There are many Pagans doing amazing things throughout the world. Dianne Daniels happens to be one of them. Daniels has currently taken on the intricate balance of holding the work of service within differing communities. This week 53 year old Daniels stepped into the highly public position of branch president within an historic civil rights organization, and she is also a practitioner of modern Paganism.
Daniels, a Detroit born native now living in Connecticut, was just elected to the position of the NAACP branch president for its Norwich chapter. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is a organization that was founded in 1909, and is considered to be the oldest civil rights organization in the United States.
According to the Norwich NAACP website:
The NAACP has as its mission the goal of eliminating race prejudice and removing all barriers of racial discrimination through democratic process. This mission is accomplished by seeking the enactment and enforcement of federal, state and local laws securing civil rights, and by informing the public of the adverse effects of racial discrimination.
On October 14, 1963, the Norwich branch received it’s charter from the National Organization. At the time, there were 111 members. Now there are 150 local members.Daniels, a long time NAACP member, moved to Norwich, Connecticut in 1997, and joined the local branch in town. Now she is its president. What is it like for a Pagan to be running such an important office in one of the most notable Civil Rights organizations?
I found this question especially interesting and wanted to explore more of the intersection that exists between two very different worlds, two drastically different cultures, and her work being in the public eye in such a open way.
I reached out to Daniels to talk about the nature of her work and this amazing new appointment within the NAACP. Daniels gave me the following interview, in which she discusses her motivation, her spiritual path, the importance of her human rights efforts, and the challenges of public work.
Crystal Blanton: What has inspired you to run for office within the NAACP, and what do you hope to accomplish as a leader in your local and national community?
Dianne Daniels: I’ve been a member of the NAACP for most of my life. My membership began as a child when my mother, Katherine Morton, gifted my brother, my nephew and I with memberships in the local Youth Council. She believed in the goals of the organization – and taught us to respect the work they’ve done and continue to do in our country, our states, cities, and neighborhoods.
When my family and I moved to Norwich, Connecticut, we became members of the local branch. The President was a marvelous lady named Jacqueline Owens, who is only now retiring after serving 30 years. Her resolve, strength and vision have kept the branch healthy and productive, and I’m next in line.
The example she set for me – along with all the other Elders in the NAACP’s circle – will be easy to follow, yet hard to live up to. It was Mrs. Owens – we call her Mother Owens – and her confidence in me, plus what I’ve learned from being an active part of the local organization, that gave me the confidence to accept the Presidency.
I want to carry forward the strong relationships we’ve built within the branch, and the connections to local and regional community groups. People are unique – every one of them – and we have our own views of what’s important and what deserves our time and effort. My personal goal is to widen the circle – add members to my local branch – and keep building on our strengths. The people who founded the organization did so based on the times they were living in – they knew that things needed to change, drastically, and they knew that combined effort from all kinds of people of conscience within the community was the way to make it happen.
The recent Presidential election and the reports of a sharp increase in hateful language and hate crimes throughout the country tells me that the work of the NAACP is NOT over. The issues of paramount importance to the organization – Education, Health, Media Diversity, Civic Engagement, Environmental and Climate Justice, Economic Opportunity, and Criminal Justice – are also important to my local community, and to the cities and states within our country.
CB: Do you see your spiritual path as a contributing factor to your motivation to do work for racial equity?
DD: Yes! A big part of my spiritual path is honoring my Elders – whether those are my personal ancestors, people I am related to, or Elders in the sense that they are the mature and experienced people of my community and my country who have so much to teach me and all of us.
My ancestry includes a mix of ethnicities, like many people in the United States. I am “made up” of 69% African DNA. I invested in the AncestryDNA test because unfortunately, many of my personal Elders have crossed over and are no longer here for me to ask questions of.
Knowing this about myself gives me a sense of centeredness – I know more about where I came from and whose blood runs through my veins. As I continue my studies along my spiritual path, I am searching for ways to connect to my ancestors and to pull forward the strength, wisdom and culture that they had. They had so many wonderful qualities that I want to embody – I can only imagine their strength and endurance, their sense of self. They maintained their culture and their customs in secret – because to do otherwise would put their lives at risk – and I cherish the freedom I now enjoy to chase the information and follow the path that’s right for ME.
CB: Do you have concerns about the intersection of your work in the Black community and the Pagan community?
DD: Yes – I do have concerns. There are segments of the Black community who are now embracing their Ancestral ties – they are discovering where their ancestors lived and came from, and they are breaking the walls of missing information down with tools like DNA research.
Many of the spiritual and religious paths followed by our ancestors – those of Africans and African-Americans – are lost to the mists of time. There were few accurate records of their spiritual practices, and without knowing what region of Africa or what other parts of the world they came from, it’s hard to tell what practices to adopt for today’s descendants.
There’s still some uncertainty and fear in the Black community where Pagan practices are concerned. Those who follow Christianity or Catholicism are often taught that those practices are evil and dark, and that’s a real shame. It means that generations of people have been cut off from what may have been their families’ spiritual roots, and some people fortunate enough to know what the practices were still struggle with how they may be seen by their families, their communities, and greater society.
CB: How do you address being an active member in both of those worlds?
DD: I walk two paths – I am an active member of a Unitarian Universalist church, which is one of the most open and loving experiences in my life. UUs, as we call ourselves, have a diverse and inclusive set of beliefs, and support the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace diverse teachings from Eastern and Western religions and philosophies, and that means Pagan paths as well.
UUs are united in a broad and inclusive outlook, with a respect for the wealth of diverse and meaningful ways of connecting with the sacred. My pagan path – I am a student with the Temple of Witchcraft – seeks to awaken the potential of the human soul to its natural gifts, and through the awakening, to experience an expansion of consciousness, aligning the soul with Love, Will and Wisdom. I am also interested in discerning and studying the spiritual path of my ancestors – and I’m determined to find out exactly what that was and is.
I’m just beginning my formal studies with the Temple, having studied on my own for approximately a year, and the more I learn, the more I love it. There is SO much in this world of ours to learn! The history, the different paths, traditions, theology, and so much more. I’m very grateful to have the Temple as one of the sources for my studies.
I’m also in the first year of study to earn a Masters of Divinity – I want very much to become a UU Minister, and I’m studying with the Starr King School for the Ministry in California. Community service is a part of the call I feel toward Ministry. There are so many people who feel that they don’t belong anywhere – or that they no longer belong to a spiritual community or path where they were raised. Being part of two communities where the dignity and worth of every human being are celebrated, where questions are encouraged, and being a Seeker means that you’ll not only have access to tons of information, but support and encouragement as you learn – I can’t think of a better place to be.CB: Many spiritual paths have a strong emphasis on community services as a spiritual act. This is very true of different marginalized groups as well. How does community service play into the way you see your spiritual obligations and your commitment to Black people?
DD: I feel very strongly that I must give back to my community. The principle of EOROTO – Each One Reach One and Teach One – is a great way to ensure that the wisdom that I’ve gained, that we all gain throughout our lives – does not disappear when we make our own transition out of this world.
Passing on the wisdom I learned means that those who come after me have a better chance of not making the same mistakes that I did, and not suffering under the same lack of information. I believe that you need to know your history to tap into the strengths that run in your family – but if you don’t know, you will have a harder time finding it.
For instance – my mother was forced into single motherhood by the death of my father when I was only 9. She had to learn to drive the family car – he took her everywhere she had to go. Without knowing that about her, I might not have known that I have an ancestral connection to a deep well of strength and intelligence, a refusal to just sit back and feel sorry for myself, and a set of principles that would encourage us to be lifelong learners.
Working within your community – being of service – builds competency and a skill set that will serve you well throughout your life, as well as being of immediate service to your community. One of Unitarian Universalism’s key principles is the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. Living that principle means, for me, that I am less likely to discount any individual’s contribution to solving a challenge or a problem, because I believe they can help to find a solution, and that the best solution for them would include a solution that preserves their dignity and their worth.
CB: Fun fact time: What is a fun fact about who you are as a person that you would be willing to share with the Wild Hunt audience?
DD: I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan – the Motor City – and thus I’m not afraid to pick up tools and “wrench” on a car! It’s not as easy as it used to be – modern cars have so many components shoehorned into the engine bay – but some of the most fun times I can remember from my teens and twenties involved working on cars with the help of my brother, Cartell. He felt strongly that I should know my way around an engine, and around a car, so that I would never be taken advantage of when I did choose to take my car to a professional garage for service.
Fun fact. I learned to renovate old houses from my mother, Katherine Elizabeth Ramsey Morton. I grew up in a 9-room Victorian era home on the east side of Detroit, and my mother taught me a LOT about working on a house. She had a crush on Bob Vila from the series “This Old House,” and we almost never missed a show. We stripped and reinstalled wallpaper, stripped and refinished wood, installed molding, refinished floors, laid tile and linoleum, painted, plastered – you name it! I took all that she taught me, and I (with the help of my husband and family) have renovated two historic homes, one I’m currently living in.
Thank you, Dianne, for talking with me and sharing your thoughts.
The very complex and nuanced nature of the construct of community is fascinating. The many different ways that individuals, like Daniels, play a role in participating within community varies due to many different factors.The correlations between the modern Pagan community, ancestral practices, and the growing trend of Black people returning to the practices of their African spiritual roots continue to unfold. The more that we see these communities crossover more openly, the more these correlations become apparent, and hopefully stereotypes and fears will continue to dissipate as a result.
In the meantime, people like Daniels are doing the heavy lifting in a multitude of ways. Being the public face of such a historic organization like the NAACP comes with its own set of challenges and obstacles regardless of religious path, and the gift to both communities will last far beyond Daniel’s two-year appointment.
We know that representation matters even if it is something that is often disregarded in mainstream over-culture. Pagan representation matters within publicly-based national civil rights organizations, and African-American representation matters within the largely Eurocentric modern Pagan community. Daniels has embraced the role of balancing these two world in a very public way.
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