In the Words of Mama Bear

December, 2015

I had been working in a small community within the larger Pagan community when I received a very insidious Facebook message that began with, “You’re too emotional when it comes to this community. It’s not all about you, nor is it all that important”. The sender then began to question my skills as a community leader, because I was still “new” (after 10 years) and told me that the pagan community as a whole, the one I worked tirelessly for, “wasn’t that big of a deal.”
It ended with a smiley face emoticon and a message of “You know I’m only saying this because I love you right?”
It was a quick, and destructive little Facebook message, but everything about it and the situation in question was a perfect example of the quagmire of disrespect, insidious, gas lighting, boundary-pushing nature of the Pagan community (within a community)I was involved in. If I had called this person out on their emotional manipulation and denigration in a Facebook message, what would have happened? I could have screen shot it and posted it to my wall, but what good would it do? I would have been seen as a crazy troublemaker while this person was vilified as a God/Goddess (sexual identity concealed to protect the guilty) and I would be laughed at and mocked.
I was depressed. I felt powerless in a situation involving a community where bullying, slander, libel, gossip, harassment, stalking, sexual harassment, sexism, and homophobia seemed to be celebrated. I had been told that I needed to “grow a pair” and acquire a “tough skin” to do the kind of work in the community, that I was doing and that I needed to “not take it personally” when people exhibited these behaviors. When I complained about the toxicity of the community, I was told it was just the way it was for this community to be blunt and rude in order to have an authentic and truly open dialogue. This was the only way that we, as pagans could have a true authentic pagan experience.
When I was questioned about decisions I made for the position in the community that I held, I went from politely firm to loud and angrily defending myself in just a few short moments. I was told that I was overly emotional and that I just didn’t understand where the community was coming from! Talk about double standards! When I got that Facebook message, it was the last straw in dealing with the insanity in my community. I couldn’t do anything in that community without the threat of harassment or physical injury; I made a hard decision, and let my feet cast the deciding vote to leave.
I remember that day so vividly. I had gone to St. Louis with my husband for a weekend away, and as we were riding around the old neighborhoods, I received a phone call telling me that I was indeed still welcome with open arms. In fact, I was being asked to continue to be a leader. I remember chuckling and telling them “No, just give it to someone else, but you know I love you right?”
What I wasn’t prepared for was the grief I felt over the loss of my “big fish in a small pond” role I had carved out for myself in the community. I grieved hard core. People I had been friends with for years suddenly dropped me like a bad habit. Phone calls weren’t returned, people began to drop off of my friends list, and the people who had cheered me on and held me up for over 10 years suddenly disappeared.
Then came the feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. I started to doubt people and my own feelings. Whenever I met someone new, I always criticized them, wondering if they were just pleasant to my face and secretly undermining my dreams for the larger community that I’d started working on in earnest? Thankfully, my handful of longtime friends who had stuck with me showed me a way out of that dark and scary place. I still felt sad and lonely and often times avoided social situations so I didn’t have to deal with people in general.
I’m lucky, because it turned out that my core group of friends, who weren’t in that particular community supported me and my decisions. I didn’t go in to great detail about my woes with the other community, but I did tell them that I was suffering from burn out and needed a break, and a new project to work on. They understood, and supported me in several new endeavors. I was actually pleasantly surprised by how loving and supportive my entire core group was, but they cheered me on and helped me get to where I am today. I will never forget that and I am amazingly blessed by their love.
In retrospect, I didn’t leave that pagan community because there was a huge price to pay for doing so. You were cut off, ostracized, and often times your name was disparaged so badly you just left, rather than to deal with it. Paganism is supposed to be what we sleep, eat, breath and it should be our passion, something we work on even in our spare time. There is incessant talk about community, cohesiveness, unity, spirituality and working on projects for the greater good. To walk away from a community within a community for mental health reasons is considered selfish and not for the good of the greater community. Talking about why you walked away from a toxic community is also one of the largest no-no’s in the world. People don’t want to risk burning bridges and closing down the chances of keeping important relationships. The impact is that no one talks about leaving a toxic pagan community. They quietly leave and find somewhere else to spend their time and talents. When people don’t visibly leave a community, it tends to make others in the same position think that they don’t have any options either.
It is my personal opinion that when someone leaves a toxic pagan community, they need to loudly let everyone know why they are leaving, so that people in those positions know it’s ok to prioritize themselves over anything else. We need stories of people switching covens, dropping leadership roles and telling these toxic communities to “get bent”. This is the main reason that I’m sharing my story.
I don’t ever want anyone to experience the racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and all of those other nasty –isms that are going on around the communities these days. No one should have to ever endure putting their heart and soul into a body of work for the greater good only to have it all trashed by people who are threatened by their fresh ideas, new outlooks and positivity. No one.
How do you identify a toxic community?
That has got to be one of the most difficult questions, yet one of the simplest questions to answer. The answer at its simplest form is to watch. Watch how people interact with each other. Are they assholes? Seriously? Is there lots of backstabbing and gossip? Then it’s probably toxic.
Most importantly do the larger groups value the smaller ones? Does the leadership of the larger groups interact with the smaller ones in a positive manner? Do they reach out for input on festivals and events?
How do the larger groups who run festivals and events treat people? Are they welcoming of new ideas and people? Are they a bunch of money hungry business owners hiding behind a festival or an organizational name? Do they donate money to the local community for smaller events? Are they really pagan or just using that as a mask to hide behind so people will support them?
How do the shop owners treat people? (Not the employees, but the owners) Are they welcoming, accommodating and enthusiastic about the local community? Do they think they’re better than everyone else? Do they treat their customers as important individuals or do they brush them off indifferently, seeing them as only a part of their profit margin?
Does the local community value their people? How are newcomers treated? Do they thank them for reaching out, encourage them to get involved or merely pat them on the head and tell them to “let those of us know what’s going on” do the work? Will you fit into the community? Does the leadership build up people, or does it tear them down?
In the end, you may not be able to find a good pagan community that also fits your learning interests. You may want to found your own pagan community where you can build in respect and encouragement from the start. You may decide to leave the public pagan life for a chance to develop your own beliefs and paths. You may even decide to leave the toxic community all together.
The point is you have options. You have valuable skills and the drive to help in a community you still see as new. There are good people willing to help you in the larger community, and within smaller, more concentrated groups. Just because they are pagan, don’t lump them in together with that which is toxic, because they need your help to form a healthy community.
The toxic community will survive without you, and your new community will value your skills even more.
Find a community where you can be loved, respected and appreciated, because you deserve it.

In the Words of Mama Bear

November, 2015

Take a look around the Pagan community these days, we have some amazing philosophers and some wicked intelligence. People like Raven Grimassi, who is so grounded and well versed (beyond well versed) in his craft and Jason Pitzl-Waters who founded the Wild Hunt. These people never cease to amaze me by the things they write, the ideas they inspire and sometimes even by the way they make me research something just to learn a little more. While writers and practitioners are amazing, we are in dire need of community leaders, in order to help our communities and causes move forward.

Paganism is amazing. The freedom, the whole antiauthoritarianism vibe really speaks to a lot of people who may have been mired in authority in their past. It’s a fact that people who have escaped those authoritarian clutches can get really hung up in their nervousness about people getting power crazy and trying to impose their beliefs on a group. Unfortunately organizations will fail without someone (or multiple someone’s) stepping up to take the reins of day to day operations. I also know that Coven leaders, Meetup leaders, Festival organizers, well they are all ambassadors to every community by facilitating events, rites, and community service. These amazing leaders have learned that democracy within a group is a handy tool to have and that working with the community, instead of above it is what really makes them leaders. Men and women who live in their spirit and walk their truth lead by example and encourage others to do the same.

Now, on higher levels, such as international, national and state levels, leadership needs to take on more of the tone of an advocate. Fortunately, discrimination against Pagans is fairly rare(in my experience) but there is a ton of misinformation about what Paganism truly is. People believe that the pentacle is a symbol of evil, that Pagans sacrifice black cats on Samhain, and that anytime a Pagan festival is held it’s nothing more than a naked –Pagan-kegger-orgy in the woods. There are organizations that work to dispel the misinformation, work with local law enforcement to prevent discrimination and be a resource to the community when it faces these problems. However, those organizations are few and far between. As an overall community, we need to begin developing more pagan advocacy organizations so that we as Pagans have a louder voice in this world.

As a community, we need to rethink the way we think about leadership, and who we entrust in these positions.  It isn’t about the power of one person, but the power of the entire community coming together.

Let’s look a little closer at problems faced in the local community first. (Names changed to protect those who need it)

Susan K. Broomstick is a local pagan celebrity. She is incredibly smart, yet incredibly young and has a great little locally owned pagan business and routinely donates her time, talents and heart to various functions across the community without discrimination because to her, that’s how the pagan community is supposed to work. She has noticed a huge problem with bullying, gossiping, flame wars, and ad hominem personal attack on many community leaders. She offers up her space and her finances to bring a “Big Name Pagan” in who specializes in mediation, leadership and repairing of community to help heal the rifts in the community. When she reaches out to the community leadership she is told in no uncertain terms that “It’s none of your business”, “No one wants that” and “Who do you think you are? You’re just a child”. She is called out publicly on social media and is, for lack of a better terminology, crucified for offering to help.

Those who criticize and flamed Susan are prime examples of community leaders who have no place in the pagan community. They are those people who flame others and react to them with anger, resentment and discord to someone who only offered love and healing from a place of concern. Often times these angry people are overly bitter about things they have no control of. It spills out into their circles, groves, covens and hearths, to public rituals and events. They continually seek discord and drama, and react to anyone younger or in a better place spiritually with this vitriol.

Secondly is Raven Elder. Raven runs a local pagan gaming group. Many nights you’ll find him hanging around the new, young and impressionable at his gaming sessions in the back room of a local restaurant that he conveniently owns. When asked about his path, he brushes people off and points them in the direction of the game room and encourages them to order something off of the menu. He’s been named Pagan Paragon of the Year, and is highly regarded as a person of high esteem. He never donates to local fundraisers, and does nothing for the community that he doesn’t get paid for.

Raven seems to be more of an opportunist using the pagan community as a source of income, while the leaders who flamed Susan on Social Media seem to not comprehend what it takes to lead a community, especially one that is hurting. These people and ones like them are the ones that the pagan community has to step back and carefully reconsider if they really do want them leading.

Yet every day, in cities around the country, we see people just like the ones we mentioned. People who want to help, give all they can to help and are beat down and flamed at every opportunity, and people who are celebrated for using the community to reach their financial goals.

What constitutes a good leader? What traits should you look for when choosing whom to put your trust behind?

First of all, do a little magic of your own when making the decisions of who you entrust with the leadership of the pagan community. Use the internet. Find out their real name and Google it. Secondly, watch and learn. How do these people act? Do they give to the community of both their time and talents? Before they act or speak, do they think? Is what they do or say true, helpful, inspiring, necessary or kind? Do they reach out to others? Do they support pagan events and programs in the community? Do they facilitate pagan events? What makes them worthy of a leadership designation?

Use your common sense and better judgment when choosing and empowering pagan leadership and watch your community blossom.