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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