance of other religions—and he was wonderful. Again, very easy to speak with and incredibly insightful, intelligent, and funny. He’s a very funny man,” Brandon says.
“Tony Blair is probably one of the world’s authorities on religion and the role it plays in creating conflicts, so it was an important discussion, and I was lucky to be there.”
Among the lucky were the privileged and the wealthy—a curious crowd for a high school teacher to mingle with. As one can expect of such a high security venue, many of the attending persons were of a high social standing indeed. To be a high school teacher and to be surrounded by these people who’ve either inherited vast quantities of wealth or are else in positions of incredible power was an experience described as “interesting,” if not slightly intimidating.
Brandon admits to finding it easier to interact with Tony Blair than with the other people at the event. Kerry also got to speak with Tony Blair, however briefly.
“It was exciting when Tony Blair first came into the room and people started getting their pictures taken with him…I was a little nervous; I Googled ahead of time how I was supposed to address him…I also wanted to make sure I didn’t say anything dumb,” says Kerry.
“Brandon felt that way too, so we were doing all this research on the Middle East, but we didn’t have our computers to do the research, so we were quizzing each other, like, ‘Okay, so what’s going on in this country, and this country, and that country!’ We were getting really up-to-date with Middle East politics!”
Kerry had a little case of nerves, however, when it finally came time to meet the man himself—how was she supposed to introduce herself?
“I forgot to rehearse what I was going to say, or know what I was going to say, so I just said, ‘Hi! I’m Kerry! I’m a high school teacher!’ And Brandon, in the background, sort of snorted… I heard what he said when he introduced himself. He was much more dignified and appreciative.”
However, Tony Blair wasn’t the only highlight of the evening.
“Spending lots of time with Brandon was fantastic! Just hours and hours, talking with him—being with him in a cab is unbelievable because he talks to the cab driver the whole time. He tries to get deep into the cab driver’s musical preferences…that part was just as important as meeting Tony Blair,” Kerry says.
“At the end, they allowed us to ask questions, and even though I had been speaking with them during the dinner I still had a few questions, and I made a little joke that made everybody laugh,”
“I told them I had a statement, a confession, and a question; that because the Rabbi had been up there when the main course was served, my confession to him was that while he was gone, I ate his steak…and he (the Rabbi) asked, ‘Well, how was it?’ And I told him, ‘It was very rare.’ And then when Tony Blair heard my question he said, ‘That was a question fueled by a steak, wasn’t it?’ Then he laughed, and the Rabbi said miserably, ‘Two steaks.’”