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Greetings, Communards! It’s Caroline from The Midden in Columbus, OH, on a visitor period to Compersia in DC. I’ve been here 11 days, and have been participating in the labor system, exploring the city on foot and by car, wrangling children, and connecting with various other visitors– Sitali, Telos, Mary, and Beaux. Telos arrived a couple days ago, and he and I have been job searching, updating resumes, cooking, and just connecting in general. Yay!
When I first arrived, the house was nearly empty. Peaches, Courtney (and Telos) all went up to the HONK! Festival in Boston along with some other communards, Maximus Cambia and Paxus Twin Oaks. The children were staying elsewhere. Kathryn and her visiting mother Mary took a trip to Dolly Sods for a weekend adventure. GPaul was on a month-long trip to the west coast. I found myself nearly alone after having survived a particularly challenging yoga class, when Jenny emerged in the backyard in a snazzy dress and makeup. She had a date later in the evening, and so we decided to go out to dinner beforehand to talk about membership. I donned a dress and some glitter and we walked to Thip Khao, a Laotian restaurant. The verdict: DELICIOUS. En route we encountered these fantastical huge mushrooms.
While it was just me and Jenny in the house we got to have a couple really good conversations about patriarchy, alpha men and white male privilege in the communities movement, and the damaging and lasting effects that this stuff can have on women. Even when we try to dismantle these systems in an intentional way, we’re so indoctrinated by society that it’s easy to reproduce this shit in our communities without even realizing. Patriarchy isn’t a just a women’s problem, or just a men’s problem. It’s a multilayered system full of subtleties.
Top takeaways: as a woman you’ll often find yourself on the losing end of any proposition. You may not even realize there was a power dynamic until it’s too late. You may end up with more work to do, or you have have surrendered your self-determination into the hands of a man (who may or may not even want to be The Decider!) Don’t beat yourself up about it when you do finally realize. Take notice of how it went down, and look for early warning signs next time. Because there will always be a next time. Refine your ability to notice the nuance, inquire within about your own internalized patriarchy, and choose your actions carefully. There’s no one right way to subvert the patriarchy. Outright refusal to be complicit, gentle on-on-one conversations, banding together to build power together, dancing about it, smashing about it… Creativity counts.
But enough about patriarchy. How about cats?! There are 3 hammocks hanging in the back yard. (Twin Oaks hammocks, obviously.) One night I went out to hang and this lil fluffer joined me for some cuddles. I’m allergic, but really couldn’t resist. A nice moment of decompression after some deep emotional work.
Compersians often appear to be in to costumes from my perspective from under a cape, but I’m told that in fact, there’s a desire to increase costume time. Courtney has been rocking the Wookie costume for a couple days now. I’ve suggested they start an adult costume closet, so they can combine forces and always have ridiculous things to wear. Like Commie Clothes, but Commie Costumes.
Courtney and I had a couple substantial conversations during my time here, one in particular stood out, and included Telos and Kathryn. The conversation was about a phrase we have all heard said by a number of community members, “We want to be an ambitious commune.” At first blush, this struck a number of us oddly. Like, is this Ableism in action? Or is it some domineering work ethic, similar to the one white people imposed on black people in this country for centuries? Why would it be a good thing to be ambitious? Wasn’t Hitler ambitious? So we dug in a little more and expanded and modified the idea. What if it’s not the communards being individually ambitious, but the COMMUNE itself? If the community hones in on it’s ideals and dreams and pursues them relentlessly, can’t that be a good way to be ambitious? For the good of the whole, and not as a competitive individualistic pursuit? More people living communally is a good thing. Let’s pursue that together, with gusto. This is obviously a conversation that has a lot more room to evolve, but this conversation appeared to be a second draft of what it means to “be an ambitious commune.”
On Thursday night, Peaches came home from visiting family in Maine with new ideas for building a swinging bed from the rafters in the living room. (Not gonna happen.) On Friday, GPaul came home from a grand train adventure across the country. The children were clearly happy to have their jungle gym back. (Not pictured: Solomon and his awesome new mohawk.) There’s a new 20-foot shipping container for bike storage, and it’s full of bikes. Which is great! Except we lost the key. So that’s a thing… Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of antics and mayhem from this thriving young urban commune we call Compersia.
The DC Chapter of Point A is moving rapidly towards the birth of the first commune. As we approach the moment of our launch we’re hammering out the foundational mechanics for our group. And arguably the most foundational, most essential policies are for membership and expulsion: how people are included and excluded. Thinking about expulsion is not a fun topic and many democratic and collective groups don’t really think about it. Some (like Kommune Niederkaufungen in Germany, apparently) seem to get on just fine for years. For other groups, not having thought much about expulsion eventually causes a conflict to blow up into an explosive crisis and, with an unfortunate frequency, destroy the group.
A community is a web of relationships, and a healthy community reinforces and weaves those relationships thicker and tighter. The complexity and strength of this web is the source of the value and power behind a vibrant community: it brings meaning to our lives, it enriches us socially, and it gives us access to support and assistance when we need it. It can include our closest allies, collaborators, audience, and friends. But it’s the very importance of our community that makes it that much more painful when an assault or serious breach of trust occurs within it. The bigger we are, as it were, the harder we fall.
When a member of our community hurts us or breaks our trust, it is common and reasonable to want them to leave and never come back. Maybe we fear that they’ll hurt us again, or maybe seeing them reminds us of the pain they’ve caused us, or maybe we feel like they’ve broken their side of the social compact and so don’t deserve membership any more. However, in a deep and vibrant community, and especially one with any history, ostracizing a member is messy because inevitably important relationships exist between other members and the perpetrator of the offense, relationships which are not destroyed by the offense. If the aftermath of a serious offense is not handled with sensitivity and care to all sides, it is all too easy for the community to divide into camps and begin to attack itself. If the perpetrator is ostracized and their remaining relationships are not honored, then damage can cascade through the web that is the community. That damage can cause other members to lose their faith in the community’s ability or desire to care for them and frequently results in an exodus of people from all sides of a conflict.
Additionally, although ostracism is sometimes appropriate, it often has the same problem as the throw away society that it resembles: it assumes that there’s an “away” where you can throw people where they won’t do harm (much like we assume there’s an “away” where we can throw trash where it won’t do harm). That’s not always true and if we don’t deal with the root cause of the offense and the perpetrator has not taken on the project of self-reflection and change we want them to then we might just be passing our problem on down the line to the next community they end up in. Similarly, this “throw away justice” assumes that the person who has committed the offense is no longer of value. They are trash and not worth saving.
In light of all this serious thought about the process of expulsion is of obvious value. Especially knowing that often when an offense occurs emotions run high, people are in pain, and quick and skillful action is necessary to prevent harm from spiraling out of control. It can be difficult or even impossible to conceive of, design, and execute such a response if it has not been discussed by the community in advance. When we design such a process, then, there are a few deep questions we need to consider. If we choose to not just get rid of people whenever they harm someone, how do we respond to offenses in a way that takes care of the whole community and leaves us stronger and better people on the other side? When and why is the work to do that beyond our ability and how can we tell? If it is beyond our ability… what do we do then?
Sexual assault is a major component of patriarchy.
Sexual violence is often used as a tool for disempowerment. The widespread truth telling around incidents of sexual violence, exemplified by the #metoo campaign, is finally attempting to dismantle the culture of silence and protection around rape and sexual assault. Most of us are not surprised at the pervasiveness of the problem. It is rare to find a woman who does not have a #metoo story of sexual violence.
We are also learning that this problem is not limited to women, but too many men as well are victims of sexual assault. While consent culture is strongly promoted in FEC communities, within the communities movement the problem of power over sexual dynamics so ingrained in us by dominant culture sadly rears its ugly head.
What should communities do when someone abuses another? How can we live our values of restorative justice when we are faced with this issue? How do we make our communities safe? The Federation of Egalitarian Communities uses a method called Self-Examination RESponse (SERES). This process is aimed at helping the perpetrated feel heard and attempts to address their concerns, so that they can feel safe once again in their community.
Ideally it is also used to help the perpetrator understand and remedy their abusive behavior. Part of the problem is that dominant culture does not teach us to how apologize in a way that shows true understanding of the harm that is done. Too often an apology comes off as a deflection and can further make the perpetrated feel gaslighted. More work needs to be done to educate people on how to move beyond simply saying “I am sorry.” We must train ourselves to make apologies that heal the situation. Luckily there are resources available that can guide us. See this: How To Apologize For Sexual Harassment (Hint: It Takes More Than ‘Sorry’).
It is no wonder that communities have trouble navigating these waters when we rarely see good models of taking responsibility when our actions are abusive. Commune Life Blog will be exploring these issues more in depth to encourage a discussion that goes beyond blame and punishment but holds perpetrators accountable while simultaneously helping to get to a healing place for all parties involved.
The desirability and use of consensusdecision making is widespread these days on the radical left and is nearly universally used at the newer communes (one of two brilliant techniques Acorn stole shamelessly from the Quakers). For people concerned with consent, freedom, autonomy, and agency, consensus decision making is a likely optimal.
However, on its face consensus is a totally ridiculous way to make decisions. Think about trying to decide what movie to watch with a group of friends or, gosh, think of the US congress doing anything and the idea that nothing can be decided unless everyone agrees sounds like madness, a recipe for disaster. And yet, the experience of the communes I know who use it (and that’s communes up to 80 members large) is that it works brilliantly and smoothly. Major decisions are regularly discussed and made quickly and painlessly. Surprisingly complex operations (combining housing, food, accounting, businesses, grounds, childcare, etc etc) are run and managed with only a couple hours of meeting a week. And that is where we begin to see the answer to our riddle. As my friends at Las Indias noted, consensus is clearly the best decision making system available and yet it is important to also think of it as the decision making system of last resort.
Like the finger pointing at the moon, the consensus process itself is not our aim. Our aim is to cultivate a community of empowered, empathetic, free people who are working with the collective good in mind and who are always looking for the clever solutions that work best for everyone, consulting with each other as necessary to accomplish this. The consensus process is merely a Trellis that pushes us to grow, as members of the community, into the shapes that are our true aim. It pushes us this way by cutting off all other options for making the things that are important to us happen. In a consensus run group, if we want to have our way in the world we need to develop empathy for others, deep listening skills, trust in each other, and a dedication to finding the creative solution that works for everybody. There is no other way.
The commune is a particularly fertile ground for this work because by collectivizing our work and our lives, making the consensus process work becomes essential to our happiness and our ability to get things done. And of course, even if our goal is to cultivate a community that can act and make most decisions without the need for everyone to sit down together there will likely always be reasons to meet: novel situations we need to consider deeply, big commitments that we need to be very sure of, and the building of relationships and our sense as a group. In fact, the decisions that are nearly impossible in a consensus process are precisely the decisions that cost nothing if they are not made, the ones people can walk away from: what to name the group, what color to paint the room, what movie to watch tonight.
In this light, maybe the US congress would work better if it used consensus after all. There’s a garden that could use cultivation and trellising.