The Empowerment Manual


Tools for Organizing
by Jim Haber

Cover of "The Empowerment Manual"The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups
By Starhawk
New Society Publishers, Canada, 2011; 304 pp.
$24.95 paperback

Starhawk is a rare breed of organizer, able to facilitate large and small meetings, in person or not. Over the years, this reviewer has personally seen her notice and share hard-to-artic- ulate, vital points for discussion and then help a group emerge from an impasse. I have seen her grapple with the mantle of being a leader, having various leadership and motivational skills and being attacked for using them. She has exhibited the wisdom to give life to something – in particular the Reclaiming Community, a network of politically-engaged, neo-Pagans that Starhawk co-founded in the early 1980s – and step back from a leadership position in support of emerging leaders in order to let the organization grow more freely. Her reports from the midst of harrowing, violent assaults by police, and her mediation efforts between pacifists and black bloc anarchists exhibit an appreciation for different pulls of people to rise up against injustice in the belief that “a new world is possible.”

The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups is indeed a “manual,” a how-to guide with sections devoted to different aspects of organizing less hierarchically than society at large, and subsections with ways to address the many pitfalls that community-building efforts can fall into. The “Table of Questions and Exercises,” for instance, reads as an eloquently succinct and helpful checklist of considerations for everyone working in collaborative groups. Other chapters, such as “Question for Those Who Would Challenge Leadership” and “Questions to Ask When Your Leadership is Challenged” offer insights to tangible problems that activists deal with regularly, but rarely discuss.

The book could just as easily have been titled Real Problems and Real Solutions for Real Groups and the Real People in Them. The facing page of the Table of Contents shows how this book is primed to walk its talk. New Society Publishers has created an online forum inviting the reader to “share your thoughts... exchange ideas with other readers, post questions...respond to sample questions or start your own discussion topics.”

The Empowerment Manual has many exercises, some of which Starhawk created and others that she borrows. Many of them aren’t really exercises for trainings, but are more tools to utilize when something isn’t quite right either organizationally or inter-personally. Most aren’t mere role plays that can get too humorous to take seriously or ice-breakers to get to know one another. They are methods at sussing out what the real need or problem is and how best to address it. The exercises aren’t overly spiritual, and despite her Wiccan wisdom, the exercises and overall tone are intended to touch the less spiritu- ally-minded participant.

The heart of the group process Starhawk has developed is built around her “Talisman of Healthy Community.” Briefly, it is a “Circle of Vision” (presented in chapter 3) inscribed with a north-south axis, the “Axis of Action” (Power and Responsibility, chapter 4), crossed by the horizontal “Axis of Learning” (Communication and Trust, chapter 5). “Visions can and should be big,” Starhawk writes, though she immediately points out that the risks increase the bigger they are. The book has so many wise expressions that increase compassion for what otherwise would drive people crazy or out of any attempt at building community (or any human interaction at all). “If we want to establish open and vibrant communica- tion, we should take care not to frame every disagreement as a moral test.” She also points out that many conflicts aren’t the case of “Good vs. Evil” but “Good vs. Good”: situations where both parties have positive motivations but are still in conflict. It is helpful to cultivate compas- sion for people we find irritating. Before treating someone as beyond-the-pale, Starhawk encourages us to consider if the problem is more a “clashing of styles and norms” or having different “patterns of reaction.” Then she lays out different types of problematic types of people and potential ways to turn some of their “issues” into bonuses.

The first chapter establishes the need for a book like this and why Starhawk is suited to write it. What is a collab- orative group and why are so many of them forming? She creates a fictional community with characters that represent archetypes that will be familiar to most readers. The situation presented in the emerging community was real enough to be believable, and for the sake of the exercise, the degree to which characters were stripped of complexity still left me caring about them. The non-story part of the book is very clear and developed, so if the reader isn’t one for these sorts of con- structs, not to worry.

This is a book to scan and be ready to return to, depending on the issue at hand. It contains good mediation models with steps to guide the process and outstanding suggestions for transforming problematic traits into their more positive complement. Perfectionists can be daunting to work with, but they can help prevent mistakes too. Rebels can bring negativity out det- rimentally, but they also can keep a group from becoming complacent and stale.

All the chapters have grist for the mill. Almost never do the scripts seem contrived. The only places that occurs is when she is drawing from the formal Nonviolent Communication model of Marshall Rosenberg, which is to be expected since people steeped in his teachings do sometimes talk in a way that seems a little forced. That said, Rosenberg’s teachings have been hugely helpful in the growth of more civil discourse in many settings large and small. His formulations of “active listening” and the use of “I statements” in particular seem to take root in people who study with them.

The final chapter includes some examples of successful collaborative group efforts so the book can’t be dismissed as being a fantasy. With The Empowerment Manual, Starhawk continues to help people and groups help themselves.

Jim Haber is the Coordinator of Nevada Desert Experience which is based in Las Vegas, Nevada and organizes inter- faith resistance to nuclear weapons and war. He has been on the WRL National Committee since 2002.