Interview by Sandra Davidson Photo by Katina Parker
Americans across the country are still reeling from the most polarizing election season of our era. Politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens are asking themselves how did we get to be so divided and where do we go from here? Calls for self-examination and intentional thoughtful dialogue across race, class and region grow louder every day.
Nia Wilson knows what it takes to build bridges between communities that often don’t talk to each other, and she knows much of the work must start within.
Nia is the Executive Director of Spirit House, a Durham-based nonprofit devoted to promoting social change through art and grassroots organizing. Spirit House’s work centers on empowering youth and families impacted by poverty and racism and engaging Durhamites from all walks of life on a radical reimagining of how to build a city where everyone can thrive. Though they are Bull City based, Spirit House shares their success and models with groups across the country.
Spirit House’s work requires deep listening, empathy, and a strong sense of self and culture. Nia’s work with Spirit House and relationship with her adopted niece Talya, a child with special needs, helped her cultivate and actualize these qualities within herself. Now she’s using them to create meaningful social change in a town and time that needs it now more than ever.
Meet Nia Wilson.
Tell me about Talya. How did caring and advocating for her impact you?*
I had a lot of negative experiences in my childhood and early adulthood around different kinds of trauma, sexual trauma mostly. There are different ways that a person reacts to that. There’s the whole fight or flight thing ... you’re either someone who fights or who internalizes. I was definitely a person who internalized and didn’t stand up for myself at all, in anything. People who know me now don’t believe that, But I didn’t. I didn’t feel that I was deserving of anything. All I felt like I deserved were the things that happened to me. That was very much who I was. I had been through so many things, and was still going through things, and I had learned to absorb it, learned to keep it inside. It didn’t mean I wasn’t feeling anything. Just because you can absorb something, doesn’t mean you have to.
Talya was severely disabled. She was 3 pounds 3 ounces when she was born. She wasn’t able to do anything. She wasn’t expected to live. It just seemed like people, doctors and nurses didn’t really see her because she didn’t do anything but breathe for a really long time. And people...they were giving up on her.
I held her all the time. She was alive, and I needed to make sure people knew that she was alive and deserved the best at all times. So I spoke for her, and it was easy to speak for someone else. When she wouldn’t cry for things that you would normally cry for, they would think that she was such a good girl, and I would just be like “No, she feels the pain. Don’t assume that she’s not feeling pain because she’s not crying ... because she is unable to cry.”
[Talya] also knew me. She connected with that part of me that no one saw or cared for. She knew that part of me. As I learned to advocate for her and speak for her, I become more courageous and was able to speak up for myself. And now, I’m not afraid to speak at all. It was totally transformative to me.
When you met Phillip Shabazz, the founder of Spirit House, he asked you if you were ready for the revolution, and you said yes. What did that yes mean to you?
Before coming to North Carolina I had been working with young teenagers of color, so my primary desire was to work with young people and help young people be as brilliant and beautiful as they possibly could be. So for me, the revolution looked like creating these spaces where there was just incredible love and capacity for people to be as brilliant as they could possibly be. For me the revolution looked like love and brilliance and a place where everyone could thrive, and that was going to take revolutionary action and really radical love. Spirit House at the time was definitely steeped in this deep love for black people, for community acceptance, in a way I had not seen before. Acceptance of each other, no matter who you were, or where you were. It wasn’t all theoretical. It was very experimental and [it tapped] into that radical imagination, which is necessary.
I saw these people who were clearly artists, who were clearly walking outside of the margins. I felt like any sort of revolution that they were cooking up was going to be a lot of fun, and I wanted to be a part of it.
What is Spirit House working on right now?
Our primary focus right now is around the Harm Free Zone Project. The Harm Free Zone is a way of addressing community accountability without the use of police. So [we ask] what are the ways we can create community or restore a balance in community where folks are able to be accountable for themselves and each other on a regular basis? Then, if and when there is conflict, because there are already existing strong relationships, how can we deal with conflicts without having to use law enforcement or engagement law enforcement or the judicial system in any way?
We have been conditioned to police each other. One of the main things that has to happen in order to create a harm free zone is that we, as individuals, have to disengage what we call the “cop in our own heads,” [so] we are not policing ourselves or other people on a regular basis.
If I feel accountable to you, then work engaging you would be around minimizing anything I do that might cause you harm and vis-versa. Whereas, if I am policing, then I am looking for something wrong. I’m looking for what you or even I may be doing that’s wrong or bad or whatever we want to term "illegal." That’s not the same as engaging with you.
When we say harm free, we know that it is not possible to be harm free, but it is a goal. It is a goal that we know is going to [require] constant work. The project is very expansive because we are basically talking about creating community. We are talking about building relationships. We are talking about a new way of thinking.
Give me an example of how to employ this philosophy.
You live in a neighborhood and you have neighbors who are constantly playing loud music, and you call the police as opposed to going across the street and having a conversation about how the music is impacting your family and finding a way to navigate what is best for both families. And this doesn’t happen. We are using the police to solve social problems.
This seems like a reflective response to a problem.
The idea that we are not able to have conversations with each other … that we have to begin with someone who has a gun, a Taser, a billy club … that the only way someone is going to consider your needs is by some sort of threat of enforcement, doesn’t work for any kind of human relationship or connection.
We’ve been taught that if we don’t have some sort of rules that can be enforced, that there’s just going to be crazy anarchy everywhere, and that’s just not the case. From a harm free perspective, you have to start by believing that people are inherently good and that people want to build relationships and build community. We actually are community-driven but are being conditioned to believe that it is only our individual needs that matter.
So it seems like you can’t have the community building without the individual work.
People want to build community before doing the individual work, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense because you can’t maintain it.
In Durham we have a 16 week training where we pull together a very diverse group of Durhamites — race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, church moms, folks who just got out of prison — all in this room. We spend 16 weeks together [doing] a lot of deep historical analysis on oppression, race and class, [and asking] how we got to where we are, [and] how certain political decisions have impacted people. And then [we] begin to talk about creating a Durham we want to live in that includes the voices of everyone in the room.
You come from where you are, and work with people who you may or may not think you have anything in common with to create a Durham where we can all thrive. It is a way of developing strong relationships with people who don’t look like you, who then outside of here [become] a network of support for each other.
There was a young black man in this last group of people and this older white woman, who you would never think [would be friends but,] if you were to look on Facebook, you’ll see her commenting on all his rap videos because they established a relationship. You just wouldn’t expect that to happen.
This group is also actively participating in things that we do. For instance, when we call for people to come to a city council meeting around over-policing or housing or the new police station, they are there. Or last year when we were supporting the family of a young man who was on trial for shooting a police officer, we asked them to come to court everyday and they were there.
So it's not just [about] establishing relationships. It is also [about] making statements and showing the people in power that there’s a community of people who believe that there’s another way of creating a Durham that is harm free.
You’ve been at Spirit House since 2002, and I’ve wondered what it must be like to work with an organization that is deeply committed to uplifting the black community given the recent exposure of police violence. How has that and the Black Lives Matter movement affected your work?
It has also been very hard. Right now, it’s very hard. Everyday is hard. Because there is such a heightened sense [of awareness]. There’s so much video, so many news articles. It’s constant. It makes it difficult to function. It makes it difficult to find joy. So in addition to some of the police accountability things that we are doing around racial profiling and police brutality, a lot of our work in the last few months has been intentionally creating spaces for black joy as a way of healing. A lot of our focus right now is around healing because people sometimes are not able to get out of bed. It is definitely traumatic constantly seeing those things [in the media] or living in fear, so we are trying to provide spaces where we can have relief.
This summer we have done this Black Resilience Black Joy [programming] where we go to the Eno and bring food, and we go in the water, and we are in the water, and we scream in the water. We try to release some of the things we are holding to make room for good things and we go home.
We see this as part of that movement. The protest and demonstrations and all of those things are very necessary, but they are not actually creating the world we want to live in. If we are not practicing the world we want to live in, even if we win tomorrow in these other areas, we don’t have anything to replace it with. We don’t have it. We haven’t created it. We haven’t practiced it. We haven’t learned it. So [Spirit House] is trying to simultaneously both work around these things — the very tangible things that Black Lives Matters talks about but also trying to practice a different way of living. We are trying to create space for black people to practice a different way of living, so that as we win these things we have something tangible to replace it with.
Spirit House’s work is centered in the arts and creative expression. How does that fold into your work?
When I talk about the things that I talk about, it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. We are talking about shifting our views and that takes a radical imagination. The only way to really get to that kind of imagination is through art that breaks the barrier where you can think of things that don’t fit into a box. We do a lot of poetry writing, some visual arts, and a lot of culture work.
Part of it is that we believe that we already have everything that we need to do these things that we want to do. It requires looking at what already exists. What is the culture of your neighborhood? What is the culture of your family? What is the culture of the city that you live in? And then, how do we work with that? How do we move with that and expand that by opening this radical imaginative space?
Right now we are beginning a project where we are looking at empty, torn down, beat up spaces, and asking people to imagine what could be there, just as a way to opening the conversation to something new and not having any barriers.
How does creative expression work in your own life?
I rarely let barriers stop me. I always believe that there’s going to be enough. We find a way to get what we need at all times, and that’s how I live. I’m always thinking about the and: and what’s next; and how are we bringing this together; and how are we seeing each other?
It is very important to me to see people. It is very important to me to know people ... to not have transactional interactions with people but to always be seeking relationship. It doesn’t have to be a deep relationship, but to always be seeking relationship as opposed to transactional interactions.
How have you arrived at this place of artful living?
I’ve probably always had the inclinations, but I think what I didn’t have was the courage to move beyond the conventional way of thinking and living. I didn’t have that for a very long time.
We live in a capitalist system. Regardless of how you may or may not feel about capitalism, what we are learning is that everything has a price, even our happiness. Maybe I can’t go to Florida because I can’t afford it, but I can go sit by the Eno River once a week and put my feet in the water, if that’s the thing that’s going to bring me some peace and some joy. We don’t [naturally] do that. It is not ingrained in us that we deserve that. Challenging that on a daily basis, and also not being irresponsible [is challenging].
Were there people or moments that have guided you to this alternative way of seeing the world?
When I moved to NC, it changed my entire life. The pacing, the difference between the North and the South, [and] the culture, made it possible for me to be more open to developing and building relationships. I actually felt like I was home
This idea around what it means to be steeped in culture and really understand culture probably made the biggest difference for me. Culture still matters here, and southern culture still matters here. I feel like we’re in jeopardy, because so many institutions are coming and trying to reshape [us], so that the South is more at pace with some other places. I hope that doesn’t happen.
What does listening mean to you?
It is the greatest gift you can give to someone. To really listen to them and show that you care about who they are, and what they experience. It’s the only way to develop really lasting relationships. It’s the only way to make sense of the world.
I think I have always been a deep listener. Some of it was because of safety — as someone who has been a survivor of sexual violence [because] you have a heightened sense of what’s happening around you. You can choose to use that kind of a skill in a way of developing relationships.
I don’t necessarily read a room out of fear of being unsafe anymore because I don’t want to live that way, [but] I may read the room in way of trying to know how I’m going to connect with you, what’s the thing that’s going to bring us together?
*This conversation was edited and condensed.