On Community & Community “Leadership”

The original version of this post can be found on Twitter. If you liked this, buy me a Ko-Fi. If you want to check my games out, they’re all on Itch. If you want me to keep doing what I am doing, consider becoming one of my patrons.

Hands coming together to form a heart with red paint. Photo credit goes to Tim Marshall.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

In light of a lot of shake-ups, big and small, that have spilled over into the many communities within tabletop roleplaying games, I’ve decided to try and put my thoughts on community and “leadership” down. This includes strategies that I employ for myself in order to keep doing what I do. My statements are in no way prescriptive. Also, an important note: I use quotations a lot when referring to “leadership” because I personally hope to interrogate the idea that communities should have One Big Voice to represent them, and wish to both diffuse power and agency among all #ttrpgs content creators. Doing this means dismantling systems of hierarchy, patronage and cults of personality.

Becoming a “leader” of a community of a fannish or creative nature tends to be a voluntary action. Nobody is really elected “in” to these things. Keep this point in mind as you read through everything.

The “position” of community leadership is often the result of an accident. You volunteered to become part of an admin group on Facebook, or to help moderate a Discord server. Suddenly, you possess a measure of, if not total, accountability for the space in the eyes of its participants.

Another accidental way in which one may become a “community leader” include being recognized for their actions or their words within their locale, or within a demographic that they are a part of. You wished to speak out about an issue, due to your specific context. Many agreed with you, felt validated by you, and so on. You now possess a measure of social capital that you may not have anticipated having at all. As such, some folx may feel like your silence during a firefight means you’re complicit. Example: “You’re a woman, this affects all women, why aren’t you weighing in?!” or “You’re gay! This should matter to you!”

Yet another accidental way in which one may become a “community leader” is that you’re respected for your work. You created something that spoke to “new” or “powerful” audiences, thus inspiring many within these groups to try their hand at “speak back” with their own creations. This tends to create the false expectation that because you have created something, you MUST weigh in on works that are similar to, or mirror yours.

For further context, let’s recall that I do community work on two fronts, and these fronts wildly change the nature of my position of “power”. It also changes how I may be perceived by the participants of the many smaller communities that intersect the wider community that I am handling:

  1. In Manila, I am one of the administrators of the Philippine Table-top RPGs, the only “general” (basically, not D&D or Big Game specific) group for the ttrpgs hobby as a whole. I am a woman, and I am also queer. My educational and economic background have become reasons for some members to believe I am “elitist”. This is aggravated by toxic heteronormative thinking, and sexism. As such, my “leadership” is perpetually questioned, often forcing me to do more emotional labor than merited when dealing with, let’s say, offended cishet men.

Let’s get to it.

The truth of the matter is, once someone becomes a community leader, they simultaneously become that community’s lawyer, judge, jury, executioner, therapist, counselor, mentor, and surrogate parent in the eyes of most of its participants. Being the admin of a server or online group means having to make judgment calls, the most critical of which involves calls that affect an individual or a group’s safety.

This conflation of roles can be grossly unfair, given that the position of “leader” is VOLUNTARY. On a pragmatic level, most community leaders do not possess the training or tools to perform any of the aforementioned roles in a fashion that would not be harmful towards themselves or towards others.

Second: community leaders are not compensated in any tangible fashion for the work that they do. When I say “tangible”, I mean in terms of assets, like cash or benefits that they can avail of within the community in question or beyond it.

Third: there will always be members of the community who believe that their “leaders” must be free and able to respond to every single issue that affects their space. In pursuit of their own needs, they run the risk of demanding for superhuman levels of time investment and emotional labor. I have lost count of the number of times that members of PTRPGs have come to me or my team, expecting a response to their concern within 24–48 hours of messaging. Problem: these messages tend to come in off work hours, or over the weekend.

Here’s another hard truth that needs to be laid out. A community “leader” now possesses power in the form of social capital. You did not ask for it. It is likely that you did not want it at all. But now, it’s yours.

All participants in a community possess accountability for themselves. Community leaders gain an extra layer of accountability for their stewardship — perceived or otherwise — over a space. When you uplift someone, you’ve the potential to uplift them to even greater heights than you might otherwise imagine. When you tear someone down, you tear them even further down than you might otherwise think.

A relevant reality to that last point is, some folx will rise higher than others when they are uplifted. Some folx will fall lower than others when they are torn down. Until the radical change that many of us crave for happens, the endorsement of a white creator will always go further than the endorsement of a POC creator. The tearing down of a POC creator will always be worse for the creator in question than the tearing down of a white creator. Replace “white creator” with “man” or “cishet”; replace “POC creator” with “woman” or “queer”. The dynamics continue to apply.

Going back to the discussion now. Let’s lay it out plainly: from this point on, what a community leader says or does in public don’t just reflect who they are. They possess the potential to change minds, and spur others into action or inaction. This includes the fact that by speaking up, community leaders will always, inadvertently, silence some voices while amplifying others. This also includes the fact that many folx will simply — and often wrongfully — assume that you are speaking With Authority every time you weigh in. This necessitates greater care and nuance when crafting public responses or action. What does this equate to? Even more emotional labor.

Your context, your privilege, your biases, your prejudices, your blind spots, and your preferences come with you when you step into (or get thrust into) community leadership. You’re human. That’s just a thing that happens. But, all this, when combined with a lack of self-awareness, further combined with the social capital that you now possess? That makes for a dangerous combination.

This is the reality of community work. It is unpaid emotional labor. It is a risky, sometimes downright dangerous exercise. It rarely, if not at all, translates into any real form of compensation, be it in terms of friendships or allies gained, respect earned, games/supplements/services bought.

So. Since it is timely for me to do so, let me ask community participants again: when you call upon a leader within your space to respond to something, are you willing to go shoulder-to-shoulder with them? What are your motivations for asking them to speak up or act? How much of this is actually their “responsibility”?

Each time one calls upon another to be a community leader, you are demanding that they put themselves in harm’s way. You are, in many cases, asking them to possibly compromise not just themselves, but future opportunities in the market, for people in positions to hire them or endorse their work will make their own judgment calls based on how your community leader spoke up, or acted.

Also. These days, due to the increasing interconnectivity of everything and everyone, you’re more often than not putting those around the community leader in harm’s way as well. Their peers, their loved ones, their friends.

What are the personal strategies I employ and things that I keep in mind when I do community work? They’re summarized in Disengaging, Defining Boundaries, Acting on Principles, Consulting Actual Experts, Defining What Demands A Zero Tolerance Response From Me, and Asking for Help.

Disengaging

I would argue that the most essential strategy for survival is to learn when to disengage, and also have your boundaries drawn up very tightly. My community work is not my day job. Nobody benefits if I crash and burn. Also, selfishly(?), I have a life. I have my own concerns, my own people to manage, and my own interests that are equal in importance to the community work I engage in. I do not need to be defined by the validation of others.

Before I proceed, I’ll need to dwell a bit in this part about validation. I can’t say this in a nicer way: in the same way that art should not be a replacement for for therapy, community work should not be your replacement for therapy. Community work can help with one’s healing and sense of empowerment — but that is not what it exists for.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I have seen people who have volunteered to be a community leaders, but do it primarily to validate themselves in an attempt to fill in a void born out of trauma. Their self-identity and worth then became singularly tied to their community work.

The sense of power they gain from holding some sort of position of authority has been used to silence others, and unfairly engage in a competition of determining whose feelings have more intrinsic value than others. All the while, they were insisting on the fact that they possessed good intent, and acting in good faith. They were, but they were coming from a place of deep hurt and unprocessed trauma.

I don’t doubt that they meant well. I also don’t doubt that they were not fit at all to do the emotional labor of community work. I’ll have more words on good intent and good faith later on in this thread.

Defining Boundaries

Defining boundaries is equally essential to learning when to disengage. Community work should NEVER be 24/7. Furthermore, NOBODY should be called upon to engage in something that runs the risk of traumatizing or triggering them again. It is perfectly acceptable to opt out of an issue, and leave it to someone who is better equipped for it. Communicating these boundaries openly is also a practical thing to consider. That way, people have zero right to demand that you harm yourself.

Also, please. Take time. Take breaks. Do your things. Don’t forget to hydrate, to eat. Buy something nice for yourself. Say no when you can’t say yes anymore. It’s okay. You’re allowed to do this. You’re always allowed to take a breath, to heal.

Acting On Principles

A community is only as good as their standards and principles, and also only as good as the ability of their representatives to defend the space. To act on principle is to be perpetually called upon to be bigger than you are. This is where it becomes absolutely necessary to listen to those around you — especially the ones who have the smallest voices within your space.

To act on principles does not mean acting for the interests of the majority. To act on principles means looking towards the smallest, most marginalized within your group, and determining the best ways in which you can help them.

Consulting Actual Experts

Sounds weird at first, but consulting experts means you’re equipping yourself with the tools to handle things outside of your life experience. Tap that therapist/counselor friend when you’re dealing with particularly difficult cases within your community. Ask a lawyer friend to look over statements, to fill you in on practical ways to handle something — and yes, ways you can protect yourself when you’re dealing with something like a powerful bad actor in your space. You do not have to do any of this as it is. No need to increase the risk upon yourself or the risk for others by blindly groping around.

On a related note, this is also why it’s important to have a team of people you can work with wherever and whenever it is possible to have one. A second or third pair of eyes, together with the concrete waiting time involved in passing issues around, can really help.

Defining What Constitutes A Zero Tolerance Response For You

Locating what your pressure points are is essential. You are not obligated to be absolutely tolerant all the time, much less — yes — always assume that someone is acting in good intent, therefore must be treated with “empathy”.

When I say that I don’t negotiate with terrorists, I am only half-joking. Terrorists in your community can include trolls, passive aggressive folx who lurk in your spaces and find small ways of throwing some hurt in your direction, bad actors. My favorite example for this would be people who can’t seem to stop themselves from making tiny, choice comments within your forum or FB Group that don’t necessarily violate your community standards, but are clearly digs at your team or people who are “easily offended” — like women, queer folx.

Some community leaders will call for perpetual call ins, for seeing whether they can reach the other side. These days, I will fully admit that 9 times out of 10, I don’t. The micro-aggressions that I face on a daily basis as a queer woman make me extremely intolerant versus reactions and issues that I actually have full control over. I may not be able to stop a man from cat-calling me on a street. I can, however, block a rude member of my group who decided to “haha” react to a post I made about standing up against abusers in the tabletop community, and has, on several previous accounts, whined rather publicly about SJWs despite being told off for it.

Outrage is a fair reaction, especially when it’s your sanity on the line — just be cold, pragmatic, and principled about it. Also: YOU ARE NEVER OBLIGATED TO LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN FOR EVERYONE. You’re nobody’s parent. It’s not your job to make sure “everyone has fun”, nor is it your job to teach someone how to behave, or how to act decently. You especially should not have to participate in another’s discovery of healing and reformation. Your first priority, after protecting yourself, is to defend your own, especially the marginalized ones within your space.

Also, a much needed reminder. Things like FB groups and Discords are private spaces by nature. If it is you who owns them, you’re well within your rights to remove and sanction who you like. You do not owe anybody your space or your time, most especially if they have been terrible people.

This zero tolerance stuff is also essential because if you’re speaking for and acting for the smallest voices in your community, you’re defining ways and means for them to be safe, and ways and means for them to be empowered. I’ve told many people this already: I don’t act or say what I do for those I cannot convince. I do what I do, and say what I say, for those who CANNOT participate, who do NOT feel safe, who CANNOT speak. Then, whenever I can, I give them the platform, and the mic — and defend that platform with all I’ve got.

Asking For Help

Community leaders must learn to ask for help. We’re engaging in a lot of work and emotional labor that has the potential to do real damage to our souls.

We don’t have to stand alone. We should NOT stand alone.

What are some of the ways in which participants in a community can help their community leaders, if they feel they do not possess the spoons to take up the responsibility for themselves?

Have Their Backs

If you know they are acting on principle — if they’re fighting the good fight — support them. Be there when they need a shoulder to lean on. Help them process what they’ve had to do. Buy them something nice. Buy their work. Throw a little light their way.

Recognize your own power & accountability

Sworddream is a dream of a leaderless community, with power diffused across a wider group. A healthy community is a community that can regulate itself, not one that must always call upon a few to regulate the space, or defend it.

Once More, on “Good Faith” and “Good Intent”

Do not always insist that your community leaders must recognize the good faith or good intent of another when real harm has been done in a space. To insist always that someone careless “didn’t mean it that way”, or that “they mean well, and are good people” runs the real risk of minimizing the damage done by their words or actions. It also dilutes the issue.

Even good people with good intentions can harm others. Your response must naturally change if you’re dealing not with a malicious figure, but with someone misguided/careless/not so self-aware. But it does not erase the harm. It absolutely should not minimize the emotions, outrage, and pain of those affected by the issue.

Uplift, Uplift, Uplift!

Fourth: focus on uplifting everyone around you. The rising tide really does raise all boats. If somebody puts the spotlight on you, find a way to take that spotlight and highlight others. If you have an opportunity that you’re allowed to share, share it. Spread the good. Spread the light.

Shifting the paradigm to uplifting is a productive, positive way of dealing with a lot of terrible things in your space. If you can’t completely get rid of the abusive fuck who hurt you or others, you can potentially minimize their presence by calling on others to focus on the better folx in your space.

I cannot demand any of this from any participant in my community spaces. I can only hope that you’ll consider them.

It is absolutely 100% okay to know that you cannot do the work of a community leader. It is absolutely 100% okay to step away, to refuse to engage, to choose your battles. At times, it is enough to recognize the many issues and realities that intersect around the figure of a “community leader” and “community leadership”. Acknowledging these things can go a long way towards helping us turn the mirror upon ourselves, and measure our actions and words better.

Indie game designer, community point person for PTRPGs & RPGSEA, blogger, editor, broker. Pan x poly, perpetually angry. Accepts tribute in cats, whiskey, cigs.