Interview with Starhawk

Here’s the text of a fascinating interview of the activist, author and educator Starhawk by Isabel Carlisle on 15 October 2011:

I met Starhawk at the Bioneers conference in Marin, California, in the middle of October. Starhawk describes herself on her website as: “a peace, environmental, and global justice activist and trainer, a permaculture designer and teacher, a Pagan and Witch”. I had set up an interview with her because she has just brought out a new book called The Empowerment Manual. It is based on over 40 years of activism and consensus process in groups and is now firmly in the hands of the Occupy movement. The manual focuses on understanding group dynamics, facilitating communication and collective decision-making and dealing effectively with difficult people. Just what all we collaborationists need and you can check it out at and download a free chapter at:

What does the word collaboration mean to you:

“I just finished writing this book which is called the Empowerment Manual: a guide for collaborative groups. I considered a lot of different words: co-creative, horizontal, but I finally thought of collaborative. I think collaborative can mean a lot of different things. It means people who are working together on common projects without necessarily having a formal leader, although some projects do have formal leaders. It’s about working together as equals, respecting each others’ areas of expertise; trying to create something in common rather than creating something individual. I chose it because it is a little broader than collective which eliminates the possibility of any kind of leadership. Co-creative is wonderful but being in a co-collaborative group, while they might have a creative element, does not feel like a creative project: it might be a service project or a political action.

Do you believe the current time is ripe for more collaboration and if so why:

Absolutely. I think what we are seeing right now all over the world is people getting out into the streets, without top-down leadership: just spontaneous emergence, taking action inspired by what other people are doing and then asking how do we organise ourselves, how do we communicate, how do we figure out what to do next and how do we make decisions together. When you start working collaboratively you don’t have anyone to play Mom or Dad and make people behave in a hierarchical way. You have to find other structures for making people behave. And behave in ways that allow the group to move forward and allow everyone’s voice to be heard for the group to reach its maximum creativity. When they do there is nothing like it: it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling. And when they don’t it’s hell!

What experiences are you drawing on when you are helping groups works collaboratively?

I am drawing on my own experience of the last 40 years which comes from a number of different places. One is the feminist movement. The other is just the general progressive political movement: anarchist organising and de-centralised directly democratic ways of working. A lot of that experience came from the anti-nuclear organising in the 70s and 80s which was highly influenced by a group called Movement for a New Society. They provided the trainings for a lot of the anti-nuclear demonstrations on the East Coast and the West Coast, and demonstrations at Diablo Canyon where a lot of people learned this model of organising based on small groups making decisions from the bottom up rather than the top down. And I draw on my spiritual tradition which is called Reclaiming, a branch of pagan Wiccan tradition in which we organise in small groups with or without leadership because there is no centralised hierarchy. In Reclaiming the covens are organised collectively as well. And I’ve lived collectively since the early 80s in a number of different collectives. I’ve helped to organise hundreds of political actions, thousands of meetings. Almost everything that can go wrong with groups I’ve experienced, and experienced the ways in which things can go right.

Is there a common quality that runs through that rightness?

When things go right there is a wonderful sense of joy and work becomes like play. People feel like they can contribute their creative ideas and they can make a contribution that is important. There is a wonderful theatre game that people used to teach in improvisation and when you play the game you have to accept peoples’ offerings. So you have a group in which someone says “Lets all be chickens!” and the group goes “Yes! Lets all be chickens!” So you are chickens until someone says “Lets all row on the ground!” When a group is working well collaboratively that is the feel: everyone says “Yes!” There may be concerns and issues but also a spirit of cheering each other on and appreciating other people that really helps further the group.

What are the best examples or stories of collaboration that you have come across?

Diablo Canyon might be one where we organised a huge mobilisation with over 5000 arrests, all in small collaborative groups making decisions together and that was the model for many other actions and mobilisations including the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Creatively, every year we put on a ritual called the spiral dance ritual. We organise that as a collective. Different people have things that they do like somebody coaches the chorus. Obviously not everyone can do that as it requires a level of skill but other people might take on something like organising the clean up, the publicity or the outreach. Together as a little collective we make things happen: people build altars, they do invocations and dances. We all dance the spiral together, a 1000 people or more. So it’s a really amazing and wonderful collaboration.

And I’m also now working collaboratively on making a movie of my novel The Fifth Sacred Thing. Eventually there will be departments and responsibilities and people in charge of certain things. We are using this to co-create jobs in San Francisco and create some of the reality that the book depicts like gardens that can remain as legacies rather than having sets that are dismantled. We have been drawing in many people from our extended community to help us collaborate around that. We are working with a small film company called Yerba Buena productions and running a crowd sourcing campaign as a kick-starter which so far has raised $76,000.

What models for collaboration can you share?

One model would be playing games with other kids and you are saying I want to be the mommy and you be the daddy: times when you had really exciting, creative fun together and things work themselves out intuitively and naturally. Most of the time kids succeed very well in playing together. If we can recapture that when we work together it can help our groups function.



Collaboration – some thoughts

“The meeting of self and others, of individual, or individual institution, and the community, is probably the most complex issue of our time.” Charles Handy.

“When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut.” Rabindranath Tagore.

A group of us from business, the arts, academia and the not-for-profit sector gathered for a workshop on collaboration at the RSA in October.  The workshop was born out of a conversation that Isabel Carlisle and I had earlier in the year. We realised that we both felt collaboration is becoming more and more critical to help us address the large and complex challenges facing humanity, and that there is a lack of resources for those who want to learn to collaborate better. The workshop was a step towards improving our own understanding and finding others with a similar interest in the field.

Since the workshop I have thought much about collaboration, and have attempted to write about it. It is a huge subject and I suspect Charles Handy is right; it is the most complex issue of our time. On the other hand, I also agree with Tagore; since we are all (at some level) one, there is no such thing as an “other” to collaborate with.   So what’s the problem?

The first problem is trying to describe it, to get to grips with it in any useful way. I take collaboration in a very broad sense – to mean the coming together of individuals or groups. This could be cells, or people, or organisations, or planets. Thus I start to see collaboration, or lack of it, everywhere.  I have been led to Darwin (who it turns out, may not have been so certain about competition between individuals being the main driver of evolution – in some of his writings he clearly recognised the importance, and widespread practice, of individuals acting together), dialogue (a method of communicating and decision-making that aims to access the shared wisdom of the group), Von Foerster’s Theorem (a bit complex to explain; look it up!), open source and other collaborative methods of organisation, mycology (the study of fungi) and a whole host of other areas.

So what have I concluded? Actually it is far too early to conclude anything. All I have is some signposts, pointing towards new areas for exploration, and a slowly emerging framework that might help when I talk to people about collaboration. I will no doubt share more on this through blog posts as the spirit moves me.

I want to start by looking at the flipcharts that a group of us from across sectors wrote when we gathered for a workshop on collaboration at the RSA in October.  At first glance this was all fairly chaotic and impossible to bring together. But I persevered and managed to synthesize the points under four headings:

1.            Personal qualities

2.            Cohesion

3.            Perspective

4.            Process

Here’s some detail:

1.            Personal Qualities

Recurrent themes in the flipcharts were: respect for differences; empathy; clear communications; vulnerability; openness (to change and to new ideas); and ability to live with failure.

Leadership had a flip chart to itself, but I prefer to keep this within personal qualities. Otherwise it might imply that leadership applies to a separate group of individuals while I prefer to think that leadership qualities reside in us all. Indeed the group seemed to share this view, based on some of the comments: “leadership is possible on every level”, “shared leadership” and “leadership as a responsibility not a person”.   In collaboration, leadership is not about telling the group which way to go, rather leaders are “midwives”, they “make meaning”, they practice “servant leadership”. The dark side of leadership is when people abuse their authority to “impose their values lens on others” or create a “homogenous elite group”.

2.            Cohesion

What is it that draws people together and keeps them together in a collaborative arrangement? The initial impulse may be, as someone suggested, a “shared imperative to make things happen”. The words shared and sharing came up a lot (and I don’t believe it was always Benita using them!).  Shared values and shared language are particularly important, it seems; at the same time we need to respect differences.  Where there is a shared physical space, it should be inspiring and open (“anyone can enter”) and an “incubator”. People being physically separated was seen as an inhibitor of collaboration.

The quality of the shared, non-physical, space including economic, political, institutional and cultural factors, is clearly important. “We need to go beyond fragmented spaces” came one plaintive cry!

Communication is required for cohesion. This may be communication via modern technology, or traditional methods of human communication, whether verbal or non-verbal. “Narratives and the stories we hold” are potentially inhibitors or enablers of collaboration.

Language was a large topic and finding shared language is, it seems, part of the puzzle, although one voice warned that when language is specifically designed for sharing “it can become gobbledygook”. This suggests we have to be patient and wait for shared language to emerge from our interactions.

Acknowledgement came up more than once. Communicating our appreciation of a collaborative partner’s contribution is part of what builds cohesion.

Power and its distribution is another factor in cohesion. Uneven distribution of power, and consequent fear, came up several times as an inhibitor to collaboration.

Other perceived inhibitors included “lack of time and space” (space was another word that came up regularly) and lack of money.

3.            Perspective

Working closely with others brings, and indeed requires, new perspectives. Some comments in this area: “people and planet centred”, “agreement to transcend political differences for a common good.” “scarcity vs abundance”, and  “serve both long term and short term”.

4.             Process

There weren’t so many comments on process but I have to include it since an understanding of process is, for me, as vital as the other elements. After all, collaboration doesn’t just happen – there are many obstacles to be overcome, and a good process can make all the difference in whether the parties manage to effectively collaborate or not. Dialogue (for example, see Bill Isaacs book entitled “Dialogue and the art of thinking together”) is one methodology. Also interesting is the work by Scott Peck who describes (in his book “The Different Drum) four stages of getting to “community”. And of course there are the Quaker processes, and others too. All these can help potential collaborators open up in a way that makes it easier for them to connect with others in a way that serves both them as individuals and the collaboration as a whole.

One example of Quaker process for business is to prepare a minute at the end of any gathering. This is something that is read out and agreed by everyone before the meeting close. Isabel and I agreed afterwards that this would have been a useful thing to have done during our gathering in October.

One more thing to add: a common experience for groups coming together is that at some stage they experience conflict. Many groups never get beyond this stage – it is too uncomfortable to keep persisting. Yet those who do work through this stage find that it deepens their connection – I even wonder if true collaboration is possible without some sort of conflict at some stage.

Finally I mention my favourite comment from the workshop: “We don’t actually know”. Collaboration is a mysterious thing and to attempt entirely to understand it is fruitless and probably counter-productive. All we can do, I suggest, is to treat it as a lifetime’s adventure, and trust that we will understand a little more by the end than when we started.

I would love to hear feedback on this. And if anyone wants to see the raw data, do get in touch.


An unlikely source of wisdom?

‘Midsomer Murders’ is not my usual source of philosophical guidance, but it is how I manage to make the job of ironing clothes more bearable.  In this week’s episode, the vicar informed the viewer that ‘Temperance cannot be imposed on people, they have to want it.’  I suspect the same might be true for collaboration. I’ve been working on an evaluation and a learning resource for a small number of voluntary organisations who decided to collaborate on a wide-ranging professional development programme. No-one forced them to collaborate, although there was, admittedly, a financial incentive for them to do so. The programme had aims and objectives, inputs and outputs, but initially identified no specific outcomes.  Shades of the untethered donkey, roaming where it will! But there have been  positive and seemingly sustainable outcomes from the collaboration, ranging from  simply feeling more confident in picking the phone up to ask each other for advice with difficult problems, to using the considerable expertise of two of the partners to develop an under-used part of one organisation’s building. Maybe it’s about working to nurture the conditions for collaboration, some of which Patrick describes in his post about our day at the RSA and then trusting that many people will not just want it, but enjoy it.

Gerri Moriarty

The journey starts here


“The meeting of self and others, of individual, or individual institution, and the community, is probably the most complex issue of our time.” Charles Handy

18 of us gathered on Monday in the Romney Room at the RSA to explore “the art and science of collaboration.”

Sponsored by the RSA and Oxfam, this gathering brought together experienced practitioners from diverse fields (the arts, industry, public sector, NGOs, education) all of whom are wrestling in some way with the challenges of collaboration. The aim was to see if we could shed some light on the nature of collaboration, bringing a cross-sectoral perspective in a neutral space.

It would clearly be too much to expect that we could make significant progress  in just one day; rather this was to be seen as establishing a base camp, to provide a platform from which forays could be made.

The challenge we faced was one faced by every group, and indeed by society as a whole – how to learn, share, think and decide collectively, in a way that serves the interests of the whole group and the individuals. You would think after 100,000 years of human evolution we would have worked this out by now!  Yet if you were to spend any length of time observing how our politicians behave in the House of Commons or in Congress, or if you were to reflect on the state of public discourse in our media, you might well despair for humanity. At the same time, we are learning – there is growing recognition that in an increasingly complex and interdependent world we need to find ways of drawing out our collective intelligence, whether it be through open space, world cafe, dialogue, council, Quaker process, appreciative enquiry or some other practice.

After a brief welcome from the initiators of the event, Isabel Carlisle (FRSA) and me (Patrick Andrews), we did a round of introductions. As we went round the room it became clear what a richly diverse and experienced group we had. Yet did the presence of so many experts in collaboration provide any sort of guarantee that the group would manage to collaborate effectively?  Not at all – collaboration is far more mysterious than that. There are never guarantees. Still that doesn’t mean that you can’t influence outcomes.

Firstly, there’s our intent. We had a clear intent to hold a deep conversation, to not fix too tightly to any particular outcome but to trust and focus on the quality of the conversation.

Secondly we had deliberately invited people who could function well in ambiguity and uncertainty. The best collaborations, I believe, enable new possibilities to emerge. This needs a certain emotional maturity – the path to new insights and innovations is rarely a straight one.

Thirdly we had arranged the physical space in order to encourage dialogue, rather than the ping pong of debate or discussion. In particular we laid the chairs out in a circle.  Very often the way that seating is arranged reflects the power dynamic that is being played out – we wanted to reflect equality, a necessary component of a healthy collaboration.

Professor Eve Mitleton-Kelly of the LSE then gave a brief introduction to complexity theory, explaining how it offered a multi-dimensional perspective through which collaboration could be viewed.

We then did an exercise where we put up on the walls a series of flip charts entitled social, cultural, technical, physical, economic, political and blank, and asked participants to list the sorts of things they thought facilitated (or inhibited) collaboration under each dimension. They were encouraged to identify additional dimensions where appropriate, and to cross-link the dimensions – it is rare for one thing to fit neatly into a single dimension.

In the next 45 minutes we filled up 10 flip charts, with additional headings including “mental”, “spiritual”, “language”, and “time and space”. What came up very clearly from the charts (which are being typed up as I write and will be shared through this blog), was the inter-dependencies.  Words such as language and power showed up in several places. We then came back into a circle and reviewed what we had come up with.

It was then time for lunch. I always make a point when shaping such events to make sure there is sufficient time allowed for proper breaks. Just as “Music is the space between the notes”, as Claude Debussy put it, so a healthy collaborative meeting is as much about the informal, unstructured periods as it is about those which form part of the formal meeting. This is was a key insight of Harrison Owen who devised Open Space Technology, one of the best well known methods for conducting leaderless meetings.

On this day lunch was a chance to break up into small groups, to have different sort of conversations, to chat to people we felt drawn to but didn’t have the chance to connect with and to digest what had gone on in the morning.  It was also very pleasant to get outside in the sunshine.

When we came back, after some stretching exercises to make sure we were using all of our body, we split into small groups to spend time exploring current issues that each of faced in our collaborative practice.  This was a chance to focus on the individual.

One of the fascinations of this work is the constant dance between the individual and the group. The more we work on ourselves, cultivating patience, humility, confidence (without arrogance) and listening skills, the more we can contribute to the group development. And the more we can contribute to the group development, the more we get back.

The challenge I came to the group with related to a project I initiated recently to establish a locally-owned, collaboratively-run hotel in the area where I live –  the New Forest. I have a number of ideas about how to structure the ownership but am less clear about how to run the hotel “collaboratively”. I have talked about abolishing hierarchy but now doubt this is practical – rather we need a flat and flexible hierarchy, where those in positions of authority (I hesitate to use the term leaders since it is over-used and much abused) retain their position only by leave of those over whom they exercise authority.

The insight I gained, as I shared my vision in the small group, was that a key factor in running the hotel successfully, as indeed in any collaborative venture, will be the level of engagement of those involved. One noticeable feature of our event was that everyone was present was highly engaged – taking responsibility not only for themselves but for the group as a whole. Thus as one of the organisers I felt no heavy weight of responsibility – the weight was shared amongst us all. What if a hotel could be run in that way? It couldn’t do anything but succeed.

At the same time this was a reminder of one of the fundamental dysfunctions of our current political situation – citizens are not in general sufficiently engaged. They prefer to leave the responsibility in the hands of their elected representatives and blame them for whatever happens. The newspapers encourage this. And the politicians play along because they like the feeling of power.

After the small group session, we came back again in a group to share. And then, almost before we knew it, the day was over and it was time to sit again together and reflect on the journey we had shared. Each of us offered up a thought or a feeling and then we sat in silence for a minute or so, simply enjoying the feeling of being together. And so it came to an end.

Isabel and I, as instigators of the gathering, are left with a big question: how to proceed from here? We all work in different sectors, are based in different parts of the country, use communication technology in different ways, have no shared project. How do we collaborate? How, putting it in complexity terms, can we build an enabling environment to encourage effective and worthwhile collaboration?

As Eva Trier put it in an e-mail to us all, “I find myself today rethinking our day yesterday and am beginning to understand the extent to which we only ever scratched the surface”. The potential of the group is huge. How to harness it?

Isabel and I have agreed to take on the task of keeping this community together somehow. Our initial thoughts (comments welcome) are to:

  1. use this blog to gather together and share:
    1. information about our community of collaborators, their experiences and their projects and their thoughts on collaboration.
    2. resources relevant to the theme of collaboration.
  2. Arrange a follow-up meeting in a few months time – say February 2012. We would love to make the next event a bit more playful and interactive – less in the head and more in the body. The play Isabel and I performed at Schumacher College was one of the best collaborative experiences we have had, and we have some very talented and experienced participants from the arts.  It would be great if we could bring in some performance to our shared exploration since it would reveal all sorts of information that might otherwise remain hidden.

That’s it. We look forward to continuing the adventure.


The Many Wines – A Rumi poem


Here’s a cautionary poem from the master about untethering animals!
“God has given us a dark wine so potent
that we leave the two worlds.
God made Majnun love Layla so much
that just her dog would cause confusion in him.
There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don’t think all ecstasies are the same.
Jesus was lost in his love for God.
His donkey was drunk with barley.
Every object, every being,
is a jar full of delight.
Be a connoisseur, and taste with caution.
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
not the ones adulterated with fear,
or some urgency about “what’s needed.”
Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it’s been untied,
and is just ambling about.”
(translated by Coleman Barks)

Collective intelligence – paper by NESTA


I want to share a link to a draft paper produced by NESTA entitled “Collective Intelligence” (it came to me via Lauren Craig). It seems to me that working out how to access our collective intelligence is a key part of our journey to become better collaborators. The paper is useful, among other things, for pointing out the diverse fields in which work on collective intelligence is going on. Recommended.