Devon Spier: On Celebrating Differences as a PACS Student and Alumni

Wednesday, April 26, 2023
Devon Spier

When Devon Spier, a Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) Alumni, was asked to summarize their experience with the program, and to talk about what take-away they carried forward with them, they talked about the need to exist in difficult spaces and celebrate differences. Experiences from studying PACS to where they are now are all linked by the importance of finding strength through your differences. 

Devon studied a double major in PACS and Religious Studies. Devon says that they “fell into studying PACS accidentally” by taking their first PACS course as an elective (PACS 202: Conflict Resolution). As it happened, Mary Lou Klassen was filling in one day to share her personal experience with international peacebuilding. Devon recounts being immediately intrigued by the approach to teaching and to life that Mary Lou demonstrated. It was the themes and mindsets woven into the courses that Devon has carried with them. 

The way Mary Lou Klassen spoke about people, talked about international development, and the way she regarded people’s lives… I realized [PACS] was all about attending and listening. About finding a deeper knowing and recognizing that for every person, for their sake, the world was not only created but could be mended, made more beautiful and with every one’s vital piece, more compassionately whole.

Devon was involved with interfaith work and Jewish community building. They took on active roles at Renison as a Resident Advisor and Vice President of the residence council there. They also volunteered as a Spiritual Care group facilitator at Grand River Hospital, Vice President of the Religious Studies Student Society and through partnered interfaith work on campus – always looking for opportunities to work with people across differences. While Devon studied at Waterloo from 2007 to 2012, tensions between different identity groups ran high due to international tensions. Jewish and Muslim as well as Israeli and Arab-connected groups on campus were all trying to figure out how to navigate spaces with each other and process emotions. Devon recalls how PACS 329: Restorative Justice was an extremely helpful course during that time. It helped them to understand how: 

Everyone has their own stories. It is not just about fixing broken pieces. Peacebuilding, when done right, does not try to fix anything, it tries to sit down and listen, and pay attention to stories; who are people, really, and what is the hidden meaning behind their behaviours and words.

This especially resonated with Devon, as a person who is Jewish, adopted, and who struggled with both dangerous housing and schooling as well as persistent antisemitism.

One of the biggest challenges that Devon took on while at University of Waterloo was to create and run Peace Camps out of Grebel University College. The first two Peace Camp summers took place in 2011 and 2012.  

Going back to the theme of difference as strength, Devon entered the interview process for Peace Camp ready to show their differences. They brought stories and pieces of their life into the interview to show their unique story – a Star of David, stories of their grandfather from World War 2, and other treasures. All things that showed the unique approach they could bring – highlighting the strengths in their differences.  While Devon was not the first choice for the position, they strongly believed that, if selected, they could challenge Grebel and Peace Camp to grow in ways that would deeply embrace the individuals and groups from all walks of life in the communities around them. A while after the interview, Devon got a call asking if they still wanted the position. 

From there, Devon describes a good sort of chaos.  

This was a project that started with a few hundred dollars in program funding and some drama clothes… from there, the goal was to bring together people and start conversations in ways that are not normally connected.

The camps connected neighbourhoods with the University, and people of different faith backgrounds together to create an environment where stories were shared.  From conversations with members of an anti-bullying movement, a local AIDS action group and an anti-fascist theatre group, to listening to testimonies of a Holocaust survivor and PACS student living with a terminal illness, Devon and the rest of the team created an environment where there was space to explore the strength in differences.

The Peace Incubator that is part of the Kindred Credit Union’s Center for Peace Advancement (CPA) on the fourth floor of Grebel has grown out of the work that the Peace Camps did. The Ripple Effect Education non-profit working out of the CPA and comes directly from Peace Camp’s work and mission of tying together differences for the sake of making peace.

From there, Devon worked at Chandler Mowat Community Centre, managing staff and coordinating programs for the House of Friendship there. While Devon was there, they worked in partnership with local mothers and their sons on a neighbourhood soccer team to design a fresh food neighbourhood food distribution system now replicated by the Food Bank of Waterloo Region. The program was executed at the explicit request of neighbourhood people who provided direction the Food Not Waste non-profit, that in turn, repurposed and redelivered leftover food from the Kitchener Market to residents of Chandler Mowat. Here, Devon tied staff of the City of Kitchener and the for-profit sector, including restaurants and start-ups, to local non-profits and even the Center for Peace Advancement to work together in pursuit of food justice. Once again, showing a passion to celebrate and honour differences within communities. 

Devon Spier

A large shift for Devon then came in 2015. At that point they were engaged to their partner, working long hours in the wider and Jewish communities, and working to go back to school with the goal to eventually become a Rabbi.  Then, on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, Devon heard a voice saying, “You are not supposed to be here. You have learned everything you need to know. Now, go They knew it was time to live her dream of becoming a rabbi.

During this next chapter of their life, something else unexpected happened. Devon got very sick. They left Chandler Mowat Community Centre, took part-time classes from a rabbinical school located in New York, and took time in bed to grow and to heal. While nursing themselves back to health and having to slow down in every aspect of life, Devon began writing and couldn’t stop. They wrote two bestselling poetry books during this time: "Heart Map and the Song of Our Ancestors" (2018) and "Whatever it is, gently: Quiet Meditations for the Noise of the Pandemic" (2020). During this time of slowing down and resting, a lesson learned from PACS that “peace is in every step” stayed with Devon. 

During the interview, Devon brought up a Jewish teaching from Rabbi Simcha Bunim. As the teaching goes, the Rabbi takes two pieces of paper. On one of them he writes, “I am but dust and ashes” and puts it in his pocket for when he needs to be humbled. The other paper says, “For my sake, the world was created” and that is put in his other pocket for when he needs to feel special and worthy of G-d-given gifts. Each paper is a reminder of one or the other, and that most of life is lived in the space between the two pockets. For a Jewish person this means to walk the fine line of humility and blessing and to use that balance to relate to others for good. Devon links this back to what they learned from PACS: 

The heart of peacemaking is to come to a place of wonder and uncertainty. When we come from our margins, our differences, and our deepest self, there is a wisdom in that. From the uncertainty and risk of not knowing, there is hope.

Now, existing between these two metaphorical pockets, Devon  continues to write and study to become a Rabbi, taking courses from New York in rabbinical school. Devon shared that they recently coordinated their first Jewish wedding. In this new journey, they are excited to work to understand and work towards intersectionality within their teachings

Devon has found other ways to utilize their PACS experience, including creating digital art on social media –  to highlight social justice issues through a Jewish lens that challenges the way people are used to thinking. 

Devon concludes that studying “PACS and working with Peace Camps set up the trajectory for [their] life”, and when asked to summarize any last thoughts about peace, they said:

Peacemaking is like jazz. You listen, you improvise with each other, and you smooth out and embrace the rough spots and from there, find the courage to play on.