So why did the Foresters guild actually succeed?

As ideas for an SCA special interest group go, the SCA Foresters Guild sure does not work on paper. Yeah so guys, I got this idea for a group… we are going to sleep outside in all weather with minimal gear and without proper tents, and without the aid of modern camping equipment. It will take hours to cook anything like we are used to eating and the amount of wood we need to cut and split every year will be enormous. Oh and we will typically dress like peasants and you will never be able to get an award of recognition for any of our activities… So who’s with me? Well we did have a lot of support from key people and a bit of luck along the way.

Many special interest groups come and go in the SCA. I have been around long enough to see some of them rise and fall and have figured out many of the reasons why. That said, a bit of luck always helps in setting up a group. It is worth noting that if you wish to create a special interest group within the SCA, be that a household or a guild, there are a few do’s and don’ts that are worth remembering.

I have seen houses that were based on popular songs, I have seen houses that were based on TV shows, and movies in popular culture. I have also seen houses that were cults of personality based around the ego of a single individual. I have seen houses that were based on an activity, or a selection of activities, and houses based on a specific culture or time period. Many of these groups no longer exist for one reason or another. Houses are very easy to create so there are lots of them. Because there are lots of them, most fail. Guilds are a little harder to create. There are rules to be obeyed and hoops to jump though. For this reason there are far fewer of them but they still run the risk of being irrelevant or fading into obscurity. That said, guilds have a little better chance to succeed than houses as they cannot be the work of a single person.

The Foresters will some day probably fade into memory as well since all things are temporary. That said, it is succeeding wildly in its infancy where many other groups have faded slowly, burnt out quickly, or self destructed. As mentioned above, creating a new group based on a popular song will be successful so long as the song remains popular. Once it fades into memory, good luck recruiting more new members. The same is true for fads and trends. At one time Scottish persona were all the rage. You still see a few, but “Braveheart” (one of the worst costumed movies in history) is now 20 years old and the ubiquitous Scottish special interest groups have faded to a normal background level. Right now Persian garb is extremely popular complete with people painting themselves in “brown face”. I suspect this has a limited life span as it is only a matter of time until someone asks the question; “If medieval African garb suddenly became popular, would we paint our faces an even darker brown? or is that just racist?” I don’t have an answer, but I would put creating a special interest group where you paint your skin to match another ethnic group firmly in the “don’t” category. Wearing blue woad paint or geisha make up is probably still OK for now. Woad paint wearers of the East still may not make the most successful special interest group though.

So what are the do’s and don’ts? Well all I can offer is my opinion so it will not be 100% accurate or complete but I can tell you what I have learned from watching things over a couple decades.

The Do’s

  • Rotate leadership. Do not burn yourself out on the thing you like so much. Also allow others a chance to lead the group. New people have new ideas and that will keep your group fresh and valid. Leaders should change every year or two.
  • Appoint or elect officers. At the bare minimum every group needs a financial person and a secretary. If your group does not need officers it is still a good idea to have them anyway. A council will always make wiser decisions than an autocrat.
  • Create a valid SCA interest/activity group. There are lots of interesting things in the medieval period that are expressly forbidden by the SCA. Hunting and jousting are good examples. It is pretty hard to create a group where your main activity is outlawed by the SCA rules. While medieval people enjoyed bear baiting and cat burning, these are things best not recreated.
  • Make the group accessible to all. One thing that will make a successful group is diversity. Maybe not everyone can excel to the top but everyone should be able to belong and feel like they are an equal member with equal say. The popular girls that will not let you sit with them at lunch are not a group that can last any length of time. When they run out of people to torment they turn on one another.
  • Lead from the front. The best motto for being a leader of a group that I can think of is; “No one has to work harder than me”. If you are leading a group then you need to get in there and roll up your sleeves and not turn up your nose. If you have expectations of others to do the heavy lifting while you rest on your laurels, then those that do the work will only stay around so long as they think they are getting something out of it. When they realize it is a one way street, the group falls apart.

The Don’ts

  • Don’t rely on close friends. While it is tempting to create a friend group where you and your closest friends can hang out and “be the thing”, this is a bit of a disaster waiting to happen. It gets worse if money is involved. Inevitably people will follow the leader out of friendship and burn themselves out working for the group. Resentment occurs when someone is not pulling their weight or is taking too much. Ultimately it is easier to work with casual acquaintances. The best advice is to work within your group with people you only know casually instead of directly with long time friends. This stops a lot of conflict before it begins.
  • Do not be hierarchical. As Medieval as it is to be a hierarchy, a group where the top members are fixed is nothing more than a cult of personality designed to flatter the ego of a single person. This will create animosity and resentment and even if successful for a time it only remains valid so long as the leader is constantly validated or interested. Once the leader loses interest, the group collapses. Some structured groups that center on a figure do work however, but then only so long as the figure is active in the SCA.
  • Don’t create a group that annoys others. While you may be thinking that just what the SCA needs is a 15th century bagpipers guild, or the Screeching Satanic Choir of the Chattering Nuns of the Order of St. Beyrl; that is not really the sort of group that the SCA really needs. Inevitably it will be you and your group banging on your drums while everyone around you suffers from your A&S. Your ‘naalbinding cat costumes’ group while niche specific will have less enemies. If your group can practice its interest without bothering the rest of the populous at events, then it will have a much easier time being supported. If not, well there is a lot to be said for private gatherings.
  • Don’t get hung up on credit. The best way to make a group fall apart is to do things specifically to make yourself look good. If you have such a need to look good, you have to ask yourself if you really are all that good? Confidence does not require validation, that is for the cults of personality.  If your group shares success and failure then everyone gets to share in any positive things that occur. When something is for “the group”, everyone should get to have their piece of cake regardless of who bakes it or payed for it. A group should not service one person or a few people. If you cannot commit to this, generally there will be animosity in the group as it leans towards being elitist.
  • Don’t award yourself titles. If you create a group it can be tempting to call yourself The Bandit King or the Supermaster Lord Stonecutter. If there are ranks or titles to be earned within your group, the leadership, even in the beginning should prove to the members that they are qualified. Nothing will foster resentment any faster than the groups creators setting higher standards for the members, than they originally set for themselves. Guilds generally use apprentice, journeyman, and master as well as officer titles so it is a little easier if there is clear criteria for advancement.
  • Don’t be the Autocrat. Just because you are appointed or elected leader of a group does not mean you can be a dictator. You are held above the members of the group briefly, but by the members themselves. Should you lose their support you will fall and likely bring the group with you. If you like to give marching orders and get off on power, leadership is probably not for you. Those that would lead must first serve but you should never take pleasure in the servitude of others, or see to it that new members have a miserable initiation.

Getting it right?

The Foresters guild adhered to these do’s and don’ts and also had a bit of luck on the way as well. The fact that there is a resurgence in traditional outdoor skills within the last decade has created an environment where many people are drawn to the group. The fact there is a traditional love of outdoor skills in geographic areas within the Kingdom such as Maine has greatly contributed to our success. We created a group where anyone that wanted to could join, and anyone that wanted to come to a camping event could easily attain the first rank. The skills required at the higher levels are not too extreme and every single member is capable of rising as far as they wish in their own time. There are set goals and members can work towards them or ignore them. This has been very attractive for most people.

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Skills are very important in any special interest group. Brian demonstrates how to make fire the Medieval way.

In my opinion one of the reasons why we are successful is that we have created a family. We are the lost children who wanted to “live the dream” in a different way. We were attracted to the medieval travelers, soldiers and workmen more so than the societal upper crust, professional jousting tournament athletes, and the ladies locked in towers. In our SCA, we dreamed of Sherwood forest, and what it took to recreate that instead of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. This dream is far less rigid and far more egalitarian. Robin Hood always listened to Little John in the real stories and was not a noble man at all. Our Forester Family insists on these ideals and we are brought close together after braving adversity together.

First and foremost Foresters are family and friends in all of their activities

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