Kat Kinkade, the anti-guru: her complex but enduring legacy

by Keenan Dakota

From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” Karl Marx

Kat Kinkade, the founder of three successful communal ventures, who re-defined contemporary utopian theory, and who spearheaded the rebirth of a communal movement, improbably spent her waning years living alone in a small house with just her cats and pet rabbits for company.

Kat Kinkade

I first met Kat in 1982, and remained her friend until her death. On December sixth, the day that would have been Kat Kinkade’s ninetieth birthday, I looked her up online. I knew Kat to be a towering intellect and a complicated person, but the Kat Kinkade that I knew, and the legacy that she has left, were not represented in the articles I found. So I want to try here to take a shot at setting the record straight about Kat Kinkade.

In 1967, at the age of 36, Kat Kinkade didn’t merely want to start a commune where she and her daughter could live, she wanted to build a communal movement. After starting Twin Oaks, she founded the magazine, Leaves of Twin Oaks. She edited Communities Magazine and made sure that Twin Oaks kept the magazine afloat by putting in a great deal of money and labor until, many years later, it eventually became self-sustaining. Communities Magazine annually produced a Directory of Communities—the sole reference source for seekers looking for intentional communities. Later, Communities Magazine went online, creating the web site ic.org, still the go-to informational center of the global intentional communities movement.

Kat wrote and published two books, A Walden Two Experiment, and Is it Utopia Yet, about the founding and evolution of Twin Oaks Community. Twin Oaks held the first communities conference a year after getting started. This enduring yearly event (between 100 and 200 participants each non-covid year) has been the birthplace of dozens of additional communal ventures. Kat helped found the network of income-sharing communities, the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. That organization provided the inspiration, template, and early staff for the much larger, more expansive communal network, the Foundation for Intentional Community.

Kat Kinkade approached her movement building with missionary zeal. Her mission: a society based upon absolute equality. Kat meant to forge a model of society that would manage to defy the central failure of societies world-wide—the gravitational tendency of wealth to concentrate; the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. So, how do you know if a society has attained equality?

Equality in a community is a relationship structured so that no member envies another. Simple. [Equality creates]a general feeling of fairness, a logical first step in the pursuit of happiness.

(Kat in “Journal of a Walden Two Commune,” from “Walden House Newsletter,” Aug, 1966, p. 14)

My attitude to every request for special privilege was always the same: “Why you?” In other words, what is there about you that makes you deserve to have more than other people? …

I was known as a hard-nosed egalitarian, and this is one of the reasons people called me “very idealistic.”

(Kat in Is It Utopia Yet? 1994, p. 46-50)

Kat read the novel, Walden Two, about a fictional utopian society written by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner. She became inspired, and wasted no time gathering a small handful of other idealists who saw this book as a how-to manual for starting an actual utopian community.

Even as those first eight pioneers unloaded their bags from a van in June of 1967, adherents arrived, eager to join, but, over the coming years, the community chose, to Kat’s enduring disappointment, to put new applicants on a wait list, allowing the community to grow only at a modest pace. In a few years, frustrated that her cohorts lacked appropriate enthusiasm for growth, Kat left Twin Oaks and founded East Wind community. Kat Kinkade’s goal was to gather up all of those eager young people seeking community being turned away by Twin Oaks and to quickly grow East Wind to several hundred members. Kat drafted East Wind’s initial policies in order to welcome open membership as a means to spur growth. Kat’s stated ambition was for the community to grow to 1,000 members. Yet, as East Wind stabilized at around fifty or so members, contentiousness escalated. Rather then fostering tolerance, strife from open membership caused the community to change direction, slow growth, and become more selective.

Disappointed yet again, Kat Kinkade left East Wind. Eventually, Kat rejoined Twin Oaks where, twenty years later, as Twin Oaks had a growing wait list, Kat set about starting her third communal experiment, Acorn community, essentially an anti-Twin Oaks, and an anti-East Wind. No longer focused on rapid growth, Acorn would remain small. There would be more commitment to interpersonal connection, less focus on written policy. At Acorn, financial rules would be looser than at Twin Oaks, so people could meet individual needs more easily.

All three communities, Twin Oaks, East Wind, and Acorn continue to thrive today.

Although all founded at different times and having differing premises, among these different communities there are structural commonalities:

–A commitment to financial and political equality among all members—no class divide.

–The structure of the community is a corporation. The corporation owns everything. No individual’s name is on anything—not a house, a plot of land, or even a car—therefore, no one person will control decisions.

–Equity accrues to the community—no draining of communal coffers for personal pay-outs if (when) members leave.

–In case of dissolution of the community, communal assets are not divided up among the members—no temptation to dismember the community once it becomes financially successful.

–Labor is valued equally—no tendency to develop a professional elite. This type of labor ideology also recognizes as valuable work that in other societies is devalued and done by the disempowered—often a racial minority, or women, or immigrants, or children—or all of the above.

–Members accepted on the basis of their ability to work and get along with others—no purchasing membership privileges.

Keenan and Kat

Kat Kinkade and I were, bizarrely, both in the same visitor group at Twin Oaks, applying for membership in 1982. Kat was returning from her stint living “in the wilderness” after leaving East Wind. (The wilderness, in this case, was Boston.) While living at Twin Oaks, Kat did not hold back on expressing her disappointment at the many failures of the community. I was surprised to hear the founder disagreeing with the entire premise of the community that she founded, and where she was living.

Part of my disillusionment came from watching the worst aspects of communism in action. I saw a larger and larger part of the community sitting around on the front steps of the dining hall smoking cigarettes and drinking their wake-up coffee at 11 in the morning, and heard them ridicule as “workaholics” the people who made the money and kept the organization together. There was gross exploitation, but in reverse. The proletariat was exploiting the manager.

Particular personalities are watchdogs to make sure that nobody else gets more than them. I just loathe this trait. So little by little I thought, “This is not merely an ugly trait in a particular individual.” Our rigid equality sanctifies envy. You know what I said when we first started this community back in 1967? I wrote, “Equality in our community is that state in which no one member envies another.

(Kat in Is It Utopia Yet? 1994, p. 87-89)

It took me about seven years and a fair amount of self-examination, as well as observation of the people I lived with, to discover some unsettling things about my equality theory. People will and do work for the common good…when the Community desperately needs to have a great deal of work done in a hurry, it relies about ninety percent on good will, personal conscience, the labor system, and community feeling…if we’re going to get the other ten percent, we need to add an incentive program of some kind, some method by which added effort gets added reward. I have learned that personal gain is, not a stronger motivation than the good of the Community, but a more reliable one. I no longer preach absolute equality. I live…a rough equality that doesn’t create gross differences or engender severe envy. Give people a little chance to serve themselves on the side, and they will give heartily out of their core efforts for the group.

(Kat in Is It Utopia Yet? 1994, p. 46-50)

Kat, in her later years, tried to gently moderate the extreme egalitiarianism embodied in Twin Oaks’ policies—the very policies that, years earlier, she had drafted. Kat, as a community planner, created communal labor budgets that allowed people to write music, articles, books and plays—as well as to perform music and plays. Kat was part of a group that re-worked the labor system to allow more individual flexibility (Members who worked more hours each week would gain more freedom from labor constraints.) Kat established a committee that offered labor and money grants to individual members for their personal hobbies or needs. To allow people to travel, Kat created a seniority-based vacation fund. Kat supported the community in creating an income incentive program that allowed a member or groups of members to work “off the system” for money to fund personal and group projects.

However, Twin Oaks was populated by idealists why had been drawn to Kat’s earlier writings about absolute equality—many had not kept up with Kat’s own evolving ideology. Each of Kat’s proposed “liberalizing” policies was approved only over resistance, or allowed only on a temporary, experimental basis. As Kat lost political influence these policies were re-examined, cut back, or canceled completely. Currently at Twin Oaks, every one of these policies that Kat favored has been undone.

Kat Kinkade eventually just wanted to live on her own. In 2005, at the age of 74, she moved into a small house near Twin Oaks, paid for by her daughter. Soon after that Kat was diagnosed with cancer. In 2007, once she began to seriously decline, Kat moved back to Twin Oaks, and died in July of 2008. Her daughter, Josie, a doctor, said that her Mom received Rolls Royce care those final months at Twin Oaks.

Online these days, uninformed critics of communal living refer to Kat Kinkade as a guru—they paint a fearsome picture of her as a domineering presence. Kat provided leadership, but she did not have the traits typically associated with a guru. She started a new community and, once it was on its feet, she left. By this means, Kat ensured that other leaders emerged, overcoming the problem of “founder’s syndrome.” Kat did not feel threatened when members aspired to leadership, rather, she sought out and encouraged leadership in others. Far from being the keeper of the ideological light, Kat was often critical of whatever community she lived in, this granted space for other members to step forward as the public face of the community. Kat actively disliked acolytes. She gave short shrift to anyone who could not engage in a lively intellectual debate—she was pleased by members who could cogently disagree with her.

Being willing to actually change her mind was the key attribute of Kat’s that allowed her to be so effective. Kat believed in honestly looking at her own beliefs—even deeply held beliefs—to see if they held up in the light of new information. Kat believed in trying things out—experimenting—then examining and accepting the results of those experiments. Because Kat Kinkade grounded her actions and policies in reality-based information, what she created endures—three thriving communities and a thriving communal movement. Thank you, Kat.

Kat Kinkade, the anti-guru: her complex but enduring legacy

5 thoughts on “Kat Kinkade, the anti-guru: her complex but enduring legacy

  1. Jake Kawatski says:

    Like Keenan, I lived with the older, wiser Kat when she had returned to Twin Oaks in the 1980s. I shared the Plannership with her and was annoyed by her reluctance to share the secretary role at our meetings. For someone in leadership, she seemed thin-skinned. I used to say, “She could dish it out, but she couldn’t take it.” Her greatest strength was her writing skill, she could get to the heart of controversies and be persuasive. We shared a love of choral music, and I am grateful for the enthusiasm she had for acapella singing.

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  2. Leslie says:

    Keenan, I appreciate this telling of Kat’s legacy, and your observations of her changes of heart, as the ideals she began with became distorted and rigidified. I agree that, with all her strong opinions, she was open to a good-natured debate with true interest in considering a point of view she hadn’t considered before. She was an excellent listener, and could articulate the many sides of a single notion.
    Her O&I papers were clever, thought-provoking, and challenging. She often would come out and say what many were thinking, but hesitant to express.
    To me, Kat was a practical radical. She used her horse-sense to form uncommon ideas that made sense to her, and clearly captured the imagination of those of us who joined in, for however long.
    Thanks, Keenan. I value this opportunity to remember and recognize Kat’s contribution to the entire intentional communities movement, as well as to my own life as a communitarian. (Twin Oaks,’83-’95).

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  3. Thank you Keenan for this corrective and thoughtful account. I’m sorry to hear that she is portrayed as a “guru” online, because she was amazingly not tempted by her power to use it in accruing power. That is, I consider, one of the most remarkable things about her, and a factor that contributed to Twin Oaks’ success. I am impressed that she could come from her beginnings and end up the remarkable person that she was. She changed my life.

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