There are things Twin Oaks does reliably well and funerals are one of them.
I dislike most funeral formats. Too much religious singing or scripture, often reflecting the wishes of the minister rather than the person who passed. Too much waiting around for people who are not skilled at public speaking struggle to prove they really cared in oft too long and pained presentations.
Ex-member Kate facilitated the funeral in a Quaker style where people shared what they were moved to say. Almost everyone was funny in an appropriate way because we knew it would take powerful joy to cut the tragic sadness of losing this person with incredible potential. Very few prepared remarks (though Carly penned this amazing piece), lots of short heartfelt memories.
As an event organizer, I evaluate this from two perspectives: First is “What would Gwen think?” And I think she would have been very pleased at all these people from her life saying these comic and amazing things about her. She would have felt seen and celebrated.
But the other perspective is what it must be like to be one of Gwen’s girlfriends in attendance. What would it be like to be among so many people whose principal connection with my partner is that they raised her? Would they be like that relative who does not see how embarrassing it is to show these old photos?
No, we are better than that. There were some endearing stories of young Gwen, like the one Tigger, her father, told of Gwen at 4 years crying:
But this is a story of Gwen in control and defiant and it reveals perhaps the most important not-quite-secret ingredient in what makes commune collective child raising so great. We teach defiance.
We teach kids how to hide from their parents when that is appropriate. We teach kids how to know when to break any rule. But more importantly, we teach how to be a conscientious rule breaker. How to know when you’re breaking rules and which rules are silly and should simply be ignored and to know what rules matter and why.
Gwen was the closest thing Willow (my daughter) had to a sister. But in some ways commune life made them much closer than most siblings would be. For almost a decade they were in every class, preschool or play activity together. They ate most meals together, hung out together at most parties and celebrations. And they shared approximately 2 bazillion hours of various video game chats together. Most siblings a year apart in age spend much less time together.
Gwen’s coffin surrounded by family and clan
Understandably Willow is pretty broken up about it. She was crying often during the funeral. I don’t consider myself a particularly great parent. But one thing I feel our family did well with Willow was encourage her to cry things out. No shame in tears, they are expressing needed emotional release. Let them flow.
But I am not worried about Willow though she is clearly hurting. Because emotional resiliency is another not-so-secret ingredient.
Editor’s Note: Though it is a bit old fashioned, i try pretty hard to run blog posts past people who are featured and named in them, to make sure they are comfortable being represented this way. Willow gave her blessing and happily thought i was actually a fine parent. Kate who facilitates sacred ceremonies, was happy to be called out. And Gwen’s dad Tigger approved this text before it was published. Carly shared her letter and amazing pictures. Thanks to Summer for more pictures and Kelpie for edits and tech support. Thanks to all of them for quick turn around on this recent event
[Disclaimer: This is actually an opinion piece by Keenan, not a well-designed experiment with a control group, or statistics, or any math at all. Repeat: this is NOT actual science.]
Twin Oaks was started in 1967 as an experimental community by a group of people inspired by the behaviorist theory in B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel, Walden Two. After fifty plus years of ongoing experimentation, we now have some results to report.
Theory: A society can apply Behaviorism to improve individual members’ function and happiness.
Fail: The very premise that brought the initial group together, that Behaviorism—widely and properly implemented—could remove undesirable human traits was the first failed theory of Twin Oaks. At Twin Oaks, human behavior has proven to be extraordinarily resistant to any generally applied theory or practices—for instance, interpersonal tension and communal drama are enduring problems at Twin Oaks. Kudos to the founders for choosing the survival of the community over clinging to an empirically failed theory.
Theory: A village can raise a child better than a family can.
Fail: In 1973, Twin Oaks began the official child program based on the theory that the whole community would be responsible for raising the children. Part of the rationale was provided by evidence from the mainstream culture with its child abuse, neglect, and enduring cycles of familial dysfunction. Obviously, merely being able to biologically procreate was no qualification for raising children, right? Sounds good in theory, but in practice there are many flaws with a whole community attempting to raise children. (The history of the kibbutz illuminates a similar arc in child-rearing theory—starting communal and evolving toward supporting families .) Twin Oaks, in a fairly short period of time, moved away from communal child-rearing toward emphasizing and strengthening families. These changes included designing living spaces that allowed closer family connection, writing policies that expected parents to be responsible for their children, and giving parents autonomy over how their kids were raised.
Theory: Members of a community become cohesive by living in close proximity to each other.
Fail: Early Twin Oaks designers clustered buildings together, clustered bedrooms together, and skimped on sound insulation between rooms. For decades now, Twin Oaks has been remodeling to try to undo those early mistakes. Twin Oaks has learned that the ability to have privacy is absolutely key to happiness in a communal setting. Specifically, acoustic separation is a key component of successful community living.
Theory: A strong community comes from a sense of connection to all of the members of the community.
Fail: close emotional connection tends to happen among small subgroups in a community, not collectively among all members of the community. The community is stronger when there are many subgroups that have tight emotional connections. Although, over the years here at Twin Oaks, many attempts have been made to build cohesion among the entire community, these attempts have met with, at best, modest success. What has been more successful has been encouraging cohesion among small groups. Some small groups are living groups, some are work groups, and, of course, families are close-knit small groups. It turns out that strong families, because of their enduring commitment to the well-being of the community, are a foundational component for a robust and enduring community.
Theory: Communal societies will defeat capitalism.
Fail: To operate outside of capitalism entirely requires being almost totally self-sufficient: Twin Oaks is successful due to operating several thriving businesses. In the communal movement, only very small groups of people have managed to be so self-sufficient that they can be said to operate outside of the capitalist system. Rather, it turns out that collective living is a very effective way to out-compete mainstream businesses. Communities can offer lower prices on products due to cost-cutting on labor. Communities have a skilled work force with higher quality control due to the workers owning the businesses. Additionally, communal businesses are surprisingly nimble; if one communal business shrinks, or fails, workers can—the very next day—start working in a different business at the community.
I refer here again to the kibbutz movement which has been thriving for well over 100 years. In its heyday, about two percent of Israel’s population lived on a kibbutz—capitalists were not quaking in their boots in Israel. Even today, the kibbutzim run many large corporations in Israel.
However, a significant component of communal businesses is the creation of very empowered workers—since the workers also own the business. In a community business, workers are involved in every business decision. In addition to tremendous work flexibility, communal businesses do not build consciously shoddy products, nor have unsafe working conditions, nor run unethical businesses. If communes were to become a huge movement, empowered communal workers would provide a bulwark against the worst practices of mainstream capitalist corporations. So that’s good.
But overturn Capitalism as a theory? No.
Some theories that have worked:
Twin Oaks has managed to survive and thrive through the years by being nimble in shuffling through a lot of ideas quickly (and/or eventually) —discarding bad ideas that don’t work.
Here are some theories that Twin Oakers adopted which actually worked from the outset.
Theory: Peoplethrive when citizens are equal.
Success: Twin Oaks’ commitment to equality from day one has proven to be a successful and enduring theory. Every part of Twin Oaks’ culture has been structured to create and perpetuate a society where the citizens are equal. A cost of this commitment to equality is significant constraints on some aspects of personal liberty. Economic equality requires constraints on individual members accumulating wealth. Political equality limits members’ ability to accumulate political power. Work equality (that is that no category of labor is valued as more vital than any other work) limits the tendency of a professional elite from developing. Overall human equality, means there is no discrimination against any category of people. (Admittedly, the lack of a lower class does make it a bit harder to keep the place clean, as the lower class in almost every society does most of the cleaning.)
Theory:Widely distributing power among the membership creates a strong decision-making culture.
Success: “Light as a feather! stiff as a board!”—ever done that? If every member takes on some little bit of responsibility, then the community thrives. At Twin Oaks, power (decision-making) is widely distributed. Some people could plausibly point out that collective decision-making is problematic because there are so many things that the community is routinely failing to manage well, or at all. But in the mainstream corporations fail all of the time. Additionally, mainstream corporations sometimes commit horrific evil.
The point is that, collectively, the community has continued to thrive in spite of having untrained amateurs in charge throughout the community.
It turns out that many people like having a little bit of power, or, let’s call it “agency.” Since power is something that needs to exist, Twin Oaks has wisely decided to spread power throughout the community so that the need for the exercise of power does not contribute to the growth of evil.
Theory: A well-functioning society does not need specialists.
Success: We are all dilettantes here at Twin Oaks. The knowledge needed to run a major corporation, or fix plumbing, apparently does not require years of study or apprenticeship. Any training that anyone needs is now available on Youtube. But even before the advent of Youtube, Twin Oaks built buildings, dug foundations, fixed cars, met government regulations, developed new products, filed corporate taxes—all without formal training in those skills.
It turns out that people like a diversity of work. Many members like the challenge of pursuing an entirely new career, or developing a new skill. Opening up to a diversity of work allows members the opportunity to explore personal interests. This makes people happier. Also, the community is more robust from having a deep bench of people who can work in any given work area.
Theory:Children are important.
Success: Twin Oaks has always put a significant amount of the community’s labor resources toward raising children. Twin Oaks is an exceptionally child-focused community. The result is that Twin Oaks raises healthy, happy children who later become healthy, happy—and accomplished—adults. Prospective members who are considering having children choose to live at Twin Oaks. Prospective members who don’t want to have children, but like to be around children are drawn to Twin Oaks. Also, the presence of children in the community—including adults who grew up in the community speak to the enduring stability of Twin Oaks.
Ironically, or, perhaps, predictably, due to the amount of communal resources that go to raising children, Twin Oaks has set an upper limit on the number of children who live at Twin Oaks. Consequently, Twin Oaks tends not to tout our child focus online because the community is rarely open to more families with children moving to the community. Twin Oaks also keeps the child thing on the down low because we do want to raise happy, healthy children, not children who might suffer from the burden of representing the community or the communal movement, so we attempt to shield them from that cultural pressure.
Theory: Behavior is changed by policy.
Success: Policy is the one tool that the community uses that routinely alters members’ behavior. Policy determines how much work people do. The community establishes non-violence as a core value, and thus the community is largely free of any violence. Policy determines what decisions need to go through communal process. Policy determines what does and does not qualify as sick time. Members are remarkably respectful of policy decisions. Policy turns out to be the most effective tool for altering the behavior of people collectively. Especially policy that members have a hand in crafting.
Through policy, community culture is created. To date we have created an enduring culture where members can comfortably and productively live their entire lives. Elders are cared for. Children are raised to be healthy and to recognize their own agency. Members feel equal and empowered.
But are people happier here, living in community? We don’t have clear evidence. The hope contained in the initial focus on Behaviorism was to create empirically happier people. In spite of the initial motivation of the community’s founders, and many, many attempts by various groups within the community, Twin Oaks has not yet found a theory that can effectively or routinely make individuals happy, feel fulfilled, eat well, defeat addictions, not be jealous, or be disciplined in attaining personal goals.
After a long decline, Coyote, a member of Twin Oaks died last Thursday with friends next to his bed. He had been declining for months, or, actually, years. In that time dozens of people were part of his care, helping lift, move, and clean him, but also just sitting with him, or reading to him, or singing to him. The day Coyote died, I was part of a group of people who gathered in Coyote’s room. We gently placed our hands on him, held his hand, and sang to him.
Less than a year ago, my father died of covid in an elder care facility. Of course, we family couldn’t visit him in the months before he died, or sit with him when we knew that he only had a few days to live. After my father passed, the memorial service, as so many people have experienced in the past year, was held on Zoom.
We were all relieved that Coyote had not died the day before when there had been a birthday celebration for a child turning twelve. Everyone wanted to attend the party. The birthday party had live music, including several songs that were written and performed by the birthday boy. Probably about forty people were in attendance. Twin Oaks has maintained a strict lockdown protocol, so there has been no covid here, but we have been able to include neighboring communities in our “bubble.”
Someone from another community had brought some larping paraphernalia to the party (shields and padded sticks that posed as swords). Kids and adults had a great time running around whacking and chasing each other while the music was playing. I noticed that one of the adults running around was a member who had given birth less than a month ago. Various people at the party were taking turns holding the baby.
The birth had been here at Twin Oaks, with friends in attendance, singing and holding the mother’s hand. Even the day of the birth, the mother managed to walk, but she was clearly fully recovered if she could run around with a padded sword, being chased by kids.
The bedside vigil, the birthday concert, the home birth–none of these events are unusual or remarkable here at Twin Oaks. Or weren’t. In this time of global pandemic it seems that everyone is longing for a return to being able to gather together with other people, no matter the reason. What so many people everywhere have been discovering is that what we all need more of in our lives is to be with other people to just do stuff together—in a word: community.
Twin Oaks is a long-term (almost 54 years now) multi-generational community that has an age range from newborns to folks in their eighties and has its share of births and deaths. A birth at Twin Oaks is always exciting and a birth just happened there. Here’s the announcement:
There were some pictures of the birth floating around and I contacted the photographer for permission to publish one of parent and child sleeping peacefully. She not only gave me permission but sent an additional adorable photo of Xena.
There’s something incredibly lovely about bringing a child into the world and I personally believe that communes are a wonderful place to raise a child. – Raven
A couple of weeks ago, I put a post here about how communities deal with abusive members and entitled it, “Misbehaving”. The title was intended to be provocative and to illustrate it, I searched for images of folks misbehaving. I found a couple of pictures of kids acting out and used them to illustrate the piece. I thought that they might add some humor to my post.
Someone in my community pointed out that these weren’t appropriate and I also got feedback in the form of comments when it went up on Facebook. I want to apologize and say clearly here that children are seldom, if ever, the cause of real problems in community. The issues I was pointing out all involved abusive adults.
Unfortunately, children, who bring so much to communities, are often not accepted into income-sharing communities, particularly if the communities are stressed out. Families and single parents have a harder time getting into communes and often staying in communes than people without children.
This is truly unfortunate and something that we need to change. While I can understand the issues on both sides, we can’t simply reject folks with kids.
I want to say here that I was part of a commune in the 1990s that helped raise two children, who are now lovely adults. I also know how much energy it took. There were usually five or six adults in the community and, although this wasn’t supposed to be the focus of our commune, parenting issues took up a lot of our time. (We actually did communal parenting, which I suspect few communities do.) I often wonder how my parents did it with two adults and five children, when we could barely deal with two kids when there were five adults.
I think that this is incredibly important work. If we are going to claim to be a real alternative to this dysfunctional society, we are going to need to figure out how we can support parents and families. We are going to need to take on the responsibilities involved in raising children. Communes and communities need to open their doors to families and single parents.
It does take a village to raise a child. We need to be those villages.
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I interviewed dozens of members of two egalitarian communities, rural Acorn community in Virginia, US (30 adults and one child at the time of research in 2014) and suburban Kummune Niederkaufungen near to Kassel in Germany (60 adults and 20 teens and children in 2016). You can find links to my four articles on Acorn community below this text. I share observations and insights from interviews that I conducted with some members of these communes. I will demonstrate the similarities between childhood in such communities and the conditions for optimal child development derived from research and theories based on ethnographic studies of indigenous societies.
Egalitarian communities constitute a more advanced version of experimenting with alternative economy than ecovillages. They share labor, land, and resources according to one’s needs and everyone contributes in a chosen way. In Kommune Niederkaufungen, one usually needs to integrate into one of the work collectives to be accepted. Members can spend money according to their needs but in Acorn community there is a monthly pocket money to cover extra expenses such as alcohol or cigarettes, whereas in Niederkaufungen expenses of above 150 Euros need to be announced. Both communities operate enterprises. In Kommune Niederkaufungen, some members are employed outside. In Acorn community, weekly 42-hour work contribution is required but each member decides what activities to do and no checks are in place.
In both communities where I conducted interviews raising children is considered to be a work contribution and is valued in the same way as activities that earn money. Recognition for care and reproductive work is part of the feminist philosophy of these communes and their pursuit of egalitarianism. In this way parents do not need to choose between making a living or raising children. Since work arrangement is quite flexible and many members work in the same place where they live (in Acorn community this is the case for majority of activities), it is easier to combine work with child care. Also non-parents can choose to participate in child care as a work contribution.
Thanks to these conditions parents can respond to a child’s needs without the stress of economic survival. The first three years of life define emotional development and negligence can lead to trauma and behavioural or emotional disorders. Research examining physiology and theories of child development underline the need for constant availability of an adult and touch in early childhood (see articles by such authors as Darcia Narvaez and Jean Liedloff). This is more difficult to organize in the mainstream society.
Communes provide an environment that makes it easier to pursue homeschooling or unschooling because of the close availability of many adults with diverse skills and knowledge. For example, a member of East Wind, a commune in Missouri, teaches French to one of the children by taking a walk and talking to them in this language. Children in Kommune Niederkaufungen go to school, either a public one in their neighborhood or an alternative school in the city center. However, they can tap on a vast expertise at home having access to many adults with diverse knowledge. (In Niederkaufungen, some members work in education).
Community skills and multi-age group
Children need multiple attachments, according to Peter Gray, and this is how children have been raised in indigenous communities.1 In the book “Free to Learn,” Peter Gray points to the advantages of being part of a multi-age group and engaging in free play with other children for learning and emotional development. Furthermore, he elaborates on the importance of unstructured play time with other children. Citing survey date, he mentions that one of the main obstacles for limiting such free activities with children in the neighborhood is the concern for safety. Parents prefer to occupy children with extracurricular activities because they are sure that they are taken care of. In a commune, it is easier to establish conditions for children to have free play. The children and their parents know each other and there are many trusted adults around so that children can play in safety.
Peter Gray shows that children learn skills that they observe are crucial in the adults’ world by playing. Growing up in an environment where a lot of discussions and decision-making takes place, this may encourage them to develop related skills. One of the members of Kommune Niederkaufungen said that there is a practice of exercising patience and letting someone express oneself in conflicts, which contrasts with the way his friends treated each other in his life before joining commune. This may also be an example for children.
Disputes among parents
Living in a commune requires a lot more discussions and collective decision-making than living an individualized life. For example, what parents allow to their children may affect other children more directly than in mainstream living. It can become a source of conflict. A father left the commune Niederkaufungen because of the decision of other parents to have satellite television. It was impossible to isolate this child from mainstream media influence. In this commune, at least four people needed to make a veto to block community decision. Parents in this commune gather regularly to talk about their children.
The impact on the society
Certainly the way children are raised shapes their personalities. Aggregated, it results in the human relations and values of society. Jean Liedloff considers touch deprivation in early infancy to be responsible for insatiable wants and searching for solace in consumerism. Narvaez asks what impact depriving babies of their basic human needs will have on the entire society. Peter Gray observes that inter-age education contributes to the development of empathy and compassion. Communities provide conditions to raise emotionally healthy and cooperative individuals. Hopefully, they will inspire mainstream society to create conditions that resemble communal child care.
Articles on Acorn community
Gajewska, Katarzyna (September 2016): Egalitarian alternative to the US mainstream: study of Acorn community in Virginia, US.Bronislaw Magazine and reposted on PostGrowth.org.
Gajewska, Katarzyna (21 July 2016): An intentional egalitarian community as a small-scale implementation of Post-Capitalism.P2P Foundation Blog.
Gajewska, Katarzyna (10 January 2016): Case study: Creating use value while making a living in egalitarian communities. P2P Foundation Blog.
Gajewska, Katarzyna (27 December 2014): An intentional egalitarian community as a small-scale implementation of postcapitalist, peer production model of economy. Part I : Work as a spontanous, voluntary contribution. P2P Foundation Blog.
Katarzyna Gajewska, PhD, is an independent scholar and futurist writer (Facebook: Katarzyna Gajewska – Independent Scholar). She has been publishing on alternative economy, non-digital peer production, universal basic income and collective autonomy since 2013 and is mainly interested in psychological and emotional aspects of transition to a postcapitalist society.