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.

Step1

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.

Step2

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.)

Step3

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.

Step4

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.

 

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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.)

FNB benefit house show
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.

Start1

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.)

Start2

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.

Start4

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

What Doesn’t Work: The Totally Utopia Community

by Raven

In trying to create communities, it’s important to learn what works and also what doesn’t work.  There’s a lot of pieces on this blog from communities that are up and running, many for over ten years, and one for a full fifty. There’s a lot we can learn from them about what works.

We also hope to hear from folks who have tried to start communes that didn’t go anywhere, about why they didn’t work.  (One good piece on this is Gil from Cambia’s Lessons on Starting a Community.  Other folks who’ve dealt with difficulties in community building have promised to send their learnings.)  This is important because difficulties are the reality of commune building, and hopefully, anyone trying to start a commune can learn from them.

The Totally Utopia Community that I describe here is not a real community.  However, I am well acquainted with three real communities that are nearly identical to what I describe.  The important thing for me is that if I just happen to know three different communities (in three different states) that are so similar to the Totally Utopia Community, I strongly suggest that there are probably dozens more like this.  I can’t believe that I just randomly found the only three communities like this.

TUC1

The folks behind the Totally Utopia Community are a couple that I will call Adam and Eve (no relation to the biblical couple).  These are very bright folks, well versed in farming, construction, and all types of eco-sustainability.  Adam is especially capable and competent.

I’ve talked a little bit about community hardware and software.  Adam and Eve are very good at the hardware.  What they have difficulty with is the software–the relationships.

Adam is a charismatic, alpha male.  He is good at attracting people.  He is also very worried about climate change and is very demanding of himself as well as other people.  The problem is that no one outside of he and Eve matches up to what they want.  While they don’t have trouble finding people, no one seems good enough–and since no one ever matches up, I suspect that they’re not going to find anyone who will stay–and so they will never create real community.

To a large degree, the Totally Utopia Community, as such, exists in name only.  Two people and a rotating cast of interns and extras do not make a community.  As I’ve said, I’ve seen this particular community process in action at least three times, so it’s popular, even if it’s not functional.

TUC2

Lest you think this kind of situation is only restricted to heterosexual couples concerned about climate change, here’s a similar situation only with two gay men creating an agricultural religious community.  The ideas are they have are interesting but, as they said, they weren’t perhaps the right people to implement them.  I suspect they have similar problems to Adam and Eve.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy solution to the Totally Utopia Community’s problems.  It would mean that these folks would need to change their behavior to get anywhere.  Some thoughts that I’ve had is that Adam could, perhaps, learn how to be supportive and welcoming to people and, instead of deciding that they aren’t competent enough, try to figure out what they’re good at and how they could help build community.  Changing his behavior probably wouldn’t be easy, particularly if he’s scared and feeling urgent about the climate emergency.  Or, they could restructure things so that he isn’t in charge, but someone warm and welcoming and with interpersonal skills is running things and Adam can focus on the things that he’s good at, like construction and farming.  Or (and I actually suggested this to one of these couples), maybe they should just stop trying to build a community, and have a small family farm where they could work together and wouldn’t have to worry about other people.

When someone tells me that all you need to do to create a commune is, build it and they will come, I think of Adam and Eve.  In two of the three communities, I’m talking about, the couple is still out there trying to create the community.  I wish them luck but I fear that no community will happen unless something changes.

I put this out here because I think this is a model of how not to build community–and a model that is still being used.  For people who wonder why I’m so insistent on starting with getting the people and learning to work together, the Totally Utopia Community is a good example.

TUC3

 

What Doesn’t Work: The Totally Utopia Community

Laboratories or Modules?

I’ve talked, both on this blog and on my personal blog, about communities as being laboratories for social change.  In communes we get to try out stuff to see what works and doesn’t work.

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Of course, that begs the question of what to do with what works.

I’ve been thinking very hard about three quotations, the first two of which are very similar.

John Gall said this (which is known among system thinkers as Gall’s Law): “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

Kevin Kelly has been saying something very similar: “The only way to make a complex system that works is to begin with a simple system that works.  Attempts to instantly install highly complex organization …without growing it, inevitably lead to failure. … Complexity is created, then, by assembling it incrementally from simple modules that can operate independently.”

Finally, add to these quotes one by Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This is exactly what we are doing in the egalitarian, income sharing communities–building a new model of a way to live that is sustainable, fair, and fun.  And when you look at the Gall and Kelly quotes, it’s clear that the only way to do this is start small, like at a communal level.  (An example of how not to do this is to take over a large country and try to install a communal system from the top down.  Lenin tried it.  It didn’t work.)

So how do we get from a few little communes to social change?  I’ve already talked a bit about this in my piece on networking.

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But the first step is to grow the movement.  If there are forty communes on the planet now (my complete guesstimate from my piece last week), how could we grow that to eighty (effectively doubling it)?  Why aren’t there more communes?

The problem isn’t that it’s hard to start a commune.  New communities start all the time.  The problem is getting communes to succeed.  As I also said last week, I know of one relatively new commune that is already gone and another two that have basically merged into one (because both weren’t doing well).  I also know of several other communities that are struggling and may or may not make it.

There are three reasons for this.  One, it’s hard to start anything and make it succeed.  The survival rate for communities is similar to the survival rate for new businesses.  Two, this is social change and there’s a reason social change is hard–if it worked it would change society, and there are a lot of vested interests that don’t want that. It’s an uphill battle to build a commune. And, importantly, three is that many folks who try to start communities don’t know what’s really involved. As someone I heard say, they pay attention to the ‘hardware’ (the buildings and land and physical systems–even solar panels and crops) and not to the ‘software’ (the relationships between the people in the community).  And they are surprised when the commune doesn’t work.

All this being said, if we want real change, we are going to have to build a lot more communes.  At this point, we know a lot of what works and doesn’t work.  (If you are thinking of starting a community, I’d suggest you click on the section here on Creating Community and read the articles there.  There’s a lot of wisdom there from people who have done it.)  And I believe that if 90% of new communes will still fail, we are going to need to start a hundred more communes, to get our next ten.

And I think that this is something worth doing, since I believe that egalitarian, income sharing communities are one of the modules for building a new world.

Mod3

Laboratories or Modules?