Reclaiming Quarterly Web Features Back Issues Subscribe Ads/Submissions Site Index Reclaiming Home

Making It Real

Community Trust and Accountability

by Starhawk

These are hard times, politically, economically, and emotionally for a lot of us, and in hard times we need community more than ever. We need the support of others around us who share our struggles, and we need to feel trust that there is some safe space in which we can be valued for who we are.

Reclaiming is a vast experiment in building community around shared values of interconnectedness, of the sacred embodied in nature, flesh and everyday life, of equality and direct democracy that recognizes no hierarchies of value. If our spirituality is expressed in everyday life, then how we treat each other is an integral part of our spiritual practice.

Challenging hierarchy is easy enough in theory, but in practice it's very difficult. We have few long-lasting, successful models of non-hierarchical groups, especially in contemporary society. Many of us are veterans of numerous failed experiments of the sixties and seventies. Indigenous cultures may furnish some models, but most contain their own internal structures of authority. And most of us weren't raised in indigenous cultures, but in the highly competitive urban industrialized societies of the late twentieth century.

We don't have experts or roadmaps to tell us what to do. But we can look at our experience, at what works and what doesn't, what causes pain and what fosters empowerment and connection. We can constantly strive to create a communal culture that supports beneficial relationships and undermines destructive ways of interacting.

Dealing with conflict and accountability is one of the most challenging arenas for a nonhierarchical community. When conciliation fails, we unconsciously reach out for somebody to step in and make things right for us. We are conditioned to look toward some authority figure to step in and ultimately resolve a conflict. In the larger society, that authority may be backed by the force of law or the law of force: police carry nightsticks and guns and are authorized to use them. Courts can issue judgments and impose punishment. We may not want to turn to the courts or the cops, but we often do secretly long for our own court to try those who have offended us, or our own communal cops to make them behave.

But in a community where we've essentially said, "We aren't going to do the courts and cops thing, overtly or covertly," we're left floundering, reaching for a structure that doesn't exist. So what do we do, when someone transgresses our boundaries or the values we hold in common? How do we hold each other accountable when there is no agreed upon structure to be accountable to?

One RQ writer, in a recent article, suggested that gossip is one way we hold people accountable. Gossip may be a form of default accountability, but it can be a highly destructive and dysfunctional way of solving problems in our community. I'm not talking about friendly, newsy gossip, "Pondweed has a new baby!" or "Crystal Rainbow is going to Brazil for five months to study herbs in the Amazon." I'm talking about the kind of gossip that substitutes for direct confrontation or collective action: "Did you hear about the awful thing Milkcurd did to Mudflat?" "That Frogspawn is price-gouging her students again!"

Such gossip might point out the need for some structure of accountability, but it can also amount to trial in absentia by rumor, without benefit of judge or jury or the right to confront the evidence against you. As Witches, inheritors of a tradition in which thousands of people were tortured and killed by just such hearsay, we should be especially sensitive to not reproducing an atmosphere of innuendo and secret condemnation.

In a time of repression, when many of us are politically as well as spiritually active, destructive gossip can become more than personal. It is one of the prime ways groups such as Cointelpro have historically moved to undermine effective activists and destroy movements.

We all fall into this kind of gossip from time to time. We all have moments when we simply need to vent our frustration to a close friend, or nurse a wound. But a functional community would develop a culture that does not support or reinforce destructive rumors or covert attacks. In order to do that, we need to provide some alternative forms of accountability, and other forums in which people can vent negative feelings and get help in moving them into some constructive form of activity.

We may also need some help to wean ourselves from the gossip habit. I suggest the following steps when someone does something you find offensive:

  • Ask yourself, "Is this actually any of my business? Do I actually need to respond to this?"
  • Inquire about what actually happened, or about the person's motivations, before you make assumptions that rev up your anger or your sense of injury.
  • Confront the person directly, and offer constructive critique, which is discussed below.
  • Ask for help or mediation if you are afraid to confront the person on your own.
  • Know what request you want to make of them. This is a key point in nonviolent communication — that you don't just complain about someone's behavior, but tell them what change you want to see them make.

When you hear about someone else's bad behavior, or some act that disturbs you, or how Mudflat has misused Pondweed:

  • Remember that every story has at least two sides.
  • Ask yourself, "Is this actually any of my business?"
  • Inquire directly about what happened before leaping to judgment.
  • Support the person who feels injured in confronting the other party directly, with constructive criticism.

When someone brings negative gossip to you, ask:

  • Is this really any of our business?
  • Have you inquired to find out what actually happened? Can I support you in doing so?
  • What kind of support can I give you in directly and constructively confronting this person or situation?
  • Change the subject. Refuse to engage. When someone tries to hook you in, don't get hooked. If your friend says, "I really shouldn't tell you this..." Respond, "I'm so glad you have good boundaries. Let's talk about something else."

In The Twelve Wild Swans, Hilary Valentine and I compiled some of Reclaiming's accumulated wisdom about what differentiates constructive critique from attack. Constructive critique, we suggest, has five aspects:

  • It's specific, not vague or generalized.
  • Its intent is to improve the work.
  • It's given at the right time.
  • It's about something the person can actually change.
  • It's given privately before it's given publicly.

If we bear these guidelines in mind, we can offer our criticisms in ways that make them both easier to hear, and more effective, by asking ourselves, "What specifically about Pondweed's priestessing do I find so offensive? What do I actually want her to change? Am I offering this critique in a loving way, out of respect for her work? Have I told her this directly, or offered it in an appropriate forum like a feedback meeting, before I make it publicly in a mass meeting or on an open listserve?"

When we work within an ethos of leaderlessness, it's hard to hold people accountable for how they act in roles of leadership they're not supposed to have. When we dislike setting rules, it's hard to challenge people for breaking boundaries that have never been defined. And when people do take leadership in constructive ways, they are at risk of being attacked for overstepping bounds that they never knew existed.

We want people in Reclaiming to be leaders — not in the sense of telling others what to do, but in the broader sense of stepping out in front, suggesting directions, innovating, creating, and taking on responsibility for manifesting ideas. Leadership needs constructive critique, but it also needs support and encouragement. Reclaiming is a tradition that values improvisation and experimentation — which means that leaders are going to make mistakes and sometimes go in directions that are problematic. We all need to know that others will help us catch mistakes, but continue to value us and encourage us to take risks and try new things.

Elders' Circles

But what about when confrontation or mediation aren't enough? What if Pondweed, in her position of nonauthoritarian authority, really has abused your trust, and you can't let go of it and don't know what to do about it?

A proposal circulating around the Reclaiming teachers/organizers/long-time campers list (that's an amalgam of ideas put out by me, Dawn, Shya and BC Camp organizers and others) is to call an Elders' Circle.

An Elders' Circle is a group of at least three people whom you ask to be your advisors. They don't need to be old, or more experienced in the Craft than you, or even long-time community members, they simply need to be people whose judgment, wisdom, and integrity you trust. But they should not be your three best friends, or drawn exclusively from your close circle. They should represent whatever other faction or grouping is involved in the issue. At least one of them should be familiar with Reclaiming's structure and organization, or know how to get that information.

An Elders' Circle is not a court of judgment about some other person. Its purpose is to help your discernment around an issue, and help judge if some other step needs to be taken. When we are in long term conflict with someone, we tend to put the worst possible interpretation on any action they take. The Elders' Circle's task is to help you find clarity. Then they might recommend a course of action. Action could range from personal healing or rituals of letting go, to confrontation and mediation, to asking for the other party to make amends in some way. Action might also be to bring the issue to the attention of those bodies of accountability that do exist within Reclaiming, such as a local teacher's cell or the Guidance Council which helps coordinate teacher selection for the Witchcamps, (which is why it's helpful if someone is clear on what those are), or to the larger community.

Erdina, in the last issue of RQ, discussed the Italian feminist concept of "afidamento," the voluntary giving of authority to an "older" woman you see as a mentor, for the purposes of helping you grow, as an empowering concept for women.

In calling an Elders' Circle, you voluntarily cede authority to the group for the purpose of helping you around that issue. When we voluntarily and consciously give authority to someone we respect, we remain empowered. That authority is not a blanket gift of power — it's specific to a certain situation, and limited. We retain the right to take it back.

A process such as an Elders' Circle process would create a means whereby someone who feels injured can get support, clarity, and help in redressing that injury. It would help those who feel less secure within the community to confront people they perceive as more powerful, and aid us in holding each other accountable for our actions.

But an Elders' Circle would also protect leaders from the kinds of attack that arise from jealousy and projection or simple misperception.

An Elders' Circle, or other similar processes that we may invent, would also help clarify and demystify some of the power dynamics that do exist in Reclaiming.

Pagan spirituality is not something reserved for a special day of the week or a certain hour of meditation. It's about embodying our deepest values in our everyday actions and all of our human and beyond-human relationships. If we act toward each other from the deep sense of interconnection that underlies our chants and songs and rituals, we can continue to create nurturing, empowering communal space even in repressive times. We can respond to the violence around us by deepening our practice of love.

Starhawk is the author of many books on Goddess religion. She is a feminist, activist, teacher, Witch, gardener, drummer, and one of Reclaiming's founders. Visit