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.

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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

Communal Conflict

If you are looking for a nice peaceful life in a commune, forget it. I often tell people starting communities, that conflict is not a question of if, but of when.

This isn’t a design flaw of communities. Basically, whenever you have two or more people doing something together, at some point, there’s going to be conflict. This is because no two people are identical and no two people see things the same way. Add more people and there are more chances for conflict.

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And the important thing to realize is that conflict isn’t bad. In fact, working it through is a good way to reach a better solution than simply accepting what one person says. This is why consensus is more powerful than voting. In voting, the minority is overpowered. In consensus, you need to listen to everyone and try to learn from each side.

And I say all this as someone who is a chronic conflict avoider. Believe me, I am scared of conflict. But I’m even more scared of not dealing with conflict. Not dealing with conflict is one of the things that destroyed a community that I loved.

After it was all over, one of the folks I had been in community with asked me if I hadn’t been aware of all the conflict going on. I replied that I knew it was happening, I just didn’t know what to do about it. So I basically ignored it.

I still don’t know what to do with conflict, but I’ve learned a few things. The first is to actually say, “Hey, there’s conflict happening. We should deal with this.” It doesn’t go away by pretending it isn’t happening–in fact that generally makes it worse.

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Listening generally does help. If you can, don’t take sides. Assume there are good reasons for all positions and try to figure out what each person needs.

And sometimes a mediator helps–someone who is outside the situation and sometimes someone who is outside the community.

A few other things about conflict. What I’ve found is that the bigger the community, the less intense conflicts are. It seems counter intuitive until you realize that with a couple, for example, each of them will try to meet all their needs from the other person. The more people there are, the more points of view, the more different people who can meet folks needs, the bigger the buffer, the more likely there will be folks who can hear all sides.

And, for the last couple of years, I’ve been living in a community that embraces conflict. It’s been amazing to see people who will be screaming at each other in a meeting (this doesn’t happen all the time but it happens enough) and later be working together. These folks have lived like this for years.

And this leads to looking at one other thing about conflict. The goal isn’t to eliminate it, the goal is to make it safe to deal with. And something that makes it safe is commitment. If you know that you can disagree with folks, get upset with folks, even occasionally yell at folks, and they are not going to run away or never speak with you again, then it makes conflict more possible and therefore more manageable.

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So the commitments we have help us weather the conflicts and the conflicts make us stronger. If you want a commune that can last, learn to deal with conflict.

 

Communal Conflict

Four Steps to Building a Commune

By Raven

When I tell people that I’m trying to start a community in New York City, I get lots of folks asking me, “How do you find a place?”, “What do you do about high rents?”,  “Where in the city are you looking?”, and “What do you do about gentrification?”  All good questions but not where I start.

I have a four step process for creating a commune and finding the place is the last step.

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Step One is finding the people.  I’ve seen it done with starting with a place and I’ve done it myself, and while it occasionally works, it’s often a disaster.  (See my post about the Totally Utopia Community for examples of how this process can go wrong.)  Part of my reason for not wanting to answer the questions in the first paragraph is that these are things that need to be figured out by a group, which becomes more powerful as they work together to plan their way.  You don’t build community by having it all together first and inviting folks in.  You build community by working through stuff collectively.

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Step Two is about working on vision and agreements together.  Once you have people, the first thing you need to do is to make sure you’re on the same page.  I’ve also seen communities go wrong here.  Even if everyone says that they want a community focused on sustainability (for example), it becomes important to find out what each person means by sustainability.  It’s easy to think you all mean the same thing and could be a big problem if people are meaning very different things.  A community I was part of building turned out to be quite different than I thought it was going to be when I found out that people were meaning quite different things by the word ‘community’.  (Yes.  It really happened.)  Also having policies in place can be very important when conflict happens–this isn’t the time when you want to be figuring out agreements.  (Laird has a useful piece on Three Essential Agreements  that illustrates this.)

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Step Three is figuring out sources of income.  For an income sharing community, this is essential.  Without a source of income, you can’t purchase buildings or land, and can’t really move forward.  While a community having a cottage industry is a great thing (like Twin Oaks’ hammocks and Tofu, East Wind’s nutbutters, and Acorn’s seed business) most communities start with people working outside jobs or finding other sources of income (people with pensions, grantwriting, doing various odd jobs individually or collectively, entrepreneurial endeavors, etc).  The best expression I’ve heard is ‘income streams’.  Figure out what your collective income can be.  Be very creative–think outside the box.  Then figure out what your expenses are.  If your collective expenses are more than your collective income, then figure out more sources of income.

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Finally, Step Four is to find a place.  If you’ve got the people (who are all in agreement and working together) and you know what your income is, then you are ready to find a place and move in.

These steps can overlap and, yes, they are just guidelines, and yes, people have started by finding the place and built it from there and occasionally it has worked out just fine, but I believe following this pathway increases your chances of ending up with a functioning community and one that might last.  And since a large percentage of new communities don’t last very long, this is a very good thing.

 

Four Steps to Building a Commune

The Fragility of Communities

by Raven

I’ve been hoping to have some of the folks in the communities that I’m going to talk about tell their tales, and I’m still hoping that will happen, but in the interests of transparency, I want to put out some of what is happening.

I’ve heard it said (and have said it myself) that 90% of new communities fail. It’s not a real statistic but it is an acute observation. Anyone working closely with community building knows the stories. (And it’s not that strange–I’ve also heard that 90% of new business fail.)

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Quercus

Many communities fail because people have no idea what goes into building community. I’ve written a piece on this blog on one way not to build community. But even some of those communities that seemed carefully thought out, don’t last, for one reason or another.

At this point, three of the communes that have graced this blog are gone: Quercus, Sycamore Farm, and the Midden. The Midden lasted more than seven years (they bought a house in 2010) and only fell apart recently. (Note: Not completely accurate.  See my comment in the comments section.)  Quercus lasted (I think) less than a year. Sycamore Farm may have done the best of all–as their community fell apart another community near Twin Oaks and Acorn (called Sapling–we were never able to get anything from them) was also doing poorly. The founders of Sycamore Farm were able to take it over and it has become Mimosa. (As I said, I’m hoping the folks that were part of Quercus and Sycamore/Sapling/Mimosa can tell their stories. Folks involved have said that they’d like to, but communitarians are busy people.)

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Sycamore Farm

A lot of this is simply the nature of building community. It’s just not easy–if it was, there would be ten times the number of communities that there are now. Community involves people and people are both wonderful and can be very difficult.

This makes things like Twin Oaks turning fifty a major celebration. I believe that Acorn will reach twenty-five next year and that’s amazing as well. It makes me appreciate both of them and other long lived communities such as Sandhill and East Wind. When you realize how fragile new communities are, you realize both how precious the long lived communes are and how important it is to keep working on building new ones.

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The Midden

It takes courage to build new communities, but Twin Oaks, etc, wouldn’t be around unless someone made the effort.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fragility of Communities

Live and learn in community

by Aviva Derenowski

I’ve lived in Ganas community for thirteen years now. It’s amazing how one year folds into another. I still feel as if I have so much to learn, and my friends will agree with me that I don’t always know when to speak and when to listen. I’ve improved much since I’ve arrived thanks to certain ways in my current community that encourage whoever is interested in getting feedback and change habits one prefers to alter.

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Ganas houses

I grew up in Israel in Kvutzat Kinneret, the second kibbutz on the land. We were about seven hundred sixty members. We had one member’s meeting a week, besides the scheduled committees. One could get lost in the multitude in those meetings. The person who wanted to speak had to get up and reach the mic. Those meetings seemed to lack intimacy. The interactions among members were minimal in order to keep the order. There was little emphasis on problem resolution and conflicts were not always addressed during the meeting. What wasn’t said was still present in the room.

I also spent seven years in East Wind Community in Missouri. It’s an established, colorful place that handles its meetings by counting majority vote. In this country it sounds sensible, but after living in Ganas I recognize that each person is a universe. Whenever a majority wins, there is a minority that didn’t get their way. Sometimes they are only slightly smaller than the people who got their wishes. If they feel strongly about their case, they will attempt to get the majority of votes. It is a see-saw system, where hardly anybody is satisfied with any decision for a long term. In Ganas we talk and listen till everybody is okay with the decision, and they choose not to block the process. Then we decide. Most decisions in Ganas take a long time to come to fruition, but we try our best to put the people before the bottom line.

Ganas is not an Egalitarian Community, but it has a lot to show. We treat people according to their needs, and encourage our members to contribute according to their ability. It amazes me how much communities have in common, whether they are egalitarian or not. We know that what we stand for is larger than the sum of the people.

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Walkway between buildings at Ganas

For example, members are encouraged “to do dishes” once a week. That means, cleaning up after dinner. Usually it’s a team of five people and it takes less than an hour. It can be a bonding experience, and very energizing since some of the people want to go home as soon as possible. Some other folks enjoy the experience so much they prefer to sit down, talk and work leisurely. In the end, the ones who want to finish early go home after the short shift, and the rest stay to hang out. But not everybody does dishes. Some people work outside of the community in the evening, others are not fit enough for this work. There are no consequences either way. People do what they can, and it’s okay.

Living in community can be practical and loving at the same time. In Ganas we meet five days a week for ninety minutes to talk about anything that comes up. One may need a ride, or somebody needs to mention a person who is interested to join us. At times people bring a conflict to the morning meeting. We value active listening in our community. Both sides listen to the different points of view, and the facilitator makes sure they all heard each other. Often the parties don’t change their views, but understand the other better.

‘No punishment’ is a value in Ganas. There are consequences to people’s behavior, but it is not to make them feel bad. If someone leaves the stove on, they may be asked not to use the stove again. It is not to make them feel bad, but to make sure they don’t cause a fire.

We are a community in progress. We strive to learn how to live together and grow in ways we wouldn’t be able to experience on our own. I bet you do too. I wonder if you use the tools of ‘no punishment,’ the one of ‘one case basis’ instead of the one of ‘one rule for all.’ When you are in conflict, do you listen to the other person’s point of view and let them know you do it?

Certain behaviors can smooth up the complexity of living in community. I’m sure you have tools that can enrich our life here. I’ll be happy to hear about them.

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Aviva!

 

Live and learn in community

So you want to start a community

by Paxus

Some of us who live in established successful communities regularly get questions about how to start new communities.  There is pretty standard advice which is worth sharing in this format.

Before you start a new community you should:

  1. See if there is an existing community which meets your needs
  2. Live in an existing community before you start one

Starting a new community is crazy hard work.  Even if you have a clear vision, excellent people to start it with, a place to move into and ample resources to start it, your chances of success are low.  And the chances that you are starting with all these advantages is pretty low.

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For all manner of reasons, many people feel that community life would be good for them.  Perhaps they have fond memories of living collectively in college.  Or maybe they miss a close knit family and wish to reproduce this environment with friends and intimates of their own choice.  It is easy to imagine an isolated life in the mainstream which makes people long for something richer and more interconnected.

Beyond this, people like to create.  They want to build something new, craft something with their preferences and identity built into it.  This is fantastic.  But because community creating is so difficult, your first step in this adventure should be a serious review of the communities which already exist.  It is far easier to join an existing community than it is to start a new one.  (This does not mean that it is easy to join a community; this can be an ordeal in itself.)

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And even if the community you find is not perfect for you to live in long term, there is a strong case to be made for trying to live in an existing community before you build your own.  My own failed thinking might be instructive in demonstrating this point.  Before I came to Twin Oaks, I really wanted to start my own activist oriented community in eastern Europe.  I had been fighting Russian designed nuclear reactors which were being completed by western companies after the Berlin Wall came down and i was convinced that a community of organizers would be a powerful tool in preventing dirty energy solutions from spreading.

I also thought I knew what was critical in making this proposed community succeed.  Specifically, one needed to have a good decision making model and a carefully selected income engine.  I guessed at the time that consensus would be the governance solution.  I also thought the business should be something that it was easy to train people in, which was not a classical assembly line situation.  I visited Twin Oaks nearly 20 years ago now, with a focus on these specific aspects.

What I found was that I was wrong.  Twin Oaks did not use consensus and while I often complain about our decision making model, it functions reasonably well and there are lots of different models which serve different communities (sociocracy, voting models, charismatic leaders, councils of elders, boards of directors, etc).   What I see now is that members being cooperative and flexible, is more critical than what specific decision format you select.

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Consensus does have advantages

It also turns out that there are lots of different ways to pay the bills.  And while I thought what i was looking for was a well structured community owned cooperative business, in most cases new communities don’t have this and the individual members pool income from straight jobs.  Businesses which support income sharing communities (the income engines) come in all manner of different shapes and as long as you have some people who are willing to do sales work (often a problem in communities) you have a chance at building a culture around your business and being viable.  It also helps tremendously that income sharing communities are very cheap to run because of the high degree of sharing which is happening.

What I did not realize was how central a role internal communication culture and especially managing gossip would play in the survival of communities.  This does not come up in most guides on how to start communities.  But if you get it wrong, it will be more important than if you selected voting over consensus.  Because of the intensity of community living, you need to be able to recover from events where trust gets damaged, or the fabric of your community will likely unravel.  This is why some of us spend so much time working on things like Transparency Tools.

I would not have known this if I had not lived in community.   I would have prioritized solving the wrong problems.   The lived experience of being in community will also help you find out what about community living does not work for you.  Like it or not, community life will almost certainly push your buttons.  Learning this about yourself before you take on the giant task of starting your own community is basically a necessary prerequisite for success.

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Having kids in your community is also clever.

 

So you want to start a community