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If I had a dime for every time someone said, “if only there was a Twin Oaks on the west coast…” well, I’d maybe only have ten bucks, but it’s been frequent enough that if it existed I’m sure it would be popular. For reference, I was a member at Twin Oaks for 14 years, and have been in its orbit for 22. Check out the photos.
There are lots of great intentional communities on the west coast. So, what does Twin Oaks have that communities on the west coast don’t?
Twin Oaks is a 100 person, rural, income-sharing community. I’m not aware of any communities on the west coast that have those characteristics. But so what? Why does that matter?
Having no buy-in, and community businesses that provide most of the community’s income, Twin Oaks is one of the few non-religious communities that you can theoretically join with nothing but the clothes on your back and not need to find a job. This combined with a high degree of resource sharing means that the amount of money the community needs per person is relatively low, around $7500 per person per year. Labor quota at Twin Oaks is 42 hrs/wk, but the average member only has to spend about 15 – 20 hrs/wk working in the community businesses. The rest of your quota goes towards things you’d normally have to do on top of a 40 hr work week but don’t get paid for.
This has a number of benefits.
In many other communities you have to do anywhere from 5 to 20 hours a week for the community (there’s often an inverse relationship between how much you have to pay to live in a community and how many hours you have to do) on top of needing to figure out how to provide for yourself financially. This is especially challenging in rural areas.
The pervasive money-stress and vulnerability that exists in mainstream capitalism is mitigated by the collective responsibility the community takes for its financial needs.
It also means more time for, among other things, care work. Childcare, eldercare, and caring for sick, injured, or struggling members all count towards your labor quota. Sick hours can be taken as needed. There’s about 4 weeks of free labor credits built in (basically paid vacation), with the ability to work extra and bank more. There are also hours budgeted for organizing community holidays, local relations, and movement support.
Taking collective responsibility for the needs of its members makes it possible for Twin Oaks to be one of the most integrated intergenerational communities I’ve ever seen. Many babies have been born there, and many elders and others have passed away. People spend a lot more time socializing with non-age peers. Kids get to have lots of adults of different ages in their lives. No one has yet been born there and died there, but it could easily happen. Twin Oaks is an intergenerational community not only in the demographics of its members, but also in that it was designed to have a stable population and outlive its founders, which it has done.
The economics of the community also support a high degree of self-sufficiency. At its peak the community produces about 60% of its own food through gardens, herbs, orchards, chickens, and cows. It has a communal woodshop, auto/bike/machine shop, maintenance barn, a fleet of shared vehicles, and does the vast majority of its own building and maintenance. It maintains public offices and an internal computer network, including a large media library. There are also amenities like a music room, a pond and sauna, book library, and various multi-purpose spaces that can be signed out by anyone. It maintains 7 residence buildings, a large clothing library, a robust food system with a dining hall and small kitchens, and provides for all health, mental health, and dental needs.
There is no money exchanged internally. Working quota gives you equal access to the resource-sharing systems of the community, which everyone helps manage, and is paid for by the businesses the community runs.
There are certainly trade offs with income-sharing. You give up a degree of autonomy and control, which can be very emotionally challenging for people. If you need to be able to do whatever you want with your stuff whenever you want, it’s not a good model. Collective finances can be complicated. But trying to have an economically involved community based on individualized finances can also be complicated. Treating the whole community as a collective operation can also allow for some degree of specialization, potentially freeing you up from things you might not like doing, like accounting or auto maintenance or cooking, and you get to do a bunch of those things if you do like them. But no one is stuck doing the same thing for 40 hours a week if they don’t want to. And you get the satisfaction of having the majority of your time going towards activities where you see immediate, direct benefit, both for yourself and others.
Another thing that Twin Oaks has going for it is it’s size. Typically around 80 – 90 adults and 15 – 17 kids, with anywhere from 10 – 20 guests and visitors (pandemics notwithstanding), it’s large enough to maintain a robust social-culture. Support and activity groups are easy to organize, and it’s not hard to get people to show up for parties and gatherings. It can certainly be too insular at times, but it also allows for a level of cohesion that’s hard to maintain in communities where people are more dispersed, particularly because of the need to work outside jobs.
There are also things about Twin Oaks that would be hard for a lot of people. All residences are shared. You get your own room, but personal space is minimized. But it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s just the choice Twin Oaks made. Things are fairly dirty, cluttered, and broken, but again, that’s a choice. Twin Oaks has also made choices around its businesses that have led to the community being relatively poor. The community could decide to put a little more time into income production, and make some different operational choices, and have more money without losing much of its flexibility around labor.
There’s also plenty of petty drama, gossip, and interpersonal conflict. To some extent this is just people being people and it happens in any organization. It’s exacerbated by being so intertwined as a community. You have 80 or 90 adults sharing a checkbook, working together, and living in shared residences. It’s like being married. There’s just more fodder for shit to happen. But there are also things that could be done to reduce it. Again, it’s a choice.
Another major challenge that Twin Oaks is not alone in facing is what the worker co-op movement has referred to as ownership culture. It’s very easy for people to relate to the institution of Twin Oaks as being separate from them, and feel disempowered, disengaged, and/or entitled. I think the combination of size and centralization make it harder to foster a culture of responsibility, commitment, and intimacy. Having the critical mass of people is nice, but better use of small affinity groups might help.
But in the end, it works. It’s one of the few working examples of how an anti-capitalist society could work. Iit has huge benefits and it would be great if there were more communities like it all over. And after 54 years Twin Oaks has probably found most of the pitfalls of this kind of system, which means there’s a lot to learn from.
I am still trying to understand Facebook. I don’t like it but I realize that I can reach more folks that way. I pointed out a couple of weeks ago that I put out what I thought was a decent, interesting question and, although it got an okay number of view, it didn’t didn’t get any comments. Another post got a couple of vague comments but not very many views.
I posted what I thought was a more generic question and, for a couple of days, it didn’t get many views (I think less than fifty) and no comments and I thought that was that. Maybe my FB questions had run out of steam.
Then a couple of folks wrote nice, on topic and astute comments, and I replied, and I even got a thank you from Zamin (who is a regular commenter) and we were off. As of Thursday (as I’m writing this) we have a bit over a hundred views, which isn’t spectacular but isn’t bad either, and is at least double what I thought we were getting. I’m still trying to understand Facebook.
Sumner continues his exploration of birds and other wildlife at the East Wind community. Here he takes us down to East Wind’s dairy barn and out to pasture with the cows, all the while looking at the birds that surround those places.
I’ve written about this several times before, but I feel like I can’t say it enough. Community is all about relationships. I’ve written a piece about an imaginary community that is actually a composite of three communities that I’ve known–and why the founders couldn’t get it to work. (Hint: they focused on the ecological goals rather than relationships. Of the three real communities, one lost the alpha male founder and is currently very focused on relationships, one recently seems to be doing better–and likely because relationships are being nourished, and I don’t know what happened to the third–likely it’s not around.) Polish communal researcher Katarzyna Gajewska wrote a post for us on why tech folks have a hard time building communities. (Hint: Techies focus on design, rather than relationships.)
So, how do you build relationships? The first step to building relationships is to be gentle with yourself and with others. That’s harder than it might sound. Most of us (myself included) have a tendency to be critical, and justify it as being ‘realistic’. The truth is, being critical alienates people. It’s not that you can’t point out when something (or someone) isn’t working–or is hurting someone else. The question is how you do it. (More on this in a moment.)
The next step is to listen. Listening can be hard. The problem is that most of us have had some kind of trauma in our lives. I’ve talked about communities as laboratories for social change. After spending lots of time living in community, I’ve come to the realization of why social change doesn’t happen (and why communities don’t happen–or do briefly and then fall apart). My insight was “We trigger each other.”
There are tools to deal with this, whole books written on processes that help with listening. The difficulty usually lies in actually doing what the books recommend. I am going to focus on Nonviolent Communication (NVC), not because it’s the only or best way, but because I’m very familiar with it. NVC is a very useful tool to help with listening and building connection–but only if it’s done right. I’ve heard criticism of NVC and it usually amounts to people doing what they think is NVC–but not understanding what Nonviolent (also called Compassionate) Communication really is. If you are telling someone that they are not doing NVC correctly–or at all, you are not doing NVC. NVC is not a tool to change another person’s behavior, it’s a tool to help you to understand someone else, to listen better.
The goal here is to actually listen to another person and to listen to them first. I like Stephen Covey’s formulation: “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” It doesn’t mean that you don’t get to put your viewpoint out. It means you listen first and make sure that they feel understood, before you try to explain. This is when you can point out, gently, problems.
Listening is really difficult to do when you are being triggered. If you aren’t able to listen, don’t try to get your point across. Instead, go find someone who can listen to you enough to let you have enough free attention to listen first. There are lots of practices people engage in to do this (NVC empathy sessions, Re-evaluation Co-counseling, Active Listening, Focusing, etc.) and using any of these can be helpful, but really just finding someone who can listen can be very useful.
This is one of the advantages of living in a community. If a community is big enough, generally there’s someone and often several folks who are not triggered by whatever is going on. That’s not to say that they don’t have triggers, but in a big enough group of folks, different folks will have different triggers.
If there isn’t anyone that’s not triggered, or if the situation is difficult enough, don’t be afraid to bring in outside mediators–someone who is truly neutral and can listen to all sides.
The final thing that I want to suggest in terms of building relationships to build community is that making a real commitment to the community and the people in it, makes a huge amount of difference. When folks know that they can disagree, and disagree strongly, and it won’t destroy the relationships, it contributes to the longevity of the community.
Building relationships builds community. I’m suggesting at least three steps that help build those relationships–being gentle with yourself and others, learning to listen and listen well, and making strong commitments to the community and the people in it. Relationships are not the only part of community building, but they are the glue that holds a community together.
This is the sixth in a series of interviews done by Sumner (ex-East Wind member) of former and current members. Here are the others: Macie, Warren, Zan, Jim Adams, and Joston. Cayli was a member of the East Wind community for seven years and talks about appreciations and challenges of community life.
It’s been a difficult more than a year, but perhaps it’s changing now.
The Foundation for Intentional Communities is conducting some research to find out how intentional communities are responding to the Covid pandemic at this time. If you live in a community, they’d love you to fill this out.
Music is often an important part of communal living. Although, I don’t think that Sumner ever says it, at least one of the folks in this band is an East Wind member and I know that, at the time, another was part of the Oran Mor community. Are you up for a road tour?
A little over a week ago, I was on the panel about Urban Communities. Someone I knew from the co-op household scene in the Boston area made a comment that implied that I wanted to turn all the co-ops into income-sharing communities. I think that she was exaggerating for effect, but it was true that she had gone to a talk I had sponsored on how co-ops could become communes. However, I want to be clear, I like co-op houses and I don’t want them to all turn into income-sharing communities.
In fact, I think that all forms of communities are great: communes, co-ops, ecovillages, hybrid models (like Ganas), spiritual communities, even co-housing (which I regard as a toe-in-the-water for many folks who would be otherwise scared of any form of community living). What’s more important is that I don’t think that everyone should live in community. Ironically, two of the folks that I built my first income-sharing community with in the 1990s now live by themselves. I don’t think that everyone is suited for communal living, and the longer that I do it, the more I think that’s true. I envision (and see myself working for) a world with many forms of community–and also, people living by themselves, with partners, with random strangers (if that appeals to them), in nuclear families, in extended families, etc. Diversity is wonderful and I think that the end goal for me is, as I have written here, creating more possibilities. I want to see a world with, not only more communities, but more co-operative and worker-owned and run businesses, and small businesses, family businesses, and cottage industries, and municipally run businesses, and alternative forms of agriculture, energy, and even government. We need many, many alternatives.
So, why am I so focused on communes in this blog? Because I think that communal living is one of the more radical ways to see how change is possible. The Foundation for Intentional Community already covers the wide spectrum of the communities movement. If you want to know more, you should check out their website, which I have already written about in this blog.
My goal here is not that everyone should live in a commune, but that most people should know that they exist, and they actually work, and anyone who is excited about them should be able to try one out and live in a commune if they like. But they can’t do that if they don’t realize that it’s possible. I want to see a world with many alternatives, and have communal living be one.