Interview with Niyonu Spann
You became Quaker—experienced your “convincement,” in Quaker terms—during a visit to a yearly meeting where the topic of discussion was South Africa and divestment. How did this moment fit into your faith journey?
Because I grew up in a Baptist/Christian family, my first language included God and Jesus and wanting to really understand and know Jesus and God. I always engaged in very intense questioning, whether it was in my high school years, hearing the language of “inviting Christ to be my personal savior,” or later, in college, “receiving the holy spirit” and speaking in tongues, or after I got married and first encountered Quakers, where I felt at home in the sense of having a personal relationship with God.
I married someone who was the general secretary for the Friends General Conference, so our honeymoon was traveling to yearly meetings. It was at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting that I felt convinced that this was my home. … There was a core of real listening for God’s guidance. This brought together all my experiences among Friends, being plunged into the political worlds of Quakerism. It is the discernment aspect of Quakerism that draws me in the most.
You’ve said that you founded Beyond Diversity 101 after your own fundamental awakening to the “courage of heart”—that uncovering the fullest possible truth as people of oppressor and oppressed groups requires seeing beyond those divisions to our oneness. How did you arrive at this awakening?
[Something shifted] in my questions about my relationship with God once I had children. All of a sudden, the questions that I had always had about judgment—God’s judgment and sinfulness—took on another meaning because now I had these children that would live beyond me and would have their own children. My compassion and care for the world became much more relevant.
I started to recognize my fear: “How do I protect them from all that’s here?” When fear came up, I started tracking that fear. I realized that fear was at the center of how I had been talking about God. Something broke open in my searching: I saw this connection between root-level fear, beliefs about fear, and wellbeing. What I came to see was that being blessed and loved was God’s first gesture. I felt I could have a relationship with God that was based on wellbeing.
I began to explore the notion of fear. I asked myself, “Why would you, Niyonu, be able to love and forgive people more than God would? Why would God have less ability to do that?” This led to a new understanding of justice and of grace as well as the release of a deeply rooted fear. It was the door to receiving the work of Beyond Diversity 101, which is grounded in “we”—in “you are me.”
How people feel about justice shifts how people operate. Instead of looking to find guilt and punishment, we recognize the truth of what we’ve done, and honor that. When you bring that to the conscious level—that shifts how people see. The hope with Beyond Diversity 101 is that it really is about tuning the instrument to do the work that it’s called to do.
There are times in work for social justice that it feels as though we are moving backward. How do you push through that to the change you are working for?
It’s very much related to spiritual understanding. In whatever system we’re talking about, the skill that needs to be developed is one of discernment. If you’ve done any developmental physical practice—like yoga, playing tennis, playing an instrument—there are steps you are taking in the practice. Sometimes it feels as though you are moving backward. You might have just felt as though you’ve mastered something—a scale or a technique—then it feels as though you can’t do it the next time.
You have to stand back to really see whether there’s real movement. This is where the discernment lies. There is something about whole-systems change/transformation and staying open to the sense that something surprising might make a difference. One question that is helpful is, “What could we do right now that would be very scary, what of all the things on the list makes you go, ‘Huh?!’” Let’s do that one. It’s the ability to take the risk to do whatever it is that will move you deeper. That’s important—go deeper into truth.
I think all of that gets complicated in whole-system change, telling the truth in the moment, seeking to be fully conscious in the use of power. My call oftentimes is to work in systems that want significant change and to help offer frameworks that push the real work forward. In these contexts, usually the fear and the status quo are strong and pulling in the other direction. I bring a taste of freedom. I don’t have a lot of attachment to the outcomes. I’m clear that I’m supposed to bring these perspectives, to serve as a midwife. I tend to come to those who are in labor or having a difficult pregnancy.