Communal Governance

by Raven Glomus

Today seems like an appropriate day to talk about governance.  Not of countries (although I assume there will be many folks thinking about that today) but of communities–specifically, egalitarian income sharing communities, the kind that are in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (aka the FEC).  

The ‘egalitarian’ in both phrases is because not all income-sharing communities (ie, communes) are egalitarian.  There are income-sharing groups (mostly spiritual communities) that have a guru or bishop or abbot or some other leader who makes most of the decisions for the community.  Egalitarian communities have some sort of ‘horizontal’ governance structure where most to all members have a say in decisions.

That having been said, there are a variety of decision structures in the communes that I am familiar with.  The older, larger communities (Twin Oaks and East Wind) have unusual structures, where most of the newer, smaller communes (like Acorn and Glomus) use consensus decision making.

The FEC only requires of its communities that  a community “Uses a form of decision making in which members have an equal opportunity to participate, either through consensus, direct vote, or right of appeal or overrule.”

I have written about how consensus works.  I’ve also written about when it’s better to use it or not.  My summary of that last article is that consensus works better in small, somewhat homogeneous groups.  For a small commune (including Acorn, which has thirty folks) I think that consensus is the way to go.  Twin Oaks and East Wind are older and larger and don’t use consensus.

Twin Oaks, 1987

Twin Oaks has a very complex decision-making structure that involves their planner/manager structures, their O&I board, and their policies.  Paxus and Keenan, who both live at Twin Oaks, have written about how Twin Oaks governs and they can explain it better than I ever could.

The East Wind community has a whole page on its website devoted to Self-Governance.  It’s worth reading because, like Twin Oaks, their governance structure is complex.  One of the statements on that page is “Our bylaws set forth our purposes, direction, ideology, define the rights and obligations of membership, and state the guarantees made by the community to its members. The bylaws allow for experimentation and are intentionally minimal in their restrictions. The bylaws can be amended in any manner desirable with a two thirds majority vote of full members. The bylaws state that East Wind may ‘govern itself by any reasonable means which its members desire.’ We encourage those who are interested in visiting East Wind to read our bylaws in full.”  It goes on to discuss several other decision making structures, including “Legispol” which is something that I’ve heard East Winders talk about and wouldn’t say I had any real understanding of.

East Wind folks, 2016

For the Fourth of July last year, Theresa wrote a Facebook post that pointed out while communities claim to strive to have all voices be heard, there are barriers, often, to that happening, particularly for people of color or folks coming from other classes or cultures.  This will probably mean changes in our way of governance.

I have claimed that communities are laboratories for social change.  I think that we are places where we can experiment with new methods of governance, and today, as the US changes its government and, perhaps, tries to improve some things, it might be good to look at other ways of governance for society as well as for communities.  

It’s not that I think that you could run a whole countries could be run by consensus (although there are forms of consensus that I think could work with larger groups–I heard of a situation where over a thousand anti-nuke activists needed to agree to an arrest plea and were able to do that using something called small group to large group consensus) and I even suspect that you couldn’t run a country using sociocracy, but I think that we need to look at ways to decentralize power, and I think that the communes are at the forefront of that.

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Communal Governance

More 2020 Art Walk

Art Walk at Twin Oaks is an annual event (fourth year in a row!) and this year they included stuff from two other Louisa, Virginia, communities: Acorn and Living Energy Farm. We’ve already linked to one set of photos–here’s more.

(From Twin Oaks Facebook page): MORE ART WALK. Art included various computer programming presentations as well as traditional drawing, painting, crafts, and metalwork.

More 2020 Art Walk

Art Walk 2020

Art is important in communities, and Twin Oaks began this yearly art festival to acknowledge it. Here’s what they said on their Facebook page (which was then copied to the Commune Life Facebook page along with a bunch of pictures.

ART WALK. Twin Oaks 4th annual art event, this year with Acorn & LEF participating.On October 18 there was a day of performances and art created by members was on display in several of our buildings.

Art Walk 2020

Communal Commons: A Review

by Raven Glomus

This week on the blog I want to review a bunch of things that are not books.  (I hope to have at least one more week of book reviews in the future.)

This review will focus on a very academic article that I had the privilege to read.  Everything but the abstract is behind a paywall at the Wiley Online Library.  I strongly suspect that you might only be interested in reading the original paper if you were really interested in understanding how Elinor Ostrum’s commons framework applies to income sharing communities or you yourself were writing an academic paper about the communes.

Basically, Elinor Ostrum challenged Garrett Hardin’s influential article “The Tragedy of the Commons”.  He said he thought that with any common shared thing among many people, everyone had the incentive to get as much of a scarce resource as possible and thus shared resources will be used up rapidly.  Elinor Ostrum did ethnographic research and showed how in traditional cultures this is not true, that communities found ways to make resource sharing or the sharing of the commons, relatively fair–and they had the incentive to maintain this fairness in a way that was sustainable.

Nazli Azergun at the University of Virginia has written a paper about how Ostrum’s framework could be applied to the Twin Oaks community: “Resource allocation at an income-sharing community: An application of Elinor Ostrom’s commons framework”, which was published in the journal Economic Affairs–a journal published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, which describes itself as “the UK’s original free-market think-tank”.  This explains the British spellings in the article.

The author points out that: “As an income-sharing community, Twin Oaks meets all needs of its members in kind, through various communal resource-sharing/pooling mechanisms. Relatedly, resources that are not usually considered as commons outside Twin Oaks, such as labour, utilities, or food, are transformed into commons through members’ willing participation in community structures and norms.”  And further, “…Twin Oaks aims to provide for its members’ every need through egalitarian communal resource-sharing structures. This, most members believe, provides for a more sustainable and equitable livelihood than they experienced in ‘the mainstream’ United States, where free health care and education and many other welfare provisions are considered inaccessible luxuries.” A quote that I really like is “Members usually appreciate the community structure as an ‘anti-capitalist bubble within the capitalist economy’, acting as ‘communal and egalitarian within, and profit-driven and capitalistic without’, which ensures benefits and comforts that they would not be able to enjoy were they participating in the market economy on their own.”

Clothesline at Twin Oaks–picture not in original article

In this paper, Nazli Azergun discusses Elinor Ostrum’s basic premises as well as looking at the many different ways that the ‘commons’ framework is applied.  She states that “By centring my analysis on the resource-sharing and labour-pooling mechanisms at Twin Oaks, I aim to shed light on the actual processes through which human-made commons are generated and allocated as such…”    She then gives a history and description of Twin Oaks before diving into a discussion on Resource Sharing and Labour [sic] Pooling at Twin Oaks.  She uses Elinor Ostrum’s definition of common-pool resources as “natural or humanly created systems that generate a finite flow of benefits where it is costly to exclude beneficiaries and one person’s consumption subtracts from the amount of benefits available to others” and points out that once you are a member at Twin Oaks, you are able freely share in the community’s resources  with “little oversight or restriction of access”.  

The author talks a lot about the TO labor system and how it incentivizes sharing and collaboration.  But she also notes that the system is vulnerable to abuse and quotes several Oakers who fear that there are people that are abusing the system, and thus making other folks work harder.

Nazli Azergun doesn’t hesitate to look at the downside of all this.  She has a section in the paper called “Twin Oaks: ‘Not Classist or Racist but Clueless’” where she looks at how some of the rigid egalitarian structures at TO support middle class folks and work against folks that are working class and/or people of color.     She states “Those who oppose strict egalitarianism in labouring point out that the members who have appropriate educational and social backgrounds pursue physical labour-light areas such as office jobs or childcare, without granting others the opportunity to rotate between labour-light and labour-heavy areas. And, they emphasise, those who do not have the appropriate educational and social background are mostly the non-middle-class individuals and/or persons of colour. To correct for this reproduction of mainstream racial and class hierarchies at Twin Oaks and make the community more accessible to minorities, this group proposes that the community drops strict egalitarianism in labouring processes in favour of an equitable treatment that takes into account the imbalance of physical labour in different areas.”

Her conclusion is “…income-sharing communities such as Twin Oaks seem to work decently enough in practice, as most members claim to be contented with the ways of life that they offer. What is problematic, according to some members, are implicit instances of classism and racism which become visible when communal frameworks fail to address the overlapping system failures and problems of people of colour and non-middle-class members. While the opposing groups within income-sharing communities connect the resolution of these issues to a prioritisation of equity over equality in resource-sharing and resource-pooling, I would also argue that Ostrom’s permission for dynamism and pragmatism in relationalities across individuals and institutions allows for a better adjustment of institutional frameworks, rules, and values to ensure greater benefits for all. Despite the differences in commitment levels and practicality issues, I believe income-sharing communities constitute promising models of equitable and sustainable commons management, similar to the way Ostrom had imagined.”

As I said, this is a fairly academic paper published in an economic ‘free-market’ journal.  I don’t recommend that readers rush out to purchase access to it unless, as I said, they really want to see in detail how Twin Oaks fits within the ‘commons’ framework or they are also academics wanting to add references to their work.  Rather, I am excited that a group of folks who have probably never thought about these issues, now needs to confront them.  Ironically, this paper describes a very viable alternative to the free-market system in a journal which describes itself as a think tank for that very system.  If it gets one or two of those folks to realize that there are more useful possibilities beyond that system, maybe it will have accomplished its purpose.  Who knows, maybe it will encourage someone to think twice about the free-market system and maybe even consider leaving it.

Communal Commons: A Review

Donut Privatization

You read the title right. I’ve often talked about how Twin Oaks offers public/private options. You can take something out of ‘commie clothes’ and make it yours if you want to. Of course, then you have to wash it yourself.

Apparently this also applies to food and when goodies are dumpstered and there isn’t enough to go around, privatization can be a problem. Jules from Twin Oaks published this post on our Facebook feed.

This post got quite a few comments–ranging from serious questions to humorous responses.

You can live in a commune, but folks were still raised in a capitalist culture, and sometimes a scarcity mentality prevails.

Donut Privatization

Merion–Part Three

This is Part Three (the final part) of the story of Merion, the early and unsuccessful offshoot experiment in Twin Oaks history.  If you haven’t already, check out Part One and Part Two–this piece will make more sense if you do.

from  MERION   1972 -1978      A cooperative account by former members

FOURTH YEAR

    Up the road from Merion lived an elderly free spirit named Wilma Burroughs. She owned a small farm with a horse, goats, and chickens. Linda and Judy became especially friendly as she helped them get the Merion goat project going. Linda also greatly enjoyed riding her stallion, Mike. Wilma was a freethinker and supported women’s liberation although she had not been active in the movement, having lived a fairly traditional life.

    On one of their visits, Wilma advised Linda and Judy that state police had found (or been advised) of a small planting of marijuana, not too far from Merion, and of course the “hippie camp” was the main suspect. The cops were conducting surveillance to catch the culprit. Judy and Linda returned to Merion and advised the group; one of the two growers confessed, the other being away for a few weeks.  It was decided that a large meeting at Juniper, with the whole community, was appropriate, and it was held fairly soon. The result was that everyone unanimously agreed in the future to follow the letter and not just the spirit of the community rule that stipulated “No drugs on the property.” So whereas previously recreational drugs were hidden and sometimes consumed on the properties, in the future all had to make a long trek to the boundaries of the properties and find places to hide their products in holes in the trees or in the ground.

     When Damia was one year old, new members joined with a daughter close to her age. Rob was tall, funny, and energetic; he and David were the two black-bearded, long-haired giants of the group.  Karen, his wife, was short and vivacious, enjoying the homesteading types of work at Merion.

Damia was glad to have a companion her age, Moriah.

(Photos above – Damia, Rob & Moriah, Moriah & Kelsey, Moriah & Damia)

Also that summer, Daniel (GH) and Linda decided to get married. No one had ever had a public wedding at Twin Oaks, where marriage was considered generally of dubious value. Linda had to attend a meeting at Juniper to explain and defend her action. Daniel’s father was an ordained minister, but didn’t have a license for Virginia. So the local Episcopalian minister in Louisa, a Rev. Williams, came to sign the papers, while Daniel’s father actually presided over most of  the ceremony. Both sets of parents and a large crowd of friends and neighbors were there for the wedding, held just north of the farmhouse under a huge white oak tree.

,

(Above:  Linda & Daniel, some of the guests at their wedding.  Below that:  Merion folks in 1975.)

To create more individual living spaces, both Will and Holly built new cabins.  Will’s cabin was later moved to Twin Oaks as a meditation and getaway space.

FIFTH YEAR

    The influence of Gaskin’s Farm’s view of group marriages was intensified by the new members, Rob and Karen, who advocated strongly for multiple relationships. Daniel, who had been raised with fundamentalist Christian values (though he mostly rejected them) had difficulty accepting the new cultural norms as he saw his friends adopting the new ways. He also strongly wanted children (though Linda was ambivalent) and knew he could not accept the authority of Twin Oaks’ Child Board, which at that time tended to be discouraging of biological parents’ involvement. Over the course of the year, he became more and more disillusioned with Merion and eventually persuaded Linda to leave with him, which they did in June of 1976.

     Gardner had been in love with Donna, a Juniper member, for some time, and he also left Merion to go live at Juniper.  They later moved to the Pacific Northwest, driving good old Bullfrog across the country.

     In August 1977, Will and Kristine decided to leave as well. They became caretakers of “Oakley,  a nice house west of Louisa, and after three weeks, David joined them there.

     In 1977, a member of Juniper, Phoenix and her son Noah, and moved up to Merion, as did one of the “metas”, Casey. A young man named Jeffrey joined briefly, and also Carolyn and Joe (or Woody). In 1978, Holly decided to strike out on her own.  She moved  first to a Sikh community near Shipman, then to Cedarwood with Mary for a while, before moving to an old farmhouse owned by Twin Oaks’ neighbors, George and Gordon Badgett. Cedarwood came to an end as a community, but Mary kept renting the farmhouse for a couple of years, and it served as a halfway house for many Twin Oakers when they left; Daniel and Linda, Sara and Warn, Phoenix, Holly, and others. When Blue River Ashram folded, Steve and Laura stayed with Mary for quite a while before moving to Washington DC to study with Swami Muktananda.

    As Merion membership dwindled, many must have seen “ the handwriting on the wall.”  It must be imagined that the Twin Oaks planners pondered pulling the plug on this experiment! When Phoenix, with her son Noah, moved near Cedarwood,  the planners decided to sell the property, as Twin Oaks had been able in the meantime to buy many hundreds of acres of land contiguous to the original Jones property.

     This account is meant to be as factual and thorough as possible, but any perceptive reader will be aware that negative or controversial personal issues have not been discussed. Merion had interpersonal conflict, as any group of humans will…  Although no doubt of  interest, all of that will be left for others to discuss… or forget!

WHAT BECAME OF SOME MEMBERS…

In 1979, five former members of Merion (Will, Kristine, David, Daniel/Green Heels, Linda) and another friend, Mary, who had lived at Twin Oaks and Cedarwood, bought property together. The group sub-divided the land and formed Baker Branch, a cooperative neighborhood five miles from Twin Oaks. Over four decades, ownership of the individual lots at Baker Branch has changed, but all eight households are still ex-Twin Oakers. 

Daniel/Green Heels still lives at Baker Branch.  He retired in 2011 after being a mail carrier in Mineral for 29 years. He maintains a 20 acre wildlife sanctuary, several fairy crossings and one fairy village at Baker Branch.

David became a computer programer and Tai Chi teacher, and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with his wife, Virginia.

Will and Kristine stayed in Louisa County until they moved to Oregon in 1993.  In Louisa, Will co-founded Hale and White Construction company.  In Oregon, he worked in affordable housing and in local and federal government.

Kristine helped found Moonbeams, a community elementary school in Louisa with Leah.  She was a nurse and midwife in Charlottesville and Oregon.

Linda became a massage therapist and rescued many dogs from the local dog shelter. She died of cancer in 2005.

Argon got his Ph.D.  in tropical diseases, and lived and studied in southeast Asia many years. He is married and currently living in Hawaii.

Damia married her high school sweetheart, Jason. She is a special education teacher, has a son Logan, and lives and works in Louisa.

Gardner married Donna.  They moved to Oregon, and he became a house painter and was deeply involved in Shambala meditation practice.

Holly became a counsellor and Sufi dance teacher and lives in Florida.

Judy became a carpenter and lives in central Virginia.

Leah became a school teacher and lives in central Virginia.

Marijke lived at Celo Community in North Carolina and then rejoined the Bruderhof.

Rachael/Christine became an artist, author, and counsellor and lives in Santa Fe, NM.

Rob owned and operated a local construction company, Hale and White, and helped found a successful local restaurant, Obrigado. He  lives near Twin Oaks.                                  

Karen became a nurse, now retired, and lives in central Virginia.

Moriah is in school and works at Obrigado.

Merion–Part Three

Merion–Part Two

This is Part Two of the story of Merion, the early and unsuccessful offshoot experiment in Twin Oaks history.  If you haven’t already, check out Part One–this will make more sense if you do.

from  MERION   1972 -1978      A cooperative account by former members

THE BEGINNING

    The old farmhouse was picturesque and had huge White Oak trees on the east, north, and west sides that provided shade. Hammocks were quickly put up! The two-story house with a standing-seam metal hip roof had four rooms below and four rooms above with a stairway joining them. Very old electric wiring but no plumbing; the first major job was to send Will down the old well in back (west) of the house to clear out stagnant water and years of trash by bucket, which others carried away. After some effort, the well filled in with potable water, which they pulled up bucket by bucket to fill containers in the house for cooking and cleaning. To be sure there was enough water, they filled a big green plastic trash can, which eventually lived by the corner of the addition.

    Leah’s partner Jimy came up from Juniper with the community’s back-hoe to dig a new outhouse hole, which was soon covered with a small typical outhouse building. It was a two-seater, with one seat reserved for “squatters”.  A large can of lime and scoop were provided to reduce the odor, and of course there was reading material.

    The first nights, sleeping arrangements were changeable and haphazard, until they agreed on which spaces would go to which members. Winter was approaching fast, and those who ended up with places outside the house had to work quickly to improve them. There was a large two-story barn with lots of floor space for sleeping. They also began the obligatory “commie clothes” of shared outfits in the upstairs of the barn. 

    The shed nearest to the house, across the westward lying lane from the barn, was a corn crib. Will cleaned it out, added insulation to the walls, and used old barn boards for interior siding. He bought a small tin wood stove to heat it.

    The next shed, smaller and less solid, had been a chicken coop, but Marijke cleaned it out and also put a stove in so it could be warm on cold winter nights. She named it “Pooderville”, after her stuffed dog, on Karl’s suggestion.

    High school friends Linda and Judy joined the group next, and fixed up rooms in the upstairs of the barn with small wood stoves. Others lived in rooms of the old house, which had one downstairs wood stove which they called “Ashley”, but no insulation in the walls. The kitchen had a gas stove and electric refrigerator, but no sink. Whoever got up first in the morning would make a fire in the stove, and everyone got their own coffee or tea and breakfast. Green Heels and Rachael, the only committed couple in the original group, shared an upstairs room – and an electric blanket Rachael’s mother had mailed her!

    Merion was very dependent on the main branch, Juniper, for food, funds,  laundry, and showers until the new wing was built.  They participated in the labor credit system, with a reduced quota as they organized all domestic work separately and informally. Work that produced income, such as hammock weaving, or food, such as gardening, was given credit towards the group quota.

    A small scale hammock factory allowed Merion members to earn credit by doing hammocks, and sometimes visiting friends from Juniper would also work on the two jigs set up in the front yard, underneath the huge white oak trees. Holly became the Retail Hammock Manager, filling hammock orders for individuals. Merion’s porch served as office and warehouse.

    Twin Oaks started a magazine called “Communities” to introduce readers to the growing network of intentional communities around the country. When David  joined Merion, he brought  this project with him, and Merion took charge of the mailing list for the nascent magazine, still going today.

    In February 1973, Will came back from a long trip after visiting Stephen Gaskin’s “The Farm”, a large (1000 member) commune near Summertown, TN. This bunch of hippies had transformed a large area in rural Tennessee into a thriving and influential village. They practiced a sort of New Age version of Zen meditation, with many contemporary variations such as extensive drug use (Gaskin himself spent time in jail for marijuana cultivation), group marriage, reverting to traditional roles for men and women, vegetarianism, and encounter-group techniques  of total honesty, “group head” (complete agreement verging on mind-control), paying attention to “vibes”, and getting rid of “subconscious” (unspoken thoughts and feelings.) 

    Will’s reporting on this group prompted Rachael and Green Heels, as well as others, to visit “The Farm”. Green Heels found it a bit oppressive, perhaps because he did not value hard work as a goal in itself.                                                               

    SECOND YEAR

    The old farm had weedy fields that needed bush-hogging and/or plowing. A spot near the house was plowed for a garden, and manure was needed to fertilize it. Gathering firewood for all the wood stoves took considerable time. Twin Oaks had recently started a construction company, which they called “GM” (for “glorious mud”), building houses around the county for money. Several members were involved in that. 

    Down the lane from Merion’s driveway was a second long dirt drive which Green Heels and Rachael followed one day to meet their neighbor, Alice Johnson, a black woman in her 70’s This initiated a long friendship between Alice and Merion. Alice had spent her life taking care of white people’s children, and now lived in retirement in the simplest conditions, alone. Her only heat was a woodstove, her water came from a well out back, and her arthritis made it difficult to haul up the bucket, so she’d ask Green Heels or Rachael to lend a hand when they visited. She had old newspapers on the wall for wallpaper. Alice was a member of a local black Christian church, Zion Travellers Baptist. Merion was very fond of her and Rachael baked her a birthday cake on her special day and she and Green Heels took it over to surprise her. (drawing from Rachael of this). 

Alice was sweet and loving to us all. She asked permission to come “pick poke” on the Merion land, the pokeweed that grew wild in Merion’s fields, and which is delicious after being boiled down and the water changed a few times to remove the phytolaccatoxin. When Rachael moved to Kripalu in spring of 1974, she and Alice corresponded for a while.

   On the other side of Merion from Alice Johnson lived a retired black couple, Willie and Susie Straughn. They had met when they were working in Englewood, New Jersey, on a rich white family’s estate – he had been chauffeur and gardener, she the cook. Willie had grown up in the neighborhood, his family’s house was next door; his parents had been slaves on “Roundabout”, Patrick Henry’s estate. Willie had enlisted and served in France in World War One; he had been marching to the front to fight in the Ardennes when the truce was declared.

    On coming home, he had bought a new panama hat, which flew off his head as he was riding a train in New York. He jumped off the train to retrieve it and broke his arm, which he never had the full use of because it wasn’t set properly.

    The Straughns had a small homestead, with garden, chickens, guinea hens, a hog, and previously a mule to work the garden. Will and Green Heels helped them process the slaughtered hog one winter, and got a lot of gardening tips from Willie, and other skills such as making a hickory ax handle and learning old songs Willie knew. Susie, who had grown up near Petersburg and gone to Virginia State University, had taught school when they first moved down from New Jersey, and was for decades the secretary of Zion Travelers Baptist Church.

(Below:  William Jackson and Susie Johnson Straughn,  Argon watching “Uncle” Willie making an axe handle with a drawblade)

 Will organized a “Work For Neighbors” involving both branches, doing the many odd jobs for which neighbors were willing to pay . This led to many friendships and meeting interesting people. Some of the memorable neighbors they became friends with included Willy and Susie Straughn, Alice Johnson, Mrs. McGhee, and Wilma Burroughs. In their free time, members would stop by and hang out with these fascinating local people, enjoying the stories they would tell.

    Gardner had brought with him a large canvas teepee. He found suitable trees to use for the poles and set it up in the field north of the main house. He was the main occupant, but others used it when he was not.  Later, after Argon joined, and Gardner had left, Argon put it up in a different location, down the lane between barn and sheds, on the left.

     Leah, who was partnered with Jimy (still a member of Juniper) was pregnant. Twin Oaks had not had children for quite a few years, and in anticipation of the arrival of children, had set up a Child Board to make decisions about them. The community had also built a new building specifically for children, named Degania, and designed by Henry Hammer, a resident architect. When son Maya was born as the first Twin Oaks child, he stayed at Merion for a few weeks (in an aircrib), but then moved into the new child building, and Leah re-joined Juniper. Of course, she often brought Maya up to Merion on her “meta” shift.

    New members joined…

    Linda was a vivacious and strong-willed blonde woman attracted by Twin Oaks’ culture of equality for women. She was feisty and energetic, always planning a new project, and learning construction with the GM construction company. She was very intelligent and hard-working, and led the initiative to raise goats and chickens.

    Judy and Linda had been best friends since high school days in Michigan. Judy was dark-haired, wore wire-rimmed glasses, always had  a twinkle in her eye, and loved crafts and music. She brought her hand-written notebook of songs (folk and rock) that she loved, and they  inused it as a hymnal when they had group musical events.

     Cathy  joined soon after, with her blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses and strong work ethic. Carole, another strong charming woman, joined soon after that.

(Below, left to right: Linda, Judy, and Carole)

    The goats and chickens naturally required a lot of fencing and shelter and general care. Four does were bought, named Rosie, Rita, Ramona,and Rama, and when needed a male goat was brought to breed them. That was a wild and smelly affair; the buck was borrowed from another farm for a short while, but eventually the does provided kids, and goat milk. The chickens were easier to care for and reliably gave eggs as well as meat. They enjoyed taking the goats out of their pen because the goats would stay together and near them, thus members could go anywhere into the woods and enjoy being with them. Goats and chickens were kept together in a fenced area in front of the old barn. The goats were milked twice a day, and goat milk was plentiful, and sometimes Holly made batches of “Product X” with it – always welcomed and eagerly consumed. Only Holly knows the recipe for goat milk “Product X”!

    When others who cared for the goats left, Holly kept the program going for a while. Eventually she had to find humane homes for 17 goats – and still enjoys talking about this!

    Merion tended to be vegetarian, but not strictly so. Meat was served occasionally, but care was taken that those who did prefer a completely vegetarian diet could have that. 

    After Will and others had bush-hogged the old fields around the house and barn, there remained two fields at some distance from the house. The larger of these, a visiting friend, member of Juniper, Judy Elliott called the “Pagan Rites” field. After it had been bush-hogged, they had a memorable evening meal around a bonfire in that field.  Rachael sketched this event. 

     Green Heels was always interested in natural psychedelics, and was excited one day when he found six very large Amanita muscaria, or Fly Agaric, mushrooms. He had already experimented with small amounts of this fungus, with no effects. So he fried all six caps and ate them. 

    The primary hallucinogenic agents in fly agaric are ibotenic acid and muscimol. They are only mildly hallucinogenic, but cause confusion, loss of sensation, and sometimes nausea. Green Heels went to bed that night with his partner Rachael, and told her what he had done. She went to sleep, but he lay awake for a long time waiting for the mushrooms to have an effect.

Eventually, he realized he couldn’t feel his legs anymore, so he woke Rachael up and told her. He was confused and although there was no possibility of having misidentified the mushroom, he began fearing he had, and might have poisoned himself. This frightened Rachael of course, who ran to get Will and tell him.  Consultation with Poison Control by phone followed, and after listening to the symptoms they advised drinking a lot of water and waiting for it to wear off. Which is what Green Heels did. It was a night many at Merion still remember… 

THIRD YEAR

    Green Heels had issues with groups because of childhood trauma; he had been sent to an abusive “Christian” boarding school in Africa at an early age. Always a fringe-dweller, he could not commit to a genuine relationship with any person or group. So even though he did like belonging to Merion, he was drawn to a form of separation. His ceaseless wanderings in the woods around the property led him to discover an apparently abandoned old cabin near the South Anna River.  It had been built by a well-known bootlegger during Prohibition named Wagoner. Green Heels looked up the owner in the county tax maps, and wrote to a retired Marine general, August Larson, who owned the property, asking permission to fix up the cabin to live in. The general came to Merion and met Green Heels and was probably amused but saw no harm in letting him live there. 

Thereafter, Green Heels insulated the cabin and added a wood stove. It was a mile from Merion, down  a long hardly-used lane through woods the group named “the Magic Forest”. He named it “Bag End”  from “The Fellowship of the Ring”  by Tolkien. He was still partnered with Rachael, but got permission from the group to do some amount of work in exchange for one meal a day. Over the next couple of years, he also did a fair amount of hitch-hiking and when he was gone, others from Merion were free to use this remote cabin.

     He and Will spent much of their free time exploring the land. They found a beautiful spot not too far from the house where a stream crossed over the middle of a large schist boulder, and named it “Split Rock”. They also found the remains of copper tubing and large vats used for distilling liquor, and learned from neighbor Willy Straughn that it had been Wagoner’s still. Willy Straughn remembered hearing the explosion when the “Feds” blew it up.

    David and Kristine, members of Juniper, became attracted to the small group concept and decided to join Merion. David had graduated from Harvard, had served on a nuclear submarine, and then become involved in organizing in the Boston area. He was over six feet tall, with black hair and beard, an imposing figure but extremely gentle in his ways. Kristine had grown up in New Orleans, graduated from NYU, and lived in the country in Idaho before moving to Twin Oaks.  Kristine and David were expecting a child, and this caused some controversy with the main branch and the Child Board, who wanted the new child to be raised with Maya, Thrush (now Lee Ann), and Seren in the children’s building, Degania. 

(Below – David, Kristine)

    The Child Board’s position was that all children at TO were to be raised as B. F. Skinner had described in Walden Two, and most importantly, that a child’s parents were to have no more of a connection than other adults.  Most of the Merion group was excited by the idea of having a child live there and helping to raise the child in a sort of extended family.  Most of the group felt that parents did have a special relationship with their children.  This made Merion a good match for David and Kristine’s ideas. Eventually, after some fairly contentious meetings (one memorable one in Gardner’s teepee), it was agreed that the new child, Damia, could be raised at Merion.

    Somewhere in this period, Carol, Luke and Karl left. Luke moved to New Orleans, Karl to San Francisco, and later to Israel, where people in the Twin Oaks circle lost touch with him.

    Gaskin’s Farm decided to open a branch near Washington, D.C., and the farm they chose to settle on was only a few miles from Juniper and Merion. A group of perhaps 8 or 10 couples, with children, moved into the Frank Proffit place, filling the farmhouse, sheds, and barns. There was quite a bit of socializing between this group and Merion. After a couple years, though, most had left, leaving only a small group on the farm.

    Another group that attempted a commune in the area was “Blue River Ashram”. This group formed after one of Twin Oaks’ annual community conferences, and several Twin Oaks members joined with several new communitarians who all desired a place with more of a spiritual focus. They too found an old farm, owned by Josephine Neal (descendant of Patrick Henry), moved in and built haphazard small dwellings over the summer of 1974. This farm was only a few miles from Merion, but on the other side of the South Anna River, and road access was down a five mile poorly-maintained lane, so it was very remote. They only lasted for the summer; as cold weather came on, all eventually moved out, but friendships were formed among quite a few of the members and Merion.

    “Cedarwood” was another commune that formed in this period and had extensive dealings with Merion. It was led by Aaron Bussey, who had a great deal of experience as a builder; Aaron and Gabe had organized Twin Oaks’ construction company GM. He formed a construction company that was the main source of income for the group. Several members from Twin Oaks joined, and Cedarwood hired many workers from Twin Oaks and Merion for its construction company. 

    Two other communes that formed in this period were “Grey Gables” and “Hunter’s Lodge”. The people from Hunter’s Lodge later formed Shannon Farm in Nelson County, which is still thriving. Grey Gables morphed into “Strange Farm” for a while, until the member who owned the land got tired of having a commune and asked everyone to leave. They refused to do so, so he contrived to have cops find pot on the property and they quickly disappeared!

    In the spring of 1974 Green Heels (who had reverted to his actual name of Daniel under the influence of the “total honesty” doctrine of Gaskin’s Farm) once more began his peripatetic ways, hitchhiking barefoot to Florida where he had a brother and a cousin and wanted to visit a Seminole reservation near where they lived. While there, he met a young fellow named Argon, who came to Merion and joined.  After Daniel left Merion, Rachael, who had changed her name to her given name of Christine after visiting Stephen Gaskins’ Farm with Daniel that year,  left to join the fledgling Kripalu Ashram in PA. Next, a young tall woman who shared Linda and Judy’s passion for goat-raising, Debbie, and who lived in a trailer on the lane leading to Blue River Ashram, also joined Merion.

    David and Kristine’s baby, Damia Zara, was born on July 31, 1974 in the southwest corner upstairs bedroom of the Arnette farmhouse.  Having a child at Merion was a major change!  Damia was the apple of everyone’s eye and the subject of everyone’s opinions about children and how to raise them.  

(Merion members and friends watching Damia’s birth; Kristine & David with Damia.)

    According to the agreement with Juniper’s metas (the child care workers), Damia spent some shifts at Degania with her “meta” from Merion.  Sometimes the kids from Juniper came to Merion. Child care arrangements between Juniper and Merion were never particularly smooth, although with time, most people, at both branches came to see that though there were wonderful advantages to having other adults in children’s lives, indeed parents did have a very different relationship with their children.

Merion–Part Two

Merion–Part One

Here is an important piece of communal history.  In the early days of the Twin Oaks community there was an offshoot of the group that lasted six years.  Recently there was an effort to document it.  I was fortunate to be in communication with Dan Parelius who sent me this.  It’s a long piece and we will be publishing it in three parts.  Here’s the beginning:

MERION      1972 -1978           A cooperative account by former members

    After five years of slow but steady growth, the Walden Two experiment of Twin Oaks in Louisa County, central Virginia, had reached a membership of about 40, with a waiting list, in 1972.    Personal space had always been the main factor limiting growth, as the community grew from one farmhouse and a couple of barns, to add three dormitories. Kat Kinkade (then Kathleen Griebe), a founder and influential member, conceived the idea of expanding more rapidly by buying land nearby to house more members.

    A piece of land with suitable old farmhouse and barns that was for sale got the process going. Previously owned by John Arnette and his family, it was now owned by their relatives (named Whitaker) in Richmond. As Kat and others looked into buying the property, a group of friends at Twin Oaks began considering the idea of forming a “branch” to live there. They were not thrilled with the idea, popular with the founders, of a community of 1000, as envisioned in “Walden Two.” Rather, they wanted a small community of friends who knew each other well, with less “bureaucratic” organization, and the discussion of the formation of a branch of Twin Oaks interested them. Over the summer of 1972  they met occasionally and sought others of their friends to join them.

    For the first few months, this project was referred to as “Acorn”, but as the group coalesced,  Karl suggested the name Merion, which he said was a type of bluegrass, and the group adopted the name. The original settlement on the Jones land was called Juniper.

 1972 Prospectus                                                                                                                            “Merion is the first offshoot from the original Twin Oaks settlement. Merion and our sister branch, Juniper, together comprise Twin Oaks – a community whose branches are united by similar cultures, a joint economy, and a common government.

   “Many of the same values which have been basic to Twin Oaks are a central part of the Merion idea – among them equality of all members, use of rational planning and innovative engineering to create the environment we desire, and obtaining happiness from our daily activities together rather than from  material possessions.

    “Yet in other ways Merion is distinctive. To begin with, we plan to limit our size to fifteen, twenty, or perhaps twenty-five members. Partly because of this, we will make major domestic decisions by consensus rather than by a board of planners, and will place less reliance on a labor credit system to structure our day and organize our work.

    “It is our hope that a smaller family will make possible a more tranquil atmosphere and honest, intimate relationships between members – both of which we feel to be important for our personal growth.

    “We anticipate doing a great deal of hard work together; eating a diet which places less reliance on meat and emphasizes natural, wholesome foods; building structures which allow us to take advantage of natural sources of heat and light; making judicious use of  technology; and relying heavily on honest encounter between members to establish the warm relationships we seek in our family.

    “The present ten members have lived together at the Juniper branch for some time and we selected ourselves through long discussions and a process of mutual- and self-analysis. For this reason we are not strangers and we hope to avoid some of the pitfalls that usually threaten new communities.

    “Physically, Merion is situated three miles away from Juniper on 86 acres of land, where at least one additional branch will later be located. The land is mostly wooded, but there are a few fields suitable for cultivation. There is an old three-bedroom house with electricity, but no plumbing or central heating, plus a barn and sheds. We plan to build a wing on the existing house to provide shelter the first winter, then begin construction of our own buildings.”

    There was, as one might imagine, a little controversy about this move on the part of the community.  Twin Oaks had always seen itself as belonging to a larger movement of people trying to change American society into a kinder, gentler, and more egalitarian nation, and early articles in the Leaves reflect a strong concern with the question whether we were a waste of time, or  were as valid an effort as the leftist revolutionaries who were  “organizing the masses.”

    For example, in the March 1968 issue (#5), founder Rudy wrote an article “Twin Oaks and the Larger Movement”  in which he stated, “The distinction is between the approach of trying to tear down the present power structure and THEN figuring out what to do and doing it on a large scale, and the approach of building small-scale alternatives now, and simply growing.” Likewise, in an April 1971 issue (#14), Erik wrote “The idea of the community movement as opposed to the revolutionary movement is to change the existing social structure through positive reinforcement, as opposed to punishment. It is to make people join because ours is a better way of life and not to spend hours trying to convince factory workers that communism will improve their lot in life.”

     Merion was initially conceived as a “waiting list hotel”, to prevent “losing potential members of the movement.” Karl and Judy Elliott volunteered to live at the new place. When the group evolved into Merion, Karl joined and Judy did not.

     Some felt that the planner decision to “divert funds to Merion was the end of the dream of 1000 communes.”  Nevertheless, that is what the planners decided, and the self-selected group of ten loaded their meager possessions and themselves onto Twin Oaks’ big flatbed truck (“Higher Yellow”), and unloaded at the Arnette place on September 11, 1972.

ORIGINAL MEMBERS

    Will – was the ripe old age of 27,  compared to the group average age in the early 20’s. He had an insightful, thoughtful presence and kind heart. Will loved eating apples and cutting them into slices with his pocket knife, and the others all teased him about it. Will had graduated from Yale, served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, and brought that experience to us all. He had learned a lot about farming and growing food during his first two summers at Twin Oaks.

    Rachael – With beautiful long auburn hair and an infectious laugh, Rachael was a grounding presence in the group. She was artistically inclined and made their home pleasant with little touches, as well as many drawings, some of which are in this account. She had dropped out after 3 years of college, to join Twin Oaks and seek a more satisfying way of life. Her caring, easy-going nature and love of homesteading skills helped them adjust to their new life together.

    Orin – was tall, quiet and thoughtful. He played the French horn in the upper story of the barn, and the melody would waft out over the fields and garden to the woods. He was the first one to leave, and  all were saddened by it.

    Marijke – came from the Bruderhof community, where she had been raised by her parents. She loved everything earthy and natural and folksy that they all did together. She wore overalls, had a blonde pageboy and sparkling brown eyes. She loved to work on the farm and do everything outdoors.

Luke – was a musician and a builder, and played harmonica in the “Empty Bottle Band”, Twin Oaks bluegrass band. He always wore an old brown fedora over his dark brown curls. Luke was a sweet and gentle presence, even though he could be very strong in his opinions and thoughts. Sadly, he was murdered after leaving Merion and relocating to New Orleans in 1973, while working on a tree-trimming crew and arguing with another man over how to trim a tree. 

Leah – or Freddie – was a deep devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda and did the Self-Realization Fellowship lessons faithfully. She had dark brown hair and electric blue eyes and her ready smile lit up the room. She had a great laugh and sense of humor. With her partner Jimy, the auto garage manager at Juniper she had Twin Oak’s first child who was born in the community, a son Maya, whom they all adored.

Karl – tall, lanky, with long dark curly hair and horn-rimmed glasses, he was a super-intelligent high school drop-out and math whiz. He was funny in a wry, “aw, shucks” sort of way and artistically gifted. Karl was interested in architecture  and learning to plan buildings, and he designed the addition that was added to the original Arnette house. He gave a talk on Twin Oaks at Hofstra University, where Holly was going to graduate school, and invited her to spend the entire summer of 1971 at Twin Oaks, as his guest. Merion was forming in meetings in the upstairs of the gray barn, in the spring of 1972.

Holly – came from New York City and was an extrovert, a loving joyful woman with beautiful wild brown hair, an infectious laugh and warm, big smile. She had the best hugs and was a cheerful ray of sunshine among them. She always paid close attention to how others were feeling, especially the quieter ones, and many others learned to do that from her. Holly was in New York doing “outside work” when the others moved onto the land.

Green Heels – was the name Gardner bestowed on Daniel, after the Native American fashion, due to the fact that he went barefoot always, and was deeply connected to the woods, plants, trees and wildlife.  All of them took walks in their woods and meadows and enjoyed learning to identify new plants, including teas and medicinal herbs. GH grew up in Cote d’Ivoire, son of missionaries, spoke fluent French, and was an amateur ornithologist with a West African flycatcher named for him. He knew almost every kind of bird, and its songs and calls. He had long blond hair usually braided, and was always chewing on a sassafras “chaw-stick”, as Native Americans had done.

Gardner – was the resident Buddhist. He was a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, the spiritual leader of Tail of the Tiger Meditation Center in Vermont, where he often went to do zazen. They all remember him sitting peacefully on his zafu at the top of the stairs, meditating daily in front of the window.

(Below, Karl and Marijke on the front porch; Luke; Gardner; Holly; Green Heels; Will)

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Leah                           Rachael/Christine               Orin

The Twin Oaks planners had agreed to fund an addition for the old farm  house as soon as they were settled.  It was designed by Karl, and comprised a small kitchen with a loft, bathroom, fairly large living room, and one small bedroom in the southwest corner, and many members from both Merion and Juniper worked on it. Louisa County had recently adopted building codes, so the new wing had to meet the county standards. It was all on one floor, on the south side of the old farmhouse, heated with a central furnace.

    In their excitement and idealism, Merion intended to eat their shared meals in the kitchen loft! They built a dumbwaiter for hauling food, dishes, utensils, and whatever else was needed. In the reality of life, however, after doing this for a while, they decided to eat on the floor of the living room, and the inspired creation grew dusty and unused (except for food storage- a large sweet potato crop was cured there every fall.)

    In the living room they had shelves for a moderate collection of books, a stereo for music, but no large furniture except one big chair that Marijke upholstered. They ate evening meals together in that room, sitting on the floor. They also held weekly meetings to make decisions there. The living room was where the “Merion Book” was kept; this was a hard-cover medium-sized book of blank pages that Karl gave the group for remarks and artwork. It became a group journal and contains very honest and emotional comments, as well as numerous sketches and cartoons.

      Merion members often enjoyed singing together, with Green Heels playing guitar, Luke on harmonica, Judy on dulcimer, and Linda on autoharp. They had group circles of singing in the living room when it was cold outside, or around fires outside on occasion.   

           

    An early source of tension between the two branches involved the rejection by Merion of the first application for membership by someone from Juniper. Birdie was a quiet, sweet young woman who had recently broken up with Luke. Because Luke did not want her to join, Merion decided not to accept her.     

    Twin Oaks was a secular commune and neither encouraged nor discouraged spiritual inclinations on the part of members, but all of the original founders had spiritual leanings of one sort or another. Two (Leah and Gardner) had chosen specific paths and teachers. All the others tended to support the practice of meditation and were interested in a variety of spiritual teachers, especially Baba Ram Dass, Stephen Gaskin, and Suzuki Roshi. They read such books as “Black Elk Speaks”, “Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions”,  “Seven Arrows”, “Monday Night Class”, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, and “Be Here Now”. They often listened to tape recordings of various teachers, together. They sang songs from the “Love, Serve, Remember” album such as “You are the grey sea, in a dress of broken lace; you are inside me, and I know your place”, “My mind is always floating on the thoughts of my lord Krishna playing his flute on the banks of the Blue River”, “Listen, listen, listen to my heart’s song; I will never forget you, I will never forsake you” and from the Incredible String Band “May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way home.”

Merion–Part One

The Twin Oaks Trilogy: A Review

by Raven Glomus

This week is book review week at the Commune Life blog.  I will post reviews each day (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) this week.

Today I want to look at three classic books, all about Twin Oaks, written when Twin Oaks was five, fifteen, and twenty-five years running.  Obviously, since TO has now been going on for 53 years, they are all a bit out of date.  Still, they give a good deal of insight into the beginnings of the longest running secular commune in the US.

Two of the books are by Kat Kinkade, who helped found Twin Oaks. The third book (actually the middle book) is by Ingrid Komar, who was the mother of a Twin Oaker and decided (with the blessing of several Oakers) to ‘update’ the original book.

The three books are A Walden Two Experiment, Living the Dream, and Is It Utopia Yet? Together they catalog the first twenty-five, twenty-six years of the commune’s existence, basically the first half of the years of Twin Oaks.

 A Walden Two Experiment is a good book for people thinking about starting communes as well as anyone really interested in Twin Oaks history.  Kat also gives some flavor of how the communal scene was happening in the sixties, ie, people dropping out, setting up a ‘commune’ and finding it filling up with people who didn’t want to work–and sometimes didn’t want to do anything.  Twin Oaks started as a bunch of people influenced by BF Skinner’s book Walden Two (Skinner actually wrote the preface to this book) and began a sort of behavioral experiment.  Part of how this played out was that Twin Oaks had more structure and expectations than most ‘communes’ and that seems to be part of why it lasted while other experiments fell apart.  In between the bits of history and Kat Kinkade’s stories, she talks about how the founders worked on “shaping equality behavior”, what they came to in terms of cooking and food, building structures, dealing with membership and turnover, raising children, dealing with illness, cars and trucks, pets, getting along with their neighbors, dealing with interpersonal relationships, and the way that sex worked at Twin Oaks.  She focuses on the first two years there–which is really useful since this is often the make-it-or-break-it period for communities.  She claims that Twin Oaks almost didn’t make it and that the “Breakthrough” was when they dropped the entrance fee that they had been charging and said, “Let them come through.”  She feared that the community would fill up with “irresponsible drifters” and, instead, got people who really wanted communal living and were willing to work for it.  She even gives the date when she thought things changed: “December, 1969”, two years into the experiment.

I think that Ingrid Komar’s book is useful but suffers from several things, most of all being the ‘middle child’.  Where Kat Kinkade’s first book is great for early Twin Oaks history and appeals to commune starters, her second book is as current as any of these (if a quarter century out of date) and talks a lot about how Twin Oaks actually runs.  Living the Dream covers a particular slice of history in between that is probably only interesting to folks who want even more of the TO story.  In addition, it’s more academic than either of Kat Kinkade’s books and is written by someone who was never really a Twin Oaks member.  The outsider perspective is both a strength and a weakness. Plus being a member parent, she ends up writing a defense of her son in the book. She critiques Twin Oaks egalitarianism as being “simplistic” and “A naive infantilism”.  Yes, there are problems with the way that Twin Oaks does equality, but, to me, Ingrid Komar comes off as being a bit too partisan and having her own axe to grind.  Still, if you want to get as complete a picture of the history of Twin Oaks as possible, this is a worthwhile book to read.

Kat Kinkade’s second book is probably the most accessible of the three books. Among other things, it comes with a bunch of amusing cartoons inside, written by Jonathan Roth, a former Twin Oaks member.  This is less of a history book and more of a ‘ how things work at Twin Oaks’ book. Not that there isn’t a lot of Twin Oaks history in this book.  She recaps the first five years and then goes into more recent (for her) developments.  She talks about why she left Twin Oaks and why she returned–and, perhaps more interesting to communal history folks, she left to start East Wind and so there is a bit about the beginnings of East Wind in the book. But it’s her descriptions of how Twin Oaks works that makes this book so useful.  She talks about the governance system and the labor system.  She talks about Twin Oaks growing and building and their ambivalence about doing it.  Even if this book is a quarter of a century out of date, I can tell you that most of it still rings true.  There are also mini-biographies of members who made a difference, builders and planners.  Kat Kinkade also talks a bit about her ambivalence about the community, and an ambivalence that led to her leaving Twin Oaks again a few years after writing the book.  And finally, she talks about the events that led up to the founding of Acorn, something she was also part of.  (I am sometimes in awe of Kat Kinkade.  As someone who has helped found a couple of communities, neither of which lasted long, it’s amazing to realize that Kat was part of founding three communities, all of which are going strong still.)

It may be apparent that Is It Utopia Yet? is my favorite of the three books.  I will say clearly that if you only want to read one of these books, read Is It Utopia Yet?  Even just browsing through it and looking at the cartoons will teach you a lot about Twin Oaks.  I would only suggest that you read all three of these books if you really want to understand the DNA of Twin Oaks, how it was built and what went into the first twenty-five years of its existence.  Still, there are enough of us communal true believers that it’s good to know that this detailed history is out there.

On Wednesday, I will review The Token, a book about dealing with diversity written by someone who understands a bit about community living (and serves on the Editorial Review Board of Communities Magazine).

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Thanks! 

The Twin Oaks Trilogy: A Review

“No, you can’t come back.”

Posted 1st March 2014 by keenan from Keenan’s Twin Oaks Blog

This is a paper I drafted as a community Planner.  The decision to deny a member a year-long leave was controversial, so I had to explain it very carefully and with a great deal of thought. It should be self-explanatory.

The Planners stand by the decision to deny Bert a Personal Affairs Leave (PAL)

The 3×5 board at Twin Oaks where messages are posted

Some background to this decision: Bert left Twin Oaks in October of 2007, moved all of his stuff out, bought a house, bought a car, got a job, gave up his room and stopped turning in labor sheets.

Before we get to the policy details of why the Planners are denying Bert’s  request, we wish to frame this issue within a larger context. One purpose of the Plannership is to serve as a backstop for Twin Oaks policies. Frequently, the Planners are asked to make an exception to some policy and we occasionally grant it because the situation before the Planners is not adequately covered by the policy. Planners don’t like making exceptions to, or overriding written policies. But sometimes policies are poorly worded, sometimes they are incomplete, sometimes they are meant to cover one extreme situation that is unlikely ever to occur again. So it is up to the Planners to bring their judgment to bear on any application of policy to insure that it is not at odds with the well-being of the community as a whole, or the well-being of any individual member.

Planners make sure that the application of policies passes the muster of common sense. If a policy fails to cover the situation at hand, then the Planners have more than the right, but the duty to interpret, create, and make exceptions to policy. Most often exceptions are granted in the form of being more lenient. But exceptions can also be made in making the application of policy stricter.

In the case before us, Bert is asking for a PAL. Bert has been gone from Twin Oaks for six months already and his PAL request means that he could be gone from Twin Oaks for up to another year and return as a full member with no further process. This request seems inconsistent with our policies, but it also seems inconsistent with the wishes of the majority of the community.

But the desire of the majority will not always carry the day. Twin Oaks is not meant to be a democracy. Our culture and policies strive to provide more protection for an individual than is the case in a mere democracy. Twin Oaks is in opposition to the tyranny of the majority. As a community, we also have chosen to protect the rights of minorities—even a minority of one. The Planners must always keep in mind in making a decision how this decision will affect the life or well-being of the “losing side” the minority. Even a minority or one must be protected if the loss of rights would be significant enough.

In this case, what would we be depriving Bert of by denying his PAL? Bert doesn’t live at Twin Oaks now. He hasn’t for six months. He owns a house, a car, has a job. By denying him a PAL, are we taking any of those things away from him? No. Rather, by denying him a PAL we are making his status the same as every visitor who comes to Twin Oaks. He can join a visitor group and apply for membership. This does not seem like a significant imposition on Bert’s civil or human rights. Therefore the Planners don’t feel that we need to apply a higher than normal standard of protection to Bert’s rights in making this decision.

Reasons to deny Bert’s application for a PAL: 

Sabbatical policy states that a PAL may not be taken within six months of returning from a sabbatical. Bert has not returned to Twin Oaks at all, much less returned to Twin Oaks for six months. Bert asserts that by claiming vacation he has “returned” to Twin Oaks. The Planners doubt that this was the intent of the drafters of the policy, and whatever their intent at the time, this group of Planners is interpreting the policy to mean that a member must physically return to and live at the community for six months.

Sabbatical policy states, in bold print, that sabbaticals are not meant to be a leaving cushion. The very clear intent of the sabbatical policy is to allow long-term members some time away from Twin Oaks. The community has been very lenient in the application of this provision of sabbatical policy and has merely asked that if a member chooses to leave the community, then they must repay any expenses that were incurred during the sabbatical. Recently, sabbaticals have become a leaving cushion, in clear violation of the intent of the sabbatical policy. It is clear that, in order to have sabbaticals fulfill their original intent, that sabbatical policy needs to be tightened up.

The Planners are well within their rights to deny Bert a PAL. That is, to retroactively say that Bert has used the sabbatical policy as a leaving cushion which is in violation of the sabbatical policy and therefore Bert is now (or when his vacation ran out, which would have been January 7th) an ex-member of the community—and therefore not eligible for a PAL.

Another reason the Planners used to deny Bert a PAL is that he is not a member in good standing. The issue of what the PAL policy means by a “member in good standing” was divisive and contentious when we were dealing with Bok Choy. While in the midst of expulsion proceedings was Bok Choy a member in good standing? The membership team at that time made a narrowly defined decision that being a member in good standing merely means not being in the labor or money hole. The current Planners reject that interpretation as being at odds with the intent of the community, with the intent of policy authors, and as creating bizarre situations like Bok Choy’s. She was being expelled, but chose to leave the community before the process was completed and expected to be granted a PAL because she was, technically, a member in good standing, even though her lying on her labor sheet was one of the issues involved in the expulsion proceedings.

Until the membership team updates their definition of “good standing” the Planners are using a broader definition of good standing. Bert was involved in a dispute just before he left and that caused lots of stress in his life and which caused Bert to do things that made Bert, as far as the Planners are aware, not a member in good standing. The Planners at that time didn’t want to make Bert’s life harder since he was leaving, so issues around Bert’s behavior were allowed to drop. But the current Planners believe Bert to not be a member in good standing and therefore not eligible for a PAL. If any member wishes to challenge this, the Planners can share more information.

As a final clarification, Bert is not being expelled. He is being denied a PAL. That Bert’s behavior during his membership makes it unlikely that he would be accepted as a member is not lost on the Planners. Rather, that is all the more reason to deny his PAL. The Planners also want to protect the rights of the members who live here now. Many of those members never had a chance to give input on Bert’s membership and may not want to live with him. Allowing members to have some say over who lives at Twin Oaks is a fundamental right.

For all of these reasons the Planners stand by the decision to deny Bert a  Personal Affairs Leave (PAL).

“No, you can’t come back.”