Is Gossip the Fabric of Community?

By Paxus Calta-Star

I co-moderate a large diverse facebook group on intentional communities.  Recently someone posted:

Gossip gets embellished as it travels. Things heard second hand should be verified with the speaker. Beware words taken out of context, even if the context is the room next door. Good communities practice all that.

While this is true as far as it goes, it misses the tremendous complexity around the issue of gossip and how important it is to both the culture and success of a community venture.

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What is gossip?  It is certainly more than an opinion expressed about someone who is not in the room.  “Trump is a misogynist racist,” isn’t gossip, unless you are close to him.  It is just an opinion.  “Cindy is gifted at fixing cars,” almost certainly does not qualify either, as most people think gossip is a negative opinion.

“Paxus is a poor driver.” What if this is something I have said myself and you are simply repeating it?  Is it gossip if the target is the source?

 

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They did what?

Let me propose a harsher definition: Gossip is a critical judgment shared about a person or group, often in conspiratorial or secretive tones, while not directly communicating with the subject of the gossip.

Using this definition one might reasonably be concerned that gossip would have an acidic effect on the fabric of the community.  One of the common anti-gossip norms that exist in the communes is if you hear something critical about someone you could ask, “Have you told this to them?”  This is the antidote to gossip; being transparent with the subject of the rumor.

 

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Back in the 80s, as I was just becoming aware of community living, when I was making a critical comment about gossip, my dear friend and mentor Crystal replied “Gossip is the fabric of the community,” and it took me a couple of decades to understand what he was talking about.

Even when using the negative it turns out gossip is important for a community to be healthy.  Members need to confide in confidants about their frustration with others in the community.  Ideally, this is less about spreading rumors and more about seeking advice.  “How do I deal with this headachy circumstance?”  or “Do you understand their motivations for this strange behavior?” or “I was so upset and they were clueless, what is really happening here?”

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In the best light, gossip is the flow of self-critical and self-correcting messages which members share in the lead up to actually addressing the problems.  [Where the “self” here is the larger collective one, rather than the individual personal one.]  You talk about things which are on your mind with the people who you live with and they help you reflect back on what you should do about it.  Recognizing that if you are being critical of another member of your community, you are obligated to get back to them with your concern.

In this way, gossip within a community is different from what happens in the mainstream.  If I am being critical or concerned about another member, I have a larger obligation to do something about it than I do if it is a co-worker or random stranger.  If you have a substance abuse problem and we live collectively, not only can it blow back on me in a problematic way, but I have made some level of commitment to take care of you.  If we are part of the same intentional community and I am worried about your mental health, I can’t casually gripe about it to another member, we have to be considering what our course of action is regarding this problem.  Even less dramatic problems other members are experiencing a poor choice of romantic partners or headache with a boss are much more shared in a community setting than when living independently.  Gossip in community has more obligation to it.

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It is worth pointing out that Twin Oaks does not embrace this culture.  In my large commune, if you don’t want to deal with someone you can completely shut down communication with them.  This is terrible for clearing gossip but might make it possible for some people who really do not see eye to eye to be able to live together.  And because the community is so large these estranged members (including me) just try to avoid each other.

It is worth pointing out that when ex-Oakers founded Acorn with financial assistance from Twin Oaks, this was one of the most important things they wanted to do differently.  Acorn (and many other communes) have a communication covenant which makes it the community’s business when members are failing to communicate.  When you are designing communities one of the thorniest issues is when do you give power to the collective over the individual members.  And gossip is one of the few places you should seriously consider it.

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Is Gossip the Fabric of Community?

My Favorite Things

by Raven

Here are some recent photos from this blog of the joys of Communal Living:

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The folks at Kibbutz Mishol

If you look carefully you can see god hiding

The pool at Cambia

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Working together at East Wind

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The Cotyledon crew

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Cooking at Le Manoir

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Saturnalia at Compersia

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The Twin Oaks Feminist Zine

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An overview of East Brook Community Farm

ChickensChickens at Acorn

And from communes yet to be:

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The land at Donald’s View

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A map of possible land for Full Circle

My Favorite Things

Power Dynamics in the Communes

by Raven

I found a book in the library called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.  It was focused on business executive teams, but I found a lot of it applicable to communities.  His five dysfunctions were Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. To put it in positive language, I would say that in creating a team or a community you need to build trust, be willing to disagree, be able to make commitments, and also be held accountable, before you can achieve results.

A friend of mine pointed out that every group, including communities, has to deal with power dynamics. It may be especially true in the commune world.

I have written about how a new community with an aggressive, dominant man at the core will often fail to grow. In December, with the MeToo movement in the news, we published a series of articles about how communes and communities need to deal with the problem of abusive men among us.  While sexual abuse and harassment are the worst examples and have been what has been featured in the media, there is also a strong problem of men (generally white men) dominating discussions, and often ignoring or disregarding the contributions of women and people of color–or, worse yet, claiming those contributions and taking credit for them.  (Full disclosure, I am a white man.)

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If we want to build diverse, inclusive communities, we need to deal with these dynamics. We need to deal with anyone dominating conversations, and ignoring or disregarding the contributions of others.   While white men are the prime offenders, we need to call out anyone with these behaviors. And it’s not just women and people of color who get trampled on, but queerfolk, people with disabilities, and working class and poor people. In fact, the whole community is often being trampled on.

To return to what I began with, when you have a person or a few people dominating in a community, it’s impossible to build real trust.   People become afraid to disagree with these folks and have no desire to give real commitments to the community.  Accountability is at least difficult, if not impossible, under these circumstances, and what results happen are usually not what the group wants.

Patrick Lencioni claims that what gets in the way of teams achieving results is a focus on people’s status and ego.  Well functioning teams do not have stars; they have a group of people willing to listen to each other and work together.  If that’s true in the business world, how much more so with communes.  Having dominating people makes true community impossible.

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Changing all this is not easy.  If you are dealing with strong people, you will probably need a cohesive group to confront them.  The more the group can be clear about what it wants and needs, the better the chances of getting it.  And that goes back to the need to build trust among this group.

It’s difficult work, but if our communes are going to be truly egalitarian, it’s work that needs to be done.

Power Dynamics in the Communes

Urban Kibbutzim: A Growing Movement

 

 

By Anton Marks

from Communities magazine, Winter issue #177

 

The first kibbutz was established over 100 years ago, and over the following century, a network of almost 300 full income-sharing agricultural communes was established all over Israel. The plan was based on anarchist principles, whereby this federation of communities would coalesce into a whole cooperative society, without centralized government or borders.

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Fast forward to the year 2017. The rural kibbutz communities are in retreat, there’s a strong central government and, albeit for very different reasons, the country has no clear borders.

However, there are those who have taken up the mantle of taking responsibility for shaping the society, young people who are establishing hundreds of urban communes that, both individually and as movements, are affecting change in the inner cities—communes of educators who are working against violence, racism, homophobia, and poverty.

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I am a member of Kibbutz Mishol, one of the many intentional communities that have been established over the past 20 years. We are 130 people, all living under one roof, making decisions together, bringing our children up together, sharing all of our income, 10 cars, our living spaces, and a handful of dogs, cats, and chinchillas.

Our kibbutz is in the city; in fact, we are situated in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country—and it’s a choice. We’ve made this choice to work together with our partners in the local municipality, and together with our partners who live in this city, to shape the wider community for the benefit of all of its citizens—Jews, Arabs, those from the former Soviet Union, from Ethiopia, asylum seekers, religious, secular, left, and right.

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We have established a nonprofit organization through which we run all of our educational projects. For example, we run a local public elementary school, non-formal education in after-school centres, a youth movement, a coexistence project, and educational tours to Poland. In addition, we have teams of people working together taking responsibility over the inner functioning of our community—looking after our cars, our building, our children, our finances, our learning, our relationships, and our culture.

It’s a healthy tension in our lives: to what extent are we focused on the internal—living together and improving our relationships, creating a community making decisions by consensus, challenging societal norms when it comes to gender roles, understanding the different needs and different abilities of our members—and to what extent on the external—our interactions and impact on the surrounding society? Do we exist for ourselves, as a lifestyle choice, or is our aim to use community as a vehicle for changing the world around us?

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The kibbutz-building enterprise started as a way of taking responsibility over the needs of a developing society and a developing economy—agriculture, creating towns and villages, defending the borders, building a public health system, a nationwide union, newspapers, etc., etc. Today the needs of the country can be found in the inner cities, draining the social swamps of society, rather than the physical mosquito=infested swamps of the early 20th century backwaters of the Ottoman Empire.

These urban communes, largely situated in the geographical and economic peripheries of Israel, springing up like mushrooms after the rain, are a model of how an alternative society can be built within the existing capitalist society—not as isolated independent communities, but as a network of communities which together offer an example of how society can be structured in a more just and equitable way.

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  • ● ●

Having previously been living communally for 18 years in the North of Israel, I’ve now spent the last 18 months living in the American suburbs of Rockville, Maryland. It’s a surprisingly easy adjustment to make—two adults and two young children living in a faceless apartment block with pool, fitness center, and Amazon deliveries 24/7.

I have been active on the international communal scene for many years—I am a board member of the ICSA (International Communal Studies Association) and have attended three of their international conferences.

In addition, I have been general secretary of the Intentional Communities Desk (formerly known as the International Communes Desk) and was editor of their magazine C.A.L.L. for 15 years.

I’ve visited communities in different places in the world and so upon coming to the US it was important for me to connect to what is going on here. Here is the list of communities I have visited on the East Coast, several within a few miles of where I have been living.

  • Baltimore Free Farm: an urban farm of activists and gardeners who gave me a tour of the farm and showed me their space where they host events.
  • Compersia, DC: a small urban commune whose members I’ve met a couple of times, including a visit to their house in DC.
  • Twin Oaks, Virginia: I attended the Communities Conference last year at the 50 year old full income-sharing ecovillage. I was extremely excited to visit their former children’s house named after the first kibbutz, Degania.
  • Platte Clove Community: I stayed for a few days at the Bruderhof community as a guest of members who had visited me in Israel
  • Maple Ridge Bruderhof: a visit for a couple of hours, including a tour of the community and meeting old friends who had also visited my kibbutz in Israel.
  • Rondout community in Kingston, New York: an urban Bruderhof community that runs their own preschool.
  • Eastern Village Cohousing: a community in the nearby neighbourhood of Silver Spring, Maryland.
  • Takoma Village Cohousing: another local cohousing community.

 

 

Urban Kibbutzim: A Growing Movement

Art at Twin Oaks

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Rock/Paper/Scissors statue by Lindsey (guest).  Displayed in  Kaweah.

24210091_1566844903375384_3751067670206167007_oPainting by Summer of Purl. Displayed in her room.

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Art by Puma. Displayed at ZK.

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Lindsey Hoffman’s homemade collage postcards and photography by Alexis (guest).  Displayed in upstairs MT.

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Sketch by Lindsey of shrouded R E Lee statue in Charlottesville.

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Woven basket by Ari made during recent stay at John C Campbell Folk School.  Displayed in upstairs Llano.

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Iron work by Stephan made during his recent stay at John C Campbell Folk School.   Displayed in upstairs Llano .

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Art quilt by Pam.  Displayed in her room .

Art at Twin Oaks

Stepping Stone Commune

Architecture shapes culture, so a guiding principle of Cambia is, if we can make it beautiful, we do.  Architecture is unique as an art form because it integrates function with form. This includes landscaping and outdoor play spaces.

Stepping stones have multiple functions; for example, they can protect clover, especially in the winter. The form also affects our local culture: when you walk on stepping stones, you are called to a child-like stance.

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You can walk with your hands hanging down by your sides, and what tends to happen is that your arms raise up to maintain your balance.  The stepping stones can draw you into being playful and childlike.  As your hands go up, you are more likely to skip.  As you start to skip, you are more likely to smile.

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Cambia also boasts a trampoline.  The trampoline draws kids from the surrounding communes.  Cambia recently replaced our broken one, in an assembly effort which was guided by a gaggle of giggly kids.

The German modern architect Mies van der Rohe is famous for two sayings, both of which are applicable.  Less is more is the argument for minimalist architecture to achieve simplicity, using white elements, cold lighting, large space with minimum objects and furniture

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At Cambia, there is a focus on details.  Door knobs from twisted branches, floors of pebbles and clay, salvaged redwood around the hot tub and hyacinth pool.  It is these and dozens of other tiny aspects that makes this stepping stone commune so precious.

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Handcrafted means focusing on details: doorknobs from twisted branches, floors of pebbles and clay, tiny signposts, salvaged redwood around the hot tub and hyacinth pool.  It is these and dozens of other tiny aspects that makes this stepping stone commune so precious.

If you look carefully you can see god hiding

 

 

Stepping Stone Commune

East Wind Community: Our Labor System

from the East Wind website, under Our Work

East Wind is a community fueled by the needs and visions of its members. The work here is incredibly varied. East Winders may participate in anything from agricultural work on the ranch, gardens, and in the woods; to childcare, cooking, food processing, and housekeeping in community; to office work or production in our factory, among virtually endless other possibilities. A great number of things must come together to keep a community of our size fed, clothed, sheltered, comfortable, and financially secure. We expect all members to contribute their fair share, taking age and ability into account.

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Fran, Celina, and Lauren with newborn Izora Rose in the process of freezing surplus strawberries

East Wind minimally assigns labor to its members and each member is largely free to choose their own work. The exception to this is a rotating monthly assignment of HTA (hard to assign) labor, consisting of kitchen and dining hall cleaning duties.  HTA shifts are once a week for two hours, and there are about fifty shifts to complete each week which means that not every member will have an HTA shift every month. There is also an industrial quota set on a weekly basis which requires members to work a certain number of hours in our nut butters business or making rope sandals (the number cannot be larger than eight and is usually lower than four). East Wind Community and its businesses have no employees. Each member is an equal owner. There are a wide range of jobs within our businesses, including work in the factory (roasting, production, sanitation, etc), work in the warehouse (shipping and pallet repair), and work in the offices (general management, marketing & sales, accounting, etc).

Quota for all labor (industrial and domestic combined) is thirty-five hours per week or twenty-seven hours on holiday weeks (which occur once per month). Jobs like washing dishes, cooking community dinner, and childcare are credited the same as jobs like milling lumber, building a barn, or hauling comptoil. Members record their labor on a weekly “scoop sheet”, and all labor is then recorded in a digital database and publicly displayed. Elected managers may choose to not allow a member to claim hours under their labor area for an amount of time if they see the labor system being abused, but this is a very rare occurrence. Members are able to bank hours each week by working over quota, and these hours can be saved up indefinitely. For example, a member may work 50 hours one week and 20 the next to maintain an even labor balance.

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Obviously, it is important that all members do their fair share and truthfully record their labor. This system sometimes creates problems when individuals are suspected of not honestly recording hours. Because there are only seventy five people living here it becomes evident when a member is having difficulty contributing. Through our Legispol policies, a member can be called to be transparent about their labor if enough members desire it.  If a member falls below -105 hours (three full weeks of labor “in the hole”), he or she will be taken to a meeting to address the problem. Though the system isn’t perfect, most of us love the freedom, flexibility, and independence it allows us. We are our own bosses, and we are free to choose the work that best suits us. Though it may be difficult for some newcomers to plug in at first, long term members are usually looking for help and are glad to direct visitors towards useful labor. Most find their own niche in community in due time.

East Winders are free to focus their time and energy in whatever ways they feel make the best contributions to community. Some East Winders choose to focus on a particular branch or projects that are of interest to them, while others prefer to vary their work day-to-day and offer a hand in many different areas of community. Some members prefer physical labor outdoors while some prefer to do work around the home and the office. This diversity of preferences and skills creates a good balance within community, and all work is equally credited and appreciated. Members are encouraged to pursue work that they enjoy and to take initiative in the areas that they feel comfortable pursuing. The unique talents, skills, and visions of East Winders can manifest in any form that we individually or collectively desire.

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East Wind’s labor system allows self-motivated individuals to thrive. Most East Winders find work in community deeply satisfying, in contrast to employment experiences outside community. We are able to pursue our own interests and use our skills to better life for ourselves and our friends.  When our fellow communitarians put in a hard day of work, the results are visible, and we are all able to enjoy the benefits.  These benefits may be a hot cooked meal, a fixed automobile, or a successful business transaction. This daily sense of symbiosis, cooperation, and purpose strengthens our sense of community and our appreciation of the individuals we share it with.

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East Wind offers individuals the opportunity to use their time as they please, so long as they put thirty-five hours per week into work that benefits community in an agreeable way. East Winders of all types- from machinists to cooks to gardeners- are able to do what they love and develop skills in areas of interest while contributing to the community as a whole. Maintaining an intentional community and providing for the needs and desires of seventy people isn’t always easy, but it’s a labor of love and a wonderful learning experience for all of us. East Winders over the years have displayed great self-motivation, ambition, and capability. The hard work and vision of East Winders, past and present, has made our community what it is today.

East Wind Community: Our Labor System