By Telos, adapted from a zine I once made called “Betty Crocker’s Tiny Commune Cookbook.” A printable copy of the cookbook can be found here.
A good commune is like marinated tempeh. It’s like spicy peanut (or even cashew) sauce, or deliciously chewy fruit leather. A good commune is like a pig roast. Or maybe it’s like a beautiful bunch of asparagus, made better by the fact that it was recovered from a local dumpster. When well prepared, an income-sharing community can meet your life needs- dietary and otherwise.
While there’s a lot of room for variation, there are a few common elements that make communes an especially scrumptious dish…
They meet each member’s needs: You don’t want a muffin where all the blueberries are concentrated in one spot. Likewise, you don’t want a society where all the wealth is concentrated in one spot! When income is shared, resources are distributed roughly equally, or according to need. Excess is enjoyed together, reinvested, or shared with the wider community. Everybody gets blueberries in their muffin!
They reduce collective expenses, through resource sharing: Part of what makes communes delicious is that they reduce consumption. By collectivizing resources, communes avoid the need for everyone to buy their own car, tablesaw, bike, etc. Collectivizing labor also allows income-sharing communities to meet more of their needs in-house, by growing their own food, for example. The resultingly reduced consumption translates to lower expenses and a smaller ecological footprint. Yum
They make all work valuable: Income-sharing decouples the value of labor from the income it produces, because each member has equal access to resources, no matter how much money they individually earn. This separation of “value” from money makes it easy to appreciate all types of labor, even so-called “women’s work” and other labor that is chronically underpaid. Income sharing is as tasty for those cooking, cleaning, farming, and answering phones as it is for those running businesses.
They make life well-rounded and interesting: Income-sharing usually eliminates the need to work for pay full time, making it possible to pursue a variety of work, instead of just one type. The resulting freedom to nourish a diversity of skills and passions gives life a well-balanced flavor profile. Communes help create well-rounded people, who are more versatile and interesting to be around.
Communes are not an easy recipe to attempt, and it’s an unfortunate truth that many of them come out either burnt or undercooked. They often turn out tough, and it’s difficult to get them to rise properly. Still, this should not discourage the cook, because a well-prepared commune is perhaps one of the flakiest, juiciest, most delicious dishes there is to be tasted.
Part of what makes communes so difficult is that there’s no sure-fire recipe that will guarantee success. Still, there are certain ingredients that pretty much all communes will need. If you have experience living or working cooperatively, many of them may already be available in your pantry. Make sure to include a healthy portion of each ingredient listed below. Mix well, marinate, adjust proportions as needed, and add copious amounts of tenacity and mutual trust- starting a commune is a commitment that requires hard work and persistence. Prepared properly, commune life can strengthen your relationships, create a deep sense of belonging, provide an exit from industrial capitalism, reduce your carbon footprint, and more.
Who will be in the commune? How will membership be decided? It’s important for new communes to have a group of founding members with a strong shared vision and the commitment to manifest it. Once off the ground, they will need a process for determining which new members to accept into the community. Making this process fair and equitable is an important and challenging task. Strive for a process that does not discriminate on the basis of race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc, even in subtle ways. Still, the membership process must also ensure that accepted members are able to contribute fairly to the community (in whatever way they do), that their needs can be met by the community, and that they will not be destructive to the community.
In order to share income, you’ll need…income! How much money is required to meet the commune’s needs? Will the community buy most necessities, or will it find ways to meet some needs without money (by growing its own food, or by scavenging, for example)? Once members determine how much money they need to collectively earn, they need to figure out where it will come from. Will they pool the income from jobs outside the community? If so, do all members need jobs, or do some members make enough money to support others? Or should the community launch a cooperatively owned business that all members can work in and share income from? What type of business? Does the commune have other income sources available until the business begins to turn a profit? Launching a cooperative business will affect the tax status that best fits your community, as well as other legal details, so don’t forget to do your research!
Life is full of decisions. How will the commune make them? In an egalitarian community, it’s important to have a governance structure that allows decisions to be made in a timely manner while ensuring that all voices are heard and that no individual or faction is allowed to exercise constrictive power over others. The most popular model for egalitarian decision making is consensus, in which proposals are continually modified until all members can agree upon a course of action. Most forming communes use consensus, but many forms of collective governance are possible. There are communes that use supermajority vote, some that delegate responsibilities to various managers, and some that elect committees or empowered to make certain decisions.
Starting and maintaining a commune takes work! Each commune will need a labor system ensuring that each member contributes equitably and is accountable to others. Some members might contribute by working an income producing job, or in a collectively owned business, while others might garden, keep community facilities clean and repaired, cook meals, or build community infrastructure. Are a set number of work hours expected from each member, or will accountability come from conversation, instead of numbers? Is work assigned, or self-determined? How is it ensured that each member contributes effectively and has the opportunity to be fulfilled in their work?
Communication and Conflict Resolution
Sharing income is a big commitment, and it’s important for each commune to have a healthy communication culture. Communities function best when everybody is on the same page, not just about responsibilities, but also about relationships. There are many ways to facilitate effective communication among community members, like providing a space in community meetings to discuss interpersonal dynamics, or hosting regular meetings exclusively for this purpose. Another very useful tool is “clearnesses”- regular one on one meetings between every possible pair of community members, providing space to address any clutter in their relationship, and kill gossip. Consider these various forms of regular communication as “interpersonal hygiene.” When it comes to serious conflicts, it’s important to have a plan for dealing with them before they arise. Don’t wait to design a conflict resolution process until you need it!
Legal and financial details
If you want your commune to be recognized by the government as a legal entity (and not just a band of weirdos), then you’ll need to set up a tax and corporate identity for the community. Different tax and legal statuses will place different constrictions on what a community can legally do, so research thoroughly and choose according to your community’s needs! Communes are commonly listed as non-stock, non-profit corporations with a 501(d) tax status, but there are several options that may best meet a community’s needs. Besides tax and legal status, it’s important to familiarize yourselves with zoning regulations for the area where the commune will be located, financing options for the purchase of land, and other relevant legal details.
It’s probably safe to assume that those interested in starting communes want to live differently than most people do. In what specific ways? Are there cultural taboos that you would like to normalize, like female toplessness? What about “normal” behaviors that we’d be better off without, like conspicuous cell phone use? What do members of the community do for fun? What is the community’s shared sense of purpose? How will your commune rewrite the social code? Each commune has it’s own culture, whether or not it was intentionally adopted. Take the opportunity to redesign culture in a healthy way!
*Never consider your commune finished, or it may stagnate and spoil. Serves roughly 5, potentially up to thousands. Never to be enjoyed alone.
Last Friday Compersia, the first commune birthed with the help of the Point A Project, turned one year old. It’s been a year filled with joys and difficulties and a few close calls. Recently, responding to our frustration with the gap between our reality and our vision and the stubbornness with which some big important items seem to stay on our to-do list, Courtney, one of our members, gave us some perspective by noting that the commune is a living thing and only a year old. If it was a human we’d be thrilled at this point if it wasn’t pooping on itself and had mastered the art of eating solid food and crawling around. From that perspective, we’re doing pretty well, thank you very much. We’ve got our foundational policies written, we’ve added some new members, we’ve got money in the bank, and we’re building some deep and resilient relationships. And, much like a baby, the commune demands a lot of attention and care and not always at the most opportune times. But as it grows and develops we can see more and more clearly how awesome it will be when it’s fully grown and how all our hard work parenting it will pay off.
Some highlights from our first year:
- Started the commune! Set up a legal entity, set up a group bank account, started pooling our income, our labor, and our resources.
- Modified one of our member’s houses so it could fit most of us and our vital functions, host events, and host guests. It made a wonderful crib to hold us in our delicate first moments.
- Started a video editing and media coop that currently supports one member and will hopefully grow into a multi-member commune business.
- Another member started a handyman business.
- Took on two new members to add to the four founders.
- Had a couple weekend long retreats to work on plans and policy.
- Hosted dozens of guests.
- Hosted jam nights and game nights.
- Started connecting with cooperative lawyers to lay the groundwork for a project to create an easily replicable model for urban communes.
- Pursued and started negotiating on several potential buildings to buy.
- Stayed sane.
- Stayed fed.
- Stayed solvent.
- Stayed together.
Now, on the eve of our first birthday, and with a recently expanded membership, we’re moving all six adult members and all four kids into a new house and setting our sights on a new set of goals. But we’re doing it with the knowledge that we’re only a year old and if we don’t accomplish all our lofty dreams we won’t be that hard on ourselves. As long as we’re growing and thriving, learning and maturing we will beam with pride at our bouncing baby commune.
by Valerie Renwick, from Communities Magazine, Winter, 2016
EXIT the mainstream urban / suburban / rural single-dwelling lifestyle you’ve been living. Depending on your life experience, you may need to VEER LEFT to accomplish this.
IMMEDIATELY ENTER into the heart of your new community home. You will need to NAVIGATE THE COMPLEX TWISTS AND TURNS that seem to pop up with alarming frequency. Who knew that such a simple change in the kitchen would upset so many people? It was just one little thing. What was wrong with the suggestion to adopt a community puppy–don’t people here want to provide a good home for a stray? Why isn’t the brilliance of my new business proposal obvious to everyone? Well, except for you-know-who’s constant bias against all post-Industrial-Revolution technology.
PAUSE to consider: When the other person said what they said, how did I feel? What is their piece of the truth? Do I need to give them some space?
Even after traveling the road for years, you may find yourself in the middle of a tricky community conflict, looking like it’s going to end in a horrific pile-up of emotions. You have several options:
YIELD to the more vocal, more articulate, or more tenacious energy.
TAKE A SHARP TURN and attempt to address the festering, long-term issues that have slowly calcified over years into unwavering caricatures of process, then QUICKLY DODGE the head-on collisions and emotional shrapnel that comes flying towards you and everyone else.
Now SIGNAL your willingness to work together, and MAKE A DETOUR by adjusting your position and offering a modified proposal that addresses the concerns that have been raised.
Before proceeding, BUY YOURSELF SOME INSURANCE by investing in other peoples’ viewpoints and building up some goodwill in your community-karma bank account.
As you continue on the journey, ENTER A ROUNDABOUT of meetings, discussions, and surveys. In due time, you will…..
ARRIVE AT YOUR DESTINATION. You find a solution that works for the group!
Now that the situation has resolved and the communal dust has settled, SLOW DOWN AND IDLE for a while, relishing this period of time and enjoying the glow of some skillful, caring cooperation and warm feelings towards your sister/fellow travelers.
Soon enough it will be time to RESET and start again…..
Dear Connor, GPaul, Jenny, Kathryn, and Steve,
Thanks very much for hosting Tom and me at Compersia! We learned so much from talking with each of you! And you were so friendly and open in how you included us in your community family while we were there!
We feel lucky to have met you, the pioneers of your new thriving income-sharing community. Learning from your experiences makes it far more likely that we’ll be able to participate in making a new income-sharing community in New York.
In gratitude for our time with you, we wanted to share the unexpected lessons we learned about Compersia when we visited you — lessons which might be helpful not only to us but also to others working on starting income-sharing communities:
- The founding members of Compersia applied the membership process to themselves. No one was “grandfathered in” (which would have created two classes of family members). Instead, everyone went through the membership process.
- The community formation process included intentional work on building trust and affinity, simultaneous with the work on building the structure of the community. The personal connections among Compersia members grew and deepened through clearnesses and transparency tools during the community formation process. All along, the personal connections were growing side-by-side with the community decisions.
- Community members bonded around and stuck with a few fundamental principles — such as income-sharing, urban location, and FEC principles — together with additional important shared values whose implementation the members left open to work on together — such as community engagement, ambition, non-violence, feminism, and environmentalism. Additional details of the vision remained open so that prospective members could carve their own niches into the vision.
- The pioneer Compersians engaged in a reflective process, consciously returning to basic principles, not a mechanical process about defining procedures in advance. The idea was to work together to implement principles, not to follow other communities cookie-cutter style.
- Additional people became interested in Compersia for a variety of reasons. One approach to attracting others: Ignition first by figuring out what’s important to new additional potential members and showing how the commune will achieve that. Then remove individual barriers to joining.
- While forming, Compersia enjoyed lots of support from multiple existing groups! The support included a paid worker for a year supplied by the Point A project and Acorn as well as free housing and food provided by The Keep. To start a commune, it takes a lot of material support and time and commitment to shared principles!
- We’ve been asked what complaints we heard at Compersia, and we can’t remember hearing even one single complaint! How rare to find a group where no member feels a need to complain! It’s not that all the circumstances are perfect. Instead, the communication and support network is such that everyone seems to feel that their needs and feelings are respected. When issues arise, the community talks about them. At Compersia, we heard conversations about expansion, chores, and the communal house. The community choices were made by consensus and represented the intentions of the community members, upon taking each other’s feelings into account.
- Compersia feels like a family. Income-sharing may help, but may not be the only way. The shared love and caring is inspiring. There’s far more than the sum of the parts. Compersians provide each other support to take risks and grow, individually and together. The sense of caring and love seems to increase through working together as a group to pursue shared principles and seems to extend beyond Compersians to genuine caring for those not yet inside the community.
Thanks so much to each of you! We had a wonderful time and learned a lot!
Happy new year and best wishes!
by Laird Schaub, from Laird’s Commentary on Community and Consensus, Tuesday, June 16, 2009
I just finished doing a weekend Introduction to Facilitation Workshop at Heathcote Community in Freeland MD. Friday evening through Sunday afternoon I worked and laughed with 16 participants as we explored a wide range of group situations and typical challenges that facilitators face. As a student of group dynamics and a teacher of facilitation, I am frequently in the position of describing the pitfalls that groups fall into by virtue of not having discussed and made explicit agreements about how they want to view to handle certain things.
By Sunday afternoon the workshop participants were all over me to give them a list of these questions, so here goes.
The main thing to understand about this is not there is one right way to address all of the questions (indeed, different groups come up with all manner of good answers). Rather, it’s to understand that having no answer is guaranteed to be a problem. Sooner or later, the ambiguity will to bite you in the butt, and it’s much worse to attempt to sort many of these things out when you’re in the midst of tension resulting from members proceeding from different assumptions—or guesses—about the group’s position.
Almost all groups have some basic agreements: for example, about common values, how one becomes a member, and how the group will make decisions. While that’s a good start, it isn’t nearly enough. Here’s a much longer list of things that groups should discuss—preferably before the water gets hot: Note that none of these questions is limited to residential communities: they are meant to apply to any group trying to function cooperatively.
1. What is the purpose of meetings? To what extent is it to solve problems, and to what extent is it to build relationships among members?
2. What topics are worthy of plenary attention? Absent clarity about this, groups tend to drift into working at a level of detail that is beneath them rather than effectively delegating. This is directly related to the phenomenon of meeting fatigue.
3. How do you want to work with emotions that surface in meetings? Hint #1: Ignoring them doesn’t work. Hint #2: You can allow expression of feelings while at the same time object to aggression.
4. How do you want to work with conflict? (This is the most volatile subset of working with emotions.) While asking conflicted people to “take it outside” can work some of the time, it won’t always. What’s more, at least some of the time progress on the topic that triggered the distress may be held hostage to resolution of the upset. It can be very expensive to not have an agreement about how to work conflict.
5. Under what conditions, if any, is it OK to speak critically of a member who is not in the room? Caution: Be careful here. You don’t want people to be able to control by their absence what gets examined.
6. How do you protect the rights of members to have an opportunity to have input on issues examined at meetings they missed? Conversely, how do you protect the right of the group to move forward on issues when members miss meetings? This is a balancing act, and a good answer here probably involves clear agreements about advance notification of draft agendas, advance circulation of proposals, and standards for minutes.
7. What authority do you give facilitators to run meetings? Hint: If they’re not explicitly allowed to interrupt people repeating themselves or speaking off topic, you’re in trouble.
8. What are your standards for minutes? What should minutes include? Where will they be posted? Are they indexed? Are they archived? Do the same standards apply to committees that apply to the plenary?
9. Do you have protocols for how email is used? Hint: Email is great for posting announcements and reports; OK for discussions; dangerous for expressing upset; and downright thermonuclear for trying to process upset.
10. What are the rights & responsibilities of membership? While groups tend to be pretty good at being clear about financial aspects, they tend to be less good at spelling out labor, governance, or social expectations. Hint: It generally works better if you think of these two questions as being paired.
11. What does membership imply about how much you want to be in each other’s lives? How much does membership imply a social connection beyond a business connection? Big gaps in answers (or assumptions) here can really hurt.
12. What are the expectations around giving one another critical feedback about their behavior as a member of the group? Caution: Is a member allowed to refuse another member a request to discuss their behavior?
13. What are the conditions under which a member may involuntarily lose rights, and by what process will that be examined? Caution: While it’s hard to get excited about tackling this delicate topic before there’s a need, it’s a nightmare to attempt to clear it up once the need has arisen.
14. How much diversity can you tolerate? While most groups aspire to embrace diversity (in fact—given that human cloning is illegal—some degree is unavoidable), there is always a limit to how much a group can tolerate and it’s important to have a way to talk about it.
15. How do you select managers and fill committees? Caution: Simply asking for volunteers can work fine for some positions, yet can be downright foolish in others, where a definite balance or skill set is critically needed.
16. How do you evaluate the performance of managers and committees? This includes how, how frequently, and overseen by whom? Hint #1: Have people self-evaluate before the group takes a crack at them. Hint #2: This will tend to work much better if it includes both a chance to identify what’s not been working well and a chance to celebrate what is.
17. What is the group’s model for healthy leadership? Absent an agreement, cooperative groups tend to be much more critical of leaders than supportive, suppressing members’ willingness to take on leadership.
18. Do you regularly discuss how power is distributed in the group? Do you have an understanding about how to discuss the perception that people are using power less cooperatively than the users think they are? Caution: Tackle the first question before the second. Absent a clear sense of the need to talk about power, and an understanding about how to go about it in a constructive manner, this topic can be explosive (think Krakatoa).