The following is excerpted from The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups, published by New Society Publishers.
Please join Starhawk for live events this month in New York and Los Angeles. On Friday, December 9, at 7:00 Starhawk is speaking in New York at the Meta Center, 214 West 29th St, # 16. On December 10 and 11, she will be leading the workshop "The Magic of Co-Creation" at the Commons in Brooklyn, 388 Atlantic Avenue. And the following Saturday, December 17, Starhawk will be in Los Angeles offering the workshop "The Magic of Co-Creation" at Fais Do Do Ballroom, 5257 W. Adams Blvd. Evolver/Reality Sandwich is a media sponsor of these events.
In many indigenous cultures, elders are accorded great respect. To be an elder is more than being old; it means being a person who has learned some wisdom from their life experiences, including their mistakes. An elder may be someone who has lived a blameless life of complete integrity, or a recovering alcoholic who knows from personal experience how hard it is to struggle with an addiction, and so can guide others.
Not everyone old is wise. For some people, aging can simply rigidify longstanding patterns of dysfunction. And some "elders" may be young, blessed with good judgment, compassion and sound sense from an early age.
Groups need elders: people who put the needs of the group first and help keep its balance. We may become elders and gain social power in many constructive ways.
By Taking on Responsibility and Fulfilling It
In a healthy, functioning group, the key way that people earn social power is by taking on responsibility. Our Spiral Dance organizing group, which puts on a major ritual each year, says clearly to people in our outreach material, "The way to have a say in how the ritual is planned is to take on a coordinating role. That could be coordinating the dancers for the invocations or coordinating the cleanup - but it means making the time commitment to organize others. Do that, and you get the inestimable benefit of coming to meetings and helping to shape the ritual."
By Helping the Croup Function Smoothly
People who pay attention to social relations, who help resolve conflicts and mediate problems tend to gain social power in a healthy group. We respect those who can raise issues effectively, who identify conflicts and bring them forth so they can be addressed, who help resolve intransigent disputes and who look for ways to create good feelings in the group.
By Good Judgment
Elders get to be elders by exhibiting good judgment, being able to put the good of the group before their own personal benefit or profit, being able to look ahead, anticipate problems and deflect disasters.
By Making Mistakes and Acknowledging Them so They Become Part of Group Learning
People often fear to admit mistakes because to do so seems like losing face. But in a healthy group, a person who admits a mistake and shares the learning actually gains trust and influence. They become a good model for others.
By Showing Compassion and Forgiveness
Elders are not saints: they may get embroiled in conflicts just like anybody else. But they don't wage vendettas or hold grudges. Instead, they've learned to confront conflict, forgive those who commit to changing hurtful patterns and move on.
By Integrity and Upholding Values
If you stand for something, if you walk your talk, you build trust and social power. In a healthy group, those who speak for and uphold the group's core values gain influence - provided they act on those values themselves.
By Bringing Experience, Skills and Training to the Service of the Group
If someone is a trained bookkeeper and volunteers to be on the fundraising committee, their voice will carry more weight than someone who is inept with numbers - at least around financial issues. People who have special training, expertise or talent and bring those gifts to the group do a great service - especially if they are also committed to train others and pass the skills on.
By Mentoring and Being Mentored
When we mentor and train others, we pass on some of our skills and knowledge. When we ask for mentoring, we admit that our mentor has some quality we want to develop, experiences we can benefit from or knowledge we would like to gain - that we don't start out as equals in every arena. We invest our teacher with the authority to advise and guide us, to offer constructive critiques and to make suggestions that might further our growth.
Groups that refuse to recognize differences in social power cannot encourage mentoring. Egalitarian groups sometimes resist any structure that involves teaching or training in favor of skill shares and peer groups. A good skillshare can introduce people to a new subject or teach a specific technique - but it does not replace long-term training and development. We might learn emergency first aid at a skillshare, but when we need brain surgery, we go to someone who has gone through years of training and apprenticeship.
When we invest power in a mentor, we remain the active agent. That power, in a sense, is lent, not given away. When we mentor someone else, we hold their power in trust. Our commitment is to help further their development and the good of the group. Our overriding reward comes from knowing that our skills and knowledge will go on whatever happens to us. In a group that encourages its members to develop, grow and learn new skills, many people can eventually take on crucial roles and no one is trapped. We can be free to move on to our own new challenges, knowing that the work we've done will continue.
By Commitment and Time
People gain social power in groups through committing time, energy and creativity to the group. Someone who has a long-standing commitment to the group's goals and values should have a larger voice in decisions than someone who just showed up for the night. If not, why should they stick around?
However, there's another side to this story. If a group is composed only of long-termers, they may accrue so much social power that others feel shut out and have no motivation to join. Founders and original members can stand so tall that, like ancient redwoods, they shut out the light below them. In old-growth forests, new saplings only get a chance to shoot up tall when older trees fall and open up the canopy. Unlimited social power can turn into founder's syndrome, when the founder or originator of a group can't let go. If a group wants to sustain itself over the long term, it must put some limits on the social power even of elders to make space and light for others to take root and grow.
Time and commitment may also reflect privilege. Someone who has a heavy work schedule and family obligations may simply not have time to devote to the group, however much they care about its projects and values. While they may not be able to make day-to-day decisions or sit in every meeting, a group that serves a wider community must make room for the voices of those on the edge, as well as in the center.
By Modeling Good Self-Care
Elders take care of themselves. They commit to the group; they may devote immense amounts of time and energy to the mission, but they also take breaks, take naps and take vacations. Elders know that eating, sleeping, exercising, taking time for relationships, pleasure and beauty are important aspects of life that ultimately feed the work. They are models for others, helping to create a group culture that can be truly sustainable.
Stepping into Eldership Ritual
The group may prefer a different word than "elder" to represent stepping into one's personal power and a role of respect in the group.
The group stands in a circle. Begin with grounding and anchoring to the core self.
Take a moment, and ask each person to reflect on the ways they hold power in the group and exercise some form of eldership. Also consider where their growing edges are.
One by one, each person steps into the center, states their name and a way they exercise eldership, followed by "and I do it well." "l am Eli, I founded this community and have guided its beginning, and I do it well."
The group affirms the person, by repeating their name, or with a resounding "Yes!"
Then the person goes on to state some way in which she is growing into deeper eldership. "Now I'm deepening my eldership by learning how to gracefully let go and share the limelight with others."
The group responds again,"Yes!"
The first person steps back, and another steps forward. Continue until everyone has had a chance to be affirmed.
Teaser image by The Elders, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet