The DC Chapter of Point A is moving rapidly towards the birth of the first commune. As we approach the moment of our launch we’re hammering out the foundational mechanics for our group. And arguably the most foundational, most essential policies are for membership and expulsion: how people are included and excluded. Thinking about expulsion is not a fun topic and many democratic and collective groups don’t really think about it. Some (like Kommune Niederkaufungen in Germany, apparently) seem to get on just fine for years. For other groups, not having thought much about expulsion eventually causes a conflict to blow up into an explosive crisis and, with an unfortunate frequency, destroy the group.
A community is a web of relationships, and a healthy community reinforces and weaves those relationships thicker and tighter. The complexity and strength of this web is the source of the value and power behind a vibrant community: it brings meaning to our lives, it enriches us socially, and it gives us access to support and assistance when we need it. It can include our closest allies, collaborators, audience, and friends. But it’s the very importance of our community that makes it that much more painful when an assault or serious breach of trust occurs within it. The bigger we are, as it were, the harder we fall.
When a member of our community hurts us or breaks our trust, it is common and reasonable to want them to leave and never come back. Maybe we fear that they’ll hurt us again, or maybe seeing them reminds us of the pain they’ve caused us, or maybe we feel like they’ve broken their side of the social compact and so don’t deserve membership any more. However, in a deep and vibrant community, and especially one with any history, ostracizing a member is messy because inevitably important relationships exist between other members and the perpetrator of the offense, relationships which are not destroyed by the offense. If the aftermath of a serious offense is not handled with sensitivity and care to all sides, it is all too easy for the community to divide into camps and begin to attack itself. If the perpetrator is ostracized and their remaining relationships are not honored, then damage can cascade through the web that is the community. That damage can cause other members to lose their faith in the community’s ability or desire to care for them and frequently results in an exodus of people from all sides of a conflict.
Additionally, although ostracism is sometimes appropriate, it often has the same problem as the throw away society that it resembles: it assumes that there’s an “away” where you can throw people where they won’t do harm (much like we assume there’s an “away” where we can throw trash where it won’t do harm). That’s not always true and if we don’t deal with the root cause of the offense and the perpetrator has not taken on the project of self-reflection and change we want them to then we might just be passing our problem on down the line to the next community they end up in. Similarly, this “throw away justice” assumes that the person who has committed the offense is no longer of value. They are trash and not worth saving.
In light of all this serious thought about the process of expulsion is of obvious value. Especially knowing that often when an offense occurs emotions run high, people are in pain, and quick and skillful action is necessary to prevent harm from spiraling out of control. It can be difficult or even impossible to conceive of, design, and execute such a response if it has not been discussed by the community in advance. When we design such a process, then, there are a few deep questions we need to consider. If we choose to not just get rid of people whenever they harm someone, how do we respond to offenses in a way that takes care of the whole community and leaves us stronger and better people on the other side? When and why is the work to do that beyond our ability and how can we tell? If it is beyond our ability… what do we do then?
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.
Apparently, I was the last activist in the US to hear about how great the HonkFestival was. As I was enthusiastically explaining the event to other people I kept hearing “Oh, I was on the Honk organizing team 10 years ago,” or “We helped start Honk in New York,” and equivalent recognition. But despite coming late to the party, it was still a transformative event for me, and the projects which surround me.
It started back in February when our Point A travelingheroes hit Boston. Maximus said, “We should come back for Honk” and like a fool, I asked, “What is Honk?” Fortunately, Maximus is patient with me.
Like many things, Honk grew out of a collection of activists trying something new. A collection of marching bands took over the streets of Somerville and started performing. They had fun, they made an impressive amount of joyful noise and they had multiple political messages. And they agreed to come back next year. This scruffy initial incarnation has become a treasured institution which brings protest marching bands from around the world.
I have to confess I had not thought much about marching bands as a protest tool. Maximus has thought about this a bunch. He pointed out the power of having noisy attractive mobile groups which do not require amplification. He waxed eloquently about what it means to take performers off the stage, put them in the street at the same level as the audience and the implicit invitation for people to join in, marching, dancing or banging on anything which one might find handy.
But this was all much later, once we were well into the Honk experience. It started, as many good things start, with dumpster diving. Maximus and Rachel had cooked a dumpster dinner for the 400 Honk musicians in 2016. His invitation to the Point A crew to come up and participate in Honk hoped to replicate their past success. Fortunately, this plays directly to some of our strengths.
Steve is a man of many talents. He was an obvious draft pick for this trip in that he can look at a full dumpster and see if there is anything good at the bottom and he can cook for huge quantities of people. Steve was just one of the ringers we brought on this trip. We had significant local talent was on hand as well. We had 4 teams which went out at midnight. Three of them were car based and one consisted of members of the local radical bicycle gang. The ten of us started at midnight.
But three hours of diving was followed by a couple of hours of cleaning and sorting and even some time spent arranging to get the above photo. We had originally scheduled two evenings to gather food, but we did so well the first night, that we canceled the second dive. We even had to re-dumpster some of our catch, because we exhausted the refrigeration space we had available to us.
Soon all this food would be cooked and prepped into a lovely dinner for 400 musicians. The other two dinners were catered, but several folks said ours was the best.
Honk has grown significantly from its early days. The city of Somerville has embraced this event, local businesses help sponsor it. But the costs are significant. They help subsidize the travel of bands from across the country and even other countries. There were many meals for the performers, most of which were much more expensive to produce than ours.
While our dumpster diving crew was dominated by out of town Point A activists, there was also important representation by locals who came from various places. Sophia used to live at Craft House, where some of us were staying, in Tracy Chapman’s old closet, which is where we met her. There are desirable attributes you hope for in a fellow dumpster diver: willingness to get dirty, good sense of humor, willingness to take chances, nimble and stealthy movement, healthy disrespect for the law, willingness to work crazy late without compensation, discernment about which food to rescue and ability to cook are some of them. Sophia had all this and more. And at almost 5 AM she climbed the labyrinth fire escape to the residence I was staying in to break me into my locked housing.
Acquiring the huge haul of food is just the first step in feeding the Honk musicians. We still had to cook it. Most of our original dumpster divers plus a handful of new locals came out for this formidable task. My terrible cooking skills are the source of legend and while others toiled in the First Church’s kitchen, I called wholesale hammocks customers. My old college partner Amanda came to help with the cooking, she had fond memories of being on the Honk organizing team years ago and was happy to return to support the effort.
Mysteriously, the grill which had been unlocked outside the church for months was moved ten feet towards the curb to aid in loading it into a vehicle to move to the VFW outpost where the meal was being served. But before we could pick it up, it vanished. Taken likely by someone who thought it was being left on the curb to be discarded. This cost us both a grill and preparation time. I drove one of the Skul radical bicycle gang who had helped with the dumpster dive back to their home to pick up a replacement grill and delivered it to Steve Compersia at the VFW where he started cooking like a fiend. The grill was not especially well designed and soon Steve was working without the propane on in a blaze of fire. This attracted the police who decided they were going to shut our meal preparation down. Fortunately, by the time we were caught, Steve had completed most of the cooking.
Part of the Point A mandate is to do skill shares when we come to town. We often do Transparency Tools workshops for the various living collectives we visit and this time we did one at Craft House on the Tufts campus. Before Honk, Courtney from Compersia had worked with Telos on a workshop on how to be an Ally. And when Courtney agreed to come up to Boston, this workshop became a multi skit performance.
Being an ally is hard. Many attempting to support oppressed people would get failing grades from the those they think they are helping. The metaphor which was used as a chorus in our performance was that privilege is like wearing heavy boots in a world full of people wearing sandals. You must keep being aware of when you are stepping on other people’s toes. Telos played the failed ally in a series of 20-second micro skits with Courtney using such lines as:
“You should not have put your feet there”
“I don’t see toes”
“Are you calling me a toe stepper?”
And my personal favorite line
“All toes matter”
The final toe stepping micro skit gave curious prospective allies insight into what they might do to get it right, a simple apology and a promise to pay more attention in the future.
We had communicated with the Honk organizers about our desire to do our performance and they had offered us the Elm St “stage” at 8 PM on Saturday after the last marching band. Sadly, the police were not given a schedule that had our performance on it and we were stopped again by Somerville’s finest just as we were trying to draw our crowd. Instead, we did a dress rehearsal in the Davis Square metro station to a slightly baffled collection of commuters. Maximus caught it on video.
Honk was an inspiring experience. At the last dinner, we had together it was obvious we all wanted to come back next year. As is part of the Point A culture we did a post mortem of our take away of what we learned. We listed a number of suggestions to improve our efforts. Get a dedicated food processing crew, distinct from dumpster divers to handle the haul after we retrieved it and not force divers to stay up most of the night. Bring more people. Practice our skits longer in advance. Work more closely with the event organizers to get on the official schedule, to avoid hassles with the police. Work in advance with more locals like the fine folks from Craft House at Tufts.
The most important transformative aspect of Honk was that we realized we wanted to become a circus. The Point A trips have often been referred to as a circus, in part because of the joyful chaos they deliver. But this was something bigger, the idea that we should step out of our comfort zone of giving presentations and workshops into something more theatrical, more like the famous Bread and Puppet troop (which was one of the Honk marching bands). To get out of the classroom and more into the street.
The excited conversation about our new incarnation explored the idea of circuses as part of transformative festivals. One thing which makes these kinds of events powerful is that they have the capacity to induce quinks. [Quinks are the opposite of trauma. Where some specific acute event leaves a lasting positive effect on your life.] When we reflected on the purpose of the Point A circus what we came up with was that we would try to induce quinks in both the participants and audience.
There’s much that could be said about building community. But what motivates people towards it isn’t usually what people say, but rather the way community makes them feel. People don’t decide to radically rethink the way they are living because someone told them they could, they do it because some powerful event in the lives made them believe it was possible. This is quink, and HONK is uniquely good at producing it. All the sound and color and joyful noise conveys an experience that words never could.
Our mission as Point A is to spread community into the urban areas that need them most. There are many ways to do this, and the most effective involve quinks. It seems like a parading circus is in our future…
After the final parade on Sunday, Daniel and Raven and I hopped in the car with two Estonian hitchhikers we had picked up through Craig’s list. Maia and Helis’s housing in NYC had fallen apart before our ride, so I spent most of the drive from Boston to NYC reaching out to various Point A allies who might host them. We ultimately succeeded and deposited them with willing hosts. Then Daniel and I drove across several states and arrived back at Twin Oaks at 3:30 AM, just in time to do a late night tofu shift. This revolution does not stop.
The Twin Oaks Communities Conference has been happening for decades at Twin Oaks in Central Virginia and every year bring together communitarians and communards, experts and students, founders and seekers from all over the communities movement. It is, without fail, an incredible and, for many people, transformative experience. There is a catch, though: it’s on the East Coast and it’s always on the East Coast (because it’s always at Twin Oaks). The further west you live the harder it is to get to and so it is hardest for the folks on the West Coast.
Three years ago, a solution was born: the West Coast Communities Conference! Hosted for the first two years at the Groundswell Institute in Northern California this year a new organizing team stepped up and moved the conference to Southern California just outside of Escondido. This year I had the good fortune to get to attend both communities conferences. In contrast to Twin Oaks, where it rained steadily for half the conference, at Terra Madre, the proto-community, organic farm, and event venue that hosted the West Coast Communities Conference, was sunny and dry as a bone. Instead of dense deciduous forest we were surrounded by bare scrubby hills built of sun bleached boulders.
But those are superficial differences. In many ways, the conferences were a lot alike. Both attracted a mix of community seekers and community veterans with a sprinkling of students, researchers, and people from outside the movement curious to look in. Both had lots of valuable workshops and panels and drew some big names in the communities movement. Both were great networking events, connecting existing communities with community seekers and sparking all manner of other valuable relationships and connections. Both mixed structured content with unstructured networking time and serious work with relaxed recreation.
There were differences, however. Twin Oaks is the oldest largest secular income sharing egalitarian commune in the US. Twin Oaks provides the basic infrastructure and support and does a lot of prep work and clean up but all the attendees of the conference pitch in to cook and clean and play with the kids and keep the whole event running smoothly. This keeps costs down and recreates the cooperative and collective effort that is the basis of communal culture. Terra Madre is a private farm and event venue. The staff there did all the food prep and serving and volunteer opportunities, though present, were more limited. It was interesting to watch the conference participants repeatedly ask the staff if they could help and get repeatedly rebuffed. One unfortunate effect of this was that the necessary ticket price for the WCCC was noticeably higher than the TOCC and a lot of people who would have liked to come ended up discouraged by or unable to pay the ticket price. How many were discouraged, of course, is impossible to tell and the price could likely never get low enough to not draw any complaints.
Another difference was in what sections of the communities movement were represented. The Twin Oaks Conference, which is co-sponsored by the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, is free to attend for any member of an FEC commune and most FEC communes send a small delegation most years. Additionally, being hosted at Twin Oaks means that a good share of Twin Oaks members will wander up to the conference at some point during the weekend. The end result is that the conference is crawling with communards and egalitarian income sharing communes are an inescapable presence, bordering on the conversational default, most years. The West Coast Conference this year was, of course, hosted at a venue that is not an intentional community (but might be one day) but was also primarily organized by volunteers from within the co-housing portion of the movement. The networks they reached out to were mostly co-housing networks, a couple co-housing networks were event sponsors, and many of the workshops were geared towards a co-housing audience. As such, the majority of attendees and the conversational default at this year’s WCCC was co-housing, not communes. In fact, out of about 60 speakers and attendees only Sky Blue and myself were currently living in an egalitarian commune (and we were both there as speakers and organizers for the event). That being said, there were a handful of egalitarian community oriented attendees and my workshop on the hows and whys of income sharing was both well attended and so popular that several people insisted I lead a follow up session during the open space portion of the conference. A few people left inspired and some hopeful connections were made.
I think that the general lesson here, and the lesson for the egalitarian communities movement specifically, is an unsurprising one. An event, like a community, is shaped by the people who organize it. No matter the stated goals or self-conception, the people who show up to make it happen will quite naturally bring their own perspectives and interests to bear on their work. If we want the West Coast Communities Conference to be more effective as an organizing nexus for egalitarian community we need to step up and devote our time and resources to making it happen. The promising news is that, both at the conference and on the travels around the West Coast before and after it, I saw copious evidence that people are hungry for solutions to the problems that egalitarian community addresses. There is interest in the ideas and experience that we have to offer and there are individuals and groups circling around and looking for an opportunity to get together and transform their lives. The soil is rich. If we attend to it, beautiful things can blossom forth.
Point A was started by folks who realized that income sharing communities were flourishing in rural areas (there are now five in Virginia and four in Missouri), most people in the US live in cities and communal situations were not doing as well there.
The few urban communes have been struggling. Seattle’s Emma Goldman Finishing School stopped income sharing several years ago. The Midden, in Columbus, Ohio, just transitioned to being a co-op rather than an income sharing community. Quercus, in Richmond, Virginia, lasted less than a year. The Baltimore Free Farm currently doesn’t have an income sharing group (although there are people there that would like to have one again).
Washington, DC, is our big success story. Compersia has been up and running for over a year and folks are strategizing on what to do next.
I think that New York (where I’m working) is on the cusp of something. I’m hoping I’ll have more to report very soon.
Even though there isn’t an income sharing community in Baltimore, there seems to be a lot of folks there talking about it. I’ve heard of people from four different groups that are discussing the possibility and I’m not sure why they aren’t co-ordinating with one another.
As I’ve said, Quercus in Richmond is gone. I’m not sure what next steps, if any, can be taken there.
And there is a group in Newark, NJ, that is working toward creating a two fold community that would contain an urban portion and a rural farm portion. (An idea that always seems interesting to folks but seems very difficult to pull off.)
In addition, Point A has been going up to the Boston area (the place I’ve lived most of my life) and been giving workshops (as we will be doing this upcoming week), hopefully seeding the area for future commune building.
One US East Coast city (at least in the northeast US) that we haven’t done work in is Philadelphia. I think that it has great potential (New York and Boston are becoming increasingly unaffordable where I’ve heard that Philly still has a lot of lower cost housing stock–and the city has a history of movement organizing, including the group Movement for a New Society, which had a bunch of communal houses called the Life Center). Unfortunately, Point A’s resources seemed stretched to the limit these days, so it’s unlikely that there will be a project in Philadelphia anytime soon unless there are people there who want it.
If we can get a commune in NYC up and running, I think this could be a starting place for building more income sharing communities in urban areas. (I call this the Frank Sinatra theory of commune building from his line, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…”.) Hopefully if we can make it in New York, we can begin to build more urban communes. There’s a lot of cities on the East Coast alone, never mind in the country and the world.