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Process & Organizing

Inequality, Authority, and Empowerment

by Erdina

Inspired by the recent discussions on Spider about power and accountability in Reclaiming and by Oak's article "A Common Treasury for All," (RQ#87, Summer 2002) I would like to share some ideas from Europe about how we can gain empowerment out of the undeniable inequalities respective to skills, experience and authority among us.

In the last 15 years, Italian women around the Women's Bookshop in Milano (Libreria delle Donne di Milano) and the philosopher's community DIOTIMA in Verona have developed a very productive new perspective on inequality, authority and empowerment among women, which are vividly discussed and practised within the German feminist spirituality movement, too.

First, they ("the Italians") have a distinctly self-responsible and relationship-centered definition of the difference between "power (over)" and "authority." Whereas the active person of power is the one exercising it upon somebody else, the active person of authority is the one attributing or giving it to somebody else.

You can force somebody else to acknowledge your power, for instance by using violence. But being an authority, by definition, can't be demanded or reached by force. It is always something deliberately given or withdrawn from you by others.

In this view, if somebody is an authority for me respective to certain issues, that doesn't mean that I necessarily always agree with her on those issues. Rather, her words, actions, and attitudes are important for me, that I listen to them, struggle with them, take them as a measure. Why? Because my own innermost desire of what I feel called to bring into the world tells me that this person has proceeded further on a similar path, that she has "more" of something I want to achieve, learn, or realize.

"Authority" comes from Latin "augere," i.e. "to increase," "to make more of," "to let grow." Acknowledging this "more" means that what the "authority" says or does is a model or a standard for me (though hopefully not the only one in the world). It is independent of whether she is interested in me or likes me. I can decide to just stay with the inspiration and vision she embodies for me.

"The Italians" say that if a woman is seeking growth and greatness, she needs another woman who is "greater" than she. Yet inequalities within a community easily end up fueling underground cauldrons of envy and jealousy. These boiling cauldrons often release a vapor, an unconscious, general aversion to excellence, leadership, and high-quality work. If this happens, our collective creativity, the power of renewal and improvement is in danger of decreasing. It is impossible for someone to do something better or in a new way without simultaneously displaying uniqueness and inequality. Of course, excellence of Witchcamp teaching, for instance, is not the only and absolute value we are striving for. There are other values like cooperation within the team or offering learning opportunities to less experienced teachers. At the same time, our aversion toward the competition that pervades and dominates all aspects of life in capitalism should not seduce us into blaming every passionate advocacy of quality and innovation as "competitive."

There is a way out. Each of us can always decide to take our fits of envy and jealousy as a hint of our own unfulfilled growth or individuation needs.

Recognized as such, we can decide to transform the destructive potential of these feelings and admit how much we appreciate the great work or personality of these women and men. This deliberately-given acknowledgement is the basis of all true authority and prestige somebody enjoys in her community. It is "power-from-within" in the sense that it is an authority we receive by becoming ourselves, by growing into the person we are meant to be. Openly attributing authority to others as well as accepting gracefully the honour and the burden of being an authority for others are both opportunities to give our share to the chain of gratefulness that connects us with those who once helped us to grow and to whom we will probably never be able to fully give back.

The latter is most evident for our relationship to our parents, primarily to our mothers, who gave us the gift of life and the gift of the mothertongue, i.e. the unfolding of the world. There is no greater inequality and authority conceivable than the one between a mother and her infant and at the same time, what an incredible amount of growth has been possible within this unequal relationship! Even if it has been depriving or wounding too, in many ways, for many of us.

"The Italians" take the relationship to our mother as the model for the fruitfulness as well as for the challenge inherent in all our later relationship characterized by inequality and authority. The more I dare to approach an "elder" woman and try to engage in a fruitful exchange with her, the more the inequality between us turns into a source of growth and empowerment. As "the younger one" I can learn from her how to make my desire real, while as the "the elder" I get acknowledgment, support and maybe the joy of witnessing another human being's growth process, the rewards of becoming a symbolic or spiritual mother.
By telling the others who inspired us, by honouring the work somebody did for the community, we authorize this person. Among women, we re-establish our symbolic or spiritual female genealogies. Between the (multiple) sexes we weave the carpet of reconciliation. By simply reconnecting to my own experiences, feelings, thoughts and values, I authorize myself.
Coming back to Reclaiming: I think lots of our conflicts, also those about pay scales brought up by Oak in the last RQ, are rooted in the fact that we still lack a delightful culture of expressing and taking in appreciation in other than monetary ways. Fighting against pay scales for Witchcamp teachers is not an issue for me, but Oak is voicing some important intuitions and visions akin to the authority or prestige economy of "the Italians." For instance, the insight that the true value of the work we do for our communities and for our vision of another world cannot really be expressed or compensated by money. That within a small team, where everyone does his or her best, being payed according to a scale may undermine the joy of gift giving as well as the need and the creativity to express thankfulness for what we received from the others.

Like Oak, I don't want Witchcamps to become just a business, but unlike her, I don't think that the Witchcamp teacher role has become imbued with "power(-over)." It is mostly based on "authority" in the sense defined above. And the "glamour" attached to the teacher's position in some cases can be seen as a facet of the authority, an expression of the undeniable inequalities among us. We are rather successful with minimizing structures of power within Reclaiming, but without accepting inequalities of prestige and cultivating sustainable structures of authority, we can't survive and flourish as a community. This was already the key issue in Vine Deloria, Jr.'s criticism of the Western counter-culture from a Native American's point of view in his book, We Talk - You Listen: New Turf, New Tribes. Inequality is rooted in nature, in the chain of generations as well as in the uniqueness of each of us, in the differences of gifts and challenges we were given by birth and circumstances. The question is how we handle it.

In my view there is a good deal of criticism towards our senior teachers and organizers, which is sometimes justified and necessary. Nevertheless it is far from being balanced by acknowledgment and appreciation for what we owe to those founding mothers and fathers of the original San Francisco Reclaiming community and the ten international Witchcamps. At the same time our elders sometimes don't seem to understand that we really need them — to communicate with them, to learn from them, to struggle with them, to find them accessible and present. When they withdraw, for instance when they come to a Witchcamp as campers, but drop out of their affinity groups and hang out exclusively with some old friends, the "younger ones" feel bereft.

As a founding member and early teacher in Gespinnst and the German Reclaiming Community, I know how it is to be in the center of a community enjoying the rare opportunities of exchange with other "elders" during Witchcamp. But when I was in the Tejas camp last fall for my third student teaching as the only Non-American, the only one speaking English as a foreign language, I experienced again how it is to be on the edge, to be new, unfamiliar and insecure. The first days I felt separated from my power and I found I was not really able to reach out.

What saved me in this situation was, for instance, a simple, wordless gesture of compassion and sympathy a friend gave me, when I was resting alone in a meadow during the first day of planning. Suddenly I felt connected to one person at least, a teacher who later impressed me again and again with her ability to let go of the senior teacher role, the professional, in favour of simply being present as a human being.

What saved me was a talk with another teacher later in the week, where she, whom I had chosen as my mentor, encouraged me to stop apologizing, stand up, and go for what I think is right or wrong. I did this, to the point that at the end of the week Donald complained with a smile that an intervention I did in the closing ritual had really been a coup. He said that he loved it and at the same time hated it, while it reminded him of the times when he was among those making the revolution instead of those being surprised by it.

Those are only a few examples of what I got from some of our senior teachers: compassion, standards, encouragement, acknowledgement, humourous critique, normal and queer forms of authorization. In that way, inequality is built into a fruitful circulus virtuosus, as "the Italians" say, where authority and empowerment keep flowing and spiraling back and forth between the generations within Reclaiming.

Erdina, weaving magic as a Reclaiming and Gespinnst Witch since 1990, is a philosopher living and working in Munich, Bavaria (the Texas of Germany).