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?

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

Introducing Cotyledon

by Raven

Cotyledon is a egalitarian, income-sharing residential community in Queens, New York, dedicated to environmental and food justice, radical sharing, personal growth and accountability, clear communication, and simple, cooperative living.

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The outside of the building we are in.

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A view of the living room

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Another view of the living room

The Cotyledon members:

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DNA

Gil and tracks

Gil

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Raven

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And the three of us together

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This is Smiling Hogshead Ranch, one project the three of us are involved with.

We are staying in a 4 bedroom apartment in Astoria, but we have a plan to eventually grow and move into a larger home, staying close to Western Queens.

We are also currently looking for a new member of our commune.

 

 

Introducing Cotyledon

Thinking Before Doing is Where We Are

Michael Brickler and Beth Raps

Donald’s View Intentional Community, Eagle Rock, Virginia

“Where we are” geographically is the rural area near Roanoke, Virginia. But, at Donald’s View Intentional Community, thinking before doing is really where we are.

To us, location is important in terms of connection to the land. And, as important as this connection is, what is also important is the state of mind we are in: questioning. Questioning everything: reality, “diversity,” our own lives and experiences, the importance of information vs. the importance of intuition in establishing a grounded interspiritual (including secular) community in the mountainous rural South.  While this may seem idealistic and impractical, we feel it is more impractical to lack a heartfelt connection to our surrounding community. So that has become one of the important things we are thinking about. After researching many intentional communities, we found that the communities that lasted–as we hope ours will–have a visionary inspiration at their core. So that is another thing we are thinking deeply about as we form.

A third thing we are thinking about is purchasing the land.  While we do not currently own it, we do have an option to buy it at a very low price and we have some money that may be set aside for this purpose.

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The trees at Donald’s View

What we want right now are people to think with us. Thinking-with is underrated in our culture. Thinking possibly for a very long time before doing is underrated and often confused with procrastination or inaction.  Forming an IC requires practical work but any long-lasting IC requires a well conceived foundation.  If we want a long lasting structure of heart, we must start with a foundation of heart.

Our aim is that all our community’s founders enjoy developing our core values with us.  These core values are: diversity, consciousness, bridging and communication.  In more detail, we express these core values as:

Diversity is a core value in part because of our history: a slave (Michael’s great-great-grandfather) bought the property that was the main impetus for Donald’s View from his “owner” after the Civil War; the land Donald’s View is on was the less-valuable, harder-to-farm “Negro area”  where Blacks were allowed to live during Reconstruction. This land was also part of the homeland of the Monacan people before they were chased off of it, due largely to European invasion. The history of the land has a primary place in our thinking about how to build our IC. It is maintained and respected by making diversity a formal component of the community.

Consciousness, in the dominant culture and a good number of intentional communities, is an afterthought, or an assumption that either a shared religion will lead to consciousness, or that values suffice to ensure we increasingly develop conscious awareness. An active effort to grow in consciousness is important to heal  the wounds inflicted by the dominant culture.  It is not enough to acknowledge that the dominant culture has wounded almost everyone. Instead, we should actively work to heal in part  by working with others in a community who are doing the same. Active consciousness work is a necessity for our community to be strong.

Bridging is reaching out, and extending ourselves to different others, on purpose. At Donald’s View, this means reaching out through service to our surrounding geographic community.  Humans are communal animals.  Attempting to live in a vacuum is a resolution to staying wounded.

Communication is the glue that binds all our other core values together.  It is through communication that we will have success in diversity.  It is through true communication that we may help each other grow in consciousness.  Communication is the building material of social bridges.

We get guidance through structured intuitive sessions with the non-visible but sentient energies associated with our community and its land who have proven themselves helpful many times over. We do a lot of listening to our higher guidance and the spirits of the land and intentions we’ve set. We have a mission statement not only for our community but for the process of creating our community.

These meetings–and thinking itself, as an activity–may look like procrastination or inaction. But they are very different from them. We seldom talk about this quiet level of our activity. But we are “coming out” in this piece, especially to people who get thinking as a kind of doing. Especially thinking that takes its inspiration from the land. Thinking that takes the highest rather than the lowest common denominator as its guide. In the confidence we can not just hear, but converse reliably and actionably with energies perceived outside what is considered normal awareness but prove to be practical.  

We realize our process may sound strange, weird, or excessively “woo-woo” to some readers. We don’t expect anyone to believe the things we do. We don’t expect anyone reading this to start listening to non-visible energies. We do want co-founders who will use their rational minds to think with us. For us, integration between the rational and intuitive is possible.

If anyone else is interested in our process, of course we’ll share. And if others have intuitive processes they use that work, we are interested as well. Our purpose in this article is to enrich the discourse around what “counts” as forming and allow others to join in it with us.

Examples of the things we have wondered in our meetings and gained guidance on:

  • Are we waiting too long to develop Donald’s View?  (No).
  • Should we present at the Communities conference this year? (Yes.)
  • Can we get Superfund clean-up money to help remediate some rubber dumped on the land? (No.)
  • What does it mean that we are taking this long? (Others are starting to put in the infrastructure we will want without our ever having anticipated this would happen, for one thing.)
  • What does the timing mean of learning about about the rubber dumping right after our  first Founding Meeting when no one present but us wanted to move onto this land? (One thing it means is integrating the rubber into our building plans. Another is to change our direction enough that we will have an entirely different Founding Meeting when our new direction is clear.)
  • What does it mean that so many obstacles arise in our path yet nothing ever seems to say, “Stop”? (It means: keep listening, keep taking one small action, take good notes, keep your word to each other, keep your meeting schedule, keep listening. It means trust yourselves and trust your guidance. Don’t let the world reframe what you are doing as procrastination or inaction. It means trust that every single thing that arises in this “lab” is important, and useful, and meant to be used in developing according to your intention.)

 

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Another picture from the land

One of our favorite insights about Donald’s View came not from the non-visible but from our very visible human sister, Courtney Dowe, who has this post and this one too in the Commune Life Blog: the shape of the land we hope to build on looks like the human development process itself: flat, perhaps, and not very interesting, then rough as you climb, and then the most stellar views at the top. As the saying goes, the best views come after the hardest climb.

If you are interested in learning more about Donald’s View or in thinking more about it with us, here is our community description in the Fellowship for Intentional Community Directory, and you can contact Beth at bethraps@raisingclarity.com or (304) 410-2612.

 

 

Thinking Before Doing is Where We Are

Dream Alliance

by Paxus Calta

One way to think about community is as an antidote to the problems of contemporary society. A strong case can be made that deep sharing mitigates most climate disruption contributors. We see that highly intentional community helps heal some people’s mental health challenges. But the real allure of community is something larger.

If we look at living together and sharing our lives as a long lever for creating culture, then isn’t it possible to design a community in which the members become well harmonized and deeply mutually supportive? Community asks the question “How might we come up with a way to live together in which amazing, healing and transformative things are accessible to the people who live this way? How could we develop a set of rituals and communication patterns which helps members of these communities manifest their dreams? And if this is possible, what do we know about these types of successful cultures already so we can experiment with them?”

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One of the things we know for sure is we cannot be supportive without being communicative. And the more we can trust, the more we can share what we find to be true, the more profound our ability to advise and ally with people.

Cambia is reviewing how we dream and vision. The community is small and reforming and old traditions are being reconsidered by new members as well as founders with new eyes. For me, the piece of greatest interest is the exploration and manifestation of personal dreams. I believe this is a rich place for meme craft and hopefully deep personal satisfaction.

We are tinkering with the parameters of a dream alliance. The basic idea is simple, I tell you my dream and invite you to support it and then we switch roles. If you don’t have a dream, or it feels incompletely formulated (“i want more music in my life”) then your ally will guide you through an exploration to help refine and define it more.

If your dream is ambitious (“we need to deconstruct industrial capitalism”), your dream ally might help you identify the next piece (“let’s start a worker coop”). If your dream is sprawling (“i want to get people to think!”), then perhaps your ally makes you look on a focused part (“let’s start an inspiring book club”).

But more important than suggestions from your ally is a willingness to help manifest. “I would cook and drive for a local Food Not Bombs chapter, if that was your calling” or “You need to stop Trump, I will go door to door with you before the next election”. Or perhaps simple logistics “I’ll watch your kid while you meditate/exercise.”

I was excited about this thinking and I brought this rough idea to the Thursday night book club at Cambia. We are reading Charles Eisenstein’s “The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible”, one chapter each week and talking about it. And after my enthusiastic description of dream alliances, Craig was uninspired. “I am not excited about exploring people’s individualistic dreams, what would make this interesting to me is if we were seeking and building our shared dream.”

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This is consistent with Eisenstein’s thinking. That we need to move past dualism and find a new story which connects everything. Craig gets this, which is why he has been pushing this book and the concept of InterBeing. InterBeing, as close as I can tell, is a sort of secular enlightenment, where you feel and react from a place of being connected with everything and seeking some type of harmony with it all.

I don’t get it. I am a dualist. This is slightly challenging to the book group I think. Perhaps it is a bit like having a libertarian in your anarchist discussion groups. You are all talking about getting rid of government, but with little agreement when it comes to what happens next.

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And even though I don’t quite get it around Interbeing, Craig’s challenge feels like a friendly amendment. There is something very powerful about seeking our shared dream together. The alliance is richer when it is our dream instead of you supporting mine in exchange for me supporting yours.

And I am again grateful for Cambia which thinks these are the questions we should be pondering and energy well spent exploring and cultures worthy of our efforts to design them. I think a carefully constructed dream alliance could be super memetic. And that is my personal holy grail.

Dream Alliance

Merely a Trellis

from the Point A blog,  

The desirability and use of consensus decision making is widespread these days on the radical left and is nearly universally used at the newer communes (one of two brilliant techniques Acorn stole shamelessly from the Quakers). For people concerned with consent, freedom, autonomy, and agency, consensus decision making is a likely optimal.

However, on its face consensus is a totally ridiculous way to make decisions. Think about trying to decide what movie to watch with a group of friends or, gosh, think of the US congress doing anything and the idea that nothing can be decided unless everyone agrees sounds like madness, a recipe for disaster. And yet, the experience of the communes I know who use it (and that’s communes up to 80 members large) is that it works brilliantly and smoothly. Major decisions are regularly discussed and made quickly and painlessly. Surprisingly complex operations (combining housing, food, accounting, businesses, grounds, childcare, etc etc) are run and managed with only a couple hours of meeting a week. And that is where we begin to see the answer to our riddle. As my friends at Las Indias noted, consensus is clearly the best decision making system available and yet it is important to also think of it as the decision making system of last resort.

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Like the finger pointing at the moon, the consensus process itself is not our aim. Our aim is to cultivate a community of empowered, empathetic, free people who are working with the collective good in mind and who are always looking for the clever solutions that work best for everyone, consulting with each other as necessary to accomplish this. The consensus process is merely a Trellis that pushes us to grow, as members of the community, into the shapes that are our true aim. It pushes us this way by cutting off all other options for making the things that are important to us happen. In a consensus run group, if we want to have our way in the world we need to develop empathy for others, deep listening skills, trust in each other, and a dedication to finding the creative solution that works for everybody. There is no other way.

The commune is a particularly fertile ground for this work because by collectivizing our work and our lives, making the consensus process work becomes essential to our happiness and our ability to get things done. And of course, even if our goal is to cultivate a community that can act and make most decisions without the need for everyone to sit down together there will likely always be reasons to meet: novel situations we need to consider deeply, big commitments that we need to be very sure of, and the building of relationships and our sense as a group. In fact, the decisions that are nearly impossible in a consensus process are precisely the decisions that cost nothing if they are not made, the ones people can walk away from: what to name the group, what color to paint the room, what movie to watch tonight.

In this light, maybe the US congress would work better if it used consensus after all. There’s a garden that could use cultivation and trellising.

Merely a Trellis

Communal Gratitude

Yes, it’s Thanksgiving week in the US, and while Thanksgiving is a very problematic holiday (where we give thanks for the land we stole from the native people and the prosperity we built on the backs of slaves), there is something very important about the act of giving thanks.

At Twin Oaks (and other communities) the highpoint of the Thanksgiving meal is going around the very crowded room and having each person say one thing that they are thankful for. One community I’ve been to starts every meeting with a time for appreciations.

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Thanksgiving at Twin Oaks

Being grateful, thankful, appreciative is a very useful community building exercise. Just as there are vicious (destructive) circles, this is an exercise that builds upon itself. I’ve pointed out things that don’t work in community–this is something that does. Many long running communities do something like this and it makes the commune a more pleasant place to live. This attracts people and contributes to the longevity of the community.

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We’ve had several posts here on what doesn’t work in community. Gratitude is something that does.

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Communal Gratitude