We are One: an Interview with Niyonu Spann

by Lucy Duncan


This is the second in AFSC's Acting in Faith series of interviews with Quaker Activists. You can read all of them here.

Niyonu Spann created Beyond Diversity 101 many years ago. Beyond Diversity 101 is a five-day intensive experience grounded in faith that brings people together to acknowledge and manifest oneness. Niyonu tells participants that the design for BD101 came to her fairly whole. She was leading diversity workshops and felt that often the goal was to draw out the anger of the people of color and the defensiveness of the white people and there often wasn’t a sense of getting beyond that place. One day she was preparing for a workshop and wrote, “Power + Prejudice = Racism” on a flip chart and stood there looking at it and thought, “This implies that I don’t have any power.” She began to realize that there was something about how these types of workshops were traditionally facilitated that assumed that 1) that isms were here to stay, 2) that the oppressed group had no work to do and 3) that change could occur without involving the physical body or the spiritual parts of who we are. She talks about how much this work needs to happen on the heart level, that the heart is the part of us that knows ‘that I am you and you are me.’

Niyonu is currently working in New Haven, CT helping several organizations to become more just, inclusive and more effective.  This new pilot program is called, Co-Creating Effective and Inclusive Organizations and is based in the same frameworks that guide Beyond Diversity 101. She is the founder and director of the music group Tribe 1, works with Chester Eastside Ministries in Chester, PA running a Peace, Leadership and Arts Camp in the summer. She leads Beyond Diversity 101 workshops regularly, the next one in August, 2012 at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, PA.

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of participating in three sessions of Beyond Diversity 101 and have found each one deeply transformative.  I think of Niyonu as a powerful teacher, drawing out from participants what they need in order to take risks and grow. She practices what she advocates, taking time to discern her words and her actions, listening to her heart and the core of her being as she moves through her life.  We talked on a sunny afternoon in April at Chester Eastside Ministries. If you want to learn more, go to www.niyonuspann.com.              -Lucy

Lucy Duncan: Tell me a bit about your faith journey.

Niyonu Spann: I have always sought a deeper, truer relationship with the divine, I had different names for that along the way, 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 was always really inquisitive in asking, “So Where is God right now?” 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 FGC, so our honeymoon was traveling to yearly meetings. It was at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting that I felt the real convincement that this was my home. It is the discernment aspect of Quakerism that draws me in the most: momently discerning.  

Lucy Duncan: Talk about that moment of convincement.

Niyonu Spann: I forget who the clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was at that time, we were talking about South Africa and divestment and it was the real wrangling and trying to listen to guidance, some of it was heady. There was a core of real listening for God's guidance. This moment brought together all my experiences among Friends, being plunged into the political worlds of Quakerism. I saw us waiting on God's guidance.  It's not easy, or wonderfully welcoming, but this is the work of it, the truth of it.  My language and understanding was still narrower with a very Christocentric language and understanding, the next few years were a very challenging time spiritually. I was finding out my relationship with God, centered on questions of heaven and hell.    

LD: Tell me the story of how you came to the model you use in Beyond Diversity 101? 

NS: In my questions about my relationship with God, once I had children, there was something that shifted.  All of a sudden the questions that I had always had about judgment, God's judgment and sinfulness, it 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 noticing fear, how do I protect them from all that's here.  Once fear came up I started tracking that fear.  That fear was at the center of how I had been talking about God. I baptized my children, partly driven by fear: “If I don't do this or that, I’ll go to hell.” 

Something broke open in my searching: I saw this connection between root level fear, and mindsets about fear and wellbeing. There was a breakthrough at that time, 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 people more than God would? Why would God have less ability to do that?” That moment of understanding was the door to receiving the work of BD101 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.

LD: I am surprised that sometimes people mean retribution when they say justice.

NS: From the point of view of an exchange of energy, if I came to your family and was a cause of the death of your son, the exchange of energy that brings balance to that can come in very different ways, it doesn't get erased, that's the part of the conversation we really need to have. Instead we are often focused on getting you to pay and think that brings balance, but it actually doesn't, it just increases the imbalance.  We need to focus on actions that bring balance. 

LD: What does justice feel like/look like?

NS: Here’s one vision: from a story I heard about the truth commissions, there was a woman during the trials in South Africa.  She was facing a man who had killed her husband and son in front of her. She had seen what they had done.  When they asked her what she thought should happen to him, she embraced the man who had murdered her son, and she said, “You must be like my son. You must visit me, care for me.”  There's some nugget in there around justice: on one level it’s about remembering our oneness. That journey includes speaking the truth of what I've done, telling the story of what was going on for me in doing that, hearing the truth of the pain that I've caused, speaking the truth of how that has then led to where you are now, then that might lead to very concrete things to repair. What someone is led to do can look very different: it might be working in a corporate job to give back money to the community.  When it comes from knowing and listening, the repair that’s needed, what’s needed to balance what’s happened, becomes clear.

LD: You focus quite a bit on the importance of engaging the body in being able to gain access to one's knowingness? How did you come to that understanding and what arises from it?

NS: I do know things through my body.  Around the time that I was beginning to conceive of BD101, I had just done Rolfing, a kind of massage that's very deep, along the bone, I was fascinated by the notion that there was supposedly a process that you could go through with your body that would dislodge stuff that's been there for a long time.  I had been doing workshops already and getting people up moving, I had a sense that if you do something early that is outside of your comfort zone and outside of the comfort zone of the people participating that the shared experience of dis-familiarity opens up what you can do together.  I've been surprised that for many people the body work is where they had their biggest breakthroughs.  

LD: How does full system change work? What are the elements of organizations that successfully transform into anti-racist, co-creative organizations?  Can you tell some stories of pushing through resistance to change, can you tell some stories of ways organizations get stuck?

NS: I don't know any work experience that has not been noticing a deep yearning to be whole since I started noticing it, at Oakwood School, at Pendle Hill. The way that I would describe it is that we send out a vibration or request for the part that would give us what would feed the greatest potential for us at this time.   At the same time what is calling us to be whole is rising, so are all the barriers to making that leap. Listening, discerning and giving over feels so huge on the path.  What can feel so frustrating and be so sad in doing this work is when what happens is you choose the way of fear, you choose the familiar, you choose safety and what you perceive as what you have to do to survive over that leap or that potential that compelled you to come together. The drive to be fully who we are is so strong, sometimes what happens can be so tragic, what shows up. The potential that was there for compassion after 9/11, voices from other countries, there was this compassion for the US, people expressed it this way: “It hurts us to see you hurting in this way.” There was all this potential for us to unfold to what we yearn for, that choice point was there, and we chose the path of retribution and fear. There's always the opening for change or we can choose to reinforce the fear.  Some of the skill is being able to recognize the growth that's happened, or vice versa the backward motion.

LD: In my own experience there are times when it feels as though you are moving backwards, how do you push through that to the change you are working for?

NS: It's very much related to spiritual understanding. 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, like 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 – sometimes it might be strategic planning, sometimes it might be something else entirely. If we are only protecting the status quo, then the things you choose to do, you are choosing in order to maintain the status quo.  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 greatest consciousness in the use of power.  Power is the ability to activate the potential - to manifest the potential.  

Part of the challenge, too, is that there is so much woundedness that we can sense, so you're trying not to add to the wounding. It's a legitimate fear: “Could we make it through if we were that truthful with each other?” The Religious Society of Friends draws people who have been wounded by other faith traditions. That can make us fearful of telling the truth.

Chester Peace and Leadership Camp ParticipantsLD: Tell us a about your work in Chester? How did it begin, what is emerging from it? 

NS: The call to come to Chester felt like it grew out of Pendle Hill saying no, at that time, to my attempts (as Dean) to establish more deliberate work in Chester.   There's always been a strong connection between Pendle Hill and Chester that went in cycles. Chester has a lot of what Pendle Hill needs, and Pendle Hill has a lot of what Chester needs. When I knew it was time to leave Pendle Hill, I felt led to be here.   My work at Chester Eastside Ministries brings the arts, peace building, and leadership work with youth together. The work has taken a couple of forms.  The one that's stuck most is a Peace Leadership and Arts summer camp for 13 through 17 year olds. We look at peace within and peace building in Chester, we use the arts as a way of expressing that.  I still feel a calling to develop a Peace School here, don't know when or how that will manifest. That's been part of the drive.

LD: Can you name some systems that are operating much more from a whole and healthy place?

NS: There have been some parts of the AFSC, particular area offices, that I would put on that list, a lot of the ones I would put on that list had to do with the leadership being right there. My call is oftentimes to work in systems that are wanting to really move and to help offer frameworks that push that real work forward.  In these contexts usually the fear and the status quo is strong and pulling in that 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.

At some point I think the energy of the reconciliation councils could help AFSC. In the downsizing and layoffs, there was real pain of that cutting away and a trajectory of injustice where the ripples of that are still felt. What may be needed is an honoring and remembering. It could be so easy to grow from this place, “we pruned, we have new energy” without acknowledging the pain caused... those who were hurt need to be brought into the fold. 

LD: How does BD101 prepare participants for activism? What do you believe is important to keep in mind in the coming year or two? 

NS: Well, I think that the hope with BD101 is that it really is about tuning the instrument to do the work that it's called to do, that's it in a nutshell. We want people to recognize their blocks to their effectiveness.  We lift up that this is heart work and that it's the heart that knows that I am you and you are me, so each of us can have so much more access to the creative ways of making shifts.   

LD: Talk a bit about your sense of the concept of an ally? 

NS: I found a postcard from someone who came to BD101in 2005 and she was thanking me for what I said about allies: how useless an ally is that's not fully in their power or not able to show up. A lot of the ways we use allies is like this:  “I'm going to be there and stand next to you while you do the work.” There’s something to be said for accompaniment, but understanding that it’s about all of us is key, that an ally can’t step back, but needs to step up.

 LD: What obstacles do you see to Quakers fully living their faith, to expressing a vital, thriving faith? What is your vision for a vibrant Quakerism?

NS: The vibrancy would come from what we already say which is that there is that of God to be expressed through everyone. I would take it further to God is everyone. Quakers at their best are actually listening for that and allowing that and following that and that's where the vibrancy comes from. When you asked the question, one of the first things that came into my mind is that there's a part of me that doesn't care, part of me that sees so little of that vibrancy amongst Friends that I've had less interest in envisioning what the Religious Society of Friends could look like. So in some ways I go to church here in Chester and feel like I am having more of an experience of Quaker worship than at some meetings. 

Then you go to the FGC Gathering and there will be moments of shared discernment and deep worship and the juiciness of that just feels so wonderful... I love my meeting here in Chester, it's a very community oriented meeting, the community within the meeting and its connection to Chester is so real. And the worship can be pretty powerful.  

LD: What is your vision for a vibrant, just community? 

NS: I would just say our activism is the same thing as our spiritual walk. I wouldn't be able to describe those in separate ways.