From IN COMMUNITY
By Sky Blue (Peacewithinchaos@Gmail.Com)
If I had a dime for every time someone said, “if only there was a Twin Oaks on the west coast…” well, I’d maybe only have ten bucks, but it’s been frequent enough that if it existed I’m sure it would be popular. For reference, I was a member at Twin Oaks for 14 years, and have been in its orbit for 22. Check out the photos.
There are lots of great intentional communities on the west coast. So, what does Twin Oaks have that communities on the west coast don’t?
Twin Oaks is a 100 person, rural, income-sharing community. I’m not aware of any communities on the west coast that have those characteristics. But so what? Why does that matter?
Having no buy-in, and community businesses that provide most of the community’s income, Twin Oaks is one of the few non-religious communities that you can theoretically join with nothing but the clothes on your back and not need to find a job. This combined with a high degree of resource sharing means that the amount of money the community needs per person is relatively low, around $7500 per person per year. Labor quota at Twin Oaks is 42 hrs/wk, but the average member only has to spend about 15 – 20 hrs/wk working in the community businesses. The rest of your quota goes towards things you’d normally have to do on top of a 40 hr work week but don’t get paid for.
This has a number of benefits.
In many other communities you have to do anywhere from 5 to 20 hours a week for the community (there’s often an inverse relationship between how much you have to pay to live in a community and how many hours you have to do) on top of needing to figure out how to provide for yourself financially. This is especially challenging in rural areas.
The pervasive money-stress and vulnerability that exists in mainstream capitalism is mitigated by the collective responsibility the community takes for its financial needs.
It also means more time for, among other things, care work. Childcare, eldercare, and caring for sick, injured, or struggling members all count towards your labor quota. Sick hours can be taken as needed. There’s about 4 weeks of free labor credits built in (basically paid vacation), with the ability to work extra and bank more. There are also hours budgeted for organizing community holidays, local relations, and movement support.
Taking collective responsibility for the needs of its members makes it possible for Twin Oaks to be one of the most integrated intergenerational communities I’ve ever seen. Many babies have been born there, and many elders and others have passed away. People spend a lot more time socializing with non-age peers. Kids get to have lots of adults of different ages in their lives. No one has yet been born there and died there, but it could easily happen. Twin Oaks is an intergenerational community not only in the demographics of its members, but also in that it was designed to have a stable population and outlive its founders, which it has done.
The economics of the community also support a high degree of self-sufficiency. At its peak the community produces about 60% of its own food through gardens, herbs, orchards, chickens, and cows. It has a communal woodshop, auto/bike/machine shop, maintenance barn, a fleet of shared vehicles, and does the vast majority of its own building and maintenance. It maintains public offices and an internal computer network, including a large media library. There are also amenities like a music room, a pond and sauna, book library, and various multi-purpose spaces that can be signed out by anyone. It maintains 7 residence buildings, a large clothing library, a robust food system with a dining hall and small kitchens, and provides for all health, mental health, and dental needs.
There is no money exchanged internally. Working quota gives you equal access to the resource-sharing systems of the community, which everyone helps manage, and is paid for by the businesses the community runs.
There are certainly trade offs with income-sharing. You give up a degree of autonomy and control, which can be very emotionally challenging for people. If you need to be able to do whatever you want with your stuff whenever you want, it’s not a good model. Collective finances can be complicated. But trying to have an economically involved community based on individualized finances can also be complicated. Treating the whole community as a collective operation can also allow for some degree of specialization, potentially freeing you up from things you might not like doing, like accounting or auto maintenance or cooking, and you get to do a bunch of those things if you do like them. But no one is stuck doing the same thing for 40 hours a week if they don’t want to. And you get the satisfaction of having the majority of your time going towards activities where you see immediate, direct benefit, both for yourself and others.
Another thing that Twin Oaks has going for it is it’s size. Typically around 80 – 90 adults and 15 – 17 kids, with anywhere from 10 – 20 guests and visitors (pandemics notwithstanding), it’s large enough to maintain a robust social-culture. Support and activity groups are easy to organize, and it’s not hard to get people to show up for parties and gatherings. It can certainly be too insular at times, but it also allows for a level of cohesion that’s hard to maintain in communities where people are more dispersed, particularly because of the need to work outside jobs.
There are also things about Twin Oaks that would be hard for a lot of people. All residences are shared. You get your own room, but personal space is minimized. But it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s just the choice Twin Oaks made. Things are fairly dirty, cluttered, and broken, but again, that’s a choice. Twin Oaks has also made choices around its businesses that have led to the community being relatively poor. The community could decide to put a little more time into income production, and make some different operational choices, and have more money without losing much of its flexibility around labor.
There’s also plenty of petty drama, gossip, and interpersonal conflict. To some extent this is just people being people and it happens in any organization. It’s exacerbated by being so intertwined as a community. You have 80 or 90 adults sharing a checkbook, working together, and living in shared residences. It’s like being married. There’s just more fodder for shit to happen. But there are also things that could be done to reduce it. Again, it’s a choice.
Another major challenge that Twin Oaks is not alone in facing is what the worker co-op movement has referred to as ownership culture. It’s very easy for people to relate to the institution of Twin Oaks as being separate from them, and feel disempowered, disengaged, and/or entitled. I think the combination of size and centralization make it harder to foster a culture of responsibility, commitment, and intimacy. Having the critical mass of people is nice, but better use of small affinity groups might help.
But in the end, it works. It’s one of the few working examples of how an anti-capitalist society could work. Iit has huge benefits and it would be great if there were more communities like it all over. And after 54 years Twin Oaks has probably found most of the pitfalls of this kind of system, which means there’s a lot to learn from.