Lessons on Starting a Community

by Gil from Cambia

Let me confess right away that it was never rewarding. Unlike having my own child, fixing my own car, or building my own house, where I might have an inkling of accomplishment or other forms of ego stroke, starting a community (which I have done a few times) was never anything that I wanted to do, and I never really enjoyed it.

Then why do it over and over again? Simply put, I really wanted to join the community I was founding rather than be a founder; the problem is that the community I wanted to join wasn’t around (at least near by) so I had no choice but to start one.

Why over and over? Because they fail over and over. But just because death is guaranteed doesn’t mean life isn’t worth at least trying.


Here are some stories of why and how I started these communities:

The Refugee Co-op
During graduate school I was living with friends in a student co-op in California. We had a new member join whose level of obnoxiousness was fairly unprecedented. Several of us in the Co-op announced that we were going to leave if she stayed. The response of the other members was, “We really wish you guys could stay and she could leave but we don’t know how to get rid of her.” So we left. We rented a house, and had a bunch of our friends join us. It was fantastic; we had art on the walls and in the yard, we had gardens, we were dumpster diving every day, our driveway had solar ovens, we had a biodiesel station, fruit drying racks, and a mattress. Yes, our neighbors loved us and hated us. We would go to interesting talks together at the university, gleaning expeditions, parties, or just adventures. We had built a sleeping room for everyone and an innovative clothes dryer. We had the cheapest rent in the whole town, and it included utilities and food.

I’m still not sure why everyone left. The new people that came were just looking for a cheap place to live. I think there might have been a funny dynamic of people wanting to join a group that is growing; people can have a lot of fun together, but unless they feel like the place provides a real and continued personal growth avenue, they all end up leaving to expand their own horizons. So it crashed and we had no intentions of trying to resuscitate it.

CRIC House
After feeling fed up with my job and living in a big city, I decided to move to a real community and finally live my dream. So I moved to Green Valley Village in northern California. Huge gorgeous property with lots of growth potential. But when I got there I realized a few things about its dysfunction. I noticed things like their fantastic huge barn was completely filled with somebody’s stuff and therefore was unusable. There was no common space or facilities, there were no common tools, there were infrequent and weak work parties, and many of the people living on the property were there because it was the cheapest place they could find.

So with my life partner (at the time), we decided to start our own community inside of GVV. We made our own website (quite to the dismay of GVV) and attracted a lot of attention. Initially we only had borderline homeless people applying. It felt futile. We couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong. “Where are all the local anarchists???” we wondered. We gave it just long enough to find two awesome people and we were off to a great start. We relentlessly worked on projects together, had wwoofers and visitors join us, started to create our little empire in this strange old house in an abandoned lumber mill. We were making so much money from rent. People were clamoring to live in their vehicles or tree houses, or any way they could join us. We started leasing an adjacent building just to keep up with demand. We were the coolest anarchist collective ever with all our permaculture projects and close-knit relationships.

Maybe we got too big. Maybe we brought the wrong people.  Maybe we had no structure (surprise, surprise) for getting together to connect, work, repair, etc. and we ended up with members on our fringes. Some members stopped coming to meetings, some members stopped eating together, and some members weren’t sure exactly what they thought was so fantastic about us 6 months ago when they joined.

Personally, I was witnessing that some major cracks were forming and conflicts weren’t resolved but in fact were creating larger and larger rifts. My personal conflict with one of the members (my ex life partner and co-founder) was too large for the community to handle. People wanted to go on with their days and have things resolve themselves. So I moved away, with a new partner to the forest and started another community. CRIC house has since folded gradually and the property was sold.

Praxis was a new project creating an all off-grid natural building hobbit village on a forested hilltop. Unlike CRIC House this community didn’t have much draw. It lacked the student co-op funky energetic feel and with a newborn, limited water and power, and no road access, it stayed pretty small although it was a fantastic place to live and I still miss it dearly. It was a magical place with good people; we didn’t have to work as much with outside jobs to pay rent so we could spend more time creating beauty and playgrounds. We moved away because we could never own the land and would forever live in fear that one day code enforcement or our landlord would kick us out.

Now we are here in central Virginia. We’re creating an income sharing community among several other communities of the same persuasion. Starting this one is dramatically easier and more secure. No code enforcement issues, no fires, droughts, real estate speculations, or vineyards. And, unlike California communities, these communities have a high degree of mutual support such as sharing parties, paid work, equipment, applicants, advice, membership, and labor. I believe being leftist islands in a generally bright red state helps with the clearer boundaries. Boundaries that do not really exist in northern California with its highly liberal general population.

Being a new community, we are very vulnerable to new members who might not be a fit yet feel like they can shift things into more selfish and less communal directions. The advantage of being here is that we can draw upon applicants that are members of other communities without having to go through the exhaustion of rejecting applicants who are not a fit, or even worse accepting ones that don’t really want to or know how to live communally.


Below is a list of important lessons from the various communities including: the Refugee Co-op, CRIC house, Praxis, and Cambia. Lessons are given in no particular order, and um, you might want to forego the grain of salt and take these lessons with some water or plain rice, they are a little spicy and I’m not sure I completely agree with all of them.

1. You are not reinventing the wheel, nor are you unearthing a prehistoric wheel. You are yet another toddling community of the same species as many other communities that are trying to create a lifestyle alternative to the alienated and destructive world we live in. Granted, all communities are a little different from one another. But different in the same way that a business doesn’t need to state: “We are joyfully celebrating capitalism and finding a place in its vast network”, they just say: “We’re a business”, and the rest is obvious. Don’t get me wrong, what you are doing is awesome and essential; you are a superhero, but realize you are joining a movement and not spearheading a brand new one.

2. Intentions and vision statements are neither sufficient nor necessary. Read the following:

3. When people ask you “What is your vision?”, they might not know what they are really asking. Have you ever met a young couple who are about to get married and asked them: “So what’s your vision for your relationship?”  That would be pretty weird, right? A family is also (ideally) a cooperative unit that fosters love, sharing, and support among its members. To know whether a family is functional or dysfunctional you don’t need to read their vision statement; you observe the degree to which they foster sharing love and support. On a greater scale, to find out if a nation or humanity as a whole is functional or dysfunctional you don’t need to know its purpose; a civilization that destroys its own natural resources, subjugates many of its members, and doesn’t care about its future generation is a failure regardless of stated purpose.

4. So what are people really asking? I think people really want to know: “How passionate and committed are you to cooperative living?” I think they are wanting to hear how clearly you can articulate it, and how passionate you are when you speak about it.

5. Okay, there’s one more thing they really want to know: They want to know if the community you are founding will have a “theme”. Kinda like people want to know if a party will have a theme, or what the rules are of a game. They do not evaluate the game or party based on their rules, goals, or theme. But you can guess it would be a pretty boring party or game if they have nothing but “just people getting together to have a good time or whatever”–which granted is a necessary condition, but isn’t sufficient as a title or a purpose.

6. So should a community have a theme or a purpose? Absolutely! You can be a community devoted to performance art, plastic recycling, Sufi dancing, gender deconstructionism, animal rescue, compost innovations, or naked poi spinning. It doesn’t really matter, but you need a theme or a purpose, just like you need a name for your community.  It helps people to want to join the party.

7. How to recruit people? I don’t really know. It’s all in social media and potlucks, right? In my experience people do not want to join a community that is starting with one person and certainly not one that is starting with a couple. It really helps to have another co-conspirator that you are not romantically involved with to make people feel like “it’s a thing”. As soon as you are 3 people it should get much much easier.

8. Is it a good idea to use Craigslist to find new people?  In my experience, if you sound too weird nobody will be interested and you must have pictures or people won’t believe you exist. If living in your community is the most affordable option be ready to get all sorts of hobos contacting you. Have your contact information buried deep in the ad and use a different email address than the Craigslist one, that way you can filter those who read your ad or your site from those that are mass-emailing all the cheapest options.

9. Just because applicants are interested in gardening and friends doesn’t mean they are good for your community. Even if they can recite the entire Communist Manifesto and Gaia’s Garden. People can have the best intentions, but some of them, when they get upset, they get vicious. Reference checks, in all seriousness, and social media might be enough. And if you can meet applicant’s mom and see how they relate you can learn a lot about people’s emotional patterns. Though I don’t think you can make it a formal requirement. Oh, and consider approaching people individually.

CRIC5 10. Establish structure! It doesn’t have to be chore wheel, it just has to be a system of feedback and inclusivity. It can be that Tuesday is an all domestic work day and Wednesday we all go to the beach, or “Once a day at dinner everyone gives progress report of one sentence”, and Saturdays is open mic and fondue night. I suggest doing things together or near each other like “work in the yard together in the morning” rather than “make up your own schedule”.  You might find everyone is on facebook friending each other rather than actually being together and becoming better friends. Be ready to face opposition, and be ready to give into it. Americans do not tolerate being told when to do things, unless it’s by their boss, in which case they refer to it as a career and feel better about it.

11. Make the structure visible: Have a big project board, hang people’s poetry on the wall, have pictures of members placed into the “Today’s dictator is…” frame, provide special clothes for “don’t talk to me I’m busy” mode, etc.

12. Watch out for single moms running away from their boyfriends! Be especially weary when you hear that they’ve worked things out with their boyfriend and now he wants to join the community.

13. Be clear on what your role is and when it will change, like: “This car is my car, until a year from now, when the community buys it from me, and then it’s everyone’s,” or “I approve of applicants for the first year, until we establish new membership, and then I’m an equal voter to everyone.” Don’t be afraid of being the decision maker but don’t cement that role to yourself.

14. Identify your skills and identify your weaknesses. Everyone in your community might know that you are the most organized, but if you don’t declare: “I’m the organizer until we elect someone new,” many people would rebel against your assumed power, even if they want you to maintain it.

15. It’s fine to let provisional members choose new members, but let it be done one at a time. I have found that even wwoofers or visitors that are there for only two weeks can act in the best interest of the community when they are not receiving any direct benefit from their choices. They could very clearly identify who would be a benevolent decision maker for the community and who is wrapped up in themselves. But not always, not everyone. Unskilled people can still often make the right choices amongst several options, but by no means can they “generate” the right options if they don’t know how to do things. (e.g. I can be a good movie critic without being a good actor)

16. Always trust a little bit more than you probably should. Tell people: “I believe you can do this project and I want to support you if you need my support.” It would yield much better results than saying: “Be sure to run everything through me or someone who knows; you are obviously new and inexperienced.” Let people have access to the cashbox, but make them write down or announce what they spent money on and what money they made for the community. Feedback is more powerful than rules.

17. Have your goal for the community stated on the wall. Just because people know what it is, doesn’t mean that they are sure that everyone knows that they know that others know… infinitively. The stating on the wall helps prevent the unraveling of that infinitive chain.

18. If you don’t spend time having fun together, you will spend twice as much time trying to resolve conflicts together. But I still can’t figure out how to “legislate” or encourage participation in fun without going bankrupt on buying beer.

Lessons on Starting a Community

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