from Jules - Saturday, June 21, 2003
accessed 2401 times
The following was presented by me at the AFF Conference Daniel (Albatross) and I were invited to in June of 2003. Daniel's presentation can be found here: http://www.movingon.org/article.asp?sID=4&Cat=24&ID=1390
June 9, 2003
Moving On: Establishing an online community for youth raised in a NRM
In the summer of 2001 I launched a web site called movingon.org. It was to be an interactive place on the Internet for the second generation of the New Religious Movement known as The Family (formerly the Children of God). The web site currently has over 700 young people as participants on it. The process of creating and administering this online community has been both intense and rewarding and the results have been beyond anything I ever expected. This presentation will give an overview of the background, process and outcome of the web site and my experiences with it.
I was born into the Family and spent my childhood and teenage years as a member within it. I had just turned 20 when I left the group in 1995, and for the first few years had a very difficult time getting on my feet and catching up. I stayed in touch with some of the friends I had grown up with, who had also left the group, and found that they were in similar situations. It was difficult to explain to others where exactly we had come from, why there was no record of us anywhere, why we had not attended school and why we had no work history.
Some common threads between the few of us seemed to be:
- Ignorance of cultural norms
- Feelings of shame
- Facing discrimination regarding our background
In 1998, a web site was set up for former members of the Family, where people could post messages to each other and carry on discussion over the Internet. I was curious and began to interact with other former members, but found that the people there from my parent’s generation triggered a lot of emotions that were difficult to handle. In my experience there had always been a significant generation gap in the Family, and it seemed that the same dynamics still existed to some extent among former members.
Through discussion with other young adults I decided that we as the second generation needed our own place online to interact. I was just starting to get my life together and learn web site development and it took a number of years for me to both obtain the technical skills and emotional stability to be able to come back to this project.
In June of 2001, I launched movingon.org. The goal was to create a web site for the second generation by the second generation. It was important to me that the site be an open forum, with no censorship, and no agenda other than providing a place for open dialogue on our experiences and the issues that we faced.
Having been raised in The Family, to me this was not a group I was a member of, but is my community of origin. I and many of my friends have parents and siblings who are still members of the Family. All of the second generation, whether still in the group or not, experienced life as a child in the Family, and in many ways have more in common with each other than people from different backgrounds. Given this, I decided that this web site should be available to anyone raised in the Family, whether still a member or not.
Building the Community
I had gained some experience in creating online communities through working at dot-coms and for advertising agencies, and gave some thought on how to best facilitate a forum that would be helpful to other young adults.
Some of the key concepts included:
1. Encouragement for in-depth discussion
The architecture of the web site was designed so that people would submit essays and articles written on different topics that would then be commented on by other people. I hoped that giving more weight to content that had been thought out and initiated dialogue would encourage in-depth discussion, rather than quick messages posted back and forth.
2. Privacy and phased interaction
With such a small target demographic, most of the participants are removed at the most by one or two degrees of separation. Most people know each other personally, or through mutual friends or family. This can cause people to have an unusually high comfort level with each other and as a result they may disclose information about themselves that is not safe to do on the Internet.
Since the site can be read by anyone online, it was very important to me that people interacting there were anonymous to the casual reader. Some of our experiences involve very personal and controversial issues, and I felt it essential that people’s privacy be protected.
While participants can create a profile online, they can choose to make it private or public, and whether or not to let others contact them. From my own experience, discussion of my childhood and The Family could become rather intense, and I wanted people to know they were the ones in control of their own involvement and their own level of participation. If anything ever felt unsafe or uncomfortable, they just could walk away and remove their articles from the web site.
3. Bridging Isolation
One of the goals was to help bridge feelings of isolation, and to this end I set up features such as a display of the number of users online, a chat room, with a display of the nicknames of the participants currently using it, an area for people to upload photographs and artwork, a directory of the profiles of the participants and a tally of the total number of registered users.
4. Sense of Ownership
For participants to feel empowered, it was important to me that the web site be “our” space. People maintaining editorial control over their own content, being free to write what they wanted even if it was sometimes abrasive, and implementing suggestions and ideas from participants for new features all helped to create a sense of ownership for the participants. Pictures that people upload are displayed on the home page of the web site, which further helps to create a sense of community.
One of the key concepts for the longevity of the site was the need for buy-in from key people within the network of former members. To this end I set up editors for different topic on the site. Editors initially were responsible for spell-checking articles before posting them and had access to the administration screens to post their own content immediately. This created a core group of people who had increased responsibility for involvement with the web site.
5. Equal validity of all experiences
One of the core concepts that I have tried to encourage is that all the opinions stated and discussed have equal validity, since we are speaking from our own experiences. Someone who is happy with their upbringing in The Family has as much right to talk about their opinions as those who may be angry about things that they experienced as children. The thing we all have in common is our childhood in the Family, and that is the only criteria for participation on movingon.org.
The political, personal and spiritual views expressed on the web site differ enormously, and acceptance of others is of course impossible to enforce. However, as the administrator, I tried to frequently reinforce the concept of engaging in debate of the topics when differing opinions are voiced, not insults or personal put downs of the individual stating their own beliefs. This has not been entirely successful, but arguments are common on web sites and newsgroups, and heated debates (known as “flame wars”) occur in every interactive environment on the Internet.
A sense of humour and the ability to laugh about the many eccentricities of the Family and our caretakers is one of the things I remember the most fondly from my childhood. This same irreverence can be found through-out the Moving On web site, from the products sold in our online store, to the parodies of The Family’s publications posted by participants. Humour has helped to deflate emotionally charged topics, and of all that has been said by participants, this particular attribute perhaps best illustrates the strength and resilience many young people have shown when faced with extraordinary obstacles.
Being responsible for a web site that is an open forum has proved to be challenging in some aspects. Within a typical online community or interactive web site, disruptive people are blocked from the web site and offensive content is deleted. However, in my experience this particular demographic reacts strongly and negatively to any behaviour that can be perceived as authoritarian, and maintaining responsibility for the web site and also promoting free speech has been a delicate balancing act. I have had to continually remember my goals of support, mutual respect and free speech, and that in many respects this web site is not a conventional one.
1. Non-censorship vs. protection
A question I have often debated internally is the balance between freedom of speech, and safety and support. Some participants have been hostile and aggressive, and can deeply wound other people who may be struggling with emotional turmoil. Both the aggressive person and the person under attack are part of the demographic the web site is targeted to, and both may be at risk and in need a place to speak their own truth. There seems to be a deep-seated rage in many participants, and for some, this had never been articulated before. To have a place to do so was important, but not at the expense of other participants. This has also been difficult to achieve, but sticking to the principle of attacking the idea, not the individual, has helped to clarify the difference between a personal attack and someone expressing anger.
2. Discussions on controversial topics
There are a number of topics that are controversial, and yet are issues that we face and have deeply affected our lives. When establishing this web site I felt it was important that we not shy away from serious discussion on controversial topics as they arose. Some of the things participants have discussed include drug abuse, racism, abandonment, rape, incest, sexual abuse, physical abuse and suicide. The dialogue on these topics has been sometimes raw and painful, but again, I feel that if these are things that people struggle with, a true open forum must allow for discussion of all aspects of life in The Family, and, for those who have chosen to leave the group, life since leaving.
3. Emotional Toll
The number of people who have contacted me over the last two years since the web site has been active range in the thousands. People born into The Family both in and out have written me regarding things they have read on the web site and questions they have about life outside of the group. The response has been much greater than I ever expected, and has been difficult to keep up with personally.
Many issues discussed on movingon.org are difficult for me personally to participate in, and my own experiences and emotional responses do add biases that are not easy to put aside. I believe it is important for administration of such a forum to be handled objectively, but it has been difficult when the memories of certain traumas are triggered for me. I have found support however through honestly stating when topics I personally engage in do get difficult to talk about, and by relating my own experiences and why certain things do trigger me.
There are currently over 700 registered participants on movingon.org.
Over 1,100 articles have been posted, and 14,000 comments have been submitted. An average of 200,000 pages are accessed monthly, and between 8,000 to 10,000 people visit the web site every month.
While the traffic levels are low when compared to online communities targeted to more broad demographics, the return rate of participants and level of interaction is very high. There are about 1,600 young adults currently still members of the Family, and given this, the response to the web site was certainly much greater than I anticipated.
Some of the most unexpected effects from MovingOn.org have come about as a result of the solidarity that many of the participants have expressed in regards to each other. The words “we” and “our” are frequently used by participants, and while there is still a measure of aggression from time to time, the overall atmosphere is one of support.
While it is mostly unstated, I have witnessed a distinct change in the style of interaction between participants over the last two years. Pointed and direct questions about the choices our parents, the first generation of The Family, and even we ourselves made have been asked. For us, coming from an environment where criticism and analytical thought was taboo, to be able voice our thoughts and debate any topic without fear of direct retribution or being silenced has been both liberating and empowering.
Family publications regarding former members have placed them into two categories: favourable and enemies. Since for many of us the Family is not an ideological movement, but our cultural heritage, many participants have rejected both of these labels. Moving on with our lives and making sense of the non-traditional upbringing we experienced is something that must be done on our own terms and in our own way. Rather than continuing to be reactive and led by the authoritarianism of the people who raised us, or buffeted by the emotional weight of our past, initiating open dialogue on these things ourselves has enabled us to begin to be proactive and to take the lead in moving forward.
2. Ownership of Issues
Children in the Family have been the subject of many media stories, investigations, academic papers and court cases. In addition, the Family has always maintained that we as children were the “proof” that the organization was the “best place in the world”. All of this has led to many of us feeling like pawns in someone else’s game for most of our lives.
Media exposes are often sensationalized and exploitative of the youth interviewed, researchers sometimes seemed to us more interested in validating their own pet theories than actually documenting life as a child in the Family, and some zealous former members of our parent’s generation seemed to want to justify or atone for their own involvement with the group, rather than improve our lives as children.
When investigations occurred, we were told again and again that we were responsible for the outcome and the safety of our families, homes and younger siblings depended on our behaviour when under scrutiny. We were frequently grilled with mock question and answer sessions, and were under tremendous pressure to “keep the faith”. As children and teenagers, we were frequently involved in fund raising and public relations for the Family and we had to show the “world” our smiling faces, and how wonderful it was to be a member of this group.
The movingon.org web site is exclusively by us as a generation, for us. Not only is the subject matter our own, but the venue in which it is published is solely ours as well. This has resulted in a sense of ownership by the participants of the site. We own our stories and lives, and just as the challenges we face are our own, solutions, support and change must also come from us.
3. Success Stories
While there have been many tragic accounts of exploitation, abuse and suicide of young people who have left the Family, there have also been amazing success stories. Many people have managed to overcome academic and cultural challenges faced and have become established and successful professionals, academics and business leaders. Knowing that other people have faced the same set backs and turmoil and yet have gone on to success is something that can bring hope and support to those still struggling.
Evolution of a Foundation to provide concrete support
Through many conversations with participants, it became clear that there was need for support that was more concrete than a web site could offer. Some of the other second generation and I decided to set up a Foundation, which could act as a structure for programs and referrals to assist young people leaving the Family.
The Safe Passage Foundation was incorporated in New York in the spring of 2003. The goals of the Foundation are to provide advocacy for children in isolated communities and support with the integration process for youth and young adults who leave. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are the values we have adopted as our guiding principles.
My own retirement as administrator
As the Safe Passage Foundation has taken shape, it has been increasingly difficult to maintain the web site and also devote the time needed to establish a permanent and concrete structure of support. After two years of managing Moving On, it was time for me to move on myself. I approached the group of editors that had assisted with maintenance of the site regarding them taking over the community administration. They agreed to take on this role and I was able to pass on the web site to these 16 people at the beginning of this month.
Forums for other NRM communities
Movingon.org has been a tremendous success and has had a considerable impact on many of the thousands of children that were born and raised in the Family. From the limited contact we have had with those raised in other similar organizations, it seems that the cultural isolation and sociological dynamics among the second generation of other groups may be similar to that of our own.
Duplication of the architecture of the movingon.org web site would be quite simple to implement, and with an administrator from among the target demographic themselves, an online community could easily be set up for those raised in any other new religious movement.
I never dreamed that the many evenings and weekends I spent with no life, in front of my computer creating movingon.org, would result in the vibrant community seen there today.
One of the many unforeseen effects of creating this web site has been the strength and support I personally have gained from knowing that I also am not alone with the issues I face. Rather than disassociate my childhood from my life now, I have been able to find a sense of continuity, and that, despite the emotional turmoil, has helped to eradicate my own shame and isolation. I will forever be grateful for this experience and for the hundreds of my peers who have shared their lives, joy, pain, successes and struggles with me and with the other participants and visitors. I salute their courage and strength.