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Networking

Networking has become an increasingly popular development on the Pagan/Occult scene over the last few years, and I first came across the idea of Networks in Marilyn Ferguson's book The Aquarian Conspiracy, where it was pointed out that unlike hierarchies, Networks were organic, systemic, based on mutual co-operation, and based at a 'grass-roots' level of interaction. These statements are true, in the broad sense, but don't actually give many guidelines when it comes to the practicalities of running a network. Looking at recent efforts on the magical scene, it seems to me that with the best will in the world to avoid this, networks end up being hierarchical. Heresy? Perhaps, but the clearest distinction is between the people who 'do' things, and the people who do sod all. If what I have read about networks is true, they shouldn't be affected all that much when one supporter drops out as, theoretically, everyone involved is investing the same effort into running the thing. Unfortunately, that hasn't the case for some contemporary Magical Networks where, when the central 'facilitators' step out (due to burnout & being sick of other people's apathy) the structure, such as it is, crumbles.

Why? At the simplest level, I don't think that people are clear on what Networking is about. Basically, a network is a group of people who share a common interest or concern and interact with each other on this basis. There has been a distinct lack of this with regard to Magical attempts at Networking, where all communications tend to through a few central facilitators, and not between people themselves. Networks survive & develop by those involved investing energy, time, effort, and money into them. In the ideal networking situation, the more you put in, the more you should get out, and each individual is the 'centre', so to speak. If one person is doing all the running, then at least as I understand it, this is not networking. They might call themselves a 'central facilitator' instead of a 'leader', but in effect, if everyone else goes to them for advice, and waits for their okay before doing anything, what are they if not 'leaders'?

Now this might sound overly critical of Networking as a whole, but really I'm very much behind the basic concept, and I have been involved with Magical Networking groups since around 1987. I'm not criticising the people who get involved with Networks either, it's just that if we start off on the wrong assumptions, we can quickly get into problems. Networking is still an evolving form of social organization, and I feel that Networking in Pagan/Occult circles has its own particular problems that other forms of network don't have. To gain a closer understanding of the possibilities of Networking, I went off and did some research...

Leeds Squatters Network began through a group of people who had the idea of squatting a large building in the city centre, as a protest to highlight lack of housing and community facilities. It was during the Miner's Strike, at the peak of the Thatcher years, and the group were united by a common political & social alienation. With a few exceptions, most of the group had no experience of squatting or political actions. The first meetings were advertised through the University, leafleting various gigs, and through the London-based Squatter's magazine, 'Crowbar'. Out of the group's first action - the squatting of Leed's Council Rates building, evolved the Leeds Squatters Network, which in turn, developed various spin-offs. These included: a housing co-op (which now houses over 12 people), a food co-op which now runs as a wholefood delivery service, and a street theatre group which put on public performances. The Network also gave a boost to the local Claimants Union, which, together with Scottish C.U's, went on to initiate the National Campaign against the Poll Tax; Leeds University Hunt Sabs were given more support, and a non-University group was set up, making both groups more dynamic. A band promotions group was formed to hold weekly gigs and occasional benefit concerts; three women's groups sprang from the Network: Women's Action on Benefits, Maternity Emergency (a benefits advice group) and Girls in Need (which campaigned to set up a hostel for runanway girls). A women's only squat was opened; five large buildings in the city centre were squatted for benefit gigs; a 'squat cafe' flourished briefly, and there was a wide variety of political occupations & demonstrations including Leeds' own version of 'Stop The City'. A tools co-op was created, and a shared-skills network so that people could get their houses re-wired and re-plumbed. In addition, publications were issued such as 'Who Owns Leeds', and 'Cabaret' (a collection of situationalist agit-prop).

This buzz of activity was helped along by a weekly magazine 'No Limits'. It's great attraction (that got people reading it) was that it published the weeks' TV listings from the Radio & TV Times. No Limits was run on an 'anybody who wants to do it - does' basis, though eventually, this devolved to a team of about eight people who produced the ‘zine on a rotating basis. No one knew everyone else's address, but there was a team who were responsible for picking it up and distributing it within their own postal area.

Within Leeds Squatters Network, there were no 'leaders' as such - people may have been responsible for one particular task, but they had no 'leadership' status outside it - something that consistently confused the authorities. Through a box number, the Network connected nationally with other Squatters Networks, and with Anarchist groups, Women's groups, Animal Rights activists, and Travellers.

What I found particularly interesting was how people became involved with the Network. Due to the (ahem) clandestine nature of many of the Network's activities, there was never any publishing of names and addresses, nor was there any 'central database' of same. People joined the Network entirely through personal introductions and social gatherings. Only in the case of very large 'events, were they advertised in advance. No Limits publicised what people had done - not what they were thinking of doing (for obvious reasons).

All well and good, you might think - but what has this to do with Magical Networking? Well after talking to people who'd been involved with the Squatters Network at various points, I was amazed by what they had achieved. I also began to see some key points emerging. A crucial point is that most of the people involved in L.S.N were homeless, and shared the same political stance. This gave them a common commitment that is perhaps lacking in Magical circles - where people have different beliefs, and are often suspicious of each other's beliefs and motivations. Another key point is that L.S.N quickly evolved into a multiplicity of groups all exchanging information & support with each other. There were weekly meetings where people would pool information and resources. Specialists came in and shared their skills with others. To do this, a Network needs to be small, and highly adaptive. Also, the continual stream of events - actions, gigs, the weekly newsletter; all helped people feel they were engaged in something 'busy'. Magical Networks are often large, country-spanning webs of contact addresses, and the degree of local activity from place to place varies hugely. What a Network does, depends entirely on the perceived needs of those involved in it. Problems arise when people get conflicting ideas of what the Network is about.

It may be a fine distinction, but I think differences need to be identified between Networks, Services, and Campaigning Groups. All may exist interdependently of course, but I feel that each type of organization has different aims, and should be approached in different ways. At a basic level, a Network is a group of people all of whom share the same concern, and who interact with each other on that basis. For example, if a group of people decide to share information about a particular subject - the willingness to do is all that is required. There's no need for 'facilitators' because, as soon as you get a situation where one person acts on behalf of other people, the Network has become something else. Services are something different. If I decide to do something on behalf of all and sundry, that's a service. There's a distinction between the person who 'provides' and the 'consumers'. Again, Campaigning groups are different. Campaigning groups need to be organised, have clear aims, and a message to put across. Dedicated supporters and money come in handy, too.

The problem that Magical networkers come up against time and time again, is that some people are quite willing to 'take' from a network, but less willing to invest in it. I don't think that this necessarily means that these people are lazy - just that they are not sure what Networking means. A common problem that arises is that people don't want to give their own addresses out to others. My sympathies - there are a lot of 'strange' people about that I wouldn't want turning up on my doorstep, unannounced. On the other hand, this defeats the whole 'grass roots' approach to Networking, because its very easy to get into a situation where there is only one or two 'open' addresses, through which all the mail comes. Inevitably, facilitators get lumbered with incessantly organising events and writing to everyone, by which time they're providing a Service, really.

A possible way around this problem is to encourage people to decentralise right from the word go. Instead of having one or two 'central' addresses, encourage other people to start their own local networks. To some extent, this is already going on in the Pagan scene, except that you get PaganLink Moots, Pagan Federation Moots, Green Circle Moots - where within each there is a certain degree of suspicion & competition, which is probably due to er, 'magical differences' between individuals which then get projected onto the whole group. I would personally rather see a wide range of small networks on a local basis up and down the country, than one or two huge networks that are unwieldy, unresponsive, and starting to appoint 'Councils', and issue policy statements and the like. If, as the Networking cliches run, 'each individual is the centre', then how do you end up with a situation where someone else decides something on behalf of everybody else? One reason for this is that people often lack confidence in initiating something, and tend to turn to someone else for 'permission' instead of 'just going ahead'. Again, this is natural enough, but a Network is a system for helping people communicate, rather than a 'society' which has specific policies, and a hierarchical structure. If you want to do something, and if you wait to see what everyone else thinks first, then it's quite likely that you'll be subject ot delay after delay as arguments become circular. If individuals are working together on an equal basis, 'seeking permission' isn't necessary. If the original activists who set up PaganLink had waited for 'permission', it might never have come about - besides which, who was there to ask?

When I first became involved in the occult, I was helped greatly by attending the local Moots in Leeds, Bradford, & Manchester. This was back in the late '70's. Nowadays, it's much easier to meet other people who share Pagan/Occult interests. Most magazines carry listings of meetings up and down the country. There are more magazines too, and more public meetings and events, of course. In part, at least, I feel that we have the Pagan Networks to thank for this. The first year or so that PaganLink was around generated some amazing energy - with meetings across the country. There were also, it must be admitted, some bitter arguments generated as different groups of us wanted to pull the entire Network in different directions - perhaps missing the point (I know I did) that there was room enough for lots of different approaches. Through going to meetings and writing to groups who I'd previously only known as ads in magazines, I made a lot of friends, and, if it wasn't for PaganLink, I wouldn't be holding forth in this magazine which, in its very first incarnation Northern PaganLink News, was four pages long and we ran off 25 copies. And the rest, as they say, is history. The key to Networking, as far as I see it is - don't ask what the Network can do for you - think what you can do for the Network. Then do it. You might surprise yourself.

 

* This article first appeared in Pagan News, March 1992