Power in Community

The sequel to Founders and Founderhood, this article asks where does power reside in a community organisation? Where does it reside in a cooperative intentional cohousing community? Especially in a community which, by intention, is seeking to be an opportunity for empowerment of all?

Former Premier of Victoria, Joan Kirner, wrote about Power – how to get it, keep it and use it. She said, “Having power is about setting your own agenda.” [i]

Bringing the individual agenda and the collective agenda into a workable operation, CO-operation, i.e. Setting your own collective agenda, is a challenge. Challenges can be wonderful or terrible and anywhere in between. Challenges help us work through things. They help us grow. We learn some of the most important things when out of our comfort zone. It helps if all community members are open to and wanting to ‘grow’. If there is resistance at this level there will be problems.

These days we face a big moral challenge. Arguably the biggest humanity has ever had to face. We are already beginning to experience a transformative change of our own making but not one we consciously chose or desire. We are experiencing a climate emergency representing an existential threat. Global warming. The changes that are being unleashed are currently taking us in exactly the wrong direction – away from the climate stability of the Holocene period (back to 10,000 BC), away from safe climate conditions. The transformative change we now need reverses this trend, reverses global warming and restores safe climate conditions. Either way change is upon is and no one will be left off the hook. Regardless of our best efforts to minimise the unfolding catastrophe, disruption and tragedy is now inevitable. Not that long ago it could have been averted. Yet we can still steer a course away from the worst calamity and we know what needs to be done. Fully understanding the threat, solutions and plan of action helps us hold the threat and not shy away. Some governments at the local level have started applying themselves to the task. Obviously many more are needed and highly prioritised serious efforts across the board at every level are crucial to curtail emissions. We have lost valuable time to vested interests and the cultivated and manipulated cognitive dissonance of our privileged societies.  [ii]

The planet is rapidly getting hotter at a rate far faster than anyone predicted. (See the published reports of Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration.)

We now have access to the knowledge of what is surely to come and we are all being challenged. Having resources to build resilience, to draw out from our selves and each other the best we have to give, is critically important. We need to find ways to navigate these times with as much grace, love, humour and cooperation as we can. It is about the survival of the finest spirit of humanity. All organisations from family to corporate, business to church, NGO to network, have the capability to recommit to shared values, to grow and become better positioned for these times and the times to come. Power and empowerment are essential to this pathway and the more conscious we are, and the more consciousness we can bring to the task, the better. We need to co-operate, we need to place our hands on the rudder together and steer our path forward. We need to hold hands and take a deep breath.

Housing that is secure and affordable supports the self-actualisation journey of its residents.

Co-operatives set up specifically to provide tenant-member controlled housing build in another even more robust level of support and resilience. This is the founding principle of Common Equity Rental Cooperative (CERC) housing program supported by the CERC members via their not-for-profit company, Common Equity Housing – www.cehl.com.au. “More than just housing.”

High functioning cohousing communities bring in another model providing further key ingredients to foster empowerment.

Most intentional communities have goals and processes that reflect this and enough good people with skills and the willingness to create the learning and supportive environment for this great work. It is after all, for reasons of necessity that a community devotes precious time and energy to this area. Having a skilled up community helps in times of trouble, times of conflict, times when an individual needs support, times when the community is striving to achieve, when it is stretched. Empowered people can build things, can make change happen, can inspire others. They can look after themselves and each other and they can reach out. They have capabilities. A good co-operator is automatically a good tenant. The reverse does not necessarily hold true.

Empowerment comes from good communication, greater self-knowledge, an understanding of rights and responsibilities, clearer values, a sense of purpose and the confidence in self and in the group to achieve worthy goals. “Self confidence is an essential pre-requisite.” [iii]

In cooperative communities we can learn how to take greater control of our lives within this crazy, mixed up world. Secure, affordable, co-operative housing is a self-governing mechanism enabling reciprocity, trust, skill sharing and personal and community development for the benefit of one and all. To foster positive change we individually (and collectively) need to be “able to negotiate from a position of strength”. Kirner and Rayner explain that this is about “getting done what you want to get done, what you want to achieve for yourself and others … in a democratic way: empowering others.” [iv]

When more community members are empowered, the power of the community is more evenly dispersed. Since power in this context usually equates with responsibility and responsibility with a work commitment, this is a desirable thing. In that vein, those with the power, responsibility and workload are going to want to share it. Conversely those wanting more power have to accept more responsibility and, by default, more of the work. This is a good thing. It is part of the glue.

Unless, that is, they interpret it as a way to dominate or get others to do the work for them; being a boss. Bosses aren’t appreciated in cooperative communities. “Dead Wood”, “Free Riders”, “Power Trippers” and “Troublesome Community Members” [v] – and other expressions of self-interest – are corrosive in a community. “With power comes the responsibility to use it for proper purposes and in an ethical way. Power is not a licence to abuse others.” [vi]

When a community first forms the people with the power are those first movers and shakers who have demonstrated their power to make things happen. They have done the research and have intimate knowledge with the fine details of the many aspects of the project – the finance, the legal aspects, the organisational details, the buildings, the costs and trade-offs, the constraints and the ways and means. They have the relationships, the allies and the connections. They can speak to big wigs and little wigs, audiences and media. They have fought and won some battles and they have confidence in the concept, the vision and their capacity to pull it off.

“One of the best ways to achieve confidence is preparation: knowing the facts, thinking and talking about strategies, and planning. Most victories are won not by geniuses, but by those who work meticulously and single-mindedly on their objectives. If you prepare well, including getting support from others, you will have confidence to engage in the debate on your own terms and have the confidence to insist on shaping the future.” [vii]

The group starts to form and others with their own power start to arrive. Many ‘interviews’ occur. People with skills and willingness are attracted. Perhaps they can build websites, set up intranets, make gardens happen, build things, repair things, develop systems, help with the ‘heavy lifting’: the mind-bending complexities. Some have talents for anticipating and understanding ‘Process’. Some skills are less visible than others. Some less valued. Some under-estimated. People may gravitate to the areas they can contribute in best or where they ‘want’ to be. There is a lot to do – especially in the early months and years. Depending on the size of the community, sub-groups form in different ways. Jobs have to be done and sometimes rosters are needed. More people arrive over time. Some leave. Others come. People move through different focus groups, sub-committees and task teams developing more familiarity, understanding, appreciation, sensitivity and skills along the way.

The personal baggage of life’s experiences, the limitations, lack of confidence, immaturity, emotional or psychological fragility – whatever lies within each individual – will be tested in community. Empowerment takes a natural course through opportunity and challenge and happens over time. Challenges and disruptions have a way of happening. Some can be unwelcome and feel like interruptions yet they may also be valuable opportunities. “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”.[viii] It’s a very organic and dynamic process; never static, always moving.

Power moves too. It involves stepping up or stepping back or aside. The human dynamics of it all can get complicated. In that complexity – and remembering some of us are complexity averse – understanding and misunderstanding are going on. In amongst it all is the element of power.

Understanding power as a group is not easy. A spotlight helps. With the components of the group inevitably changing over time it becomes even more essential to regularly revisit and rebuild this understanding, this knowledge base. I so wish I’d been better able to see what was happening right at the commencement of ourselves as a ‘community’ and to clearly confront and articulate this important aspect of group dynamics. When there’s a lot going on it can be hard to see the forest for the trees.

In the genesis of cohousing communities, it is the founders that make things happen. They bring together the necessary elements – the vision, people, resources and tools – from which the purpose – a community with a purpose – can emerge. Founders find within themselves the power to do this work. This ‘power to’ make things happen is the spark. Purpose is important.

“Having a purpose turns your engine on. Then you need energy to keep it turning over. Success creates that energy – just a spark ignites the fuel. A leadership trajectory is powered by confidence. We all have potential, yet only some realise it. You have to believe you have the ability and the right and are worthy of power …” [ix]

The ‘power-to’ make things happen continues to be needed in the bedding down of the new community at the same time as breathing life into the vision, broadening the awareness and skill base and sharing the responsibilities – all of which are required for viability. “Effective and lasting change requires taking people with you.” [x]

As a serial founder I know that being a founder can bring out the best in me. Whilst a high level of motivation is always at the core, the qualities that I’ve identified as more or less essential in fledgling organisations include intuition, sensitivity, capacities for complexity, willingness to confer before acting, willingness to do very labour intensive work at times, stickability, introspection and resilience. And there’s a particular type of imagination, perspicacity and capacity for risk-taking too that is necessary for generative work. These attributes need to be harnessed and nurtured and modelled. This is further explored in A Co-housing Backstory.

Kirner and Rayner say there are six rules about power. These are about being centred, (what you want and why, who you are and what you value); having self-confidence (an essential pre-requisite); understanding the three levels of power *; working your way up (claiming your personal power); not being afraid of power; & getting beyond wanting approval.

*The three levels of power, they say, are: power over yourself (self-discipline, self-possession, steadiness under fire); power to influence others (persuasion, example, encouragement); and power to communicate and act as part of a group (political power). “Power is political, whether or not it is associated with a political party. Every human transaction – family relationship, work, partnership, contract – is political.” [xi]

Doing the work also means occupying that space, filling that vacuum and holding the intimate details. It is the ‘heavy lifting’, it’s often tedious, it requires discipline and tenacity and it’s necessary. It gets jobs done. It is also an aspect of power. It establishes authenticity and it populates the space. It should be constructive and for the common good. Having said that, it’s great if it can be shared – it can be team-building, community building – and it’s usually more fulfilling working with others.

There is typically a very long period of gestation – often many years – where founders are up to their armpits in tedious, labour-intensive, time-consuming work combining conceptualiser, networker, researcher, administrator, communications, PR and publicity, recruiting, event management, political manoeuvring, fund raising, brief writing, record keeping, meeting organising, bringing the people together – and so on – before the thing being founded arrives.

Then, in my experience (which my observations of others reinforce), in the very early days of the ‘organisation’ the founder – no matter how exhausted – continues to be very busy recruiting, inspiring, guiding and holding the organisation steady, holding the flame, while steering a course towards the Vision – and the values therein – that drew the first wave of people to the possibility of such a group in the first place. “The use of power – personal or political – must be based on a system of values.” [xii]

Multi-tasking and generally working on all fronts at once on ‘whatever’ is the priority can go on for much longer than anticipated or desired. The arrival of the thing is the beginning. “The coming to power of a progressive … (organisation) is just the beginning of change.” [xiii]

The daily reality of being a founder in the early days is that you will often be operating on a number of levels all at once. You can find yourself “talking to a politician or a bank one minute, in communication with a new member the next, and doing some design work, crafting a strategy, dealing with someone’s melt-down and looking after your own work and family all in the same day. Perhaps this IS a certain type of person because then you have to get up and draw on your courage and dig deep again the next day, and on it goes, bouncing from one thing to the next, making things happen. Are people born with this capacity and these skills? I don’t think so. I think they are more likely attributes and potentials most people share but they have to be honed, worked, developed and practiced to become effective at this level.” [xiv]

And not everything attempted works and not every goal set is achieved and not every consequence is anticipated. Not every offer is well received and not every thing is understood. As well as looking after the minutiae the founder also has to work on the big picture and create the conditions necessary for strong, consistent understanding and engagement and long-term survival. Ongoing change is really the only thing we can prepare for. “.. you have to create the conditions for change”.[xv]

So there is a high level of personal resilience required to pick up the pieces, tackle bigger hurdles and keep going. Actually I think some of it is on such an intuitive level that not everything is consciously thought through … which can be a mixed blessing but is part of the deal. “The most important point is this: if you have power and use it to make change, you have to be prepared to accept responsibility for the consequences of that change, then build again on what you’ve changed. You can’t just walk away from something you’ve started.” [xvi]

There is a fragile moment there to be traversed and if ‘power-to’ is accidentally or deliberately construed as ‘power-over’ the seeds of resentment will have fertile ground in which to grow.

“All change will be met with resistance” say Kirner and Rayner. They advise, “face the resistance and it often disappears.” [xvii]

Being shy of the word ‘power’ doesn’t help. It needs to be brought out into the light so that the whole community can distinguish between ‘power-over’ and ‘power-to’.

“Many of us don’t like to admit we have power. And because most of us don’t recognise our power, we tend to exercise it badly. Both the tendency to refuse to recognise leadership on one hand or ‘eating the leader’ on the other were problem’s in the women’s movement, reactions that stemmed from the idea that we shouldn’t have leaders at all.

Some people have personal power. They are natural leaders. Wherever they work, whatever they do, people listen to them, and look to them for solutions. Natural leaders exist in both genders, in all classes, and in all cultures, but the predominant culture tends to recognise only leaders that fit the model of the patriarchal leader. This recognition reinforces tendencies to lead through domination, rather than through the many other ways of leading, such as inspiring, mentoring, nurturing, serving, supporting, etc.” [xviii]

Digging into the matter of power in community led me to my long-standing mentor in this field, Margi O’Connell who, having studied and immersed years of her life in the dynamics of cooperatives and community in Queensland, has acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience along the way including through her academic pursuits.

Margi graduated with an Associate Diploma of Community Welfare in Darwin in 1975 the same year I graduated as an Art teacher (Primary Teaching Diploma) in Melbourne. All these years later, with awards, local and international experiences, gigs as Australian delegate to the UN, and a variety of her own enterprises and academic achievements under her belt, she is a woman of great wisdom with skills well-honed and still very much in demand. [xix]

“There is power-over and power-to,” she says. A lack of a clear understanding of the difference often results in people with the power-to being sabotaged because their power is seen to be a power-over those who can not or will not act.”

Margi goes on to explain. Power-Over is cultural. Parents have power over children to varying degrees; employers over workers; rulers over subjects etc. In some cultures, men have power over women. Social struggles at national, social and personal levels are about this type of power.”

This, Margi points out, is highly relevant to a community because, “We bring this cultural baggage to all our relationships and as individuals we need to work at identifying our inherited power framework to free ourselves to ‘be the boss of me’ and to not abuse the rights of others.”

It is also important to understand that Power-To can be either formally delegated or informal.

Formal Power-To is delegated. Eg. “The manager of Maple Street Co-op in Maleny has been delegated the power to make all the commercial decisions needed for the success of the store.”

Margi makes these key points:

This power has constraints based on policies and performance but how it is used within these constraints are within the manager’s power to act.

People effected by the manager’s power to manage need to be educated about this power as well as the constraints on that power.  This way they can respect and support the administration of that power and know how to assess its effectiveness and moderate it as needed.

Situational leadership helps spread this power, and the understanding and respect, because we learn best by doing and this helps those comfortable with exercising power and also those most comfortable with others having it.

Margi is a social activist and describes Informal Power in that context. She says it is based on personality, opportunity, information and experience.

“I have no delegated power but I do have power as a social activist and I do make things happen because I act and that action is supported by my personal capacity to build trust and engage people, my ability to identify the critical next step, my confidence based on experience and my network of information and influence. People respond to this type of power based on their own experiences in the exercise of their informal power. Others with strong informal power are supportive and celebrate my power-to…  

Those who are asleep to their own power-to… can be resentful as my action can be perceived as reflecting badly on their inaction. This is difficult to deal with because they know they are behaving badly and will not want it aired so, unless they are prepared to seek a safe place to explore their own sense of powerlessness, it will sit and ferment.

This all resonates strongly in the community context but where it speaks volumes is in the territory of our natural, everyday, lived experience and expression of our democracy.

Margi says, “Where my power-to… has a real or perceived impact on others, they may see that informal power as a power-over….  and passively or actively sabotage me.  For some of those people, their resistance gives them a real or imagined power over me.  As I am the boss of me this sets up the conditions for a power struggle.”

Margi references Deep Democracy and the understanding about the Terrorist line[xx]. This is where “the real or imagined domination can lead from a personal affront to resistance to a full-on war in which relationships are irreparably broken – factions develop, people quit the group, organisations collapse.”

She recommends that, “Continuous exploration of the nature of informal power as a part of the business of the group can help as can early intervention with a Vibe Watcher[xxi] at meetings and in conflict resolution. Those with informal power can help with mentoring and sharing their resources.”

“However the challenge is the degree to which the group allows the informal power of those saboteurs. The more successful they are, the less they are willing to be responsible for their own informal power and the greater the cost to the group and the person acting in their own power-to.” 

Margi warns she has seen “many good people suffer from this and too many groups destroyed by it.  People with a strong power-to… should be protected from corrosive undermining by the willing weak whose behaviour should be openly challenged.”

Having a good understanding of this power dynamic would help people be better able to distinguish between a good community-building founder with power to achieve things and a founder afflicted by ‘founderitis’ or the syndrome called Founders Syndrome.[xxii]

To mistakenly see a founder’s ‘power-to’ as ‘power-over’ and to inappropriately brandish the ‘founders syndrome’ term can do damage. Of course Founders Syndrome does exist but it turns out this is more likely to be found in circumstances where there is a board or paid staff that a founder can boss around, block, or meddle with. It’s a bit different when the people involved are there voluntarily. Their participation must be enlisted through a commitment to the shared vision and the positive democratic and co-operative elements of community.

The timing of when the term Founders Syndrome comes up is interesting and how and why it is used bears some examination. It can be used to try to discredit and mute the voice of a person who is perhaps a founder, or is powerful in some way or perhaps just articulate.

Articulate women in particular might recognise this tactic used against them? In fact when exploring this topic later with another person well resourced in the area of human dynamics, Terry Lewis, I admitted that I have sometimes been criticised and blamed for being too strong, confronting and assertive”. His response was to say, I think, among other things, that your comment is reflective of the differences in power (generally) between men and women, as I can’t imagine a man saying that.” He also said,differences (inequalities) in power are not necessarily undesirable. What’s key … is what is or isn’t done with that power, and the responses of others to the use of that power.”

The job is big. High-functioning cooperatives are able to be supportive of one another in intelligent ways.

When working to convey the deeper elements of the work (what we affectionately call the “Rest of the Iceberg”), and to bring others to the table, it can be enormously frustrating to have to find the patience to wait and, as a direct result, to find the energy to keep going. It can also be worrying to risk the loss of precious momentum. However, “power is meant to be shared, i.e. it is for the individual’s benefit and the common good. Power can’t be bought but it may have to be fought for, and it does have to be claimed.” [xxiii]

Sharing is so much better. Claiming power in order to share it for the common good might be necessary. Sometimes it’s about weighing the risks.

Naming things can undoubtedly be helpful. Labelling can equally be unhelpful. Care must be given. Who wants to land a negative label on someone they love? At the very least it’s bound to make them feel unloved.

Underpinning all this is sub-text some of which is about ‘power’. There is always a lot going on below the surface of we human beings. The ‘grown wounded child’, the hidden baggage of unhealed hurt, unresolved anger and old scars so often complicate the dynamics and distort understanding. What can look like power to one person can be experienced as responsibility by another. What can be offered sincerely by one can be rejected as insincere by another. Things can get lost in translation and sometimes get out of hand. People can end up, as Margi said, on the Deep Democracy ‘Terrorist line’.

Learning the skills to recognise subliminal negative messages and bring submerged, sometimes hostile, feelings and ‘positions’ safely to the surface is so important in community. Getting the tools and the skills to use them, the methodology – such as Deep Democracy and its processes – in place early, will help support constructive, emotionally mature and respectful Mindful Communication[xxiv]. This is incredibly important. The earlier the better of course but usually it will take a crisis to bring the attention to what is needed and build the collective appetite for learning.

Raising awareness of what’s behind the scenes, teaching power dynamics, learning and supporting the learning to understand this better is part of this. Communities benefit from investment into their own training. Equally important is the understanding of sacrifice as a humble gift of thanks, of giving up something of value for a higher purpose and of a gift that rewards the giver. These understandings are invaluable for both the founders themselves and the community involved.

We’re ultimately all in it together. Community power has huge potential. It can make the world of difference and make a difference in the world. We might go faster alone but we can go much further together.




For one of the most inspiring examples of this watch The Power of Community set in Cuba’s economic crash and focussed on Peak Oil.[xxv]

Easy oil has already peaked but the fossil fuel industry is still hell-bent on continuing to mine coal, frack for gas and produce oil. With catastrophic climate change already unleashing devastating consequences at just 1º of warming, these days are numbered. The Paris agreement means the fossil fuel industry will either have to adapt – and reinvent itself in renewable energy – or die.

The value of this movie is really in the efforts the community in Cuba had to go to in order just to survive; caring about each other and cooperating. Where they get to with these efforts is instructive as well as inspiring.

Permaculturalists from Australia travelled to Cuba from 1993 to assist them to learn how to feed themselves – survival agriculture. Farmers became amongst the highest paid workers in Cuba. Roberto Perez who features in the movie visited Murundaka in 2014 and one of our residents subsequently went to Cuba. Roberto talks about the Urban Agriculture movement.



[i] Kirner, J and Rayner, M The Women’s Power Handbook Penguin, Australia 1999 p 4

[ii] Taylor, M, Global Warming, Climate Change. What Australia Knew and Buried and Reframed as a new Reality for the Public. 2014 ANU Press

[iii] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 13

[iv] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 5

[v] A United States cohousing term coined and used as an acronym ‘TCM’ to describe members who habitually cause unnecessary work to others, are uncommitted to a frustratingly low denominator or vexatious.

[vi] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 13

[vii] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 57

[viii] John Lennon

[ix] Kirner and Rayner

[x] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 48

[xi] Kirner, J and Rayner, pps. 13 – 15

[xii] Kirner, J and Rayner, p13

[xiii] Rebick, J Transforming Power – from the personal to the political, pub Penguin, Toronto Canada 2009, p 245

[xiv] Wilkinson, G, Founders and Founderhood, pps 7 and 8

[xv] Rebick p 244

[xvi] Kirner and Rainer p13

[xvii] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 57

[xviii] Rebick p158

[xix] Margi O’Connell

[xx] The Terrorist/Resistance Line is a term taken from Deep Democracy (Myrna Lewis Method) pertaining to the entrenched, negative, even hostile position that community members can reach if issues are not resolved early.

[xxi] This is a role developed in non-violent communication (NVC) work. “A vibes-watcher is someone besides the facilitator who watches and comments on individual and group feelings and patterns of participation. Vibes-watchers need to be especially tuned in to the sexism of group dynamics.” They are picking up on body language etc. and noticing who is or isn’t speaking up in the meeting. They may invite someone to speak, for example, perhaps someone who appears reticent.

[xxii] This topic is explored in the first article in this series – Founder & Founderhood

[xxiii] Kirner and Rainer p 6

[xxiv] Also from the work of NVC. A less violent way of saying non-violent communication, Mindful Communication is carefully entered into with awareness and respect ensuring both parties are well heard.

[xxv] The Power of Community – highly recommended inspirational viewing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O3InwwKnXA


About Giselle Wilkinson - 4allsentientbeings

Environmental conservation, community and cooperatives have been enduring threads in my life. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and more lately, focussing on restoring a Safe Climate, is work expressed predominantly through organisations such as The Sustainable Living Foundation (which I co-founded in 1999 - current President) and the others listed as links below. I am some way into a professional doctorate with MIECAT on "Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Sustainable Environment" and have in recent years moved into MURUNDAKA – a (more) sustainable, (more) affordable co-housing community / housing cooperative in Heidelberg, Melbourne (for which I gave up my co-op house of 19 years including veggie garden and small orchard) and it's great. I'm also a mum of two grown up daughters and have five step children.
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