If you are looking for a nice peaceful life in a commune, forget it. I often tell people starting communities, that conflict is not a question of if, but of when.
This isn’t a design flaw of communities. Basically, whenever you have two or more people doing something together, at some point, there’s going to be conflict. This is because no two people are identical and no two people see things the same way. Add more people and there are more chances for conflict.
And the important thing to realize is that conflict isn’t bad. In fact, working it through is a good way to reach a better solution than simply accepting what one person says. This is why consensus is more powerful than voting. In voting, the minority is overpowered. In consensus, you need to listen to everyone and try to learn from each side.
And I say all this as someone who is a chronic conflict avoider. Believe me, I am scared of conflict. But I’m even more scared of not dealing with conflict. Not dealing with conflict is one of the things that destroyed a community that I loved.
After it was all over, one of the folks I had been in community with asked me if I hadn’t been aware of all the conflict going on. I replied that I knew it was happening, I just didn’t know what to do about it. So I basically ignored it.
I still don’t know what to do with conflict, but I’ve learned a few things. The first is to actually say, “Hey, there’s conflict happening. We should deal with this.” It doesn’t go away by pretending it isn’t happening–in fact that generally makes it worse.
Listening generally does help. If you can, don’t take sides. Assume there are good reasons for all positions and try to figure out what each person needs.
And sometimes a mediator helps–someone who is outside the situation and sometimes someone who is outside the community.
A few other things about conflict. What I’ve found is that the bigger the community, the less intense conflicts are. It seems counter intuitive until you realize that with a couple, for example, each of them will try to meet all their needs from the other person. The more people there are, the more points of view, the more different people who can meet folks needs, the bigger the buffer, the more likely there will be folks who can hear all sides.
And, for the last couple of years, I’ve been living in a community that embraces conflict. It’s been amazing to see people who will be screaming at each other in a meeting (this doesn’t happen all the time but it happens enough) and later be working together. These folks have lived like this for years.
And this leads to looking at one other thing about conflict. The goal isn’t to eliminate it, the goal is to make it safe to deal with. And something that makes it safe is commitment. If you know that you can disagree with folks, get upset with folks, even occasionally yell at folks, and they are not going to run away or never speak with you again, then it makes conflict more possible and therefore more manageable.
So the commitments we have help us weather the conflicts and the conflicts make us stronger. If you want a commune that can last, learn to deal with conflict.
It seems to me that Twin Oaks is thriving, but I don’t want to believe that Twin Oaks is doing well when we are not. The Farm in Tennessee went bankrupt in the eighties because they thought they were doing fine, when actually they were sliding deep into debt. So is there some sort of accurate empirical measure of the health of a commune?
Twin Oaks doesn’t have any debt—that’s significant—perhaps the most significant economic indicator there is. Twin Oaks’ Dun and Bradstreet rating is as high as it can be for a “business” our size. So Twin Oaks is unlikely to fail due to debt. Maybe that’s all we need to know. But I wonder…
Using other economic indicators, Twin Oaks is doing rather poorly. For instance, everyone at Twin Oaks lives below the poverty line. Twin Oakers could get food stamps since we qualify, but we really don’t need food stamps, we can grow our own food, thank you very much.
Twin Oaks is larger, at 500 acres, than a handful of countries; if Twin Oaks were a country what would our GDP be? [From Wikipedia: Gross domestic product (GDP) is the market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a year. GDP per capita is often considered an indicator of a country’s standard of living and is one of the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country’s economy.] If Twin Oaks were a country, economically we’d be at about the same level of GDP as Armenia, Swaziland, and Guatemala. That’s not good.
Collectively, Twin Oaks’ bank account might seem large, but divided out among 110 people, it’s not that much. Why is it since Twin Oaks has no debt, we own 500 acres, have a dozen buildings, run a handful of successful business that we don’t rank better using standard economic indicators?
There are some other economic indicators that can be measured at Twin Oaks, e.g. Unemployment: current unemployment in the United States is just above seven percent. [This is actually falsely low, since there are many people who would like to have a job, but who have given up looking; they are considered employed, or at least, they aren’t counted as unemployed–OK, that’s bizarre] Twin Oaks has zero unemployment. Everyone works, unless they are elderly or sick. That is, if you can work; you work; if you can’t work, you don’t work. Twin Oaks has always had full employment. By that statistic Twin Oaks is doing great.
In the mainstream economy a worker cannot casually try out being a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic, an accountant etc. Students must pick a career path early, expend lots of time and money getting the required certification, and only then see whether the work is suitable. Additionally, it does not pay to be a dilettante in the mainstream culture. Work security comes from working full time, and work satisfaction comes (if it comes at all) from getting promotions.
Twin Oaks does not have protective barriers around jobs. Anyone can try anything that they want to try. The outcome is a labor scene that is far different from the mainstream labor scene—immeasurably different. No one works at one job at Twin Oaks; people easily switch jobs. People, we discover, are happier not having to work 40 hours at one job. And still the work of the community gets done. There is no work sabotage, or sneaking off with inventory. Twin Oaks wins on worker satisfaction.Because there is no unemployment at Twin Oaks, there is no class stratification. Because there is no class stratification there is no poverty, no crime, no need to hire a police force, or live in a state of constant fear. The crime rate is, essentially zero. Twin Oaks wins on crime statistics and, of course, income inequality.
Twin Oaks is hardly outside of the market economy in our businesses. Twin Oaks’ hammocks business has been thriving for over thirty-five years while other hammocks businesses in the United States have gone out of business. Twin Oaks’ tofu business and East Wind’s nut butter business demonstrate that a communal society can successfully start and operate a capital-intensive business.
When Pier One Imports dropped Twin Oaks hammocks, which accounted for 75% of Twin Oaks’ income at that time, there was no desperation or impetus to start making a shoddy product, do false advertising, or other strategies common for mainstream businesses undergoing stress. Workers switched to other work, the community expanded smaller businesses, and everyone took an equal pay cut, metaphorically speaking. The other businesses grew. Within two years, Twin Oaks’ income was back to where it was. And, of course, no one was laid off.
During this time , a well-established and well-known leisure goods company approached Twin Oaks to make cotton hammocks. Twin Oaks had, at that time, slack production capacity. The offer sounded very profitable for Twin Oaks. but we turned the offer down. Why? Because cotton rope is hard to work with; the rope is heavy and would have contributed to wrist injuries. Also, cotton hammocks don’t last as long. We would be selling an inferior product at a higher price. None of the workers wanted to work with cotton hammocks. If the order had been accepted, it is likely that workers would have found work elsewhere in our community.
Health, happiness, and ethics won out over mere profit. How do you measure that decision? Literally, how can you measure happiness? How to measure an un-hurt wrist, or a happier workplace? Doing work that is aligned with your own ethical compass? Those considerations don’t have much of a place in the mainstream economic model.
The goal of mainstream economics is to atomize society into individual consumers and to monetize every transaction so that they can be more accurately measured. People re-using stuff, and people sharing stuff all lower global GPD. Growing a garden lowers GDP. Sharing a car with a neighbor lowers GDP. The goal of Twin Oaks is to bind people together in a strong, mutually-supportive group. The by-product of these structural decisions is that lives at Twin Oaks are de-monetized; being de-monetized, Twin Oakers lives don’t measure up.
Boom and bust cycles, unemployment, class-stratification, planned obsolescence, poverty, crime—these are the logical, predictable, and inevitable outcomes of mainstream economic measures. Not the system, not inefficiencies in the system, not poor implementation of capitalism; the very yardstick itself causes these bad outcomes.
Maybe the yardstick itself is wrong.
Maybe the yardstick itself is wrong…Imagine that building materials weren’t measured in inches and feet (or centimeters and meters), but, let’s say, by weight. So, the only thing we would be able to measure on a building is its weight. Obviously, a bigger house would weigh more. Wealthy people would want to live in a house that is massive. The wealthiest people would compete to have “the heaviest house in the world.” Building trades would quickly adapt and start using materials by weight and clamoring for heavy materials. Developers would want to appeal to the upper class by advertising how much heavier their homes are than other similar homes. You can run this bizarre fantasy out yourself, everything in the building trade would get distorted, and, more to the point, houses would not be better in any sense of the word, in fact, many houses would be worse.
Mainstream economic measures give rise to a fundamental short-sightedness that we at Twin Oaks would do well to avoid. At Twin Oaks we are not bound to an irrational economic philosophy. When asked what ideology or philosophy Twin Oaks uses in guiding our decisions we can only gesture vaguely in the direction of our collective judgment.
Mainstream economic models measure something, but that something is not really relevant to Twin Oaks. Twin Oaks uses a more nuanced—human-centered, ethics-based, long-range decision making model. This makes the comparison of Twin Oaks as an economic entity with other economic entities essentially impractical, if not impossible. What Twin Oaks does doesn’t often make “economic” sense, but it makes “sense”–sense in the human-scale, ethical, sustainable way that people typically mean when they use the phrase “makes sense.”
Each year Twin Oaks is doing better at being communal, that is, we put up solar panels, develop hydroelectric power, share more with each other, and provide more of our own entertainment. Each of these steps in the direction of more communalness makes us slide ever downward in our economic indicators. Until there is a widely accepted measure of happiness, of sustainability, or of ethical living, Twin Oaks won’t be able to come up with an empirical analysis to demonstrate to the world how effective and sensible what we are doing is.
The conference was at Terra Madre Gardens outside of Escondido, CA, all of 40 miles from the Mexico border. Hot and dry, succulents seemed to be having a grand old time and even the oak trees’ leaves had spikes like hollies as if to say “keep your thieving mitts off of my water!”
Welcome to the conference! Here’s an orientation board.
The folks at registration came up with a colorful way of communicating what you were seeking in an intentional community.
Much conversation was had over the delicious food cooked by the crew at Terra Madre Gardens.
Sky opens the conference on Friday night with some framing thoughts for the weekend ahead.
Alayha, the event’s MC (and occasional cosmic clown), gets the crowd warmed up before one of the workshops.
The dining area was always active with conversations large and small.
GPaul and Betsy share their thoughts on a panel at the conference.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
The latest documentary on East Wind has just been published. It is a short film created by TRT News. My voice was used for much of the transition narration (I was provided with a script, but the documentary producer did allow us some amount of editorial control). This is the result of a five day visit and is a very good introduction to our community. Check it out below!