Open Circle Ethics

Brandy Williams

Event organizers and open-circle coordinators have, I think, a responsibility to participants to provide a safe and comfortable 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 discussion.


A few years ago, the Seattle/ Vancouver/ Portland area had no ongoing festivals. As I write, August '86, organizers 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 friendship and trust. We're concerned about each other and pay attention to caring for one another. I think the combination of a small group handling a lot of newcomers has allowed us to generate 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 organizer 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 discussion at the '85 Fall Equinox Festival that has borne substantial 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 newcomers.

No Pressure To Physically Touch. I've never seen anyone object 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 powerful one for skilled people.

Also note: one northwest organizer disagreed with these suggested 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.


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.


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 contact network to provide them with 'one on one' support, starting slowly.

Solomonic Decisions

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 criticism. 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 contacts survive a number of complaints. Neither situation seems fair.

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 organizer should be notified:
  4. Theft or destruction of another's property.
  5. Violence against people - assault.
  6. Sexual coercion or abuse.
  7. 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 liaison between 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 undesirable 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 person 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 introducing a lot of people to the community, AND vice-versa. There are a lot of weirdoes 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 in order.


Some of us have had good experience with 'greeters' or ombudsmen. (Ombudspeople?) It's a staff position, the sole responsibility of which is to be available for participants' support, to solve problems, hold hands, and be a liaison with staff.

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.

Organizer's Magic

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 participants 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, putting 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 contacts, 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 disagreed, feeling event funds should be channeled 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 sacrifice 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 consensus 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.
Brandy Williams

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