Toward Radical Accessibility in the Intentional Communities Movement

By Anthony Beck- aka Telos

“Do you live in a community?” This is a question I hear people ask often, and Ed Whitfield, our keynote speaker at this year’s Twin Oaks Communities Conference, was asked it often enough that he finally answered it for the entire room: like most people, Ed does live in a community, although he does not live in an intentional community. Since I heard him say this, I’ve kept a special awareness of the fact that intentional communities are far from the only kind of community. I’m thankful for this fact, because as much as I appreciate intentional communities (and live in them), they make a poor monolith.

One of the hard truths of intentional community is that it isn’t as diverse, inclusive, and accessible as many of us might think or hope. While we may be egalitarian on paper, while we do not explicitly discriminate on the basis of race, class, gender, or age, we live in a society that does, and that societal current should not be underestimated. Despite our egalitarian aspirations, it’s not hard to see that membership in intentional communities tends toward being middle class, white, and able-bodied, this author included.

In subtle (and sometimes overt) ways, intentional communities can reproduce some of the patterns of racism, classism, ableism, etc, that exist in society at large. For example, because whiteness is the established norm of many intentional communities, they are not culturally accessible to some people, especially people of color. People that don’t fit that existing (predominantly white) culture are too often left with only three choices: assimilate, take on the hard work of shifting the cultural inertia, or choose not to participate. It shouldn’t be surprising how often they choose the third option, leaving demographics and the culture that has been limiting them unchanged. While culture is complex, the fact that one commune in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities requires its members hold US citizenship is a simple and straightforward form of exclusion. In terms of class, intentional communities can unwittingly exclude working and poor people by requiring that applicants visit for a period of three weeks or longer. Those unable to take three weeks away from work often cannot visit in the first place, and their membership process ends there. As members, those without assets also face more risk if they choose to leave the commune. Because members of FEC communities don’t build personal equity, those that join without savings often must leave without them. Finally, communes in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities are also regularly critiqued as ableist, because they require a set number of working hours or have a culture of work that is just too much for some people. Even among those already living in intentional community, I regularly witness frustration with some of these alienating dynamics, and some people leave because of them. Though intentional community may be considered an improvement over conventional society in many ways, we still have a long way to go.

 

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To be clear, I’m not performing this roast of my own movement in order to be discouraging. Quite the opposite: I’m doing so because I have high expectations of it, and I’m issuing a call for us to rise to this challenge. As a communard, I’m here to create a viable alternative to capitalism and the exploitation implicit in it. I’m here to create something that is inclusive, accessible, and supportive in ways that capitalism is not, that creates a real sense of communion in ways that capitalism does not. Yet we still have lots of work to do before achieving this, and we cannot move forward without putting honest eyes on where we fall short and correcting accordingly. The intentional communities movement has been largely white, middle class and able-bodied since it took off in the 60’s, and this legacy continues. We will not outgrow it without effort. I know that plenty of others in communes and other types of intentional communities share my utopian intentions, but while intention is an important starting point, it is only a starting point. We are going to have to work hard to make good on those noble intentions.

Unfortunately, one of the dangers of intentional communities is that they risk losing sight of the wider world and its needs as they attempt to create a utopian microcosm. As we strive to create a good life for our members, we can too easily forget to consider who is outside our membership and why. Even when we do recognize that our membership is skewed in the white and middle-class direction, that fact is too often written off as unfortunate, but outside of our control, and we miss an opportunity to explore the role we’ve played in creating that reality. That missed opportunity is a huge loss for our cause. To pass it by is to forfeit our power to learn, grow, and build wider solidarity. Especially at this moment when oppressed people are experiencing an increase in open hostility, some of the most important work in front of the intentional communities movement is removing all barriers to solidarity with those who need it.

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How can we do a better job of showing up for the disenfranchised and making intentional communities more accessible to them? First and foremost, we must listen, and then we must follow up on that listening by proactively changing. We must be willing to listen to those marginalized voices we are most likely to exclude, so that we can understand what their needs are, and how those needs are and aren’t being met. We must also compassionately hold space for those intense emotions (such as frustration) that sometimes arise in our communities, and seek to hear their wisdom. Difficult emotions are typically indicators of unmet needs, and we can use them as tools to identify the unhealthy parts of a community’s culture: the areas in which we most need to grow. We’re not likely to catch all our shortcomings in one round of receptive listening, so we must do it continuously, until it becomes second nature. Through listening attentively, we must recognize those aspects of our practices and culture that act as barriers or drive people away, and then we must proactively dismantle what is not serving us. This cycle of listening and acting is the most fundamental process that we must embrace as a movement.

Some action is already underway to remove barriers to membership in FEC communes. Exit funds for leaving members and more flexible membership processes are among such endeavors, but perhaps the most complicated conversation related to accessibility is about racial and cultural inclusivity. This conversation is potentially very slow, personal, and uncomfortable, and it will certainly involve a lot of reflection, on both the individual and community level.  Because it’s a difficult conversation, some might prefer to not have it, but it’s extremely important that we not only make time for it, but make it an ongoing priority. We must listen, withhold judgment, patiently sit with any discomfort that arises, change ourselves, and repeat. Unless we are comfortable with the current demographics of intentional communities (and I’m not), this is work we must commit to continuously.

In the meantime, there are ways to make intentional communities more accessible in the near term. One idea favored by several people of color I’ve shared community with is to prioritize the creation of new communes that are intended as spaces for people of color, where members do not have to do constant work to assimilate or overcome an established culture of whiteness. This is an idea I definitely support, because it would immediately create better space for people of color in the intentional communities movement without requiring that existing communes change all at once. Another strategy I’ve discussed is for intentional communities to adopt policies that require their membership to reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of the surrounding community as closely as possible. Comparable policies that ensure balanced age and gender distributions already exist at some communes. It’s time we consider making a  codified commitment to cultural balance as well (without tokenizing people).

Besides making intentional communities more accessible for those that wish to live in them, we must also learn to make ourselves and our resources more accessible to those that do not wish to live in intentional community. The movement for a better world is a lot bigger than intentional communities, and we have a lot of resources besides membership in our communes that we might offer that greater struggle. Let’s act in solidarity without holding hopes of recruitment. Let’s offer space, food, connections, knowledge, etc. to those doing good work whenever we can.

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When we ignore the need to make our work and our resources accessible to the disenfranchised, we are performing a disservice, not only to the world, but also to ourselves. The most experienced egalitarians out there are among the oppressed: the ones who share out of necessity, not simply choice. As long as our work is not accessible to them, we’re missing out on the opportunity to work with them, and it’s possible that the people who should be leading our movement aren’t even at the table. Without them, our movement is not as effective as it could be, and our communities lack the richness they could have.

Despite (and because of) the difficulty and depth of this work toward more radical accessibility, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for us to prioritize it if we want to be in the business of creating a better world. It may involve the creation of some policies, but moreso it will involve building relationships and reevaluating priorities. It will require thinking of marginalized people not just as metrics, but as people we are curious about and excited to work with. To use a quote that’s now so widely spread that I’m unable to attribute it, “If it’s inaccessible to the poor, it is neither radical nor revolutionary.” Since I know plenty of communards (myself often included) who have some attachment to being radical and/or revolutionary, making our work accessible must be our top priority. We are too often only supportive of this work when it is convenient, or if someone else is doing it, but marginalized people constantly confront issues of accessibility, by necessity, not choice. In the spirit of egalitarianism, we too must make this work an essential and mandatory part of what we do.  

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Toward Radical Accessibility in the Intentional Communities Movement

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