Until about a month ago, I called a housing cooperative in California my home. Affectionately named Cornucopia, it was a place of shared responsibility and benefit. Together we cooked meals, split the cost of common food, kept books, tended the garden, and so on. Though much was shared, each member still paid rent and board, many of us working nine to five jobs earning the money to do so. I wanted to contribute more of my energy directly to the community and less to the pursuit of a paycheck. Wanting to take the cooperative ethos further and, having been interested for some time in income pooling, my desire for radical sharing led me to Twin Oaks.
For those who may not be familiar with it, Twin Oaks is an income sharing community in rural Virginia, home to around 85 adults, as well as some children. It is well established, approaching it’s 50th year. Twin Oaks is relatively structured compared to some other income sharing communities, sporting labor sheets assigned to each member and visitor weekly and a robust collection of policies. The visitor program at Twin Oaks is also relatively structured, designed to give those visiting the community (and possibly applying for membership) the best possible look into how the community works and what daily life at Twin Oaks is like. The three week visit is packed full of orientations (or “oreos”) to various aspects of life at Twin Oaks, covering topics such as the labor system, social life, and governance structure, among many others. Outside these orientations, visitors spend their time at Twin Oaks much in the same way a member of the community does: engaging in the community’s various areas of labor, eating two meals a day at the steam table, attending community events, or otherwise spending their free time as they wish. Visitors even live in their own small living group (SLG) at the visitors cottage, much as members of the community live in their own various SLGs at the different residential buildings. Coming from a housing co-op, this three week visitor program was my introduction to life at a commune.
It was immediately apparent that Twin Oaks had a lot in common with the cooperative community I arrived from, and so I felt comfortable as a visitor very quickly. In many ways it felt like I never left home. A day spent at Twin Oaks shares much with one spent at a housing co op: both are filled with gardening, small construction projects, cooking, cleaning, and generous amounts of time spent with community-minded people, either over work, a shared meal or just enjoying one another’s company. Cooperatives and communes have similar atmospheres, being built around similar values and sharing community as their center point. It would actually be inaccurate to say Twin Oaks is not a cooperative; it is even more so a cooperative than a housing co-op.
Degree of Sharing
Sharing is the main uniting factor between co-ops and communes, but they are set apart by a difference in the degree of sharing. Housing co-ops are places where some time, space and resources are shared, whereas communes are places where nearly all time, space and resources are shared. Few Twin Oaks members own their own tools, instead using the community’s. Bike racks located throughout the community are full of bikes, available for use by whoever happens to take them. Members of Twin Oaks even share clothing, borrowing from and returning to their collective closet as needed. Most importantly, Twin Oaks shares its income, generated through community owned businesses, including the manufacture of tofu and hammocks, as well as others. One need not leave the community to participate in these income generating businesses, and work in these businesses is valued the same as domestic work, such as gardening or cooking.
This generation of shared income through cottage industry creates a blur between home life and work life not present in housing co-ops. Members of housing co-ops often split costs, but the money used to pay those costs usually comes from outside jobs that members work. Consequently, co-op members must budget their energy between their community and their jobs. At Twin Oaks, this split need not be made. Members are always at home and always at work, since their home and their work are the same. Eliminating the need to earn income elsewhere means members of Twin Oaks can focus energy more intently on their community, but it also means they cannot leave work when off duty and have less opportunity to take space from personal conflict. A community without cottage industry allows members to escape work at home or vice-versa, but this is not possible at Twin Oaks
For me, the blurred line between work and relaxation at Twin Oaks, had a therapeutic effect: I found myself to be more relaxed, even though I was just as busy as before I arrived at Twin Oaks, if not more so. My personal theory is that I was experiencing the recovery of energy that would otherwise be wasted on the tension between work and home life. While working at Twin Oaks I was not anxious to be done, and while relaxing I was not stressed about work. I found myself better able to put my energy into the moment at hand, since I didn’t feel I had someplace else to be. Where else was there to be, besides at Twin Oaks? While the combination of work and play may feel claustrophobic to some, I enjoyed the merge since, in my eyes, a life of work-play is more desirable than one with an artificial divide between these aspects of life. While living and working in the same community may be difficult when conflict occurs, such conflicts may provide opportunity to develop new relational capacities. Though combining work and home may come with challenges, I believe many would find the challenges outweighed by the benefits of increased continuity between career and community
Labor and governance systems
Aside from its increased level of sharing, Twin Oaks also differs from a housing co-op in its labor and governance systems. Very little labor at my previous co-op was assigned, most being done on a voluntary basis, and our governance structure followed what I would consider a fairly standard model for a non-profit, featuring a board of directors and a handful of committees that advise that board. In contrast to Cornucopia’s minimal assignment of labor, members of Twin Oaks must meet a weekly labor quota of 42 hours. Some creditable work can be picked up anytime, such as weaving hammocks, but most is scheduled each week by labor assigners, who take the schedules and work preferences of each member into consideration. Labor balances are tracked such that members consistently working more than the required 42 hours accumulate vacation time, and those consistently working less than quota fall into “the labor hole,” which can be grounds for expulsion in extreme cases.
The governance system at Twin Oaks, a unique planner-manager system modeled after B.F Skinner’s novel Walden Two, is closely coupled to it’s labor system. The internal economy of Twin Oaks contains around 100 labor areas, like garden, dairy or tofu, each area with a manager or managerial team. Each manager leads decision making in their particular labor area, determining how to allocate available money and labor in that area while keeping within yearly financial and labor budgets. Managers at Twin Oaks have considerable decision making power, but they operate transparently, with community input, and unpopular decisions can be overturned by appeal or popular veto.
Unlike within the decentralized, planner-manager system of Twin Oaks, most decisions at my co-ops of origin were made by the same body: the entire group. Some members were entrusted to oversee particular tasks, for example the house bookkeeper, but such roles came with very little decision making. Instead, house level decisions would be made by the entire residency using consensus, and organization level decisions would be made by the board of directors (also using consensus), with input from its various committees.
Since most decisions at Twin Oaks are made by its numerous managers, its central leadership can afford to be very small. The top decision making body at Twin Oaks is its board of planners, built of three planners on rotating 18 month terms. The planners do not micromanage the managers, but instead are only responsible for affairs that fall outside any managerships or arise in an emergency, such as long term visioning for the community or mitigating unexpected damage to a building. In comparison, the non-profit corporation that Cornucopia belongs to houses a number of people similar to Twin Oaks, but has around 15 directors on its board. This is partially because the governance structure used is less decentralized than at Twin Oaks, so proportionally more decisions fall to the board of directors.
Written versus spoken culture
The last point on which I will compare Twin Oaks with my co-ops of origin is a significant difference in their cultural mediums. While communication at Cornucopia and many other communities I’ve visited takes place though conversations and at meetings, Twin Oaks has a largely written culture. It is rare to find any majority of Twin Oaks members gathered in a single meeting, a fact made possible in part by the decentralized planner-manager system. One of the few times this does happen is during “feedbacks,” when a member has broken an agreement and the entire community offers their feedback to that member. More frequently, small groups will meet to discuss some shared interest or work area, but most community wide conversations take place on the O&I (opinion and idea) board, located in the main dining hall at Twin Oaks.
Two dozen or so clipboards hanging on the O&I board act as a forum for just about anything members of Twin Oaks want to discuss as a community. The O&I is home to proposed policy changes, commentary on community projects, ideological debates and articles members would like to discuss. Members read and comment on each other’s papers posted to the O&I, often discussing topics more thoroughly than would be possible in the space of a meeting. Even when announcing an event to the community, asking to borrow something or communicating one to one, the culture of Twin Oaks is uniquely written. The main dining hall at Twin Oaks contains a prominently displayed board designed to hold 3×5 cards, on which members make announcements, call for help with projects, seek community around a shared interest, and so on. Older cards are slid to the right and eventually removed, or cards denoting an event are moved to the “today” board on the day they occur. The Twin Oaks dining hall also has a wall of pouches, one for each Twin Oaker, where members can leave each other personal notes on 3×5 cards
The written culture of Twin Oaks, decentralized governance system and sparsity of meetings make it easy for members to ignore conversations not relevant to them, and even makes it possible for members with different areas of focus to generally not interact with one another. While some may see the option of avoidance as a weakness to the Twin Oaks system, ignoring one conversation can allow a member to focus on another more intently. Forced participation is unenjoyable, both for reluctant participants and those working with them, so allowing members to choose their own areas of engagement is universally more fulfilling, and does not create needless tension. Still, there are clear benefits to being well informed about happenings in the community, and many members choose to remain widely engaged, even though nothing forces them to.
A co-opers conclusion on communes
I came to Twin Oaks for the same reason I first joined a cooperative: to live a deeply held belief that society should be based on sharing and cooperation, instead of on cutthroat competition. Those who joined cooperatives for a similar reason may find the move to a commune such as Twin Oaks a natural one to make, and the similarities between these two types of communities are abundant. Communes hold the same basic values as housing cooperatives, but they go further to live them. Sharing income may be an alien and somewhat frightening concept to some, but if we wish to create an economy in which resources can be shared fairly, sharing resources fairly among ourselves, as is done in a commune, is an important place to start.
Some challenges may arise in an income sharing community, but ultimately I believe these challenges have the potential to make us better people. Living and working with the same group of people may make it difficult to escape from personal conflict; let it be an opportunity to solve our personal conflicts. Some people may prefer to keep their home and work lives separate; let their combination be an opportunity to have fun with our work and be serious about our play. Sharing decision making with 100 other people may feel like a sacrifice of personal freedom; let it be an opportunity to be kind to one another and find common ground.
Visiting Twin Oaks was a superb first experience of commune life, and I now find myself at the start of a journey exploring other income sharing communities, both urban and rural. Housing co-ops are wonderful, and I am so glad to have lived in one, but if I may make a suggestion to current co-opers, it would be this: go further; join a commune.