This account begins in South Africa, where I was conceived and born to a Swiss Mother, Maja, and American Father, Donald, who were living and working there as part of an international peace movement. In the week following my birth, Xhosa friends of my parents, the Vundla family (including all their eight children) came to visit my mother and me. They were surprised to learn that I had been given only two names, saying I also needed to have a traditional name, and chose for me the Xhosa girl name Nobantu which translates roughly to ‘mother of the people.’ Part of this story that I always enjoyed hearing as a child, was that one of the children had ‘Merry Christmas’ as part of her name. She was especially interested in me having more names!
And so I embarked on my life journey with three names: Heidi, the name chosen for me by my parents from my mother’s country (I really did have a wonderful Grandfather with goats in Switzerland); Nobantu, the name chosen for me by people who were native to the land of my birth; and finally Saul, inherited from my Father’s Father’s people, which in Gaelic translates loosely to ‘barn or meeting place.’
The institutionalization of apartheid in South Africa went against my parents’ moral consciousness, and they chose to leave when I was 6 months old. They continued working with the peace movement in Europe and the American southwest (not without its very own version of apartheid) and by the time I started first grade, I had lived in seven places on three continents. Already, at this early age, I was introduced to a global interconnected perspective of life, and thus were planted the seeds of my desire to facilitate and contribute to conscious sustainable and respectful relationships between people, communities and cultures.
Fast-forward 32 years: grade school and high school in two states and five schools; a BA & MA; a stint as a VISTA volunteer and GED examiner; a condensed career as a human resources director in the hospitality industry; and then an escape from the corporate world for a few years in Taos, NM. A series of circuitous events takes me to my 20th High School reunion were I reconnect with one of my best friends who now owns and teaches in a massage school. Less than 5 months later I find myself sitting in a circle on the floor with a dozen others during communication class in our massage school program. Through this intense 6 month learning journey what resonated with me more than massage, was that in this community learning circle, we are bringing the art of communication to life. Elegantly, if without planning, I have landed upon the path that leads to the work I love doing now.
From this point forward I pursued, in one way or another, the arenas of human interaction, group process, and the development of personal awareness. I co-designed and facilitated a number of innovative programs in this field while, at the same time training in a variety of different group facilitation methods. In the fall of 2006, I first encountered Open Space Technology (OST) in Halifax, Nova Scotia at a Leadership Development Retreat. However it was a few years before it fully captured my imagination through how profoundly this work incorporated my experience, interests and values, both personal and professional.
The first time I opened space was at World Open Space on Open Space (WOSonOS) in January of 2008, in San Francisco. In preparation, in the early morning mist, I walked the Labyrinth outside Grace Cathedral before driving to the Presidio. It was scary and exhilarating to walk that opening circle in front of 100-plus people who had used this method before, some for years. In that moment, I knew that I had found my work. I loved that it was participant-driven rather than ‘facilitator/expert centric,’ was so simple in design, and how it liberated the participants’ interests rather than imposing an agenda.
In the years since that day in San Francisco, as I have developed my practice of facilitating Open Space, it has become genuinely pleasing to have work that is both personally fulfilling and that has a greater purpose so well aligned with my earliest experiences and imaginings of community - the seeds planted in those most early years of my life. Open Space is deeply rooted in human relationship and, at many levels, impacts the entire system involved in the event: the organization as a whole all the way to each individual who participates, and the relationships they have with each other and their environment – the people, the community, and the culture.
My naming has been a defining and grounding life facet for me. A companion of sorts, the story of my naming represents the place of my birth - my starting point - and has quietly orbited my field through the phases of my life. Now my story accompanies me into circles where I hold the space for others to do their work, where something new can emerge, and where chaos and complexity transform into action plans, all while having some fun at the same time!
That’s the journey.
That’s the circle.
*To find out more about what captured my imagination I suggest starting with the book Expanding Our Now / The story of Open Space Technology by the originator of OST Harrison Owen