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: http://www.starhawk.org/writings/empowerment_manual.html
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.