The Open Hearth Foundation has secured a space for the District of Columbia (DC) Pagan Community Center. I interviewed Iris Firemoon, foundation board member, about the securing of a space and the Community Center launch planned for December 31st.
Are you excited at the prospect of the DC Community Center opening?
We are very excited! We signed a lease at the end of September, and took possession of the space on October 3rd. We have been hitting the ground running since then. Our official launch will be December 31st of this year, and we will have a launch party.
How did you put this all together?
The Open Hearth Foundation was founded in 1999. Several groups, area leaders , and individuals came together and decided that they needed a space that could accommodate the kind of work that a lot of Pagan groups do. We need a space where we can stay past midnight; where we aren’t worried about out drums being too loud; we are not worried about inviting strangers or the public to our home and to putting our address on the internet; where we can store the things that a group may need. They noted all these things and built a framework for what they wanted in a Pagan Community Center. Over the last 12 years we have been raising the money to get there.
We have done Gala Masquerades, yard sales, and community building events. Membership and sponsorship drives, and businesses that give members discounts, we call them Associates. We have done a lot of different things to raise money, get the community involved and build support. The have sponsored several different Pagan Pride Days over the years in the region. That is how we have come to this place to begin. By last March we had raised over $100K and had almost $68K of that in the bank after event expenses.
The Open Hearth Foundation is a non-profit?
The Open Hearth Foundation is a non-profit, 501c3 organization. This was established way before I had even heard of the group. We are a board driven group. We right now have five board members and two trustees. The board members go through an application process, and have a vote in the affairs of the organization. Our trustees sign contracts and have access to all board information, but are non-voting members of the board. The board now includes none of the original members. We all came in contact with the organization in the last four years and fell in love with the mission. The founders are all still major supporters. It started out with people involved in groups and organizing activities on their own. One of our trustees has signed on to promote an advanced giving program, to consider the center the DC Pagan center in their wills and estates. The other works with the ‘Pagan Night out’. Beyond that other groups get involved through sponsoring us, and partnering helping us but on activities. We also have individual members who volunteer and support us through individual giving.
This may change shortly. We will be having a huge volunteer meeting October 20th, where we will sit down with everyone interested in getting involved and connecting them with the tasks that they can do. This will be groups using the center, people coming to take classes, collect books for our library. There will be a lot of different individuals and groups stepping up to help organize and get the center running.
It it envisioned that the center will be self-supporting?
In the past we have raised money through membership and events. We don’t see the board as in a primary fundraising group, we are envisioning it as more of an executive committee. There will be a fundraising committee. The board will be involved with running the center, and trying to find space, and planning community activities, and helping the center to be all it can be. It kind of ties our hands in so far as how much time we can put into fund-raising. Fund raising is really about building relationships, about being creative, about knowing the community and making sure their needs are being met. Showing them the potential of the center if they donated and used the center. The five of us have been spending the last eight months organizing the center, and so it has been difficult for us to also handle future fund-raising. We are hoping to gain volunteers to specialize in fund-raising after the launch.
What is the space like?
It is a space above a dry cleaner and a liquor store. It started out as three separate offices, with two separate bathrooms. The center is zoned for both commercial and residential use. Before we took the space on it was used as a residential space for the dry cleaner’s manager. Before that it was several small retail spaces. We have two rooms, of 1600 total square feet. One of the rooms is maybe 40 by 26 feet. We wanted a room that could fit 60 in a round circle. We think we can fit about 40 in a circle and 60 in an oval in this room. We plan to have rituals and large meetings in this space. The other room will house our library and house meetings of 5-10 people. We plan to rent out both rooms.
Will there be a ‘Center Manager’ ?
At first the board will be managing the center, and the policies and procedures, and the long-term planning. We have scenarios in the future where we may secure a paid or volunteer manager to do that role, and the board can become more advisory. We are not sure what we will need , or what the best solution will be. Once we have opened the space we will make those kind of decisions.
How many people can you serve in the DC area?
There is a 2001 study that estimates in the DC, Virginia, and Maryland area that there are about eleven thousand Pagans. Using DC Facebook, we can easily find 6-7000 just there. We consider ourselves regional and can draw from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey as well. We are only 90 minutes from these areas. In this tri-state area we currently have about 40 paying members, and many other who have off and on in been members in the past. Our events can easily draw 120 to 160 people, so over these years we have directly touched several thousand people. We have been at several area Pagan Pride days the last five years talking about it. We have our website and do outreach. We believe several hundred of these people will come forward and support the center once we launch it. This Center is something our community really needs and we believe they will see the value in it.
What is the official Community Center name?
We are considering the Center’s name. We had a summit in January where that was one of the questions. There was a passionate discussion about whether we would use the word ‘Pagan’. Some felt it needed to be beacon where if someone searched for DC Pagan, they would immediately find it. Others felt just as strongly that it should be a safe space where we would NOT be found easily by say, capitol protesters. Many DC Pagans are not ‘Out’ in their jobs and identities. They want it to be a safe place no matter what. We are hoping the right name will come to us, but for now it is leased under the foundation’s name.
( I suggested the ‘Pagan Embassy’ given the center’s location in DC. Iris said, “Maybe ‘Earth Embassy’.” )
Have you been able to put the space to use so far?
With OccupyDC happening in the area and the related protests, we have had Starhawk, and several Reclaiming tradition activists, and some of the Pagan Cluster in town. These social action groups were here participating in protests, and organizing classes and talks. We reached out to them and offered the use of the undeveloped space as a resource. There are few pagan friendly spaces, not even one retail shop within DC. We felt this was a great opening for us and knew we would like this to be a home base for folks. We supported them with supplies and offered housing at the community center for them so they could catch their breath. We put out air mattresses and things for them. We want the center to serve the area and we would also like it to some what serve the nation as the DC area is so important. The DC area is so expensive for housing and with many here from California, this was a great help to them. We would love for it to be this kind of resource.
Several of us here are also members of the Sacred Paths Center. The PNC-MN reporting about the SPC over the last year has really helped us. We see our survival as a center as linked to all the community center efforts nationwide, and the PNC reporting was intimate enough to help us get a sense of some of the problems and potential solutions.
The Open Hearth Foundation has an active membership and sponsor drive online, a DC Witches Ball October 29th, and a New Years Eve Launch Party scheduled. The Open Hearth Foundation website has a wealth of information about the project. Please support them!