ICSA formed the NYC Educational Outreach Committee in 2013 to promote education on the subject of cults and cultic groups. Our purpose is threefold:
- Develop educational materials about basic cultic issues.
- Train speakers.
- Promote education about cults in schools, community organizations, churches and synagogues.
Committee members are all former members of cultic groups and include educators, writers, and mental-health professionals. Almost half of the members were born and raised in their groups of origin.
Our goal is to raise public awareness; provide thoughtful, well-researched information; help frame appropriate questions; and suggest an approach that yields productive answers.
In 2014, ICSA held a focus group at the MeadowHaven Retreat and Recovery Center near Boston, where professional speakers, clergy, mental-health professionals, and former members discussed what subjects should be included in a model presentation about cults. The objective was to refocus education about cults from discussions of particular groups such as Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, or Transcendental Medication to sharing and promoting an understanding of the dynamic that defines a cultic relationship. This dynamic may take place between a leader (or group of leaders) and followers, between two individuals, within a family, or even between a group of people and a unifying idea or program (as in some self-improvement groups or professional-advancement programs).
What is distinctive is the type of psychological interaction, not the particular ideology. And what matters is not whether to call or not to call a group a cult, but rather whether the group or relationship is harmful to the people in it.
The MeadowHaven focus group developed a list of subjects that should be included in a model presentation about cults, including, for example, the following: How does one define ? What are the characteristics of a cultic group? What is the impact on children of being born or raised in a cultic environment? Why do people stay, and why do they leave? Culture shock: How do former members rebuild their lives?
The NYC Educational Outreach Committee developed a series of brief papers on each of these subjects. These papers are not intended to be extensive or definitive treatments, but rather to serve as educational tools that can be adapted for different audiences. For example, a talk for a group of college freshmen might focus on the characteristics of a cultic group and how people become involved without realizing it. A religious congregation might want to learn more about the impact of cultic involvement on children, or on a member’s family.
Each committee member took one or more of the subjects and developed a brief outline. We read each other’s work, made suggestions, and revised. In May 2014, we presented our work in a meeting room at Columbia University to a group of invited guests. At this meeting, we developed our respective outlines into brief talks, modeling the process we expect people to use who adapt our papers.
In June 2014, we gave a history of our work and presented several sections at the ICSA annual conference in Washington, DC; in June 2015, some of our members discussed the process we had followed as a model for educational outreach at ICSA’s annual conference in Stockholm.
Between January and October 2015, various members of our committee presented one of our sections each month at ICSA’s New York Monthly Support Group.
What We Achieved
Our work has had two significant outcomes:
- We have developed a series of outlines for presentations on relevant topics. One speaker or a group of speakers can use these outlines individually or in any combination. The outlines will be made available on ICSA’s website.
- We have developed a process that can be replicated anywhere in the world for the purpose of educational outreach. A vital ingredient in our success is that members of our committee share respect for each other’s experience and expertise. We acknowledge differences of approach and benefit from them. We learn from each other, and we welcome each other’s contributions. We have gained a more nuanced, accurate understanding of complex cultic issues, and have became better informed and equipped to speak on those issues.
Ongoing Work and Future Plans
Following our presentation at ICSA’s 2015 Annual Conference in Stockholm, a representative of the Swiss agency InfoSekta contacted us to find out about using our papers and our process to help educate mental-health professionals in Switzerland. A therapist-training institute in New York City also is considering using our papers in its syllabus to prepare therapists to deal with cultic trauma.
Our committee continues to work. We are preparing papers on additional subjects, such as abusive religious groups and abuse of spiritual belief systems. We are developing an outreach program in the Greater New York area. We welcome suggestions and invite people interested in our work to contact us through ICSA at firstname.lastname@example.org.