Impressions from PACO, a Pagan Activist Conference Online

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PACO 2014 logoThis past weekend, more than fourscore Pagans attended the first Pagan Activism Conference Online, or PACO. The event was sponsored by the Pantheon Foundation, which also serves as fiscal sponsor for The Wild Hunt, and included a total of nine sessions on how activism fits into Pagan lives. Having been given a press pass to the conference and experiencing some of the sessions firsthand, I’ve elected to depart from my usual style of journalistic third person, and write about what I learned at the conference, as well as pull together reactions from other people.

On a technical level, the conference was a success. The minor hiccups that did occur, such as presenters unable to log in to the software on time, some people being harder to hear than others, were no more distracting than similar challenges faced during any in-person workshops. Yeshe Rabbit, one of two event organizers, worked hard to find the right platform for the job. She said:

PACO exceeded my technical expectations. I have been using the conference software Zoom for over a year for my personal readings, CAYA Coven meetings, and the Tea & Chanting sangha, so I have a pretty decent familiarity with it. I know it’s easy to learn, user-friendly, and generally reliable. I researched 4 different conference software programs before choosing this one for its clean, simple interface and how it had performed in my other projects.

The software was indeed easy to use, and allowed participants to see each other and the presenters, as well as chat with each other individually or as a group — something which Rabbit gently discouraged at the beginning of each session by asking attendees to show restraint until the floor was opened to questions. Zoom also allowed attendance by phone only, or by watching online and listening via phone. That’s the combination I chose during one session, because I could watch the action and move around my kitchen. But the convenience for me paled in comparison to the simple access it granted to others who normally wouldn’t be able to participate in an event like this. Rabbit said:

Online conferences, in my opinion, are one of the best ways to host a really inclusive conversation about ideas, data, and strategy. They are: widely accessible, Earth friendly, economical, and they allow people from all over the nation to connect meaningfully when they might not otherwise be able to. We had attendees at PACO who cannot attend other Pagan events due to disability, financial reasons, and chemical sensitivity. That level of inclusion felt like a big win. While not a replacement for street activism or the connections we create at in-person events, this conference showed me that we can take our online activism a step further. Beyond just sharing posts that outrage us, or commiserating in the comments sections of blogs, PACO showed me that we are able to use this medium to learn, trade tools, connect, plan, and strategize for actual change.

That strategizing for change came through in a number of different panel discussions. Some sessions addressed using existing tools (e.g., the media) or models (e.g., building infrastructure) to amplify the voice of Pagan activists. Another session focused on the nuts and bolts of the “Care and Feeding of Pagan Activists.” In the spirit of keeping our own house in order, one session was entitled “Consenting Adults: Sexual Ethics in the Pagan Community,” while another focused on Pagan religious rights and how to defend them. The opening panel for the conference, called “Earth Activism,” addressed an area of concern near and dear to Pagans of many paths, while two other sessions focused on Pagans who may often feel silenced, those of color and the LGBTQI community, and how to ensure that their voices are heard.  In the keynote address, T. Thorn Coyle spoke to the how that silencing can happen. She pointed out that white people feel that they must contribute to the conversation, and that is usually done by talking and not listening. As a white man who has worked very hard on speaking out rather than giving into shyness, I found that Coyle got more than too close for comfort with that observation.

Organizers Yeshe Rabbit and Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir made sure to take advantage of the online nature of this conference. The hashtags #PACO and #RITEaction were promoted as tools to talk about the event on social media, along with individual hashtags for each session: #PACOECO, #PACOMedia, #PACOPOC, #PACOGender, #PACOCare, #PACOBuild, #PACORights, and #PACOConsent. While these hashtags can reveal of wealth of commentary about the conference, I found that #PACO has many other uses on Twitter, so it’s more difficult to sift through to the good stuff using that hashtag alone.

Each of the sessions was also recorded, and I’m eagerly awaiting the chance to see sessions that I didn’t attend.


One theme that I noticed cropping up, and Rabbit remarked upon as well, was hospitality:

The focus for this year’s PACO was, ‘Human Rights & Relations.’ We were looking primarily in this conference at how humans oppress one another, how we can support one another instead, how we think about the issues on the table, who is at the table for the discussion, and how we can safeguard that everyone has a voice at that table. From there, the biggest theme that emerged, and it emerged brilliantly through our speakers, was that at its foundation, activism for human rights sits most effectively on a commitment to hospitality. Learning the art of welcoming people to the table, making room for those we might otherwise ignore from our positions of privilege, treating one another’s needs and preferences as worthy and sacred, and creating an atmosphere of celebration of our differences rather than competition are all aspects of the hospitality our speakers called for this weekend. “If I had to sum it up briefly, I’d say that I came away from this conference with the clear message: ‘We are all guests on this Earth. Let’s host one another while we are here with great care.’ And then we learned lots of different ways to care for one another well.

Could hospitality be one of those elusive shared values among the many Pagan, Polytheist, and Indigenous religious communities? I won’t say for sure that it is, but as someone who is always seeking to articulate the common thread among our traditions, it certainly appeals. Hospitality is implicit in being able to talk with, and ultimately work with, people of widely different viewpoints by setting those aside long enough to find common goals. While it’s possible to suppress or ignore differences among people working together, it’s a lot harder to vilify someone of a different color, political affiliation, or socioeconomic class if you know them to be a human being, too.

What’s next for Pagan activism? That remains to be seen. Any conference, online or in person, can create more light than heat if the passion felt by participants doesn’t translate into action. I’m hopeful that, in the coming weeks and months, the hashtags used during the conference will be able to track #RITEaction that follows, but only time will tell.

What’s next for PACO? Yeshe Rabbit pronounced it a success, and is already planning for the next one, tentatively scheduled for November of 2015. “One change we are looking to make for next year is to have an American Sign Language interpreter in a separate, high-resolution window so that D/deaf folks can follow along more readily if they don’t have closed captioning for this sort of software on their own computers,” she reported. “We also intend next year to leave the chat windows open for 15 minutes after the sessions have closed, to allow for the kind of mingling and informational exchange that would happen if one attended an in-person event.”

The conference has also inspired two related projects for the Pantheon Foundation. One is a weekly roundup of Pagan activism links (submissions for which can be submitted via email to pantheonfoundation@gmail.com), and the other is an annual Journal of Pagan Activism Studies to be edited by Rion Roberts.