A Question of Consensus

from the Commune Life Facebook page

We have been putting questions on our Facebook page and getting a lot of responses. I (Raven) am now putting them out as Friday reposts so that blog readers can see what we’ve been doing on Facebook and some of the comments that we have gotten. Here’s the first question we reposted.

Maximus/Theresa asked this question back in November:

Again, there many (as in 22) comments. Here is a representative sample:

(Sadly, Susan Stoddard has passed away since this post. She was a sharp observer and a frequent commenter.)

Feel free to add your comments as to when consensus is appropriate and when it might not be.

A Question of Consensus

Advice to a New Planner

by Paxus Calta

from Your Passport to Complaining

“We are looking for reluctant leaders.” Twin Oaks founder Kat Kinkade and East Wind Founder Deborah were/are fond of saying.  If you fear corruption or abuse of power, then having people who are leading not excited about the job, or doing it because they are motivated for their care for the collective is a good insurance policy.

The founders of Twin Oaks were deeply concerned about the failures of the existing decision making systems.  So much so they designed their own.  It has stayed in place, largely unchanged for 5 decades now.  It starts with the assumption that simple majorities are dangerous beasts and we can do better than that.  But because the commune was founded in 1967, before feminists secularized the consensus-decision-making process, they did not want to wait until everyone agreed.  Good ideas, headachey to implement.

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Near the “top” of this largely flat decision making process are the planners, the communities highest executive power.  I’ve been a planner twice, my Dutch wife Hawina is currently a planner.   Decisions of the planners can be overridden by a simple majority of full members of the community, though this happens less than annually.  [So technically, the membership is at the top of our hierarchy.]

Being a planner is one of our toughest jobs.  Right up there with the membership team and the pets manager.  The membership team is often hard because we don’t have much room for compromise on most membership decisions, you are either accepted into the community, or not (technically you can get a “visit again”, but you get the point).  The pets manager is difficult because you have to tell some kid that that they can not keep the stray dog they just fell in love with or you have to tell some long-term member that the community is not going to pay $4,000 for the surgery their aged cat desperately needs.  Trust me you don’t want this job.

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The plannership is difficult for more complex reasons.  First, is that members’s desires for quick solutions to their pressing problems often result in them rushing to the planners, telling them what is wrong and then being frustrated by them saying either “we are not the people you need to be talking to” (because there is another responsible manager or council) or that their clever solution is not accessible for any of a number of reasons.  Leaving the frustrated member to say “well, if I were planner I would certainly do this”.  Which is generally speaking not even true, because the group of 3 planners works by consensus and tend to protect the institution over the desires of a single agitated member.

However, there are more vexing aspects of the plannership.  When they take on complex and/or expensive issues like how do we spend a quarter of a million dollars to solve the tofu waste water problem, you basically can’t win.  The planners listen to all the manager and experts they can find.  They post papers or run surveys asking for community input, which often receive anemic response.  They slave away trying to make a good choice and then when they announce it, often many people are unhappy with it.

Sometimes they are unhappy and well informed, wishing the planners had taken the path they were advocating instead of the one they selected.  But far more often members are upset  because they have not studied the issue, don’t understand the trade offs and did not get exactly what they wanted.

The big problem is that we are frequently unable to keep the personal away from the political at Twin Oaks.  If the planners did not make the choice I wanted on this controversial and complex issue, I am then angry with them personally.  This results in the nightmare situation where you work hard on balancing many factors, craft what you think is a wise choice with your fellow planners and then you lose friends over it.

This does not always happen of course, but it happens enough that I have some standard advice which I share with every new planner.

There may well be a time when working for the planners puts you in a place where you feel like you need to make a choice “Am I going to take care of the community and push forward with this difficult decision or am I going to take care of myself and my relationships with other members?”  If you find yourself in this situation, take care of yourself and quit the job.

People who know me might be surprised at this recommendation.  I go to a lot of meetings.  I often joke that I am “a bureaucrat for the revolution”.  How can I be recommending people walk away from their top executive job, just when the community needs them to help shepherd in a decision?

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Turns out it is easy.  We will make a decision, even if you are not a planner.  But if the plannership is risking you burning out, or damaging your personal relationships within the community, then the cost is too high.  Hopefully you will live here for many years after your plannership.  If you have alienated or pissed off important relationships within the community, it can be the feather (or brick) which tilts the balance in favor of you leaving the commune.  Or potentially worse, staying regretting that you have lost these friends and allies.

I have given this advice enough and talked with planners who have taken it and not. So there is an important follow up: if you do decide to quit the plannership to take care of yourself, don’t guilt trip yourself about it.  I believe over half of planners do not complete their 18 month terms.  Policy prohibits someone being a planner twice in a row, but in the 20 plus years I have been at Twin Oaks, no planner has expressed a desire to immediately do a second term.

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The institution is quite durable.  Sometimes the right thing to is to abandon the process (and often the job) and instead prioritize your long term relations with  your friends and the commune.

Advice to a New Planner

Policy and Compassion

Posted 27th February 2014 by keenan from Keenan’s Twin Oaks Blog

How to be a bureaucrat and also a decent human

What Twin Oaks is is contained in our policies.  What Twin Oaks is not is also contained in our policies.  What Twin Oaks is likely to become in the future is contained in our policies. As individuals we are protected by our policies.  Our entire alternative income-sharing, non-violent, ecological and cooperative culture relies on the clear communication and effective enforcement of our policies.   Having policy is vital; understanding policy is vital; adhering to policy is vital.

However, given all that, I also believe that it is wrong and dangerous to then conclude that everything written in Twin Oaks’ policy notebooks is flawless. The vicissitudes of fate and the vast range of human behavior guarantee that policies will inevitably need interpretation and alteration.

Most people believe that unless they are on some decision-making committee, they don’t need to understand the arcane issues about the application of policy, but even two people in a relationship discussing whether it’s OK to have sex with someone else are “drafting policy.”   I think understanding concepts and issues around application of policy makes the world a healthier place.

Because there are so many ways we affect each other at Twin Oaks, we often have to interpret policy here.  An example:  It’s important that Twin Oaks drivers drive safely.  Periodically, the issue comes up of some people feeling unsafe with a tripper’s driving.   The policy is that an unsafe driver loses that job.  OK then. How unsafe is too unsafe?   Is one complaining passenger enough?   How many warnings is enough?  The policy is clear, but the implementation of that policy requires interpretation.  Really, the implementation of every policy requires interpretation.

The “check-down” analysis required in using policy is something like this: do we have a policy that covers this situation? Yes?  Great!   If this situation is unusual and no policy covers it, is it a truly unique situation that requires an exception to policy?  Or is this new situation something that is likely to recur and so this new decision isn’t an exception but, rather, a new precedent? Is the policy totally outdated?  Does it need to be ignored in this situation and then eventually rewritten?

Throughout all of these steps, the first and foremost thought should be, “Does this decision make sense?” and “Is this what a majority of the community would want to have happen?”

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         Errors in policy interpretation:

To me, one of the least compelling arguments is that we should assume that the judgment of earlier bureaucrats is always better than the judgment of current bureaucrats. Another error is trying to re-draft a policy to cover an extremely unusual situation that will, in all likelihood, never occur again. If a unique situation arises, a unique decision needs to be made.  It’s best to announce that we don’t have policy for this situation and make a decision based on common sense—and let the policy alone.

The third error, and I think the most common, is mindlessly applying policy that is not relevant in this particular situation. For any decision-maker, the safest path is to hide behind policy and to not use independent judgment.   My take is that the mindless-adherence path is what most people mean when complaining about bureaucrats and bureaucracy.  If the gap between communal common sense and bureaucratic decision making becomes too wide, it leads to cruel outcomes,  mistrust and dysfunction.

        Enforcing policy

No one wants to be the bad guy, but there has to be an enforcer when someone violates policy.  But enforcing policy does not mean letting go of your basic humanity.  For most of us, enforcing policy is regrettable.  Communicating your personal regret, can take the some of the sting out of receiving bad news.  Also, telling someone the process they need to go through to change this outcome (even if it’s unlikely that the decision will change) goes a long way toward softening the blow of enduring sanctions, or being on the losing side of a policy debate. When the time comes to enforce policy, be sure you have the support of the community.  Don’t make it a dyadic power dynamic between the two of you If you think you are representing the community, be sure that you are representing the community and then include others in your enforcement campaign.

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Errors in applying policy: secrecy

The whole design of our egalitarian community ensures that there are going to be amateurs in most positions, including decision-making positions. The temptation is to keep troublesome decisions quiet. Whether we make decisions that make someone unhappy, or we screw up the proper process, the right thing to do is to 1) make the decision public and 2) to make the thinking about the decision public.  By making information public, people understand how a manager or committee came to a decision. This serves several salubrious functions. The main function is that it helps everyone understand why and how a decision was come to and, usually, that it was a difficult decision.  This contributes to the second function which is increasing trust.  Trust is the foundation upon which our entire alternative culture rests.  Secret decisions erode trust and weaken the community; clearly explained publicly-announced decisions—even unpopular ones—even about a process mistake the group made–builds trust and strengthens the community.

An important additional function of explaining the thinking around a decision is that it helps educate everyone about the process of making decisions.   Decisions that are explained increases the overall competence of the community in making decisions. And, if you are making a decision and you can’t publicly justify that decision, or you don’t want to, then maybe you should go back and revisit the decision and make a decision that you do feel comfortable explaining publicly.

It is understandable that bureaucrats don’t want to explain their thinking in making decisions, because they(we) are going to get flak and—worst case scenario—the decision-maker might be wrong, that is, they may not represent the majority of the community, they may have misapplied policy, they may have done the process wrong.  And this is all the more reason to share decisions publicly—specifically to correct erroneous decisions.  Bad decisions that don’t represent the wishes of the community  erode trust. So, as awful as it can be to post a decision and have people rise up in outrage and then overturn the decision, that’s actually a good thing.  That means that people have the ability to correct poor decisions by well-meaning (we can assume) but misguided decision-makers.

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         Errors in applying policy: ignoring your own conscience

Being in a decision-making role usually means not making up your own mind, but, rather, following policy and representing other’s interests.  Inevitably, there will be times when these can conflict with your own sense of what is right.  What to do?  Sometimes people recuse themselves; I think that they shouldn’t. The main reason for recusal is when there is a conflict of interests, that is, the decision facing you will affect your personal interests.  That is a good reason to recuse yourself  from a decision.  But the world is not made better if people of conscience recuse themselves from decision-making.  I ask you, who is left to make decisions then?  So, caring about the outcome of a decision is not the same as benefiting from that decision personally.  Because you have an ethical compass is no reason to recuse yourself from a decision.

But if a policy mandates that you make a decision that is at odds with your own conscience, what is the right thing to do?  In the world I want to live in, don’t follow policy if the outcome is ethically wrong! This is exactly the place where you should make the decision according to what you think is right, and then you publicly state your reasons for doing so.  Let those who disagree with you then attempt to overturn your decision—and make them explain why.

I believe that it is essential that we not lose our compassion, kindness, or essential humanity in coming to decisions.  It can be challenging to make a decision that is not backed up by policy, but I believe that is the essence of being not only a good bureaucrat, but a good human.  I believe that all of us want decisions that are guided by, not just proper process, but also by people who have a heart and are trying to make ethical decisions; in a community, I think that we should demand nothing less of our decision-makers. I believe that it is not only possible to be a bureaucrat and a decent human being; I think it is crucial.

 

 

[All photos from Twin Oaks archives–not in original article]

 

 

Policy and Compassion

Communal Cooperation

by Raven Cotyledon

I have sometimes described some of the communes as a combination of a housing co-op and a worker co-op.  There are certainly elements of both in the Virginia communes. In fact, if you buy Twin Oaks tofu you will see that Twin Oaks Community Foods describes itself as “A Worker-Owned Cooperative!”

 

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Twin Oaks Tofu label 

I have lived in three different Boston area co-op houses. Co-op houses (also known as collective houses–especially in NYC where there is something very different called cooperative apartments which are more like condos) are great, but communes involve even more sharing.  In fact, you could say that communes are an even more cooperative form of cooperative. 

Communes cooperate in almost every way I can think of.  Income-sharing, in particular, involves a lot of cooperation between the people who are doing it.  We cooperate in sharing the work of maintaining and cleaning where we live, in feeding each other, in planning together, and in supporting one another.  We care for each other in many ways and we depend on each other. 

Many co-ops are organized around the Seven Cooperative Principles, adopted by the International Cooperative Alliance. I believe that in many ways, communes meet or exceed all of these principles.

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First, a voluntary and open membership. Voluntary, absolutely. Communes are not cults. No one will keep you there.  Open is a little more tricky. Communes, like co-op houses, involve living together. A consumer co-op is easy. Anyone should be able to join. Cooperative businesses have to be a little more selective–not everyone can do every job. Living together means you have to be able to live in your home with each person, so co-op houses and communes need to be more selective still. That said, there is a large push for diversity in the communes. Membership decisions are made about the ability to get along, not about a person’s race or religion or sexual orientation. 

Democratic member control–phrased in early documents as “One man, one vote.” Here the communes do a lot better than that.  They are even more democratic. First, they are open to all genders–not even just men and women, but trans folks, genderqueer, non-binary, two-spirit, and more.  And most communes don’t vote. The majority use consensus, which I believe is more democratic and more cooperative than voting. 

Members economic participation is next, called distribution of surplus in the older documents. This is where income-sharing communities really exceed and excel. Everyone in a commune shares in the economic surplus which is distributed as equally as possible. All the members of a commune get to participate economically as much as they want. 

The fourth principle is “Autonomy and Independence” which is absolutely part of the commune scene. This is the problem that the FEC faces. No one is in charge in the communes. This is the “Egalitarian” part of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. 

 The fifth principle of the Cooperative Principles is “Education, Training and Information”.  This is as needed in the communes as it is in the co-ops. One of the biggest requests in the FEC budget is for one type of training or another. 

The sixth principle is “Cooperation among Cooperatives” and this is as desirable and sought after in the communes as it is with the co-ops.  In fact, this could be the very purpose of the FEC. 

Finally, “Concern for Community” seems almost too self evident in the communes whose very nature is about building community. 

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All this is not to knock co-ops, but to point out that if you have done co-ops, especially co-op houses, and you want even more cooperation, maybe you should look at the communes.

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Thanks for reading! This post was made possible by our patrons on Patreon. The Commune Life team works hard to bring you these stories about our lives in community, and that work couldn’t happen without support from our audience. So if you liked this article, and want to help us make more like it, head on over to https://www.patreon.com/communelife to join us! 

Deep gratitude to all of our patrons:  

Communities

  • Acorn Community
  • Compersia Community
  • Cotyledon Community
  • East Brook Community Farm
  • The Federation of Egalitarian Communities
  • Twin Oaks Community

Communards 

  • Aaron Michels
  • Brenda Thompson
  • Cathy Loyd
  • Em Stiles
  • Jenn Morgan
  • Jonathan Thaler
  • Julia Elizabeth Evans
  • Kai Koru
  • Kathleen Brooks
  • Laurel Baez
  • Lynette Shaw
  • Magda schonfeld
  • Michael Hobson
  • Nance & Jack Williford
  • Peter Chinman
  • Sumner Nichols
  • Tobin Moore
  • Warren Kunce
  • William Croft
  • William Kadish

Thanks! 

 

Communal Cooperation

Agreements

by Raven Cotyledon

I have written a post that is quite popular here (58 views just this week, 1708 views this year–really, it’s the most popular post on the blog) called Four Steps to Building a Commune. In it I say: “Step Two is about working on vision and agreements together.”

This post was suggested by Warren Kunce, who lives in Sweden and has been visiting us this week at Cotyledon and has been an avid reader of this blog. When I asked him what I should write about that hadn’t been talked about on the blog, his suggestion was “agreements”.  I realized that, while I had strongly suggested it in the post, I don’t think we have talked much about how to actually work on agreements on this blog, and I think it’s very important.

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Warren and Raven (picture by Warren)

The substance of the paragraph I wrote in the article about Four Steps was focused on what can go wrong if you don’t have agreements in place.  Here I want to talk about how to create agreements. First, it isn’t as easy as it may sound. We have been working on a Membership Process agreement at Cotyledon for over a year and we still don’t have all the details in place.

We use consensus decision making in our community and that means that you have to have buy in from everyone, at least on some level, for every decision. With agreements, it’s the details that are difficult.

And you really do want everybody’s buy in on your agreements, otherwise members are less likely to stick to them. So that means having many meetings to work through all the details. One thing that might make things faster, especially in a large group, is if there are two people in particular who disagree on some details, have them get together outside of community meetings and figure out a compromise that they can live with, and then bring that to the group for discussion and decision making.

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One really useful resource for making agreements, especially for new communes, is the Systems and Structures page on the FEC website.  Why try to reinvent the wheel?  Here you can see what other income-sharing communities have developed over the years. You don’t have to copy what they have done, but you can see what they have tried, and pick and choose what your community likes, and try it yourself.

And a good thing to remember is that agreements are experiments. You are not coming up with agreements to lock yourselves into doing things the same way forever. You are trying things to see what works for your community.  Agreements can and should be able to be changed if they don’t seem to be working for you. Some communities write an agreement with a “sunset clause”. Because consensus, honestly, tends to be conservative, in that once something is in place, it can be difficult to change it, there are communities that write some of their agreements with an expiration date. Once the experimental period has passed, the agreement becomes null and void unless the community agrees to renew it.  This makes the default, which the community needs to fall back on in the event that they can’t reach agreement on the agreement, that they need to start over, rather than they need to keep the agreement in place.

Agreements are mostly written for the difficult times, when there is a lot of conflict or turmoil. You don’t want to have to come up with an agreement or policy when things are rough.  Agreements are a support when times are difficult. But they can actually be ignored or discarded if everyone is able to decide on something different in a situation. For example, Common Threads early on came up with an agreement on what we would do if or when we dissolved.  However, when we did dissolve the community, we did something quite different, which made more sense to everyone at the time. It was still good to have the agreement, because if there had been a lot of disagreement, it would have been something we could fall back on. As I said, agreements are there to support the community, not control it.

So, the best advice I can give your community if you are making agreements, is to listen to each other. That’s what consensus is about, anyway.  Try things. Be flexible. Use agreements but don’t be ruled by them. They are there to serve your community. If they are used well, they can be very helpful. They can make things a lot smoother when you don’t have to make the same decisions again and again. And they can be changed when it’s needed. Be willing to toss out what isn’t working and start over.

And, above all, have fun with it all.

Working+Agreement

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Thanks for reading! This post was made possible by our patrons on Patreon. The Commune Life team works hard to bring you these stories about our lives in community, and that work couldn’t happen without support from our audience. So if you liked this article, and want to help us make more like it, head on over to https://www.patreon.com/communelife to join us!

Deep gratitude to all of our patrons:  

Communities

  • Acorn Community
  • Compersia Community
  • Cotyledon Community
  • East Brook Community Farm
  • The Federation of Egalitarian Communities
  • Twin Oaks Community

Communards

  • Aaron Michels
  • Brenda Thompson
  • Cathy Loyd
  • Em Stiles
  • Jenn Morgan
  • Jonathan Thaler
  • Julia Elizabeth Evans
  • Kai Koru
  • Kathleen Brooks
  • Laurel Baez
  • Lynette Shaw
  • Magda schonfeld
  • Michael Hobson
  • Nance & Jack Williford
  • Peter Chinman
  • Sumner Nichols
  • Tobin Moore
  • Warren Kunce
  • William Croft
  • William Kadish

Thanks!

 

Agreements

Communities Conference Workshops

Here is the workshop and partial presentation schedule for the upcoming Twin Oaks Communities Conference.  The below links are to blog posts on these elements.  There is a posted full program (with short descriptions for every workshop are in the newly published program).  

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Cambia lunch

Saturday September 1st

9:30 to noon

1:30 to 3 PM

4 to 5:30 PM

Sunday September 2

9:30 to 11

There is still time to register for this amazing event.  Twin Oaks Community is hosting this event in central Virginia Aug 31st thru Sept 2.  There is also great Labor Day (Sept 3) program at Cambia Community, less than one mile from the Twin Oaks Conference site.

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Twin Oaks 50th Anniversary – Circa 2017

Communities Conference Workshops

Will your community survive an Exodus?

By Paxus of Cambia Community

exodus people walking.jpgOne of the interesting new workshop topics for this years Twin Oaks communities conference (over Labor Day Weekend) is the Exodus Panel, which will be moderated by Taylor Kinniburgh, a member of the Baltimore Free Farm:

Panel Discussion on Surviving Exodus
Sunday, 9:30-11:00am, Registration Tarp

How can intentional communities survive a membership exodus? This workshop will carve out space for community members to share their experiences, learn from other communities, and develop strategies to overcome the challenges of member- ship overhaul. The panel will consist of experienced community leaders that have dealt with exodus to varying levels of success. Failure to deal with member exodus can lead to the collapse of a community, but it take more than recruiting new
members to take on this problem. Communities need to be self reflective about why the exodus took place and this panel hopes to guide participants in how to do that analysis.

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Come with me on a thought experiment.

You knew it might happen.  In the worst case the conflict within your community could blow things up seriously.  Now several of your members are leaving and the future of your community is in doubt.  Often people within the communities movement say “No one is indispensable” as a secular mantra for communities shifting to cover important jobs left vacant when an important member leaves.  But when several people leave?  Well, this is likely no longer a true maxim when the number departing is larger than one.

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When people leave en mass, the group changes and perhaps dies

Certainly, some part of the response of the group left behind must be soul searching.  “What did we do that was wrong?  Could we have taken better care of the group?  What have we learned from difficult circumstance and can we create new policies and practices to avoid it happening again?”

But after this important self reflection is completed, there will likely be a need to re-assess if the mission of the community is still the same after the exodus.  It is possible that the new group of members have a somewhat (and potentially quite) different vision of the future community.  While difficult work, this can be very satisfying and healing to the group remaining.

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The Baltimore Free Farm, Acorn Community and Twin Oaks have all experienced an exodus of members and survived.  Other communities we will discuss did not survive.

There is still time to register for the Twin Oaks Communities Conference over the labor day weekend (Aug 31 thru Sept 2) in central Virginia, 45 minutes from Charlottesville and 55 minutes to central Richmond or RSVP on Facebook

Will your community survive an Exodus?