Guide for Collaborative Groups
* Book: The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups . Starhawk. new ed. 2011
"When I began writing The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups, I wanted to offer some of the benefit of my experience, including my many mistakes, to groups who were organizing without a top-down, hierarchical structure. I’ve been living and working in such groups for more than forty years, and I felt like the many dreadful meetings I’ve endured, the in-fights and the painful conflicts, as well as the glorious moments of collective creativity and spiritual ecstasy, should all count for something. I saw so many groups struggling with the same issues, whether they were spiritual circles, working groups, communities struggling to organize or activists planning a protest. And I had a few insights that I felt might be helpful.
I didn’t know that half the world would decide, right when the book is coming out, to go sit in the public square and organize leaderless Occupations governed by consensus-based General Assemblies. The Occupy movement springs from many of the same sources that inspired the book—the horizontally organized global justice movement of the last decades and its antecedents, the anti-nuclear and anti-intervention movements of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. But now more people than ever before are suddenly immersed in the joys and challenges of organizing non-hierarchically.
Groups without formal hierarchy are potentially empowering on a mass scale. Unfortunately, we come into them from a lifetime of exposure to hierarchy, with its patterns internalized. We have few models and fewer guidebooks to help us learn how to do it a different way. There are thousands of books on how to be a manager or a CEO of a corporation, virtually none about how to walk the delicate line of stepping up to a leadership role in a leaderless group.
Collaborative groups are a different species from hierarchical groups, and understanding those differences can help us make them work more effectively. As kids, when we get in a fight Mom or Dad can step in and say, “You two, break it up!” In a top-down group, the boss or leader steps in for Dad. But when we remove that authority, there’s no one to say, “Okay, time out. Now apologize to each other, kiss and make up.” Conflicts can be harder to resolve, unless we realize that the group itself must find clear agreements on how to handle conflict and how to support one another in directly and creatively solving our disputes.
Communication is more complex in a collaborative group. In a hierarchy, there’s a chain of command. You know whom to report to, and who reports to you. But in a collective, ten of us might make a decision—forgetting that member number eleven is home sick with stomach flu. Maybe we also forget to inform Number Eleven of our decision—and then forget that we’ve forgotten. Number Eleven discovers we’ve set a key policy without her, and feels hurt and slighted. It’s clear to her that we’ve deliberately left her out of the loop, as we always do! Painful meetings and hours of mediation could all be avoided if we’d simply thought to ask, at the end of our meeting, “Who else needs to be informed of this and who is going to tell them?”
The Occupy movement faces some of the greatest challenges I’ve ever encountered around group dynamics and group process—it’s so huge,grew up so fast and so spontaneously and found itself smack in the middle of some of society’s worst unsolved problems. Former student body presidents are encamped in the midst of raving drunks, trying to come to consensus in large groups. It’s fascinating, often exasperating, and that’s why I’m spending as much time as I can offering trainings.
I also offer the book as a resource. I recommend it because it contains insights and a framework that can help groups function, whether they are unwieldy Occupations or tight circles of friends engaged in a project. I know this because it has helped me—although presumably I already knew what’s in it. But reading, researching and pulling the lessons together into a coherent form has helped me become a better group member and a more effective mediator.
If you’re working in any sort of collaborative group, you’ll find valuable insights in The Empowerment Manual. I say this not just to get you to buy the book—although of course I want you to buy it, that will help a very wonderful small, political publisher stay in business and will buy me some time to write a sequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing, my next project. But far more than that, I’m hoping you’ll read the book, work with it, use it, improve on it, and find your own groups working more effectively, and our common work to build a better world will thrive.
“To choose a positive future, we need the imagination, the commitment and passion that can never be commanded but can only be unleashed in groups of equals. Those groups need to work and function well. That’s why I’ve written this book.” (http://starhawksblog.org/?p=683)