Part 1: Yourself
Part 2: You and a New Group
Part 3: You, and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Cooperative Culture
Part 4: You, and an Established Group that Is Committed to Operating Cooperatively
While being "committed to operating cooperatively" will not, alas, necessarily mean that the group has discussed power and its distribution in the group, at least you should be able to count on a constructive response when that request bubbles up. I expect, for instance, cooperative groups to understand the distinction between "power over" and "power with," and to not be stuck on the naive hope that power can be evenly distributed in the group.
In the best groups (the ones furthest along in working well with power), you'll find four distinctive features. (I'm aiming pretty high here, so don't get discouraged if your group isn't doing any of these yet—much less all of them.)
1. They'll be able to handle conversations about the misuse of power without going thermonuclear
This is not easy to do. In fact, most groups don't have these kind of conversations at all. They are just too scary. Yet the reverse is scary, too—where people only discuss it in the parking lot.
A claim that power has been misused is, essentially, an accusation that someone used their influence for the benefit of some, and at the expense of others. This type of criticism commonly gets translated into impugning one's integrity and it can be hard to create a container strong enough to hold all the energy and to preserve the relationships. Handled poorly this kind of conflict can split a group in two. Not pretty.
So being able to work power at this depth requires that the group be able to handle conflict deftly. It's a tall order, yet it's something the group needs to do well anyway.
2. Power will be expressly be included in new member orientation
While it doesn't seem to be that difficult to articulate the concept of "power with" it's been my experience that groups rarely discuss power dynamics with new folks because it tends to be a work in progress and the group may not be that proud of what it's accomplished.
If someone asked me what to look for when visiting a group they were considering joining, I'd suggest they pay particular attention to how openly the group discuses how power is distributed. If they are not open with you up front, how can you count on it getting better?
3. The group will have a plan for developing the leadership capacity of all members
This is a definite step beyond recognizing how power is distributed in the group, and being able to talk about imbalances openly. If you do not have the distribution you want, how can you remedy that? While you cannot simply give people power (influence), you can purposefully invest in them and in their leadership capacity. You can give them opportunities to lead that are appropriate to whatever development stage they're at. You can invest in your members so that they will be more influential in the future as they accumulate experience.
4. Managers and committees will be regularly evaluated
For this to make sense, there need to be job descriptions and an enumeration of the qualities wanted in people filling positions in the group. This establishes objective standards against which to assess performance. Further, it should be some group's job (Personnel Committee?) to see that this happens on a regular rotation and with a consistent, caring process. (Heaven help you if you only dust off evaluations when someone has been coloring outside the lines or is shirking their duties and you want to slap their wrists—it'll be a bloodbath.)
Evaluations should be may things: time for tweaking and improving mandates, a time for mid-course corrections, and a time to celebrate what's working well.
• • •If a group is hitting on all four of these cylinders, there should be plenty of power for acceleration and braking as needed. But even if you aren't running on those four levels (yet), consider it a blueprint for the peppy group vehicle you always wanted.