Virtual Colloquia on Power Dynamics

This ongoing series of colloquia features a variety of speakers, including practitioners, scholars, survivors, and activists, who come together to talk about their experiences around power dynamics, both positive and negative, in emerging and alternative spiritual and cultural organizations. This series reflects the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality's commitment to sponsoring scholarly conversations that fully include both practitioners of emerging spiritualities and persons who have experienced harm within spiritual movements. 

Power Dynamics in Research Methodologies with Marginalized Spiritual Traditions

On December 7, 2021, the PES shifted our discussion from abuse of power within these organizations to the study of these communities, specifically with regards to contemporary Pagan traditions.

Anthropologist Giovanna Parmigiani, historian J. Christian Greer, and religious studies scholar Russell Burk joined our assistant director, Natalia Schwien, to discuss their research methodologies when working with these marginalized spiritual communities and the steps they take to support a productive and respectful dynamic between themselves and their interlocutors.

About the speakers

Dr. J. Christian Greer is a scholar of religious studies, currently holding a postdoctoral position at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His forthcoming book, Angelheaded Hipsters: Psychedelic Militancy in Nineteen Eighties North America (Oxford University Press), analyzes the expansion of psychedelic culture in the late Cold War era.

Dr. Giovanna Parmigiani is an anthropologist and a scholar of Contemporary Paganisms. She serves as a Lecturer on Religion and Cultural Anthropology at HDS, and as a research assistant at the Transcendence and Transformation initiative at the CSWR, where she hosts a series of online lectures titled "Gnoseologies."

Russell Burk is an ethnographer of religion and is a PhD candidate in religions of the Americas at Harvard University. He is currently conducting field research in Chicago, Illinois, for a dissertation on contemporary Pagans' interactions with African Diaspora religions. His research interests include critical race theory, critical whiteness studies, alternative spiritualities, and religion and neoliberalism.

Full transcript for "Power Dynamics in Research Methodologies with Marginalized Spiritual Traditions."

Rebuilding Community and Accountability in L’Arche: Lessons Learned from a Founder’s Abuse of Power

On October 13, 2021, the PES brought together Tina Bovermann and Timothy Moore from L’Arche, a non-profit international movement of people with and without intellectual disabilities living, working, praying, and playing together in community. They joined our director, Dan McKanan, to discuss the transparency and accountability put in place by the organization in the wake of the sexual and spiritual abuse perpetrated by the founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier. We talked about how communities can restructure, rebuild, and find healing after new information about their founders comes to light.

About the speakers

Tina Bovermann is the national leader and executive director of L’Arche USA. She identifies as a Northern European implant in the American south, where she lives with her spouse and kids. Originally at home in the world of international politics, economics and human rights, Tina has explored various cultures, experiences and vocations before parachuting me into my current role.

Tim Moore is the Executive Director and Community Leader of L’Arche Atlanta. Tim joined L’Arche Atlanta as one of the founding assistants in August 2012 where he brought his experience in two previous L’Arche communities to help give shape to the new rhythms of community life in Atlanta. By May of 2013, he had shifted to a hybrid role as a half-time live-in assistant and half-time Associate Director of Development; in this role he helped L’Arche Atlanta reach its 2013 financial goals. Tim attended an exteded retreat in Trosly, France, with L’Arche founder, Jean Vanier, where study and fellowship with L'Arche leaders from around the world renewed his call to life together in Atlanta. Tim was named the Executive Director & Community Leader in June 2014.

Gender Dynamics in Intentional Communities

On July 27, 2021, the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality featured Dr. Maria Burschel and Crystal Byrd Farmer to discuss gender dynamics in intentional communities.

About the speakers

Dr. Maria Burschel is a German sociologist and Professor for Social Work at the IU International University. She worked as a social researcher for several projects at the German Youth Institute in Munich. Her focus lies in family research, divorce and separation, gender, community building, sustainability, and transformation. In her doctoral thesis she analyzed the "Doing of Separation" between parents in Intentional Communities as an indicator for social sustainability.
Crystal Byrd Farmer is an engineer turned educator, organizer, and speaker who focuses on co-housing, Black, and polyamorous communities. She serves as a board member for the Foundation for Intentional Communities and is passionate about encouraging people to change their perspectives on diversity, relationships, and the world.

Affirming Personal Agency in Discussions on Abuse of Power in Alternative Spiritual Spaces

Program for the Evolution of Spirituality director and HDS Professor Dan McKanan was joined on May 6, 2021 by New Religious Movement scholars Dr. Erin Prophet and Jessica Pratezina to discuss approaches to conversations and scholarship around spiritual harm while affirming personal agency.

About the speakers

Erin Prophet, MPH, PhD, is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. She studies religion, spirituality and medicine. Her publications include Cults and New Religious Movements (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press) and Prophet’s Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet Inside Church Universal and Triumphant (Lyons Press, 2009).

Jessica Pratezina is a PhD student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Her research centers on growing up in alternative religious movements, women’s narratives of religious transition, and the development of wise therapeutic/social work practice with people involved in these religious groups.

Full transcript for "Affirming Personal Agency in Discussions on Abuse of Power in Alternative Spiritual Spaces".

First Colloquium: Follow-up Virtual Panel

On March 25, 2021, we hosted a follow-up virtual panel and the first of our colloquia. This event featured the same four panelists to address the questions that we were not able to discuss at the original event.  

Full transcript for the March 25 virtual panel.


Abuse of Power in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations

On February 25, 2021, PES held a virtual panel with four panelists to foster a complex conversation on power dynamics in emerging and alternative organizations. This event was co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of World Religions.

One of the core mandates of Harvard’s new Program for the Evolution of Spirituality is to look honestly at both the positive and negative dimensions of emerging spiritual movements.

We are keenly aware that the abuse of power is a sensitive topic. Open discussion of past experiences of abuse has the potential to be re-traumatizing. Organizations that abuse power exist on a broad spectrum, and it is important to acknowledge differences and ambiguities as well as recognize that each person’s experience is a complex mix; abuse of power can be entered into intentionally or unintentionally, and many of these spaces present the potential to be greatly empowering for people who have been disempowered in the past. Simultaneously, it is equally important to be forthright in naming those realities that are unacceptable.

About the speakers

  • Amber Scorah, writer and media activist living in Brooklyn, NY. She is author of the memoir Leaving the Witness, published by Viking Books. 
  • Margaret Smith, who currently holds the position of Director of Trauma Healing and Community Resilience at the Institute of World Affairs, Washington, DC. 
  • Helen Zuman, author of Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018), a memoir of her five years, post-Harvard, at Zendik Farm, a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. 
  • Souki Mehdaoui, a documentary director, writer, and cinematographer based in Denver. Her work can be seen on Netflix, HBO, the New York Times, A+E, Yahoo and Refinery29.

Full transcript for "Abuse of Power in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations