Come Hell or High Water

by Raven Glomus

The two previous book reviews this week (books on sustainable community and collaborative groups) focused on books written about how to do collaborations (including communes and communities) well.  Today I want to review a book about what not to do.  It’s called Come Hell or High Water and is subtitled “a handbook on collective process gone awry”.  It’s published by AK press–“one of the world’s largest and most productive anarchist publishing houses”–that also publishes a bunch of other interesting books (including adrienne maree brown’s book on Emergent Strategy which I based two blog posts here on).

As the cover illustrates, this is a funny, cynical book that has a bunch of cartoons illustrating some frustrating problems.  It also has a lot of hard won lessons about how all these wonderful processes that we talk about here and which other commune building guides extol can go terribly wrong.  It’s written by a couple of anarchists who believe strongly in “egalitarian collectives” but have seen the pitfalls in the process and have looked at ways that form what the authors term “predictable patterns” that can lead well-meaning groups to things like “hierarchy, mistrust, looking out only for oneself, and sometimes even underhanded scheming.”  

Although this is a modest sized book (and a quick read–127 small pages) Delfina Vannuchi and Richard Singer look carefully at issues like misusing consensus, how not to do power sharing, the difference between politeness and kindness, character assassinations and banning, justice and due process and free speech, and how vagueness can lead to authoritarianism.

I’ve seen reviews of this book that complain that this book is overly ‘pessimistic’.  However, I think that it provides a nice counterbalance to all the books on the wonderful things you can do with group process.  (See my two previous reviews this week.)  The cartoons are also a nice touch that makes the emphasis on problems easier to take.

The authors end the book with a section that they entitle “There’s hope” where they talk about how “Virtually all problems in collectives can be overcome by applying compassion, and by being thorough and even-handed in our thinking.”  Sounds lovely but not easy to do, especially when things are tough.  

Here’s the last paragraph in the book, which is a nice summary of their thinking:

“An egalitarian collective is meant to accept and incorporate differences and heterogeneity.  The task is to create a productive, relatively peaceful community out of all the different and sometimes contradictory personalities that form the group.  No collective will ever be a perfect picture of unity, but it doesn’t have to be.  A working collective is more like a crazy-quilt of disparate styles, all stitched up by a common thread.  Frayed edges and all, that’s what a functional egalitarian collective looks like.”

It’s a nice reminder for people living in or trying to build communes.

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Come Hell or High Water

The Empowerment Manual

by Raven Glomus

Starhawk is a witch and a political activist and a permaculture teacher and the author or co-author of thirteen books.  She has also lived in a collective household in the Bay Area for decades.  In 2011 she wrote The Empowerment Manual, which she subtitles “A Guide for Collaborative Groups”.

Starhawk

I think that this is an incredibly useful book.  While Starhawk points out that there are many different types of what she calls collaborative groups, which are any group of people who are working together for common goals that are decentralized and egalitarian, she definitely includes communities in the mix.  One theme through the book is a fictional story that she tells about “an imaginary cohousing community”.  She uses this story to illustrate many of her points.  Unfortunately, I think the story is one of the weaker point of the book (I think that it’s both hokey and a bit soap opera-ish)  although it does provide useful examples of what she’s talking about sometimes.

The Empowerment Manual has whole chapters on group vision, power and responsibility, communication and trust, “Leadership Roles for Leaderless Groups”, conflict, and, particularly useful, “Dealing with Difficult People”. Information is interspersed with exercises to practice or use what she talks about.  There are two tables of contents, the second labeled “Table of Questions and Exercises”, so you can easily find some of the more useful exercises.

Starhawk ends the book with a chapter focusing on “Groups that Work” so you can see actual examples of successful collaborations.  After looking at three such groups (a cooperative grocery store, the 1999 Seattle blockade, and her own Reclaiming collective) she finishes by listing what she calls ‘Lessons from Success’.  I think that the points that she makes here are so useful for communes and communities that I am going to quote a few paragraphs.  (Italics are in the original.)

Ideals and values are important; they are the guiding force that drives people to organize together and work together.  But groups that survive find ways to balance the ideal with the pragmatic needs of the moment.  They are flexible, rather than rigid, and accepting rather than judgemental.  They value diversity rather than orthodoxy, problem-solving over toeing a party line.

Successful groups balance unity with autonomy.  They have a bias toward freedom and impose the minimal structure necessary.  But they do have structure and often hold a unifying vision and set of core values.

Collaborative groups that last over time reinvent themselves periodically.  They may need to  change their structure, organization and ways of working as they grow and develop.  They are not static, but dynamic, not artifacts, but living organisms.”

I think that, not only anyone who wants to start a community, but anyone who thinks that their community has begun to stagnate, should read this book full of both good ideas and useful processes.

Next, so what could go wrong?  On Friday, a book that looks at that.

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The Empowerment Manual

Resilient and Cooperative

by Raven Glomus

It’s book review week again at Commune Life.  Today I want to take the unusual step of reviewing two books that I have only skimmed and partially read because they are connected and one of them was just published.

Both books are by Yana Ludwig (formerly Ma’ikwe Ludwig) although the latest one is co-written with Karen Gimnig.  They are both published by the Foundation for Intentional Community (the FIC, formerly the Fellowship for Intentional Community).  Yana Ludwig lives in the Solidarity Collective, an income-sharing community in Laramie, Wyoming.

The original book that was written is called Together Resilient and is subtitled ‘Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption’.  It talks about the problems we are dealing with as climate change occurs and how we can deal with it.  The author looks at what the Global Ecovillage Network calls the four dimensions of sustainability: worldview, social, economic, and ecological.  (She also mentions Joanna Macy’s “three types of activism”–a model that has been very important to me–Holding Actions, Systems Change, and Worldview Changes.)  Yana Ludwig then goes on to talk about “Community as Experimental Laboratory”, another concept that I have long espoused–she sees communities as places where we can try out and model what we must do to live sustainably.  

As ‘Case Studies’ for the work that she thinks needs to be done, she uses the communities of Dancing Rabbit and Twin Oaks (although she talks about a bunch of other groups, many not residential communities, but some that are, such as the Ecovillage at Ithaca).  As the subtitle of the book says, everything is very related to community living (the subtitle of Chapter 2 is “Community as a Tool to Reduce Carbon Footprints” and Chapter 4 is entitled “Starting a Residential Intentional Community) and there is a section in the book called ‘The Case for Deeper Communalism’ where the author talks about the advantages of income sharing.  She also includes her ‘Spectrums for Intentional Communities’ chart which I think is one of the more useful tools that community seekers and community creators can have.

My biggest complaint about the book is that the author starts relying on a Ken Wilbur color theory where everything evolves toward what he calls ‘yellow’ and the state he calls ‘green’ (the space that many communes and ecocommunities are in) is too extreme.  Yana Ludwig advocates for what she calls ‘hierarchy-lite’.  Her vision of what she calls ‘Sustainable Cooperative Culture’ fits in between ‘Extreme Competitive Culture’ and ‘Extreme Cooperative Culture’.  Somehow I don’t think that being too cooperative is dangerous and feel that this color theory and these spectrums are trying to paint the more radically cooperative elements as extremists and thus justify her approach as more moderate.   Still, I think that it’s a small gripe for a book that pulls in so many useful ideas and approaches.

Throughout the book Yana Ludwig mentions The Cooperative Culture Handbook–which wasn’t actually written until three years later.  It was just published near the end of last year which is why I wanted to get this review out since this book is practically ‘hot off the press’.  

At the beginning of The Cooperative Culture Handbook, the authors talk about how when Yana wrote Together Resilient, “the section on group dynamics and culture kept getting longer” and “After a conversation with her publisher and editor, it was decided that she’d write a second book”.  Yana Ludwig went looking for a writing partner and, after several partners didn’t quite work out, she began working with Karen Gimnig.  This book is the result and it’s subtitled ‘A Social Change Manual to Dismantle Toxic Culture & Build Connection’.

This is basically a book of exercises.  The authors try to balance personal and group work to help folks do the work that they call creating cooperative culture.  They begin each section with an idea that they call a “Culture Key” and then follow each ‘Key’ with two exercises. They emphasize ‘Discernment’, stating clearly that there are no “simple, easy answers”.  They go on to say that no workshop or policy will eliminate conflict and oppression. “If that were so, this would be a much shorter book!”

Most of these exercises look useful.  The book begins with exercises to promote “Skillful Hearing” and ends with exercises designed to look at multiple ideas of how to proceed and to come up with something that is aligned with the group’s collective mission.  The first three ‘Keys’ all come with an exercise drawn from the Imago Dialogue work developed by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt and there’s a bit more about Imago Dialogue (which apparently is something that Karen Gimnig was very influenced by) in the appendix.  The authors also put diamond symbols in the Contents next to their “favorite general use exercises.”

My only real difficulty that I have with the book (at least from skimming it) is that it again tries to frame certain viewpoints as extreme–this time breaking methods into “Mainstream Culture, Cooperative Culture, and Counter Culture” and saying “we think the pendulum can swing way too far from Mainstream Culture and land us in the pitfalls of Counter Culture.”    As a person who was very much a part of the counterculture of the ‘60s and’70s, I definitely react to this characterization.  Fortunately, they do say in the beginning, as they are talking about all this that they hope “…that you will give yourself and us the grace to set aside pieces that we may have gotten wrong or described badly, or that simply aren’t a fit for you.”  I think that their emphasis on discernment may be their saving grace here.

I’m very glad that I got these two books.  They look very useful for anyone wanting to understand why community is so useful in our current climate catastrophe as well as anyone wanting to build some of the skills needed for group living. If either (or both!) of these two situations describes you, I would definitely recommend these books.

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Thanks for reading! This post was made possible by our patrons on Patreon. The Commune Life team works hard to bring you these stories about our lives in community, and that work couldn’t happen without support from our audience. So if you liked this article, and want to help us make more like it, head on over to https://www.patreon.com/communelife to join us! 

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Resilient and Cooperative

Finding and Creating Community: A Review

by Raven Glomus

Diana Leafe Christian has written two books that are often found on the shelves of many community folks and are very useful for anyone interested in community.  The first, and oldest, is called Creating a Life Together (subtitle Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities); the second is just called Finding Community (How to join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community).

As you might guess, Creating a Life Together is about how to create and build communities, Finding Community is about how to find and join the community that is right for you.  Both books are filled with useful and practical information.  Obviously, if you only want to get or borrow one, whether you want to try to start a community or just join an existing one should determine which book you look at, but if you are just interested in the subject of community, they are both useful.

A warning, however, for commune interested folks.  Diana Leafe Christian is not overly fond of income sharing communities.  In her first book, Creating a Life Together, she devotes all of one very long paragraph to “income-sharing economies”.  She points out that “Relatively few communities do income-sharing…”  In Finding Community, the more recent book, she devotes a whole chapter to Income-Sharing Communes.  Here she starts off by saying that “About ten percent of intentional communities in North America… are income-sharing communes.”  Later in the chapter she asks the question, “Why Are Income-Sharing Communities so Well Known?”  She mentions that “income-sharing communitarians tend to be activists, if not enthusiastic proselytizers, for their radically non-competitive way of life.”  (Doesn’t she sound a bit annoyed?)  But even here, she tries to give good information and points out that income-sharing communities will appeal to people who have a passion for economic justice, want to learn a variety of new skills, and are comfortable with living simply; conversely, they are not likely to appeal to folks that are interested in financial autonomy and independence or who are looking for a greater degree of comfort or amenities.

As I said, the books offer a lot of useful and practical advice.  I will pass along two of my favorite pieces of wisdom.  The first, from Creating a Life Together, is a warning about “‘Magical Thinking’ and the Anti-Business Attitude”.  Her point is that if you are trying to create a community, no matter what you think about our legal system and our corporate culture, you can’t form a community in this society unless you deal with the financial and legal aspects for the way that they are (and really and carefully learn the pieces), and don’t try to pretend that they are the way that we might want them to be.

The other is a quote that I love which she uses for the title of her closing chapter in Finding Community.  She attributes it to Zev Paiss.  “Community–the longest, most expensive, personal growth workshop you will ever take!”  It is true that community is less expensive in income-sharing communities–but sometimes (as she points out in several places) they are even more intense.  This is a good warning for anyone who hasn’t looked carefully at the pros and cons of communal living.  The ideals are great, but the price might well be higher than you might expect.

I’m not saying that you should run out and buy these books, but if you are seriously interested in community, I suspect that you should also have one–or both!–of them on your bookshelf.

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Thanks for reading! This post was made possible by our patrons on Patreon. The Commune Life team works hard to bring you these stories about our lives in community, and that work couldn’t happen without support from our audience. So if you liked this article, and want to help us make more like it, head on over to https://www.patreon.com/communelife to join us! 

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Brenda Thompson

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Heather

Janey Amend-Bombara

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Finding and Creating Community: A Review

The Token: A Review

by Raven Glomus

Crystal Bird Farmer has not actually “lived in community” but she serves as a board member for the Foundation for Intentional Community and an Editorial Review Board member for Communities Magazine.  She begins her book, The Token, with a story about visiting Twin Oaks and attending the Communities Conference.  She then announces that she’s your “new Black friend”.  She’s here because you claim that you want diversity–and this book is all about how to actually work for diversity.

The program she recommends is divided into three parts: first, preparing your community;  second, doing The Work; and third, creating culture conscious spaces.  The Work (those are her capitals) is anti-racism/anti-oppression work, which is not easy work.  The first step is preparation and that includes figuring who the team is that is going to lead this work and figuring out how to deal with the resistance that will inevitably come up.The Work includes looking at identity and privilege, implicit bias, microaggressions, and majority culture and there are mini ‘workbooks’ at the end of each section devoted to one of these topics that give the format for a group discussion on the topic.  The book then focuses on “creating culture conscious meetings” in ways that make them feel more inclusive.  Crystal Bird Farmer ends the book by exploring what she calls “limits to inclusion”–creating separate space when needed and “how not to recruit leaders”.  There is a very useful section on “tools and resources” that includes many powerful books on racism and anti-racist work for those who want to go deeper.

By now, you may be thinking that this is probably a very thick book and wondering where you will get the time to read all this.  Well, I have some good news for you–this is a very short book (86 pages, 96 if you include the resources and index) and is a very easy read.  Crystal Bird Farmer writes in a friendly and engaging style.  This is a book that needs to be read by anyone who wants to figure out how to make their community more diverse and more inclusive and a great introduction to dealing with all the baggage that makes it impossible to achieve inclusion and diversity.  I would highly recommend it–and you can buy it directly from the author.  I love that she also suggests that you can get it from a local bookstore and does not mention a large internet book (and everything else) seller.  I hope that it becomes widely read and makes a difference in our communities.

The Token: A Review

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 for reading! This post was made possible by our patrons on Patreon. The Commune Life team works hard to bring you these stories about our lives in community, and that work couldn’t happen without support from our audience. So if you liked this article, and want to help us make more like it, head on over to https://www.patreon.com/communelife to join us! 

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Thanks! 

The Twin Oaks Trilogy: A Review