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Staffing the Movement


The myriad editors at Wikipedia define staff as:

  • a large, thick stick or stick-shaped object, used as
    • a tool
    • a magical artifact, "associated with wizards and other fictitious users of magic and sorcery."
    • a weapon
  • a staff of office (a stick that connotes position, rank, or prestige)
  • employees or volunteers in an organization

Etymologically speaking, staff is a word whose roots can be found in Proto-Indo-European, a word which, in its origins, apparently meant something like ""post, stem, to support, place firmly on, fasten." The use of staff to denote someone who supports something or someone else occurred relatively recently in our language (1859 — a group that assists, assistants; 1837 — a group of employees at an office or hospital; 1702 -- a group of military officers that assists a commander; 1535 — a baton that is a badge of office or authority). (Etymology Online Dictionary)

At the end of the movie, Enchanted April, when the four English women and their visitors are leaving the Italian villa where they've each found renewed life and love, Mrs. Fisher, the eldest of the group — a difficult, imperious, elderly widow who's lived for years isolated from, and superior to, most of those living around her — plants her cane in the ground as she's walking down the hill away from her own heart-opening month-long enchantment of strangers-turned-friends and sunshine. The camera focuses on the cane in the last moments of the film, and we see time passing to reveal tendrils and leaves sprouting from it in the soft Italian sun.

A cane is a modern-day staff-equivalent, as defined in the sidebar. It's a tool, certainly, and in the case of Mrs. Fisher's cane, a magical artifact, too.

In magical parlance, a staff is made always from the trunk of a tree, a wand from a branch. The magic of the staff is the magic of the World Tree itself. Staffs have been part of ritual costume for some Pagan men for a number of years, and no doubt for some, the staff has been more than costume. Pagan women have been slower to adopt the staff as ritual garb or magical tool — its association with wizardry and weaponry was daunting for many of us.

World Tree, pillar, pole: these are associated with the veneration of many Goddesses in the ancient world. And if the staff is World Tree, and Goddess and World Tree are "the two most widespread world images in the archaic imagination," (Tribal History) certainly it is time for Pagan women to explore the magic of the staff.

I'm sharing my bias, of course. My path has led me to a place of taking the staff seriously as a magical tool, and circumstances have led me to a teacher who can guide me through the mysteries of the staff.

But today, it's a latter-day, more current meaning of staff I want to address: employees or volunteers in an organization. It's clear from the etymology (see the sidebar) that the one derives from the other.

This past summer I organized a documentary-viewing video party, and for my contribution I purchased Donna Read's Signs Out of Time, her video of the life and work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. This one-hour glimpse into the life of Gimbutas, packed with information and inspiration, and highly recommended from this viewer, was created by Read as a joint project with Starhawk. Readers are probably familiar with Read's Women and Spirituality Trilogy: Goddess Remembered, The Burning Times, Full Circle. Donna Read has been making films for a quarter of a century for the "Signs Out of Time", Marija Gimbutas video coverGreat Atlantic and Pacific Film Company, the National Film Board of Canada, and with Belili Productions. Her Women and Spirituality Trilogy won eight awards, including the Cable Ace award for best long documentary and a Blue Ribbon award from the Chicago Film Festival. It was also voted most popular film at the Toronto Festival of Festivals and the Vancouver Film Festival.

Given Read's experience and expertise, it's no wonder that the Gimbutas film is so well done. What surprised me, though, and what's relevant to this editorial, is my experience of ordering the film: On a tight time-schedule, I sent an email to Belili Productions, and then followed it up with a phone call, to make sure, before ordering the film, that I would receive it on time. Imagine my surprise when Donna Read herself returned my phone call. She assured me that the film would arrive on time, and it did. Someone else followed up on my email, and the day after I ordered it, I got another phone call telling me that the film was on the way. It did arrive in time, and it inspired Pagan and non-Pagan viewers alike.

But to have Donna Read herself be the telephone follow-up person? I was alternately awed at how much women do to make our work possible and to make it available to the world, how involved we are in all aspects of our work, and at the same time angered that a demonstrably successful woman film maker, after a quarter century of making films, was involved in fulfilling orders and answering delivery-related questions about one of her films. And then I looked at the film's budget, and saw how much of her time and expertise she volunteered to the project. Oh my. Feminist fire raged: How many successful male film makers are involved in the details of delivering their products to individual buyers? Perhaps the answer is many, if they're making documentaries, but I don't know. And I suppose the answer is irrelevant in many ways, since what I'm concerned with is women and how we staff, or not, our own work.

I'm doubtless not alone in having seen women's organizations either fall apart or grow at staggeringly slow rates. The women involved didn't find ways to bring more women into the heart of the work. They didn't or couldn't recruit other women to carry on their successful projects before their energy for sustaining them began to wane (or in worse cases, when they burned out and went away). What is it about staffing that we haven't figured out? Is it the fact that many of us second-wave feminists were either squeezed into secretarial or administrative lives before feminist activism opened more doors for us, or ran in fear-driven frenzy from such work? Staff has been a rather unglamorous word and position for a long time. It generally implies someone who's doing the dull work of supporting someone else's creative work.

If we reclaim staff as magical artifact, as having its roots in World Tree, however, and if we think about Mrs. Fisher's magical act with her cane, perhaps we can rework our concepts of staffing. Imagine if we all understood staff as energetic support, as that thing from which new life leafs out? Imagine staff as central to our activities, the many-ringed "trunk" that links the visionary roots of a program, project, or organization with the parts that send the work branching out into the world, the core that nurtures them both.

Staffing is happening at MatriFocus. These Words of Power were spoken at Beltane: MatriFocus will have staff by Samhain! So it is my great pleasure to introduce to you (updated, Samhain 2006):

Feral, Co-Editor, former writer of the Feminism column and long-time professional word worker

Sarah Bebhinn, Women and Art columnist who's developing a new "Waves of Feminism" section for MatriFocus

Dawn Work-MaKinne, Editor of the Goddess and Scholar column who'd be happy to include other writers in her work.

Boye, Poetry Editor and former "Queer Spirituality" columnist.

Myself! Sage Starwalker, Co-Editor and Publisher, who loves all this work, who figured out it needed to be shared with others before overwhelm turned to burnout, and who is grateful to be sharing this work with readers, writers, artists, photographers, and other staff members to make this Cross-Quarterly Journal a long-lived source of information and inspiration.

Plans for an Art Editor are in the works. Another code monkey is invited to show up now! We have a volunteer moderator for the Forum that's in the works and will be looking for other Forum moderators in the future. As MatriFocus grows, so will her staff. Our readers and contributors deserve the kind of care and work that only many hands, hearts, and minds can make happen.

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