Self-awareness for healthy social justice and environmental groups

Posted on 01 January 2017

Groups and power

Groups are important. We do not live on this planet alone. We cannot survive on our own. A group is more powerful than one person—of course. The larger the group, the larger the potential power. To quote Voltaire and Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Positions of power attract people whose sole interest are positions of power. Such people may support your cause, and are likely to do so effectively, but they are more dedicated to power and therefore will not always represent your best interests.

Even on the small scale we all seek validation. We can become entangled in our own pet desires and side track ourselves from our own highest calling.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

For any group seeking a peaceable world you will have to remain vigilant of your own behaviour to ensure you are a nexus of compassion. You will have to withstand bullying that can come from within as well as without. Fear and paranoia are not the answer. Wisdom and discernment are called for. Patience and strength are a must. Seek to treat one another fairly and with kindness. Do what you can to face contention. Find the skills to create genuine peace founded on integrity.

For group members you may also have to recognise when things are too toxic and too tangled to go forward, and simply walk away. Understand that you did the best you knew how, forgive yourself, learn what you can, do not give up hope, release the group’s emotional hold on you through forgiveness and a confidence that you are capable of keeping yourself safe. The work to create a better world still needs to be done. You are now free to find a healthier group with which to share in this work.

Below is a list of potentially problematic behaviours. Remember each of us can be and probably has been guilty of all of them. This is an exercise in awareness, since many of these behaviours have both a light and a dark side and are found in most groups.

Too many generals (not enough soldiers)

We do need considered opinions. We do need the voice of experience. We don’t need people who tell the toilet cleaners how to do their job when they aren’t willing and haven’t cleaned those toilets themselves. Those who do the work need to make the rules about how the work is done.

Entourage vs cheer leaders

We need cheer leaders who are good at bringing in new members. Go team!
We do not need people who bring in the numbers (their entourage) just to use them as a way to gain personal power.

Working their way to the top

Some people are very good workers and we need that. Some people take on jobs and take on jobs, until their presence is indispensable. They may then hold the group hostage to their desires.

Canny peacemakers

Peacemakers are important. Those who are good at bringing people together to collaborate and cooperate are a valuable commodity. Watch out when this is done through manipulation. Even more concerning is when a canny peacemaker becomes the only person everyone can talk to, this gives them tremendous power. It seems like you collectively have more power with all the extra numbers, but in actuality you could be under the canny peacemaker’s thumb.

Poor pity me

We do need to be there to the best of our abilities when someone is in trouble. We need to recognise when people regularly create trouble or rely on trouble as a way to function on an ongoing basis. These people need professional and government help. We need to recognise when this is used by people to be treated in a privileged manner.

Late comers and early leavers

Life is messy and we are all late comers and early leavers upon occasion. We need to be aware when this is being used as a form of passive resistance. Why do some people feel the need to protest in this manner? Is it indicative of a problem the group needs to address? Is it a power play?


We need people who deeply care and have the strength to stand on the side of love. We need to be careful of people with dominating personalities who silence others and take over agendas.

Difficult people

Is someone simply being difficult or are they symptomatic of a larger problem? Dysfunctional families classically point to the member who is struggling to free themselves from dysfunction as “the problem”. However, sometimes a person does have a problem with anti-social behaviour. We need systems in place to ensure they are treated justly, but are not allowed to disrupt the group.

Participating in as well as managing a group of people is hard work. Make sure you respect yourself as well as other members in your groups. Even in the best groups people will need to take breaks from one another upon occasion. Let me assure you when things are going well with a collection of people, the sort of change you create can be thrilling and your relations can be deeply fulfilling. The pay off far out weighs the annoyance! Just be sure to stay focused on one step at a time with realistic goals that can withstand a long-term effort. What you are doing is important!

Peace and kindness,


Members of Affinity Group Collateral Damage

PD Colorado Communities for Justice and Peace, photo by Phil Weinstein 2006

(revised version of an article written in 2013)

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