OPEN CIRCLE ETHICS by Brandy Williams
The following article is from PANEGYRIA, volume 3 number 5 (Fall
Equinox), September 21, 1986, pages 1-4.
OPEN CIRCLE ETHICS
by Brandy Williams
Event organizers and open-circle coordinators have, I think,
a responsibility to participants to provide a safe and comfor-
table environment. The Pagan community here in the Pacific
Northwest seems to be evolving an ethical standard governing
organizers. Althea Whitebirch calls it choice-centered, and I
offer my perception of it here as a model and a basis for dis-
HISTORY: A few years ago, the Seattle/ Vancouver/ Portland
area had no ongoing festivals. As I write, August '86, organi-
zers are planning next year's schedule -- the second annual
Spring Equinox Mysteries festival, the first Summer Solstice
Gathering, the third annual Solitary Convention, the fourth
annual Fall Equinox Festival. Many of the attendees are new --
either to Paganism or to the northwest, and the events draw
people from a wide geographical area, including British Columbia,
Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California, and all of Washington state.
We're growing. We're growing very rapidly, and dealing with
a disproportionate influx of people inexperienced in group
rituals. As a result we're starting from scratch in developing
organizer ground rules, and developing solutions to problems
being discussed in the Pagan net nation-wide.
In the Pacific northwest, the circle of organizers is very
small, almost familial, and we're working from a basis of friend-
ship and trust. We're concerned about each other and pay atten-
tion to caring for one another. I think the combination of a
small group handling a lot of newcomers has allowed us to gene-
rate a uniquely compassionate set of attitudes and guidelines.
This outline is my own. I'm going to phrase this is strong,
definitive terms, with this qualifier: I call it Northwest Ethics
because it has evolved out of discussions with other organizers.
However, it isn't offered as a group consensus and any given or-
ganizer might disagree with some of these points or the language.
This is intended as a starting point for discussion and not a
presentation of a set-in-concrete consensus.
My own experience: I've staffed a number of events in and
out of the community. My most recent experience was heading the
SolCon '86 staff, so I'm using it as my most frequent example.
RITUAL CHOICES: Althea Whitebirch and I facilitated a dis-
cussion at the '85 Fall Equinox Festival that has borne substan-
tial results in the local community. We argued that closed
circles can do what they like, but those of us in charge of open
circles should lay down some ground rules to ensure everyone's
comfort and safety.
Explain The Ritual. I'm personally finding it necessary to
make some very basic announcements, like circle boundaries
shouldn't be indiscriminately crossed, and people should only
walk clockwise within them. Again, we're dealing with a lot of
No Pressure To Physically Touch. I've never seen anyone ob-
ject to holding hands, but a lot of people have commented that
they cringe at kisses. No kissing spirals in open circles.
Why? Newcomers tend to go along with group activities, even
ones they're uncertain about. Maybe they should be assertive,
but more often they're not, and organizers are their voice.
Choice: every event in this area includes space for people to put
together their own circles, some of which can be more touching-
oriented -- and are identified as such. Or we might experiment
with providing an Intimate Circle, which would include a lot of
hugs and kisses.
The rule is: you don't have to touch anyone you don't want
to, anytime. That should be clear to newcomers.
Choice In Participation. In open circles, if the dancing
gets too rapid or wild, participants can step back. Just bring
your neighbors' hands together and move out of the way. I've
also seen some ritualists allow people to cut themselves out of
the circle -- the procedure was clearly explained in advance.
Effective ritual evokes response. Novices are at different
tolerance and skill levels than experienced ritualists, and some
rituals can be overwhelming. Also, the 'boogie till you puke'
crowd exhausts the older folks and the kids in the group.
Experiment note: I recently separated a circle into two
groups, the 'keep on dancing' people, and the 'sit down and rest'
folks. Some rhythm is traded off for comfort. I've also seen
two rituals staged consecutively, one quiet and one 'dance all
night.' Suggestion: we can try a novice ritual, and a more power-
ful one for skilled people.
Also note: one northwest organizer disagreed with these sug-
gested choices, feeling those who participate in a circle should
be committed for the duration of the experience. It's a point.
In that case, I think a clear understanding of what's to come
would be essential.
In PANEGYRIA Vol. 3 No. 4, Althea Whitebirch argued for
informed choice in using stimulants. If alcohol is used in a
communal cup everyone should know, and a fruit juice or other
substitute should also be available.
Drugs: NOT AT EVENTS I COORDINATE! At least, not with my
knowledge or approval. Private drug use hasn't been a problem so
far. My concern is that if anyone is caught, it's not private
any more. I'm the one who gets to deal with the police and the
press, and the whole community's image suffers.
If problems arise in the future, I'd consider banning drugs
altogether. Organizing is tough enough -- I have a right to
limit my risks. Call a closed circle and do it at home.
MINORS: Young children supervised by Pagan parents are a real
joy. Teenagers with absent, non-Pagan parents or guardians are
becoming a problem, even with signed in advance waivers. Some of
us are leaning toward a 'no minor without attending parent'
policy. How do you keep them away from the wine? Think of the
issues surrounding sexuality with under-age kids. The 'what-ifs'
are frightening to contemplate.
I haven't made a firm decision because I know how important
the contacts and support can be to our younger friends. On the
other hand, they do grow up. In two years, a 16 year old can
sign her own waiver. Maybe we could set up a gentle, first con-
tact network to provide them with 'one on one' support, starting
I was asked to kick out two people who wanted to attend the
last SolCon, and I burned one request for a registration.
I know, I know. The word 'blacklist' leaps immediately to
mind. This is a tough issue. The request I burned was from a
person who was suspected of having responded violently to a cri-
ticism. The other two revolved around sexual ethics: men accused
of coercing women into intimacy.
The problem, as always, is that none of the cases were clear-
cut. How do I substantiate an accusation? Do I kick someone out
on a suspicion? I don't want violence or sexual coercion at an
event that has my name on it. I also don't want to mediate
personal conflicts; that's not my job.
At the moment, one well-placed person can ruin another's
reputation. I've seen three people kicked from the community on
ONE person's request. I've also seen people with a lot of con-
tacts survive a number of complaints. Neither situation seems
We have a lot of options. This is an essay question: pick
one and list the pros and cons.
1. Anyone at all can attend any event.
2. Each organizer must individually choose who to deny attendance
to. (In practice, we do pass names to each other.)
3.˙Any person who has been accused by one person of one of the
following things should get flagged. That is, every event orga-
nizer should be notified:
-Theft or destruction of another's property.
-Violence against people -- assault.
-Sexual coercion or abuse.
This seems to me to be most workable:
4.˙In one case I had three complaints a man had made weird sexual
phone calls to women. I called him and offered him probation:
find someone to sponsor you, to be willing to act as liason be-
tween you and the community. As with minors, the sponsor should
be with you at each event you attend. Then I would put the word
out that you are one probation, and the sponsor should be
contacted if you contact anyone on your own and misbehave. The
probation would last for a year. Any repetition of the unde-
sirable behavior would get you kicked from my events permanently,
and I would notify other organizers. Failure to accept the
probation means getting kicked immediately.
I haven't had a chance to use this procedure because the per-
son decided the effort wasn't worth it (a statement in itself).
I notified other organizers.
I'm aware this issue is extremely hot. Personally, I'm in-
troducing a lot of people to the community, AND vice-versa.
There are a lot of weirdos out there. I don't want to let a mass
murderer loose among us (as it were). I also don't want to
blacklist someone because of a personality conflict.
Bottom line: some novice assertiveness training seems to be
Some of us have had good experience with 'greeters' or
ombudsmen. (Ombudspeople?) It's a staff position, the sole re-
sponsibility of which is to be available for participants'
support, to solve problems, hold hands, and be a liason with
I didn't have greeters at SolCon '86 and regretted it. Even
with 30 people, the event coordinator (me) didn't have time to
personally check in with everyone.
I like very much that northwest events coordinators show
visible concern and caring for everyone. A friend of mine said,
"I love these events because I always feel so cherished." I'd
like to see that become a community standard.
SolCon '86 has a staff conceptualizer who renamed the
position. An organizer is the focus, he said, of the energies
coming into, and generated by the event.
A festival isn't just about magic. It IS magic, and the
focus has the pleasure of shepherding what another friend of mine
calls the magical child through its inception, and allowing par-
ticipants to share in its direction. (Rearing?)
This outline is a suggestion, a template, for focusing event
magic. These are the major focus points:
-Conception. When the event is scheduled/sited. I saw a staff
group hold a circle at the actual site several months before the
event, asking for: safety, to have enough registrants, what the
event was designed to accomplish for the attendees, the staff,
and the community.
-Presentation. I don't know about anyone else, but for me, put-
ting a flyer together is casting a spell.
-Orientation. Somewhere in the first few hours of the event, ask
the participants to help focus on the event's parameters --
safety, joy, solvency ...
-Major or parting ritual. Of necessity the ritual coordinators
will set the structure, and almost always the nature of the
working as well, but eve here the attendees can have some space
to give feedback.
-Post-event focus: a thank-you circle.
It might be suggested that an organizer has a right to do
whatever works, and event participants must fend for themselves.
I argue that event sponsors represent the community -- create the
experience of the Pagan community for many who have no other con-
tacts, and as such, they are accountable to their participants
and to other event organizers and community elders.
Aside from the issues already discussed, there are financial
ones. This year I distributed a financial accounting to SolCon
'86 attendees. That was scary -- laying out the bottom line of
the decisions and mistakes I made! The thing is, a lot of people
asked for that kind of accounting, and I've wondered myself when
I attended events.
The other issue is proceeds or profits. SolCon '86 didn't
make any. I had, however, planned to pay my staff some salary,
thinking we should be compensated for our work. Some people dis-
agreed, feeling event funds should be channelled into projects
the community benefits from. Since teeny SolCon is becoming a
formal organization (for legal purposes) and I'm putting myself
on the Board, I won't personally be in a position to take any
money out. However, I'd still like to pay the staff -- even a
small amount -- because they sacrafice some of their own fun and
do a lot of work to make the thing possible.
Finally: organizing is a pretty heavy responsibility and a
lot of work. I think we have a right to ask for hugs.
I hope to see lots of discussion on these issues. Because
our value is maximum tolerance for diversity, doesn't have to
mean that anything goes. I think it's possible for us to reach
concensus about some ground rules, to safeguard our community and
everyone in it. We ask for perfect love and perfect trust. I
think we need to provide a safety net to ensure it.
As always, I welcome feedback.