The Empowerment Manual

Starhawk demonstrates how to start and manage groups through bottom-up leadership and shared power.

The Empowerment Manual

A Guide for Collaborative Groups

Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers

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The Empowerment Manual  (New Society Publishers, 2011) is a comprehensive guide for groups seeking to organize with shared power and bottom-up leadership to foster vision, trust, accountability and responsibility. In this desperately needed toolkit, Starhawk provides keys to understanding group dynamics, facilitating communication and collective decision-making, and dealing effectively with difficult people.  

Collaborative groups are generally started by people with a vision. Sometimes that vision is articulated and clear, expressed in a document or a set of writings. Sometimes it’s embodied in the way a group organizes or the work that it does. Often it’s assumed, and not made explicit. People may never have had the time to sit down and articulate what their vision is. Or they might be afraid that making it explicit will set it in stone and make it rigid and unchangeable.

But a clear vision is actually a gift to a group. An articulated vision lets prospective members know what they might be choosing to join, and it creates a standard against which your decisions can be judged.

A Picture of an Ideal World   

A group vision contains many parts. First of all, it’s a picture of the world you want to create, the ideal that you hold. What does that world look like? How does it feel and smell? Who lives in it and how do they interact?

Your picture of the world will influence the choices that you make and the priorities you choose. RootBound exists because someone had a picture of a world that was more communal and less isolated than the general culture. An antiwar group may form because people envision a world at peace.

Groups sometimes form around a negative vision — a shared fear or a need to stop some wrong from happening. We want to prevent a nuclear power plant from being built on an earthquake fault outside our town, because we hold a nightmarish vision of what will happen if it melts down. We might want to end policies that allow the torture of prisoners, to prevent the spread of AIDS or to end racism.

In new-age circles, I often hear people say “I don’t want to go protest because it’s so negative.” “I don’t want to give that thing energy by opposing it.” “What you resist, persists.” But those slogans reflect only partial truths. What you don’t resist does not cease to persist. On the contrary, it generally gains momentum from its lack of opposition.

Images in our minds create frames through which we experience reality. As linguist George Lakoff says, when you say “elephant,” the beast appears in your mind’s eye.1 So, yes, when you chant “no war!,” war persists in your mind. But if you don’t chant “no war!,” if you remain silent and don’t voice your opposition, war will not disappear. It will rage on, and the warmongers will not even have to go to the trouble of silencing you. You will have done it to yourself.

Protesting injustice is an important and valuable activity — but it is even more effective when we protest with a picture in our minds of justice. We are most empowered when we know what we do want, not just what we don’t want.

Groups that form with fear or anger as their motivating force also tend to be short-lived. Once the threat passes, the group dissolves. That may be appropriate for some issues — once the permit for the nuclear plant is pulled, everyone may be relieved and happy to go back to watching American Idol.

But groups that want to create something lasting need to have a positive vision. Only a positive vision that mobilizes our love and passion can draw us away from the thousand other demands on our time, money and energy and generate excitement and long-term commitment.

One of the most powerful systems I know for generating a positive and encompassing vision is Alan Savory’s Holistic Management. Savory comes from a background in land management, where he struggled for many years to understand why land was degrading in his homeland of southern Africa. Eventually, he realized that people were asking the wrong questions. They were looking at the number of cows on the land — not the overall relationship between their activities — grazing, trampling, defecating — and the health of the grass. Grasslands, he discovered, needed grazers — but managed so as to mimic the way wild herds behave in the presence of predators, bunching together and moving on quickly. It was not the number of animals but the time they spent in each area that was key. Savory now works globally helping range managers reverse desertification, restore their land and sequester carbon in healthy soil.

What does this all have to do with vision? Savory recognized that solving the huge problems of environmental degradation required a shift in thinking — from looking at isolated parts to looking at wholes. So the key to his system is formulating a holistic goal — and that process applies not just to rangelands, but to any human endeavor.

Savory’s holistic goal includes three parts: the quality of life you want, the future resource base which includes both the land and the human community, and what you need to produce.

One of the most common mistakes is to describe a future landscape that is not much different from what you have today, when it needs to be. The mistake is understandable in many cases, because people have trouble visioning something they’ve only heard about but have never seen …. Young people in an African village surrounded by bare ground and starving goats and cattle found it hard to picture grassland with their livestock herded among zebra, sable, impala and other game. Having hunted big game over the same land ... this seemed simple enough to me ... until they pointed out that they could not picture something that had disappeared before they were born.2 

A vision can and should be big. A big vision raises the stakes of our work and inspires a deeper level of passion, commitment and creativity. Each year, I work on co-creating a big ritual in San Francisco for Halloween, called the Spiral Dance Ritual. For me, the ritual is part of the larger vision of Reclaiming, our network of Pagan ritual-makers, organizers and teachers and our own particular Goddess tradition. Our mission statement says, modestly, that we are engaged in “creating a new culture.” If I see our purpose as “creating a really cool event,” then I might enjoy working on the ritual but it wouldn’t seem that important to me. But if I envision it as part of creating a new culture, I feel a deepened level of responsibility and commitment.

And we need big visions. The realities of climate change and the dire need to reduce our carbon load — by 90% or more in developed countries — call on us to reinvent our civilization: our energy systems, our food production systems, our economy, our whole way of life. Without some big visions, we lose hope and spiral down into apathy and despair. Like the African villagers, it’s hard for us to picture a world we’ve never seen, but unless we do so, we won’t be able to create it.

There’s one caveat here: a big vision raises the stakes, which means it also raises the level of risk. The risks have to be worth taking. So, for example, if your vision for a family reunion is everyone getting together in a warm, nurturing environment and having fun, you will create a set of expectations in line with the scope of the event. If your vision is to end racism in the world and you imagine your prejudiced Aunt Betty finally embracing your mixed-race child with true warmth — be aware that’s a dangerous expectation, and you will be putting a load of emotion on the event that it may or may not be able to hold.

Sometimes the work of identifying a vision might bring a group closer together. At other times, it may clarify for some people that they need to look elsewhere to find others who share key aspects of their vision. Many times, some people may choose to leave the group. That’s not a sign of failure, but a natural part of refining the group’s identity. Beware, however, of crafting a vision so detailed and exacting that it excludes forms of diversity you might value: “We envision a multiracial, multicultural world in which everyone is a vegan who meditates twice daily.” When aspects of your vision contradict one another, clarity may come from addressing the group’s values.

Finding Our Core Values   

Visions embody our values, and articulating those values makes them visible and allows people to accept or challenge them. Shared identified values become a common bond that draws people together and helps hold the container of the group. They can also be a standard by which to weigh decisions or set priorities.

But values can also be a point of conflict. They can divide instead of connecting us. Most people who join collaborative groups are idealistic — but they come not just with one ideal but with a whole constellation of values. My constellation might overlap with yours, but not be identical. We both might value democracy and equality, but perhaps you value promptness, while I value an organic flow of time. We both might value the environment, but you might refuse on moral grounds to eat meat and I might be a committed hunter who believes in culling the herds.

A discussion of values can be contentious if we insist that everyone involved in a group share the whole values constellation. It can be destructive if we demonize those who don’t share our own values. So one question to ask is: “Is this value core to our work together?” If we’re organizing a peace rally together, I don’t care whether you clean your bathroom or do your dishes after every meal. But if we’re planning to live together, your level of tolerance for clutter becomes much important than your position on the proposed timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

Collaborative groups remain dynamic and alive when they respect diversity of beliefs and opinions as well as other forms of diversity. Yet we must also set the core values that define the group. Some kinds of diversity are not meant to work together: if our goal is to ban the growing of genetically engineered crops in our county, we’re not going to work well with Monsanto. Yet we should also beware of drawing to tight a circle. If everyone in our group has to be a vegan, polyamorous, non-gender-specific advocate for peace, we’re going to lose. To win, we need a coalition of conventional farmers, organic growers, ranchers, vineyard owners and environmentalists who might hold widely divergent views on gender bending, gay marriage and foreign policy but agree on the food system they want to see.

We come from a culture that loves dramas of good vs. evil. But in collaborative groups, we often find ourselves in contention not with evildoers, but with someone who holds a different vision of “good.” For that matter, we ourselves often hold sets of good values that conflict. We might believe in accessibility and free access to information, and also believe that people deserve to be paid for their work. Reconciling these two positive values can be difficult. Do we charge money for teaching — or offer it for free? If it’s free, how do we compensate teachers and organizers for their time, energy and expenses? If we don’t compensate them, will the work be sustainable?

Many conflicts that arise around values are conflicts of good vs. good. Understanding that, we can stop trying to win and start looking for ways to achieve a dynamic balance — which may be exactly what the situation most truly needs. We do indeed want our projects to be both accessible and sustainable, and if we don’t squander our energy bashing each other, we can unleash our creativity to find solutions together.

Clarifying Intention   

In ritual and ceremony, everything begins with intention: a clear, concise statement of what we are trying to accomplish. An intention is narrower than a broad vision, but wider than a goal. Our vision might be of a world that embodies our values of freedom, justice and communities living in harmony with nature. Our intention might be to create an inspiring public ritual that embodies our vision and raises energy to help it manifest.

An intention is an action statement — what are we going to do? It’s also a brief statement — one or two sentences, at most, with minimal extra clauses. Consider loglines — those one or two sentences in the newspaper that describe a film or a TV show. A good logline will grab your attention and, in that brief moment, tell you enough about a show for you to form an opinion on whether or not it interests you. Screenwriters learn that refining the logline helps them become more clear about the spine and momentum of the work.

A powerful intention often involves a change — either one you intend to make or one you intend to cause. Change gives an intention dynamism. It implies an arc, a rising and falling of energies directed for some purpose. Without that dynamism, our actions may lack passion or focus. I once attended a spring ritual put on by an enthusiastic group of people who had never created one before. It had many fun and beautiful moments, but with no sense of connection between them. We formed a circle and learned a dance. We blew bubbles. A fairy came out of the woods and handed out gifts to the children. But we never really knew why anything was happening, so people were amused but not emotionally engaged. Later, one of the planners asked me for feedback. “What was your intention?” I asked her. “To have a Spring Equinox ritual,” she said. I suggested that next time they look for a more powerful intention, one that included some aspect of change, some form of need. Without that, there was nothing to connect the pieces.

Each year when we plan the Spiral Dance, we conduct a visioning session to find our intention for that specific year. In 2008, right before the US election, our intention was to raise the energy to help set our feet firmly on the good road, the road of life, the road that leads to a viable future.

In organizing for the protests against the G8 meeting in Scotland in 2005, our intention was to create an ecovillage encampment that would model the kind of alternative society we want, one that runs by direct democracy and lives in balance with the earth.

Identifying Goals     

Goals are statements of desire — of what we want, what we hope to achieve by realizing our intention. Goals should be doable and reachable — or at least some should be if a group wants to survive and thrive. So goals are often more specific and timebound than visions or even intentions.

Our intention for the 30th anniversary Spiral Dance might be to create a ritual that honors the past and launches our community into a thriving future. Our goals might be:

• To create a ritual that is inspiring, emotionally moving and aesthetically thrilling

• To increase attendance by 30% over last year’s ritual

• To raise money to support the work of Reclaiming

• To introduce new people to our tradition and community

• To assure that more experienced people mentor younger people

• To not have aging members of the group stuck with cleanup at 3 AM

Groups may rarely if ever achieve all their goals. But it is vital to have some goals that are reachable. People do not become empowered by strings of failure. We like to win sometimes. We like to cross things off the to-do list. So groups need small and large goals, short-term and long-term goals.

Our short-term goals might look very different from our big vision. Our big vision might be the free gift economy — but our short-term goal might be to pay the rent. Or as my housemate Bill often says, “We dream of the anarchist ideal of small, self-organizing communities in a world with no coercion or force. In the meantime, we’ll settle for Scandinavian socialism.”

Conflicts often arise when people in a group have different intentions or goals that have never been voiced. You might want to build a broad coalition by inviting speakers to the conference from 20 different organizations. I might want to limit the number of speakers so that each can have more impact. When we step back and articulate our visions, values, intentions and goals, we can find common ground.

Governance Aligned With Values   

Our circle of vision also includes how we function as a group. The ways we communicate and govern ourselves should reflect our visions, values, intentions and goals. Governance includes many aspects: how we treat each other, how we meet and how we schedule meetings, how we communicate, how we resolve disputes and make decisions.

In groups, disagreements often emerge between the get-it-done people and the process lovers. Some people want to devote time to building interpersonal connections, telling stories and discussing the nuances of miscommunications. Others want to get on with the work, and soon grow impatient. 

 A group that pays no attention to process becomes a harsh and sometimes brutal place to be. In the business world, where people are paid to do a job, we expect a no-nonsense focus on the task at hand. In groups of volunteers, people simply won’t stay in a situation that becomes uncomfortable and unpleasant. When we join a group, we are hoping to find friends, to connect with others as people, not just envelope stuffers. If, instead of connection, we find ourselves on yet another grueling work schedule, we will tend to look elsewhere. So relationship-building in a group is vital. 

But in a world where all of us face enormous demands on our time, people also grow impatient with too much process and no product to show for it. We come to groups because we believe in their mission and want to contribute to it. In support groups, of course, process is the mission. But if a group with a work mission abandons its focus — if it decides, for example, not to put on the ritual this year but instead just to spend time getting to know one another — it loses the forward drive that can pull people away from Facebook and into a face-to-face meeting. Some years ago, I gave a weekend workshop in northern Ontario. As the organizers were driving me to the airport, they remarked on how well the weekend  had gone. “And we’re very relieved,” Violet said. “We were worried that nothing you could possibly do would be as wonderful as the experience we had organizing the workshop.” 

“What’s your secret?” I demanded. “If you could bottle what you’ve got and  pass it on, we could save the world!” 

But all she said was, “Potlucks.” 

I’ve pondered that one enigmatic word for years, and here’s how I think they created such a wonderful group experience — they hit the sweet spot, the perfect balance between connection and achievement, work and play. They were a group of friends who liked one another and looked forward to getting together, sharing food and updates on their lives. As friends, there was nothing to prevent them from doing so at any time — but organizing for my workshop gave the potlucks a focus and a sense of purpose, and added the satisfaction of achievement that comes from envisioning something and making it happen. 

Governance Agreements   

Having a set of agreements can be helpful for a group. When agreements are explicit and clearly communicated to new members, people know what is expected of them, what the group norms are or aspire to be and what they can ask of others. Discussing process and reaching agreements early on can also forestall future conflicts. If I’m told from the beginning that personal complaints do not belong on the group’s listserv, I have something in the back of my mind that may stop me pressing the Send button at 3 AM.

Here’s an example of one group’s agreements:

Suggested Agreements for the Spiral Dance Cell:

1. We agree to treat each other with respect, compassion, love and humor as we do the sacred work of the Goddess.

2. Our intention is that working in this group will be nurturing, fun, creative and will help each person further their own development, while accomplishing the goals of the group.

3. We embrace passion and commitment in our work. We know this sometimes leads to lively arguments, and we support each other in putting forth our ideas freely and defending them strongly, while refraining from personal attacks.

4. Power, influence and perks in this cell are earned by commitment, by undertaking responsibilities and fulfilling them and, on occasion, by owning up to mistakes, learning from them and making amends.

5. Members join this cell by taking on organizing or coordinating responsibilities in putting on each year’s Spiral Dance.

6. Members who take on a task or role commit to mentoring others and sharing the skills, knowledge and information necessary to fulfill that role, and to training successors.

7. Conflict is a part of life and of all group endeavors. If we have a personal conflict with someone in the group, we agree to deal with it openly, honestly and with underlying respect for each other and the work. We commit to face-to- face engagement whenever possible — with phone calls as a less desirable alternate. We will engage each other privately before we make an issue public. We will not try to resolve a conflict on the group listserv, other community listservs or over e-mail.

8. If we are unable to resolve or transform a conflict with someone, we agree to ask for help, support and mediation.

9. We agree to support one another by offering our help and support and, when appropriate, our services as mediators or in other roles of conflict transformation or by helping to find the right people, resources and processes to resolve an issue.

10. If a group member violates the group’s agreements repeatedly and, after warnings and at least two chances to change their behavior, continues to violate those agreements, the group can, by consensus minus one, ask them to leave.

The Group’s Journey   

Imagine that your group is on a journey together. Your destination is that picture you hold in your mind of the world you want to create. Your values are the vehicle you travel in, and your intention is the road you set out upon. Your goals are the milestones you pass along the way, and your process is how you decide how fast to go, how often to stop and rest, what to eat along the way and what songs to sing.

A picture of an ideal world, a set of values, a clear intention, goals that can be realized and a group process that embodies its values — together they make up the circle of vision that holds a group in its embrace. That circle is a container — something that both strengthens and constrains. When the group needs to make a decision, to set priorities or choose new work, it can ask, “Is this in line with our vision? Will it help realize our intention? Will it help us meet our goals?”

The circle also functions like a membrane, the boundary of a cell. It connects the group to the rest of the world — by making its vision and intention clear, it can draw people in or filter out those who don’t share the same drive, passion or values.

When the circle is drawn, we can begin to call in the other elements of healthy group functioning that make up our talisman: power, responsibility, accountability and trust.

Reprinted by The Empowerment Manual by Starhawk and published by New Society Publishers, 2011.