OHF current location will close

For those who were not able to attend the Open Hearth Foundation town hall meeting last weekend, the biggest news is that OHF will no longer have its current location after the end of March. The board is currently working on making decisions about what OHF will do after that.

My obligations for the day were rearranged because of the recent weather, so I was able to attend part but not all of the meeting. The purpose of this meeting was information exchange, not decision making. The board wanted to update the community about what has been happening and what OHF’s current situation is, and then to get feedback from the community so that the board can make informed decisions that serve the community’s expressed interests.

During the last year the board went through a period of overhaul in order to keep the center afloat. The work that they did is why OHF has some assets and options at this point rather than having gone bankrupt around October of 2013. The current board deserves a lot of credit for that work.

The organization does have some financial resources, but those are limited. Throughout the recent work, the organization has had tremendous difficulties building and rebuilding infrastructure in order to do things like contact donors and effectively use volunteers. The later part of the meeting, which I was not there for, involved community conversation on those and other topics.

A focus of the community conversation was the question “What is the most valuable thing OHF brings to the community?”

If you have thoughts related to these issues, or further questions, please contact OHF and share them as the board works through this next transition.

Open Hearth Foundation: Pivotal Town Hall meeting

I’ve just found out that the Open Hearth Foundation will be having a “Pivotal Town Hall” meeting on Sunday, February 16th. They have also published a newsletter covering developments in 2013.

I will not be able to attend, so I will be trying to stay in touch with this matter in other ways. I hope lots of people who are interested in the future of the DC Pagan community center can attend and contribute.

I will not be attending tonight’s OHF event

This event was mishandled from the beginning.

It was scheduled too soon. It was advertised as “healing” without addressing what was going to be healed or how.

If OHF had explicitly, publicly announced that this was to heal the breach with Firefly and specifically reached out to Firefly to attend, then when Katrina stepped aside – and Mike and possibly other Fireflies had a problem with what she wrote – OHF would have credibly been able to say that with Katrina stepping aside from the event, they were still hoping Fireflies would attend. If the Fireflies didn’t, OHF could have reasonably said that the Fireflies were holding OHF responsible for Katrina’s actions and that Katrina was not representing OHF.

By relying on personal relationships and private communications in order to try to get people to come, OHF has made those personal relationships and private communications valid reasons for people to refuse to come. Personal relationships and private communications were what got OHF into this situation.

It is past time for OHF to learn to be more transparent.

When the original plans for the event fell apart, someone (who? when? how? I was on the email list and I don’t know) decided to drop back to a more meditative event led or facilitated by people all part of OHF’s leadership. Eldritch, as spokesperson for the organization that is being criticized, cannot be the bridge builder to his critics, no matter what his experience in conflict resolution is.

At that point the event became an OHF event rather than a community event, and it looks self-centered and self-serving.

This morning, I offered to lead/facilitate the event, not to try to step into Katrina’s shoes or to mediate disputes, just to get the focus off OHF and simply try to get people in the same room. I reached out to Mike to see if he would consider coming under those circumstances. Mike refused; OHF didn’t seem to be interested; and if no Fireflies would come, I didn’t want to do it either.

As it is, this event looks like asking people to support OHF in its own healing, rather than being outreach to the community in general or Firefly in particular. If people find value in it, I’m glad for them; I personally think it has been too badly mishandled and runs the risk of doing more harm than good. I do not want this to solidify Firefly’s withdrawal.

I am going to continue to meditate and pray for honesty, openness, strength, dialogue, and healing for the Pagan community in general and to support the community center in particular, but I will be doing so privately.

I continue to donate to OHF; I continue to call for OHF to seriously consider a major leadership reorganization and policy and practice changes. I implore Firefly members and all interested Pagans to stay engaged with the organization in order to support its larger mission and try to make it a more responsive organization that better meets the needs of the Pagan community.

Comments for this entry are closed because this is a contentious issue and I will be taking my Internet-free day starting at sundown, so I will not be able to stay on top of the comment thread. I am sure there will be plenty of future opportunities to continue discussing the situation.

Pagan Newswire Collective coverage of OHF and Firefly

Two things you need to read: PNC’s statement on coverage and Katrina Messenger’s analysis.

When Capital Witch (the PNC-DC bureau) released its article, I contacted David Salisbury about whether the people quoted as withdrawing their support from OHF were affiliated with Firefly, and if so, whether that needed to be disclosed. David responded that he had contacted the national Executive Editor and that:

The conclusion is that unless people quoted are speaking on behalf of the organizations they belong to, they don’t need to have all their group affiliations listed out. Primarily because there is so much group crossover in local Pagan communities.

David then acknowledged that he was a member of Firefly and a donor to OHF. He went on to elaborate that in order to achieve “oppositional balance” while working to a deadline, they sourced some other quotes, including mine.

PNC has now released a review of PNC bureaus’ behavior in both this situation and one involving Pantheacon. They found some unacceptable behavior. I am glad PNC is reviewing its policies. For my own full disclosure, I will note here that I am also the blog coordinator for Hail Columbia, which recently joined the PNC family, and I am very interested in making sure that all of Hail Columbia’s work lives up to PNC’s standards and ethics.

But I think PNC’s disclosure missed or downplayed two critical things: the attribution and disclosure of those quotes and the deadline set by Capital Witch. Katrina emphasizes why some of the lack of disclosure surrounding the article was more than a lapse of journalistic standards; it was in and of itself a conflict of interest situation. In particular, the short-term deadline set by Capital Witch – apparently by David himself – was not in response to growing community insistence that the issue be covered; on the contrary, to me it seemed to inflame the situation further.

More importantly, I think PNC needs to review this policy of disclosing affiliation in contentious situations. I believe the decision not to mention whether people were affiliated (or not) with Firefly was a bad decision and poor journalism. Even if individuals are not speaking on behalf of an organization, if there is a situation that directly involves an organization and the individual is affiliated with it, that affiliation should be disclosed.

I hope PNC’s internal review will address this matter as well.

OHF moves forward

I am immensely relieved to see that OHF has issued a formal public statement about how they will be moving forward. The steps being taken including Sean’s resignation and other leadership reorganization.

There is, unsurprisingly, some discussion in the community about how much was done, whether it was the right thing at the right time, and so on. I’m not going to get into that here. I’m exhausted, and even after recharging my metaphorical batteries with my usual no-Internet Saturday, I am tired and only beginning to see my way out of being heartsick over this whole situation.

I’m sure this isn’t the last word; it won’t be from me, and I expect OHF will be taking more steps as well. For now, though, I encourage everyone to take Hecate’s advice, sit with yourself, with the whole situation, take many, many deep breaths, and only after that begin to find our ways forward, hopefully together.

Comments are closed.

Wrapping up: Do we need a community meeting? (revised)

This is a revised version of this post. I don’t want to tell people what to do or even begin to sound like I’m trying to speak for the community. I do want to explain my thinking.

I want to see the DC Pagan community be able to act as a community and support the community center that we have worked so hard to create. Over the last few posts and comments – and I want to thank everybody who engaged in conversation with me – it’s become clear to me that there are multiple issues involved here.

Sean’s involvement with OHF is one of them. I initially didn’t want to say this publicly because I was hoping OHF would do this internally, and because I did not want – and still do not want – to take sides in a personal issue between two people. I am not saying what I think about what happened between Iris and Sean. Both of them were involved in creating the conflict of interest situation, and I think both of them should be off the board.

I hope he steps down of his own free will. I thought, when I started writing about this issue, that that would be enough to solve the current issues. I didn’t want to see people bring down OHF as an organization because of an individual, and I still think the organization is being held to account for that individual when the organization isn’t set up to do what the community wants it to do.

I think it’s unfortunate that this has been brought to a crisis by Firefly withdrawing their support. In trying to understand how to support OHF without engaging in the personal dispute (which, yes, has implications beyond the personal – I’ll get to that), I’ve come to realize that I’m deeply uncomfortable with OHF’s structure as it currently exists. But if we want to see that change, we need to stay engaged with OHF and work with the organization to restructure it.

Moreover, at this point in the community center’s existence, we can’t pull support and start creating some other organization, because that would doom the community center. It would show that there’s not a community to justify the community center. And it would make all the work and money that’s been sunk into the one we have be for naught.

In figuring out how to restructure OHF, I think we need to take stock of just what that community is and what it wants this organization to do, now that it’s not just fundraising and is actually running the center. I think the organization and the community need to be more involved with each other rather than having the board be an insular, isolated group that meets privately and has no accountability to the community.

Yes, we need the ability to remove leaders for various reasons. I’m still very concerned about how and when removing leaders would happen. I still think it’s reasonable for OHF to hold that it only evaluates individuals based on their performance with respect to OHF. That’s why I think Sean should step down because of the conflict of interest situation and his current status as a focus of controversy – not because I am judging him with respect to Iris’ accusations.

The larger issue is how we deal with people who may be a danger in the community and in the community center. I am not taking a position on Sean in this area; I don’t know enough, and frankly I don’t want to know everything. I don’t want to be put in the position of judging people on these issues. But perhaps we do need to be able to address things like when someone poses a danger to others, and maybe – maybe, I’m not sure – that can be addressed in a community fashion. I’m still extremely leery of creating mechanisms that can be used to blacklist people based on accusations. Again, adjudicating ethics is a big, messy, complicated situation.

But it’s true that situations like this will come up again. We’re not a coven or a trad or something that can do this within its own structure. We’re trying to be a community. We can’t be a community if the solution to disagreement is that people leave.

Do we, as a community, want a mechanism for running the community center that includes deciding that certain people aren’t welcome? How do we handle accusations of abuse, or sexual harassment, or other kinds of misconduct? If OHF doesn’t do that – and there are good reasons that maybe they shouldn’t – do we want to create something else?

If we don’t, for good reasons, we need to be aware of the consequences. One of them is the inability to do certain things. I’ve been chastised for being willing to accept those kinds of inability for various reasons. If people disagree with that, they have to address the broader concerns I’ve raised before. If you’re going to create a body that passes judgment, you need to be absolutely certain that you would be willing to be judged by that body as well, under the worst possible circumstances. That’s the problem, and I think that’s the only fair way for a broad community like this to operate.

Whether or not we create something like that, we need to set a precedent for how we resolve issues between individuals and groups in order to keep the community and the community center as vital and viable as possible.

I want to emphasize that I’m not ditching OHF; none of this is an attack on them, or an attempt to circumvent them. Maybe one of the steps forward they’ll propose is to take part in a community meeting. Maybe they’ll look to restructure themselves. Regardless, I think there needs to be work in this community to act as a community that includes OHF but doesn’t take place necessarily within OHF’s structure.

The only way I know to work out these larger issues is together.

That’s why I think we need a community meeting in the DC area. I’m not talking about an OHF meeting, or some kind of kumbaya everybody hold hands and like each other faux-concilation, or a trial to hear witnesses and judge evidence.

We need a community meeting for us to talk about what our community is, how it works, and how we want to move forward. Yes, we need to work through and heal the current situation. We need to examine the institutions we’re working through. And we probably need to make important decisions about how the community will handle itself and work together as we go forward.

But this needs guidance. We need somebody who has skills and experience in conflict resolution and consensus building. Who has that? Who can we respect and trust to help shape this? I’m not asking for someone to step forward to be a leader but to be a facilitator for the community itself.

There may be other ways to work this out – and I’d love to hear ideas – but that’s the best I can think of right now. I just don’t know how to make it happen. Suggestions?

What is OHF’s mandate?

I think one of the things I’ve been missing in the controversy over OHF is differing expectations about what OHF is and how much power it has over people.

Maeri’s excellent comment to my last post lays out a brilliant plan for remedying the current situation, but it has one key flaw: Maeri assumes that members of the community form a voting body with a role in OHF. We don’t.

Someone else was asking me who elects the members of the Board. As far as I can tell, the members of the Board are elected (and have their terms renewed?) by the Board itself.

Others have mentioned in comments and at other places that they want to see Sean banned from the community center because he is such a risk. I was stunned to see that; although I certainly want to protect the community from people who are dangerous – although as yet I have no opinion on whether Sean is that dangerous – it never occurred to me that OHF would have the power to ban someone from the community center.

That kind of power suggests that some people see this as potentially not a community center open to all comers but a sort of semi-closed community resource, one that includes a definition of who is “in” the community being served, or at least the certainty that some people are “out” of it. Many of the ideas being thrown around seem to rely on OHF functioning as some sort of supreme joint council of the local Pagan community.

When I suggest that OHF is hewing closely to its mission to create and maintain a community center, I am excoriated for supporting or defending abusers. I have never said that I support Sean staying in his current position; I have tried to focus on the organizational and institutional nature of the OHF, and why that nature seems to me to make it possible to support OHF without taking sides in a dispute about Iris and Sean.

With the opening of the community center, the OHF had to look closely at its foundational documents; its purpose was no longer to open the center. It had to redefine itself in terms of running the center. The organizational structure that worked reasonably well for what was, essentially, a fundraising organization may not be suited to running a community center.

So before we demand change from the OHF – especially change that calls on the nature of the OHF to radically transform itself in order to take on tremendous amounts of authority that will lead to even larger, more painful controversies in the future – we need to think about what we’re asking for.

Do we want the OHF as an institution to take on a role in determining who is in and who is out? Do we want to create that kind of community and that kind of authority?

Please note that I am not saying this is a black and white choice, where either the OHF is powerless or all-powerful. I am saying that I think some people don’t realize the historical sources of the institution’s setup, role, and mandate, and that if we want to go changing that, we need to figure out what we’re getting into.

I think the OHF should seriously consider creating a new organizational structure that is responsive to the community as a whole. Currently, when someone like me, or Iris, or from Firefly has a conflict with someone in OHF or something about OHF, we can go to the newly-created ombudsman – which is a step in the right direction – or we can talk to people who are in positions of power, as private individuals, which opens up a whole world of potential problems about communication, privacy, and conflicts of interest, or we can simply take our time and our money and walk. We can’t even have access to the ongoing deliberations of the leadership except once a year.

If we want to create a vibrant community center, perhaps we should work on building community. What if we created a more representative authority structure that was in some ways accountable to members?

The question of whether that structure would have authority to eject members would still be a thorny one, but it would have a lot more options than the organization as currently constituted. At a time like this, for example, we could have a community meeting, and maybe even do consensus building, and actually work together.

Right now, OHF can’t do that kind of work because it is defined as running the community center. Period. It’s not in charge of the community.

Maybe this is the next hurdle for the Pagan community in DC to find out whether we really can function as a community. Can we come together to work through something like this? Is OHF the mechanism we want to use to do that? Do we want to seriously consider reconstituting it to make that possible, or try to create a parallel or independent grassroots structure that brings community members together as community?

I’m not the one to answer all of these questions, but maybe they point us in the direction of some possible discussions that don’t boil down to simply taking sides in a polarized debate. I’m also not the person to come to with suggestions about OHF – their ombudsman is. I’m going to sit down and think about what I might suggest. I encourage you to as well. Let’s find ways to talk.

Means, ends, and money

It seems to me that the Pagan community doesn’t have much experience running or interacting with organizations that try to separate the personal from the political. Covens are often extremely personality-based; to some extent, they have to be, in order for a group mind to cohere and people to build the kind of bonds that make synergistic magic happen. Perfect love and perfect trust, right?

I think that history is coloring a lot of people’s expectations about how larger organizations can and should be run. Experience in covens tells us that if someone is a bastard, and we know that – which we can know, in the closeness of coven setting, to a much greater degree than in everyday life – then we can and should throw him out. And really, it’s that simple. We all know it; we agree on it; we do it.

Real consensus-building is a lot more complicated than that, as people like Starhawk have gone to great lengths to explain. And conscious, careful consensus-building within a close-knit group can function well enough to avoid some of the worst excesses of group mentality.

But none of that means that is how larger organizations can or should function.

One of the catchphrases I’ve heard over and over again is that “OHF is supposed to be Switzerland.” Look, Switzerland is not a place that people gather in because they all have warm cuddly feelings for each other. It’s not a place where people go because of perfect love and perfect trust. It’s not even a place where people go because they have a reasonable expectation that everyone else there is a decent human being. It’s a place where people who are at war with each other will put that aside for the time being in order to achieve other ends.

In order to do that, people have to put other concerns to one side; they don’t have to give them up, or pretend to give them up; they just put them aside to some extent.

Are there things you can’t put aside? Absolutely. My point is not that we pretend we don’t know anything about each other when we collaborate on OHF. My point is that “professionalism” and the ideal of trying to separate personal disagreements from the larger goal is not simply about ignoring people’s feelings, it’s about trying to make the larger goal happen.

All of this means that when this kind of separation is being attempted, professional or organizational judgment has one role, personal judgments have another role. If you know that so and so is a bastard, you can ignore him, or refuse to work jointly with him on projects, or lots of other things. You can ostracize him socially in a way that would be equivalent to being kicked out of a coven.

And if enough people do that, then it would be pretty difficult for him to continue to function in a reasonable way within the organization.

But that’s different from being formally removed by the organization. Part of the pact of professionalism (for lack of a better word – and if anyone has one, please say so) is that we don’t just act on feelings, however well-justified they may be. We act based on evidence, because we’re setting precedents, and because this is the way that separating the personal and the political tries to get around many of the problems inherent in group management by social consensus.

One of the problems I see in the current OHF situation is that some folks seem to be conflating the two forms of management. If we can do one, they think, then we should naturally do the other.

Should there be a way for the organization to formally remove someone who is a complete and utter bastard even if he hasn’t done anything wrong with respect to the organization? Probably. I would say yes, in certain cases. But I would limit those cases; it certainly wouldn’t mean that everyone I refuse to work with would be able to be tried and ejected by the board.

I think there would be many cases where someone I would no longer be willing to work with would be informally excluded and pushed out by social opprobrium. That’s not easy, and it’s not quick, and it’s not nearly as meaty and satisfying as having everyone come together and render judgment that I am the righteous one and he is the bastard, but that’s the price we pay. Among other things, it’s a price I am willing to pay so that I, too, am not at risk of making the wrong person mad and being subject to a witch hunt and formally banned as a result of group mentality.

My real problem with Firefly publicly withdrawing support – in the full expectation that it would encourage others to do the same – is that it seems to me to be leveraging money in order to escalate this from the personal to the political. This is what I meant when I said that I do not want to be put in a position where my support for OHF becomes a sign of anti-Firefly sentiment. It’s also some of what I meant when I said that I hope certain things are going on in private. A private conversation along the lines of, “Look, you are now a liability for this organization” is tremendously more appropriate than a show trial in many of these gray areas.

They have said that their concerns have not been addressed, and that this is how they have to proceed. But they have also said, more or less, that they object because the organization has made a choice for Sean and against Iris. I think that’s an unreasonable assessment because of the kind of nuance I’m talking about here.

The OHF is not “Sean’s side” in this fight. The OHF is trying not to be a side at all.

If anyone thinks that the board should establish a whole new set of ethics regulations – including ones that cover private behavior – and then create an ethics board to hear grievances – and then set policy for bringing a grievance – and then set standards for the kinds of evidence that can be heard and the kinds of witnesses that are allowed in each situation – and then set policy for voting, appeals, and administering consequences – well, good for you. I’d love to see a Pagan organization be equipped to handle things that way. I’d hate to think of how hard it would be to create a uniform set of ethical guidelines between umpteen different flavors of Paganism. But that’s the kind of mechanics that are required to do active adjudication of these sorts of issues fairly in public in a professional organization.

And really, although we don’t like to talk about it in the Pagan community, it does come down to money. Boycotts have been on my mind much lately because of the Chik-fil-a flustercluck. I plan to write about that separately. But one of the reasons a boycott is so very appropriate in that situation (and that it’s not just about free speech, as some people are inclined to howl at the slightest disagreement) is that Chik-fil-a gives money to reprehensible causes. People are depriving Chik-fil-a of their money so that that same money doesn’t go to work against them.

But who is getting the money in OHF? Not Sean. Not any of the board members. The money goes to make the community center happen. We’re giving money to ourselves.

And frankly, I wouldn’t be quite so wracked by this if OHF wasn’t in such a tenuous position. We’re halfway through the lease. We’re either going to make this thing work, or we won’t, and if we don’t, then it’ll be decades before anything like it can even be a possibility in this area. The stakes are higher here. That’s why I’m worried that withdrawing money is the wrong means to fit the ends.

Firefly calls for OHF board member’s removal; OHF responds

I wrote to Firefly House directly with some of the questions in my last post, and David Salisbury, a HP of Firefly, responded and gave me permission to share his responses.

Are you calling for a boycott of OHF?

No.  Neither Iris nor FIrefly are calling for a boycott of the Open Hearth Foundation.  The statements made were merely to publicly express our decisions to discontinue our support for the time being.  Although it is not our intention to see other people and groups discontinue their support for the OHF, we understand that once others are aware of the current situation, they may feel the same.

This is an equivocation. I understand that they are not explicitly calling for others to leave, but they freely admit that their actions will have the result of making others leave. They are clearly withdrawing support in order to pressure the organization to take specific steps, as the next answer shows.

And if you are, what actions are you calling on OHF to take?

We had hoped that once the OHF was made aware two months ago of the abuse and manipulation that had occurred inside their organization that they would wish to preserve the highest ethical quality and take steps to remove the governor in question.

I don’t know why the communications from Firefly are giving Sean the you-know-who treatment. They are insisting that OHF remove Sean.

Again, this causes me to ask if that is even possible for the organization as an organization to do. There is nothing in the bylaws that I saw that creates any mechanism for impeaching a board member, and if there was, it might only be possible to do so if the board member acted wrongly with respect to her or his role within the organization.

Under what conditions will you return your support to the organization?

As a matter of principle, we are unable to return our support to the OHF as long as the governor in question is still on the board.  However, the failure to timely address the situation when it was brought to their attention and increased appearance of support for said governor has left us with more concerns about the leadership of the organization as a whole.  Our return of support will depend on OHF response and the steps taken in the next few months.  While we do not wish to see the community center fail, as Firefly members have also donated a lot of time and energy to the project, the response of the organization to this situation has been highly questionable.  Why did no one follow up when Iris told them what was happening?  Why were her claims ignored?  Why wasn’t action taken sooner? It is concerning to think that abuse by leaders in the community is acceptable.

This is troubling. I understand them insisting that Sean step down or be removed. But the “concerns about the leadership of the organization as a whole” part suggests that if Firefly is not completely satisfied with OHF’s response – and since they may be asking for something the organization is legally unable to do, that’s a potential outcome – Firefly would continue to refuse to support OHF.

Capital Witch has released an article about this, and the quotes from other individuals show that people are following Firefly’s lead and boycotting OHF.

OHF did release a statement today. They make some critically important points.

Third, neither the community nor the organization are best served by removing leadership because of allegations that are unrelated to the professional work of the OHF or the execution of the fiduciary responsibilities of the Board of Governors. Moreover, the board cannot comment or act on pending legal matters that do not involve the organization.

Let me explain that as I understand it. Please note I am not speaking on behalf of OHF, just trying to expand on the details of these matters as I see them.

As the beginning of the statement points out, people who work with OHF are supposed to be professional and separate their personal life from OHF as much as possible. That has clearly failed here. But the fact that some people have failed at it does not mean that the organization as an organization is now party to their personal disputes. It is the right thing to do for the organization to try not to take sides in a matter like this. It’s the only way we can successfully build a community center that is neutral with respect to disagreements between individuals.

And while it is very satisfying to declare someone “unfit to lead,” that is a personal, ethical judgment and also not something the organization can necessarily act on. People can be thrown out of less formal organizations on the basis of allegations and because of personal disagreements. But again, it’s not clear that Sean’s actions – whatever actions those were – represent malfeasance with respect to his position on the board. He may be a scumbag; he may not be; but if he’s not an incompetent governor, for the organization to remove him (again, if that’s possible) for things unrelated to his duties makes the organization less professional.

Even if you are absolutely positive that it is totally justified in this case, sometimes tolerating people who have done bad things is the price of working together. Iris brought up Bill Clinton in her original post about the matter; well, Clinton was not removed from office for precisely these reasons. Being on the OHF board of governors doesn’t mean that OHF endorses you as a right and trustworthy human being. We can wish that it did, but it doesn’t.

Finally, that part about not being able to comment on certain  matters must be understood. This is an incorporated organization with specific rules, laws, and obligations that it must follow. A divorce is a legal action, and Iris has said a divorce is pending. Therefore the OHF cannot comment on the situation between the two of them. This is not a matter of OHF stonewalling or protecting Sean.

Edited to clarify: I wrote that the OHF was legally forbidden from commenting. That is not precisely accurate; it is not external law that keeps OHF from taking a position or making public comments about an ongoing legal matter, it is the internal duties that the officers owe to the organization. They must not make the organization liable to be drawn into the proceedings and must maintain the organization’s impartiality. They can look into the matter as an internal affair, which they are doing – see below.

It’s not their job to adjudicate the private situation between Iris and Sean, and moreover, since there are people adjudicating that situation, it is specifically something the OHF needs to stay out of.

OHF must not take sides for reasons of professionalism and staying out of legal proceedings. And I think that once we’re aware of this, all of us and especially Firefly need to think very carefully about whether we’re putting them in an impossible position by creating one side and declaring that OHF is de facto the “other side.”

The OHF is restricting communication through a spokesperson, Eric Eldritch, and has also appointed a new ombudsman, Angela Raincatcher. I strongly encourage anyone interested in this issue to contact them and work with the OHF as an organization in an effort to keep this professional and to work to preserve the community building the organization has done.

Edited to add: I have contacted Angela with my own personal position on what the OHF ought to do. She is listening to all opinions and guaranteeing confidentiality. If you have a position on this matter, talk to her.

Finally, I want to note that OHF will not act on this matter immediately. I know we all want to see justice done – whatever that might mean – as quickly as possible. But OHF needs to listen to the community, they need to assess their internal situation, and they need to weigh the alternatives. Whatever it is, this matter is not cut-and-dried, and working through issues like this takes time. Please, everyone, acknowledge that, and stay engaged with the OHF as they work through this.

Firefly calls for a boycott of OHF?

I am heartsick.

Iris Firemoon of Firefly House has publicly accused her ex-husband Sean Bennett of adultery and emotional abuse. She called for Sean to be removed from his position on the Board of Governors of the Open Hearth Foundation because of this misconduct, and announced that she would no longer support the OHF community center, presumably until Sean was removed.

Firefly House just released a statement that they are following her lead:

…we have decided to pull financial and volunteer support from the Open Hearth Foundation until the OHF board remedies the situations in a way that is suitable to the current conditions.

Firefly does not specify what a “suitable” remedy would be. By making these public statements, Iris and Firefly seem to be calling on the Pagan community to follow their lead and withdraw support from OHF.

These statements leave me with more questions than ever: Is Firefly trying to mount a boycott of OHF? If so, they should come out and say it; if not, they should state that, too. By withdrawing their support publicly, they create an atmosphere that draws the whole community into this argument. Are they really trying to create an “us vs them” situation, where every act of support for OHF as an organization is also a statement in support of Sean and what he has been accused of?

I don’t understand the OHF side of this, either, and I am desperately hoping they will make a public statement very soon about this matter.

Does OHF have an ethics code or expectations for its Board of Governors? Can a governor be removed by the board officially? Can one be asked to step down? And if so, under what circumstances?

Is the OHF leadership discussing this with Sean? I’m not asking him to make a public statement, but unfortunately if Firefly is calling for a boycott – and I don’t see how their actions can be interpreted any other way, but if they make a public statement otherwise, I’ll listen – then OHF needs to respond to that boycott, and in so doing they need to discuss the matter internally. If he maintains his innocence, we are in a real pickle.

I don’t know what happened between Iris and Sean. I believe that Iris is telling the truth about how she understands her experiences, but it’s extremely difficult to prove things like emotional abuse.

It’s very dangerous to set an institutional precedent that someone can be removed against his or her will on the basis of something that can’t be proven, even if it’s true.

As far as I can tell, Sean has not been accused of any malfeasance with respect to his position on the Board or within the organization. I’m not sure if Iris is arguing that Sean’s position on the board is in some way enabling him to mistreat other people or causes him to pose a risk to the community. If that is what she’s arguing, it could be understood as grounds to remove him – if that’s even possible under OHF bylaws – but that would be a very difficult argument to make based on what is mostly private behavior to which the board and the community have no access or witness.

Iris argues that people are asked to leave groups because of sexual misconduct, harassment, and violence or threats of violence, but all the examples she gives seem to be ones where there were witnesses. Again, I’m not saying she’s lying; I am saying that if this sets a precedent, an accusation could be used in the future to remove someone from the board who is totally innocent. It puts the board and the community in the position of judging the truth of allegations that are by their very nature subject to misunderstanding the participants themselves, let alone outsiders. I do not want to be put in that position, nor do I think the organization should be.

I am also not asking for Iris to air the specifics of her grievances more publicly in order to try to demonstrate that there is something provable (or proven). As part of taking this (nascent?) boycott seriously, I hope the OHF asks Iris more specifics in order to figure out if there’s something there they can, should, or must act on, starting with discussing this with Sean, as I said above.

I hope that’s going on, and since I too would prefer that it go on at least partly in private, I am trying to wait and be patient. But I am heartsick.

When I went to the OHF open board meeting recently, what I saw was an organization at a tipping point. It’s almost a year into the two-year lease, and OHF is having tremendous success with some programs, especially the library. At the same time, the organization is still using seed money to cover part of its monthly expenses. The financial outlook seems to be that the organization will be able to cover all of its obligations through to the end of the two-year lease.

Speakers at the meeting were extremely optimistic about being able to make the community center a viable enterprise and be able to continue operation beyond the end of the current lease, although it would take even more tremendous investment from the community in terms of financial support to begin to meet the monthly costs. I saw this as a tipping point where either the community center and its programs, events, and classes would become valuable enough to the community to elicit that support, or it would become obvious that for many reasons a DC community center is not a feasible proposition.

The Firefly withdrawal throws all of that into question. If the community center fails, years of work and many thousands of dollars will have been for naught, as Iris herself acknowledges, having been a key player in making the community center a reality.

For now, I urge my fellow Pagans not to rush to judgment, and I implore the OHF leadership to issue a statement that tells us you are taking this seriously and begins to outline how you intend to approach this. I want to see this issue addressed, but I am not willing to financially imperil the community center at this critical juncture.

If OHF is for structural reasons unable to meet Iris’ demands, I will be even more heartsick, but I am not yet convinced that it is right to threaten to destroy what so many have worked so hard to create in order to blame an institution for the actions of an individual.

I don’t want to see the community destroy itself and its resources this way; I don’t want my support for the community center to become a political football in a personal dispute.