The purpose of events (a discourse on Pagan Pride)

I’ve seen two fascinating conversations pop up in the last day: one about SF conventions and one about the Pagan community, both talking, in at least general terms, about ‘who are we doing this for, and what are we doing with it’? Which brought up all the thoughts, so hi, you all get a post about it.

The Pagan community side started with a friend linking to a post of Star Foster’s about Pagan Pride and the subsequent conversation (locked Facebook post, so I can’t share) was interesting, but also got me thinking. Which got me writing.

I was on the Twin Cities Pagan Pride board from sometime in late 2005 (so starting with the 2006 event), during which I’ve been co-programming chair, programming chair, and then hotel and operations chair once we started Paganicon in 2011. (I am no longer on the board, because moving to Maine in the summer of 2011 made it a little tricky to attend board meetings in Minnesota, but I continue to do hotel foo for Paganicon, and I presented two workshops at this year’s Southern Maine Pagan Pride.

And I found it fascinating reading Star’s post, because there’s some interesting assumptions there. And a bit of history I realise people might not be aware of.

A pause for context:

Back when I was Programming Chair of Twin Cities Pagan Pride, I made a really deliberate attempt to reach outside the Wiccan-based community. Every year, I’d sit down and produce a list of every Pagan or polytheistic group I could find in the Twin Cities region and in greater Minnesota. I’d search through Witchvox, but I’d also rummage through Minnesota email lists, through listings of events or mentions at stores, do web searches for the likely terms, and so on.

(And I’m a librarian by profession, so I do know how to do a thorough web search that goes beyond basic Google.)

I’d send off nice little notes to anyone who did not explicitly ask not to be contacted (Witchvox has an option for “Please don’t contact me about random events in the community” and of course I respected that.)

My notes said, basically “We’re doing Pagan Pride again this year, here’s the dates and location.” and for any group that wasn’t one that we saw all the time (who are awesome for doing that), I’d say something like “We’d really like to include a greater and more diverse representation at our event. If you’re not interested or available, I’d love to know about other groups or people you know about who might be interested.” and then usually a brief thing about “here’s the places I’m already looking for that.” (because asking other people to do your homework for you is rude.)

Most of the time, those emails went into the ether, and I got very little response back. Maybe they went to defunct groups. Maybe they went to spam folders. Maybe people meant to respond, and Life happened. I don’t know. But I do know I tried.

Thing is – it didn’t get us much response. And I don’t know what to do about that. You can’t make people show up and do things for you. (You can’t even make them show up). All we could do is be honest and sincere about what we wanted to do, and that we would like to include more varieties of practice and experience for people to learn about.

I also made sure that our programming items included things that could apply to a wide range of paths, and I mentioned those in our “We’d love programming about X” emails. (Things like how divination applies to your path, or what fiction you read that inspires you to think about something in your religious or magical practice differently, or how fiber crafts work for you.)

Where’d I learn to do this? The Pagan online space I’ve spent the most time – the Cauldron – has a long history of a diverse range of Pagan, polytheistic, and magical paths (Wicca and Wiccan-based practice has been in the minority there among the active posters pretty much my entire 12 years hanging out there.) So I did have a good sense of topics that might have general interest, and how to write them to avoid Wiccan-centric assumptions.

What did I find out?

First, that for a number of years (again, between about 2006 and 2010), we had a really clear alternation between more Wicca-heavy Pagan Pride lineups and more other-kinds-of-Paganism ones. This wasn’t intentional in the least: it happened four years running in which my basic outreach process was more or less exactly the same. It all came down to “we have the spare energy this year but didn’t last year” or internal cycles of groups, or sometimes things like “We have people who would like the chance to lead a public ritual” one year, and the next year, some of those people weren’t free.

We also had the issue that the Minnesota Renaissance Festival dates are a complicating factor in scheduling Twin Cities Pagan Pride: we had more diverse representation in the years before the RenFest dates entirely encompass the Pagan Pride window. There isn’t a lot Pagan Pride can do about that – going later in October even if we got an exemption for the date hits the Mankato Women’s Spirituality festival, and Earth Conclave, as well as people’s prep for Samhain. And when the people who *are* backbones of the event, year after year, have Samhain plans, this is something you do need to keep in mind. It’s a big part of why we shifted most of the programming to the spring Paganicon.

Are there things we might have done that would have been even more outreach? Sure. (There always are more things.) But those are also things that would take a substantially larger investment of time and energy because the next real step would be very personal outreach (by going to open events in those other paths and communities) But that assumes there are communities open to that kind of respectful visit (many aren’t, and for good reason) and that there are people with the spare time and energy to go.

(I had the energy to do Twin Cities Pagan Pride as a board member. But at various points when I was on the board, I was working full time, and also putting in 10-20 hours a week in teaching and leadership of the group that trained me, and finishing graduate school. Or at the tail end of that time, dealing with a major job hunt and a major health crash that has taken years to begin to recover from. People have varied and complicated lives, is what I’m saying here, and the rest of our Board also had varied and complicated lives.)

What does this actually mean?

Good question. I argue that the thing you should do with Pagan events is figure out why you’re going. I’m actually with Star that public Pagan rituals don’t usually do much for me (I do not need a big transformative experience every time – big transformative experiences are exhausting, thanks, even if they’re good for me. But if I’m going to do ‘friendly social connection’, doing it with random strangers isn’t really my thing either.)

So why do I go? I go because I believe it’s good for the larger Pagan communities to talk in useful ways. To compare notes on what’s working and what isn’t, and what’s new in town. I go because I like doing workshops as a way to both meet interesting people and share useful stuff. But I go with moderate expectations. I expect to see some people I like, maybe meet a few people I might like, and so on. I don’t expect it to be a Major Point In My Life.

And yet – part of why I’ve invested hours and hours in making them happen is because for some people, it is a major turning point in their life. I’ve had people tell me they were so glad to find people like them, and seen the glow in their eyes of connecting with other Pagans, or someone who could help with a specific path or kind of practice. This August, I was teaching a workshop on research at the Southern Maine PPD and was able to point someone at a path that totally isn’t mine, but I knew some useful resources and contacts. I live for that kind of thing. (Librarian. Connecting people with information that matters to them is pretty much my life mission. Also a religious devotion.)

The other thing I really like about Pagan Prides is that they’re low commitment as long as getting there is not a huge issue. (Free event, supported by donations.) It’s entirely possible to go for an hour or two, see the things you really want to, and go away. You don’t have to block off all weekend, you don’t have to buy a membership or a ticket. If you decide there’s not that much of interest, you can go away quickly, if you find some awesome conversations, you can stick around.

But I don’t expect it to be my whole community. I don’t expect it to be life-changing. I don’t expect it to be the Best Thing I Do All Year. Those are unreasonable expectations to put on a very broad, very general event that is focused on public education and increased awareness. If I get personal awesome stuff out of it, great.

But I go – and I support such events – because I want there to continue to be places curious people can check Paganism (and related paths) out, and learn more. (Which works better when there are experienced people from a wide variety of paths willing to talk to new people.) Where people who are curious can learn more about local resources (whether that’s groups or vendors or entertainment). And because if we want a more diverse and more vibrant and more varied group of Pagan communities in the future, we need to keep propping the door open, not just keep talking to the people we already know.

But if that’s not your thing – that’s okay. There’s other ways to catch up with friends, and other times to do stuff with Pagans. As much as I value Pagan Pride events (and other public and newbie-friendly events), I don’t think a given event is the right choice for every person or for a given person every year.  I’m certainly not offended by other people deciding to do something else with that day.

I do hope, though, we can talk about events fairly (judge them for what they are and are trying to be, not for failing to meet our personal desires for our dream event). I also hope that we can, individually and together, remember that events have histories but also – we hope – futures. Events will change and develop over time (so what we did 5 years ago might be different now) and that what we want out of an event as an individual might be different than it was 5 years ago. Or last year.

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  • Nivasi

    PPD is about your community, what your community is seeking in way of knowledge, opportunity for others to meet face to face and to educate yourself and others with what is in the area- if a person doesn’t reach out …it is their own fault for not getting education or an opportunity to network

    • Hi, and thanks for commenting. I’m not sure that ‘fault’ is the word I’d pick: I think it’s totally fine for people to decide that a Pagan Pride event is not the place they want to be. (There are tons of other places to network, and tons of other ways to learn, and tons of other opportunities). And as I said, not every event is going to be right for every person (and most of them won’t be.)

      But at the same time, I hope there’s room for “Hey, that’s not my thing right now” and room for “this is an event that serves a useful purpose for many people in the large community, so that they can find the other kinds of events and activities and opportunities.” I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. (I understand from some of the conversation in the post that alerted me to this that Star’s gotten some pushback about not attending. And that’s not cool in my book: people can decide they don’t want to go to an event for all sorts of reasons.) I just hope that we judge events fairly for being what they are, not what we want the universe to provide to us.

      • Nivasi

        I agree to somethings.. yet you’re correct ‘fault’ may not be the correct word… If someone doesn’t want to attend, they don’t have to, thats the beauty of the community.

        But for those that do go, do and are able to meet others of ‘like minded’ and can get educated. Most groups have pamphlets to explain their group, who to contact if classes are available etc. No one should ‘pushback’ on someone, because they’re not interested in large group settings.

        PPD’s at large aren’t ‘just’ for pagans. There are many that attend out of curiosity, or if they’re teenager is interested and the parent is seeking additional info etc. No pagan path event is perfect for just one person or a group. The important thing is, that they’re available and you can choose to go or not.
        Blessings.

  • Anna H.

    I read Star Foster’s thing. Star Foster seems to have been in a spiritual, er, “event” since her initiation. If she doesn’t want to be Wiccan or participate in Wiccanate rituals, that’s fine. If she’s offended at Wiccan or “Wiccanate” rituals, that’s fine. If she does not want to be Pagan, that’s fine. If she doesn’t want to go to Pagan Pride, that’s fine. She can not go and not participate. And that’s fine. But I don’t see the need to write this big diatribe about it, as if the people doing these things are wrong, somehow.

    I think the demands put on Pagan leaders and organizers are excessive and inordinate and that an ungrateful public is increasingly demanding perfection in every detail.
    ,

  • Cara Schulz

    PPD has split in two with the workshops and such moving to Paganicon in the late winter/early spring. Love Paganicon and I’ve gone each year and it continues to grow. So I don’t attend PPD in the fall. To each his own.

    However, Star’s post was more of a “why I’m not attending [insert Pagan event here]” than a specific criticism of Minnesota’s PPD, even though she listed all the things that sound well done at PPD. And yeah, it’s because she’s been taking crap for saying she wasn’t going that she wrote a post.

    Like Star, I find that most Pagan events don’t have much for me. That’s OK. If I have time, I do a workshop. But please understand, when I do a workshop, the event STILL doesn’t have much FOR me. I’m not attending a workshop or ritual and learning from it, I’m giving it. It’d be awesome to be the one attending every so often, yanno? For the most part, I usually just go and meet up with friends and socialize. And that’s fine, but it also doesn’t create a burning desire to attend.

    I will say, if PPD had time there where leaders of various religious groups could talk about what we are up to and share best practices, that would be great. There are some amazing things going on. Groups most have never heard of are growing like crazy. People are moving in the same few block area and doing a shared home schooling with religious values included for their kids. There’s another dedicated full scale temple up that is being kept quiet so they don’t jinx themselves. All this is happening in the Minneapolis area. I’d be great to share that info among leaders, even if they feel uncomfortable sharing it in public.

    • That’s totally awesome, re: ongoing stuff. (I do miss the Minnesota Pagan community, though I’ve also met some wonderful people in Maine, and I’m looking forward to going through the ordination licensure process for the Maine Pagan Clergy Association – which, by the by, both has some interesting history in how they got started, and is very committed to being non-path-centric. Their website is at http://www.mainepaganclergy.org/ for the curious.)

      Pagan Pride used to have a ‘Meet the Pagans’ portion which did brief highlights from different groups – that format’s a little harder to do outside. I hope you do suggest (or something comes of) the leaders gathering: you’re right it would be great to get everyone in one place, whether that’s at Pagan Pride or some other time.

      Like I said, I think it’s lousy people are giving Star grief for not going. People should get to choose to come to events, or not come, as works for them. (And as someone with chronic health issues, I care especially about that: I’m often doing the “If I go to X event, I can’t do Y the week before or after” above and beyond other plans for the actual day, and I really don’t like to share that math with everyone all the time. Besides the privacy issues, it’s just boring, y’know?)

      That said, there *is* history of trying to reach out further (mind, I don’t know what’s come up in discussions in the most recent years, because again, now in Maine), and that reaching out not going very far. If I were doing it now, I’d do it differently, too – because I’ve learned a lot more in the past few years about doing that in different ways that might work better.

      My point was mostly, that you get the event that people show up for. The organisers can and should do things to encourage a diverse audience that fits their goals but at the end of the day, if the people who volunteer to do stuff are all from one perspective, that’s what you’ve got. You can reach out and encourage other people to volunteer (and I think it’s crucial to look at things that might be making people uncomfortable attending or volunteering if they’re from other perspectives). But you have to work with the moving parts you have.

      It’s also just often sort of invisible why someone isn’t there. Sometimes it is serious concerns with the event. But at lot more often it’s a bad weekend for someone, or they just finished back to school prep and vacation, and need a weekend off, or there’s a family event, or they have to work. I do my best not to make assumptions about why (or about what event organisers did or didn’t do to try and get a broader range of people), and be clear in my own head about why I’m going, what I hope to get out of it, and generally some part of what I’m doing to help make that happen. If I don’t know why I’m going, or I’m really resenting going – I don’t go. If I care about supporting the community, or the event, I do something else. (Help at something else, donate a bit of money, help get the word out to other people, etc.)

    • That’s totally awesome, re: ongoing stuff. (I do miss the Minnesota Pagan community, though I’ve also met some wonderful people in Maine, and I’m looking forward to going through the ordination licensure process for the Maine Pagan Clergy Association – which, by the by, both has some interesting history in how they got started, and is very committed to being non-path-centric. Their website is at http://www.mainepaganclergy.or… for the curious.)

      Pagan Pride used to have a ‘Meet the Pagans’ portion which did brief highlights from different groups – that format’s a little harder to do outside. I hope you do suggest (or something comes of) the leaders gathering: you’re right it would be great to get everyone in one place, whether that’s at Pagan Pride or some other time.

      Like I said, I think it’s lousy people are giving Star grief for not going. People should get to choose to come to events, or not come, as works for them. (And as someone with chronic health issues, I care especially about that: I’m often doing the “If I go to X event, I can’t do Y the week before or after” above and beyond other plans for the actual day, and I really don’t like to share that math with everyone all the time. Besides the privacy issues, it’s just boring, y’know?)

      That said, there *is* history of trying to reach out further (mind, I don’t know what’s come up in discussions in the most recent years, because again, now in Maine), and that reaching out not going very far. If I were doing it now, I’d do it differently, too – because I’ve learned a lot more in the past few years about doing that in different ways that might work better.

      My point was mostly, that you get the event that people show up for. The organisers can and should do things to encourage a diverse audience that fits their goals but at the end of the day, if the people who volunteer to do stuff are all from one perspective, that’s what you’ve got. You can reach out and encourage other people to volunteer (and I think it’s crucial to look at things that might be making people uncomfortable attending or volunteering if they’re from other perspectives). But you have to work with the moving parts you have.

      It’s also just often sort of invisible why someone isn’t there. Sometimes it is serious concerns with the event. But at lot more often it’s a bad weekend for someone, or they just finished back to school prep and vacation, and need a weekend off, or there’s a family event, or they have to work. I do my best not to make assumptions about why (or about what event organisers did or didn’t do to try and get a broader range of people), and be clear in my own head about why I’m going, what I hope to get out of it, and generally some part of what I’m doing to help make that happen. If I don’t know why I’m going, or I’m really resenting going – I don’t go. If I care about supporting the community, or the event, I do something else. (Help at something else, donate a bit of money, help get the word out to other people, etc.)