Interviews with people who work professionally with conflict about the spiritual foundations of their work.

A research process done by Michael Bischoff
Interviews: Emily Hughes |
Abdul-Hakim As-Siddiq | George Lakey | Marcelle Martin
Introduction | Reflections On The Research Process

An Interview With Emily Hughes, 10/12/00

Why did I interviewed Emily?

I worked with Emily for two years at Friends for a Non-Violent World (FNVW), where Emily is still a Program Manager. I love how closely her spirit and work are tied to creative expression and joy. Emily coordinates and facilitates workshops on conflict transformation in high schools and helps coordinate a summer camp based on the principles of nonviolence.

What images describe the spiritual foundation of your work?

One image is of a coyote, a trickster. I also think of Eshu Elegba, from the Yoruba religion. He is also kind of a trickster figure and a gatekeeper to all of the other gods. You have to invite Eshu in whenever you are inviting anybody else in. The reason I am thinking about that trickster image is because it is incredibly free, resourceful, and creative. It is the access point for drawing out that of God--that of creativity and goodness and life.

I also think that Jesus Christ is a total image for me of what nonviolence can be like when lived out. He is one of my gigantic metaphors and symbols.

These images are along my whole line of direct action and being directly engaged in conflict. I remember being at the Nevada Test Site [for a protest of the nuclear weapons testing done by the U.S. government] and thinking "This is about me becoming spiritually free." It was so spiritually rooted. I could go a huge amount into that, but what I am also feeling is that a huge amount of what I am doing in this field is office work. Where is my spiritual foundation and inspiration for that? That is the area that I am less sure about.

One thing that is really important is the sense of community in the office and the fact that we have a time once a week that we call prayer time. It includes a whole variety of things, loosely based on the idea of refreshment, community building, and reminders that we are all trying to be an instrument of what God is asking us to do. I definitely could not be doing this if I were a sole activist doing everything all by myself.

What would your working life look like if you were more Spirit led?

I'd be much more comfortable being coyote all the time.

Now it is something I kind of do and get all worked up about and then feel awful about. I would also be more fully grounded, but I don't just mean calm and able to not run in circles. I would also be connected to bigger pictures, systems pictures, and theories.

Another part of my fantasy is to always having enough time to sit around and read and reflect.

I think it takes a lot of energy to work in this field. A part of me keeps asking, "Why am I doing this? Am I mature enough for this?" I am a very good conflict avoider and scared of conflict, so why I am leading a workshop on it? I really have so much to learn. I mean, I am in it to learn.

What I am realizing more and more is that there are stories I need to tell. It seems like that is the thing that is pulling me on the most. They take a little while to ripen. I'm a young'en! Even when I am saying I have stories I want to tell, I totally feel that is connected to the whole justice issues that are connected to what I am doing now. It is all part of the broad picture. It feels more like my truth. That is where my motivation is now. I don't really know where it is going.

The essence of the work I do is . . .

We are striving together to learn how to create nonviolence in our lives; to build the skills and individual capacity to bring that out in other people and in the connections. And building the capacity for nonviolence is all about building our freedom and our connection to Spirit, and our ability to create and nourish life.

Part of me is having this big crisis that what I am really called to do is be making art and that is not what I am doing. So part of me doesn't feel that spiritually grounded! So sometimes I feel like if I went back to my spiritual foundation, I would actually find that it is pointing me in a different direction, not connected to what I am doing.

I feel like I am not using all the parts of myself. One thing that I think is really important for anybody doing any kind of work is that the work organically comes out of people--that the reason for doing that comes out of you and not because you are picking up somebody else's issue. I don't think really good leadership can happen in that situation. So what I am noticing is that I have a lot of stories that I need to tell, and they need to come out this way; in an art way. I feel like that is where a huge capacity of my leadership comes from.

How do you deal with that dissonance ?

Trying to figure out what is our role in this organization at addressing systemic violence. I keep on fighting for it because I feel like I have to for my own integrity or to follow what I know to be truth, as best as I can. It feels like this really big thing--that to be true to the universe, I need to talk about this. I get a lot of, "Well, we don't really do that here. That is distorting what we do, or that is not our issue."

And I think, "Oh no, am I promoting my personal agenda or am I trying to be an agent for what something greater is asking us to do?" That is a confusing line for me--maybe I could say what I need to say, but maybe not force it on the organization. It is confusing for me.

What that are things that are effective at helping you feel grounded in the midst of stress?

Some of my stress comes when I am losing the idea that I'm a vehicle for something else and instead it is all about me. So if I can step back and look at being a vehicle and see that there is a whole system and group of people that are working on things, even if I have a key role, that is very helpful. I can take it very personally.

How do you remind yourself of that?

Our weekly staff prayer times are really good for that. I keep on wishing I would do more grounding work and meditation myself--which are all about making a conduit for the universe's energy and connecting to that instead of floating all around.

What ways is the organization you work for helpful to and disctracting of your spiritual grounding?

Having a prayer time as a staff is really helpful, and it is also helpful to have silence before a lot of our meetings. Just because it slows things down for a second. I might be really frenetic running into a meeting. Only rarely do I feel like we are being silent with the intent of really invoking Spirit and gathering ourselves. The rest of the time it is more just to be calm. Earlier this year when I was personally melting down, my coworkers sent me off on a week of retreat, and that was helpful. In general, I feel like my spiritual well-being is an actual concern of the organization.

Part of me is feeling burnt out about a lot of stuff, and I want to say "no" to a lot of things because I am personally burnt out. Bit by bit I feel more willing to say, "I don't want to do it. I'm not going to do it." That is growing, little bit by little bit. As that is growing, all the sudden the tension of what the organization should do and what I feel capable of is harder and harder. Limiting my work to 30 hours a week is a big help, though.

What is distracting or unhelpful ?

My job description is gradually narrowing down but is still all over the place. I don't know if I am fooling myself to think that if it is focused, it would be focused! I am sort of taking even less of a lunch break now because others don't take much of a lunch break. I sometimes notice changes in the grounded balance in the offiice. So that is hard for me. My co-worker, Hakim stays pretty grounded, but he is kind of in his own little world. I've been beginning to think about how I can make myself grounded when I really have to be holding my own--how to create that groundedness when it is not around me.

I always am working overtime, like right now I have 20 hours of overtime, which is not so good. And it is hard for me to let the urge to work more go. When I am most frustrated with it all, it is like "I am always going to be scattered! I am always going to be everywhere! I just need to figure out how to be grounded. It is all my fault."


Do you have any ideas of visions of things that the organization could do or be structured that would be more helpful to your grounding?

I really wonder what it would be like if I became a Muslim. That would be one suggestion. If prayers were just part of the clockwork for me; I mean Hakim [Emily's co-worker who I also interviewed] hardly ever does his prayers at the office anymore. He just goes home and does it all. I have said to him, "I wish you did your prayers more." It helps me even if I am not doing it.

Sometimes I think we are not gutsy enough with our shared spiritual life. I think in general we are kind of confused as an organization too-- are we Quaker or not? are we Spirit-led or not? And that is a point of tension, and I don't necessarily find it inhibiting my spiritual life, but it is definitely a limit. It is also partly just our organizational cultural. We had a Board member say recently that it is artificial to be trying to increase the diversity of the Board because it is really nice to come on the Board where everyone is the same and comfortable. He thought that was great. That is a point where I ask, "What are we trying to do, are we trying to be comfortable or are we about being Spirit led, which could be amazingly rich and diverse. It would be a radically different vision of the organization if we were committed to being that wide. Or are we trying to stay comfortable, homogeneous and conflict avoiding?

In our prayer times, they are often about connecting with each other and refreshment, but not as gutsy in terms of asking to be guided by Spirit to do what we are doing. Also what is hard is that that is done by the staff, but we don't share that with significant volunteers. One of our volunteers suggested the organization should be more like a church. If we were all really worshipping together, that would be very different. I would see part of the point of that worship as a chance for us all to be engaging with the learnings and challenges of the organization.

For me, thinking about being a coyote in terms of oppression issues is part of me trying to figure out how I follow the example of Jesus, and that is a really spiritual quest. We don't talk about it at all on that level. We don't say, "I'm trying to follow God, and that is why I am talking about this all the time." Though some people talk about following their greatest calling by doing the work that they are doing. But we don't let that challenge us very much.

And what would it be like if that did happen?

One thing that would different is the quality of community in the organization. I think we would need to spend more time gathered in conversation with each other. Each of our different programs meet in these different places. No wonder we want to drop one of the programs -- the Board is saying, "we are all about that and this," but people from our summer camp are saying, "What are you about? What are we not doing?" And having no clue about that conversation. There is also the possibility of having our weekly prayer time be more accessible and at a time where we expressly invite other people to come. We could also tighten up what our assignment is during that time. It is really, really broad right now.

We are also really shy about the Spirit-led direction of our organization. It seems like we only talk about it in our fund appeals! It is also scary to me because I worry about what other people would think about us who are outsiders. Ya know, there is one thing about speaking well to our insiders and people who are starving to hear what we are saying, and then I'm more worried that other people will tihink we are total weirdos and write us off or not give us money. Or not listen to us because they don't agree with what we are. So it is like, how to be really Spirit-led and not let on about it?

What other ways do you think the organiztion would be different if were truly and deeply Spirit led?

I was going to say we'd be more focused, but I'm not sure that is true. At least if we weren't more focused, we'd be more intergrated and expressly so. Right now, we have a hard time describing what we are building. Maybe we could describe the foundation and the pillars, but what does the building look like? What kind of roof is it? Who are we sheltering? Those questions are still not answered completely.


Spirit in Conflict
Interviews: Emily Hughes |
Abdul-Hakim As-Siddiq | George Lakey | Marcelle Martin
Introduction | Reflections On The Research Process

Please let me know your reactions to this project or tell me about the spiritual foundations of your work: Michael Bischoff,