Activism Updates: A Weekend With Starhawk

From August 30th to September 1st Sean and I participated in a group retreat at the Tatamagouche Centre called "Crossing Stony Ground: Earth Spirit and Justice for Challenging Times" led by Starhawk. For those of you who don't recognize that name, Starhawk is a longtime Goddess worshiper, political and social activist and permaculture expert who has been and continues to be a seminal influence in Pagan, activist and farming circles. In fact, her book The Spiral Dance brought me to Goddess spirituality when I was sixteen, and I've had a great deal of respect for her work since then.

The focus of the retreat was activism grounded in spirituality, specifically Pagan spirituality, so I knew I'd be nourished on multiple levels. Because of the sometimes personal nature of the retreat, I won't be sharing any of the spiritual work we did together. But the activism insights were excellent and clearly forged in a lifetime on the front lines, and I thought they might be helpful to some of you.

She began with the reassuring assertion that the strength of a person's resistance to change often becomes the strength of their fortitude and courage once the change has occurred. This pattern is an easy one to spot in smokers who become ex-smokers, in government employees who become whistle-blowers and so on. The same will they bring to the first activity informs and empowers in the second, since they understand both sides of an issue intimately. It's a useful thing for activists to remember when confronted with entrenched opposition.

She also offered a number of tools and strategies throughout the weekend for activists who want to increase their effectiveness. Of course, her discussion was much more comprehensive than my notes, but I hope you'll take something useful from them into your own activism.

Processes for Collaborative Work

Starhawk identified four processes for collaborative work of any kind and encouraged us to apply them to collective activism. These are:

  • Generative: This is the brainstorming, creative part of the work.
  • Editing: In this part of the work, the creative ideas generated by brainstorming are shaped into something useful.
  • Decision Making: This is the critical part of the work, where decisions are made about what is discarded and what remains.
  • Logistics: In this part of the work, decisions about implementation are made including delegation of tasks, etc.

As a writer, I'm well-familiar with this model, though my own process is somewhat different. However, I do see its applications in group activism. Activists might come together and brainstorm about an action, polish their ideas, decide what will work and what won't and then delegate tasks. A useful paradigm, to be sure.


Perhaps the most useful discussion of the weekend was around the idea of framing arguments. Starhawk began by offering the two political models most prevalent in the United States; the Strict Father and the Nurturing Parent. In the Strict Father model, life is hard and people need both discipline and supervision. This model is most commonly associated with the Republican Party. In the Nurturing Parent model, people are encouraged to achieve and offered help by way of medical, educational and other resources. This model is most commonly associated with the Democratic Party.

Each party frames arguments differently. For instance, a Republican might see the welfare system as a waste of money that creates generational dependency, while a Democrat might see it as a necessary resource for helping people to lift themselves out of poverty. Same issue, two frames. Another well-known use of this technique is in the abortion debate, where one side frames the issue as a fetus' right to life while the other side frames it as a woman's right to choose.

Closer to home in Cape Breton, arguments for fracking at Lake Ainslie might include the very real issue of poverty and lack of employment here. Proponents of fracking might ask, "Don't you want Cape Bretoners to have jobs? Oil companies will put food on families' tables; how can you be opposed to that?" A re-framing of the issue might include questions like these: "Who said fracking or unemployment were our only options here? Why aren't we looking for other ways to employ Cape Bretoners that don't involve destruction of the island and pollution of its air, land and water?"

Framing operates on the principle that she who chooses the language chooses the conversation. Governments, corporations and other large entities are quite skilled at the manipulation of messages in ways that benefit them and exclude opposition. Critical to the success of re-framing is an insistence upon the message we create as activists. In other words, don't let the opposition force you to answer its questions. Ask your own questions. Bring your own information to bear. Change the conversation.

Nine Ways to Intervene in the System and Effect Change


  • Paradigm
  • Emergence
  • Goals
  • Rules and Laws
  • Information
  • Self-reinforcing Cycles
  • Self-constraining Cycles
  • Material Stocks and Flows
  • Numbers


We didn't have the opportunity to explore these in any great detail, but the point of the list was that it's easier to change rules and laws than it is to change the paradigm of a culture. In veganism, this is often played out in the abolitionist vs. welfarist debate. Abolitionists refuse to participate in single-issue campaigns because they believe the only permanent change possible is in the cultural paradigm that permits the use of animals for food, clothing, medicine and entertainment. Welfarists often agree, but they believe that by changing the rules and laws that govern the treatment of animals, they contribute to an eventual paradigm shift.

Starhawk recommended a bottom-to-top approach to the list and counseled activists to do the easiest work first, thereby making the harder work more approachable. However, there was some debate about the matter among participants who favored working exclusively to shift cultural paradigms, and I think that took up some of the time she had allotted for explanation of these concepts.

I would have liked to have explored this list more thoroughly, and I would have especially liked definitions for all of the included items. But I appreciated the bottom-to-top methodology she provided and don't think it would be too difficult to either extrapolate from this list or construct a similar one.

How to Effect Change on a Larger Scale

Large-scale issues often have several kinds of support; financial, social, etc. Starhawk likened these sources of support to pillars and constructed the chart below based around the issue of fracking. Participants named several sources of support for fracking, from profit to propaganda, and she asked how we might knock those pillars down. For instance, reducing energy dependency reduces the need for oil, which weakens that pillar. Re-framing propaganda weakens that one, and so on. With a coordinated effort at activism (see the Processes for Collaborative Work), eventually the structure becomes fragile and begins to crumble.

Power Map

Another way to approach change on a large scale is to create a power map of the people involved in the issue. In the chart below, we looked at policy-makers around the issue of fracking. The Premier was at the center of power, while the Cabinet and lobbyists were just outside that circle. The third circle is my own creation and contains corporations, though I honestly believe they belong in the second circle, given the financial power they wield. Outside the center circles are voters and focus groups, who wield less power.

The point of this exercise is to identify weaknesses in members of each circle and exploit them. Is a cabinet member a duck hunter? Would duck populations be harmed by fracking? If so, then contact local duck hunting organizations and ask that they put pressure on the cabinet member to vote against fracking initiatives (as a vegan, I confess I found this example somewhat off-putting, but you get the idea). Can a corporation be shamed into changing its position on fracking initiatives by associating its name with the damage fracking can do and putting a personal or local spin on the message? Then do it.

Support Pie Chart

Finally, it's important to know how to grow your network of activists. Core and active supporters of an issue are already on your side, while core and active opponents probably never will be. So your target group are those people who support an issue but aren't actively protesting it and those people who don't know about the issue and might be persuaded. You don't need to preach to the choir, and you don't need to waste your breath on people who might never agree with you. Tap the folks in the middle, and you swing support to your point of view.

As you can see, Starhawk taught us a great deal in a short amount of time about organizing activism. I was so grateful for it all and equally grateful for the spiritual component of the weekend, which was rich and soul-filling. If you have the opportunity to take a workshop with her, don't pass it up. She has a lot to teach about being centered in your person and taking action on behalf of whatever is good in the world.