Kat Kinkade, the anti-guru: her complex but enduring legacy

by Keenan Dakota

From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” Karl Marx

Kat Kinkade, the founder of three successful communal ventures, who re-defined contemporary utopian theory, and who spearheaded the rebirth of a communal movement, improbably spent her waning years living alone in a small house with just her cats and pet rabbits for company.

Kat Kinkade

I first met Kat in 1982, and remained her friend until her death. On December sixth, the day that would have been Kat Kinkade’s ninetieth birthday, I looked her up online. I knew Kat to be a towering intellect and a complicated person, but the Kat Kinkade that I knew, and the legacy that she has left, were not represented in the articles I found. So I want to try here to take a shot at setting the record straight about Kat Kinkade.

In 1967, at the age of 36, Kat Kinkade didn’t merely want to start a commune where she and her daughter could live, she wanted to build a communal movement. After starting Twin Oaks, she founded the magazine, Leaves of Twin Oaks. She edited Communities Magazine and made sure that Twin Oaks kept the magazine afloat by putting in a great deal of money and labor until, many years later, it eventually became self-sustaining. Communities Magazine annually produced a Directory of Communities—the sole reference source for seekers looking for intentional communities. Later, Communities Magazine went online, creating the web site ic.org, still the go-to informational center of the global intentional communities movement.

Kat wrote and published two books, A Walden Two Experiment, and Is it Utopia Yet, about the founding and evolution of Twin Oaks Community. Twin Oaks held the first communities conference a year after getting started. This enduring yearly event (between 100 and 200 participants each non-covid year) has been the birthplace of dozens of additional communal ventures. Kat helped found the network of income-sharing communities, the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. That organization provided the inspiration, template, and early staff for the much larger, more expansive communal network, the Foundation for Intentional Community.

Kat Kinkade approached her movement building with missionary zeal. Her mission: a society based upon absolute equality. Kat meant to forge a model of society that would manage to defy the central failure of societies world-wide—the gravitational tendency of wealth to concentrate; the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. So, how do you know if a society has attained equality?

Equality in a community is a relationship structured so that no member envies another. Simple. [Equality creates]a general feeling of fairness, a logical first step in the pursuit of happiness.

(Kat in “Journal of a Walden Two Commune,” from “Walden House Newsletter,” Aug, 1966, p. 14)

My attitude to every request for special privilege was always the same: “Why you?” In other words, what is there about you that makes you deserve to have more than other people? …

I was known as a hard-nosed egalitarian, and this is one of the reasons people called me “very idealistic.”

(Kat in Is It Utopia Yet? 1994, p. 46-50)

Kat read the novel, Walden Two, about a fictional utopian society written by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner. She became inspired, and wasted no time gathering a small handful of other idealists who saw this book as a how-to manual for starting an actual utopian community.

Even as those first eight pioneers unloaded their bags from a van in June of 1967, adherents arrived, eager to join, but, over the coming years, the community chose, to Kat’s enduring disappointment, to put new applicants on a wait list, allowing the community to grow only at a modest pace. In a few years, frustrated that her cohorts lacked appropriate enthusiasm for growth, Kat left Twin Oaks and founded East Wind community. Kat Kinkade’s goal was to gather up all of those eager young people seeking community being turned away by Twin Oaks and to quickly grow East Wind to several hundred members. Kat drafted East Wind’s initial policies in order to welcome open membership as a means to spur growth. Kat’s stated ambition was for the community to grow to 1,000 members. Yet, as East Wind stabilized at around fifty or so members, contentiousness escalated. Rather then fostering tolerance, strife from open membership caused the community to change direction, slow growth, and become more selective.

Disappointed yet again, Kat Kinkade left East Wind. Eventually, Kat rejoined Twin Oaks where, twenty years later, as Twin Oaks had a growing wait list, Kat set about starting her third communal experiment, Acorn community, essentially an anti-Twin Oaks, and an anti-East Wind. No longer focused on rapid growth, Acorn would remain small. There would be more commitment to interpersonal connection, less focus on written policy. At Acorn, financial rules would be looser than at Twin Oaks, so people could meet individual needs more easily.

All three communities, Twin Oaks, East Wind, and Acorn continue to thrive today.

Although all founded at different times and having differing premises, among these different communities there are structural commonalities:

–A commitment to financial and political equality among all members—no class divide.

–The structure of the community is a corporation. The corporation owns everything. No individual’s name is on anything—not a house, a plot of land, or even a car—therefore, no one person will control decisions.

–Equity accrues to the community—no draining of communal coffers for personal pay-outs if (when) members leave.

–In case of dissolution of the community, communal assets are not divided up among the members—no temptation to dismember the community once it becomes financially successful.

–Labor is valued equally—no tendency to develop a professional elite. This type of labor ideology also recognizes as valuable work that in other societies is devalued and done by the disempowered—often a racial minority, or women, or immigrants, or children—or all of the above.

–Members accepted on the basis of their ability to work and get along with others—no purchasing membership privileges.

Keenan and Kat

Kat Kinkade and I were, bizarrely, both in the same visitor group at Twin Oaks, applying for membership in 1982. Kat was returning from her stint living “in the wilderness” after leaving East Wind. (The wilderness, in this case, was Boston.) While living at Twin Oaks, Kat did not hold back on expressing her disappointment at the many failures of the community. I was surprised to hear the founder disagreeing with the entire premise of the community that she founded, and where she was living.

Part of my disillusionment came from watching the worst aspects of communism in action. I saw a larger and larger part of the community sitting around on the front steps of the dining hall smoking cigarettes and drinking their wake-up coffee at 11 in the morning, and heard them ridicule as “workaholics” the people who made the money and kept the organization together. There was gross exploitation, but in reverse. The proletariat was exploiting the manager.

Particular personalities are watchdogs to make sure that nobody else gets more than them. I just loathe this trait. So little by little I thought, “This is not merely an ugly trait in a particular individual.” Our rigid equality sanctifies envy. You know what I said when we first started this community back in 1967? I wrote, “Equality in our community is that state in which no one member envies another.

(Kat in Is It Utopia Yet? 1994, p. 87-89)

It took me about seven years and a fair amount of self-examination, as well as observation of the people I lived with, to discover some unsettling things about my equality theory. People will and do work for the common good…when the Community desperately needs to have a great deal of work done in a hurry, it relies about ninety percent on good will, personal conscience, the labor system, and community feeling…if we’re going to get the other ten percent, we need to add an incentive program of some kind, some method by which added effort gets added reward. I have learned that personal gain is, not a stronger motivation than the good of the Community, but a more reliable one. I no longer preach absolute equality. I live…a rough equality that doesn’t create gross differences or engender severe envy. Give people a little chance to serve themselves on the side, and they will give heartily out of their core efforts for the group.

(Kat in Is It Utopia Yet? 1994, p. 46-50)

Kat, in her later years, tried to gently moderate the extreme egalitiarianism embodied in Twin Oaks’ policies—the very policies that, years earlier, she had drafted. Kat, as a community planner, created communal labor budgets that allowed people to write music, articles, books and plays—as well as to perform music and plays. Kat was part of a group that re-worked the labor system to allow more individual flexibility (Members who worked more hours each week would gain more freedom from labor constraints.) Kat established a committee that offered labor and money grants to individual members for their personal hobbies or needs. To allow people to travel, Kat created a seniority-based vacation fund. Kat supported the community in creating an income incentive program that allowed a member or groups of members to work “off the system” for money to fund personal and group projects.

However, Twin Oaks was populated by idealists why had been drawn to Kat’s earlier writings about absolute equality—many had not kept up with Kat’s own evolving ideology. Each of Kat’s proposed “liberalizing” policies was approved only over resistance, or allowed only on a temporary, experimental basis. As Kat lost political influence these policies were re-examined, cut back, or canceled completely. Currently at Twin Oaks, every one of these policies that Kat favored has been undone.

Kat Kinkade eventually just wanted to live on her own. In 2005, at the age of 74, she moved into a small house near Twin Oaks, paid for by her daughter. Soon after that Kat was diagnosed with cancer. In 2007, once she began to seriously decline, Kat moved back to Twin Oaks, and died in July of 2008. Her daughter, Josie, a doctor, said that her Mom received Rolls Royce care those final months at Twin Oaks.

Online these days, uninformed critics of communal living refer to Kat Kinkade as a guru—they paint a fearsome picture of her as a domineering presence. Kat provided leadership, but she did not have the traits typically associated with a guru. She started a new community and, once it was on its feet, she left. By this means, Kat ensured that other leaders emerged, overcoming the problem of “founder’s syndrome.” Kat did not feel threatened when members aspired to leadership, rather, she sought out and encouraged leadership in others. Far from being the keeper of the ideological light, Kat was often critical of whatever community she lived in, this granted space for other members to step forward as the public face of the community. Kat actively disliked acolytes. She gave short shrift to anyone who could not engage in a lively intellectual debate—she was pleased by members who could cogently disagree with her.

Being willing to actually change her mind was the key attribute of Kat’s that allowed her to be so effective. Kat believed in honestly looking at her own beliefs—even deeply held beliefs—to see if they held up in the light of new information. Kat believed in trying things out—experimenting—then examining and accepting the results of those experiments. Because Kat Kinkade grounded her actions and policies in reality-based information, what she created endures—three thriving communities and a thriving communal movement. Thank you, Kat.

Kat Kinkade, the anti-guru: her complex but enduring legacy

Communal Governance

by Raven Glomus

Today seems like an appropriate day to talk about governance.  Not of countries (although I assume there will be many folks thinking about that today) but of communities–specifically, egalitarian income sharing communities, the kind that are in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (aka the FEC).  

The ‘egalitarian’ in both phrases is because not all income-sharing communities (ie, communes) are egalitarian.  There are income-sharing groups (mostly spiritual communities) that have a guru or bishop or abbot or some other leader who makes most of the decisions for the community.  Egalitarian communities have some sort of ‘horizontal’ governance structure where most to all members have a say in decisions.

That having been said, there are a variety of decision structures in the communes that I am familiar with.  The older, larger communities (Twin Oaks and East Wind) have unusual structures, where most of the newer, smaller communes (like Acorn and Glomus) use consensus decision making.

The FEC only requires of its communities that  a community “Uses a form of decision making in which members have an equal opportunity to participate, either through consensus, direct vote, or right of appeal or overrule.”

I have written about how consensus works.  I’ve also written about when it’s better to use it or not.  My summary of that last article is that consensus works better in small, somewhat homogeneous groups.  For a small commune (including Acorn, which has thirty folks) I think that consensus is the way to go.  Twin Oaks and East Wind are older and larger and don’t use consensus.

Twin Oaks, 1987

Twin Oaks has a very complex decision-making structure that involves their planner/manager structures, their O&I board, and their policies.  Paxus and Keenan, who both live at Twin Oaks, have written about how Twin Oaks governs and they can explain it better than I ever could.

The East Wind community has a whole page on its website devoted to Self-Governance.  It’s worth reading because, like Twin Oaks, their governance structure is complex.  One of the statements on that page is “Our bylaws set forth our purposes, direction, ideology, define the rights and obligations of membership, and state the guarantees made by the community to its members. The bylaws allow for experimentation and are intentionally minimal in their restrictions. The bylaws can be amended in any manner desirable with a two thirds majority vote of full members. The bylaws state that East Wind may ‘govern itself by any reasonable means which its members desire.’ We encourage those who are interested in visiting East Wind to read our bylaws in full.”  It goes on to discuss several other decision making structures, including “Legispol” which is something that I’ve heard East Winders talk about and wouldn’t say I had any real understanding of.

East Wind folks, 2016

For the Fourth of July last year, Theresa wrote a Facebook post that pointed out while communities claim to strive to have all voices be heard, there are barriers, often, to that happening, particularly for people of color or folks coming from other classes or cultures.  This will probably mean changes in our way of governance.

I have claimed that communities are laboratories for social change.  I think that we are places where we can experiment with new methods of governance, and today, as the US changes its government and, perhaps, tries to improve some things, it might be good to look at other ways of governance for society as well as for communities.  

It’s not that I think that you could run a whole countries could be run by consensus (although there are forms of consensus that I think could work with larger groups–I heard of a situation where over a thousand anti-nuke activists needed to agree to an arrest plea and were able to do that using something called small group to large group consensus) and I even suspect that you couldn’t run a country using sociocracy, but I think that we need to look at ways to decentralize power, and I think that the communes are at the forefront of that.

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Communal Governance

Come Hell or High Water

by Raven Glomus

The two previous book reviews this week (books on sustainable community and collaborative groups) focused on books written about how to do collaborations (including communes and communities) well.  Today I want to review a book about what not to do.  It’s called Come Hell or High Water and is subtitled “a handbook on collective process gone awry”.  It’s published by AK press–“one of the world’s largest and most productive anarchist publishing houses”–that also publishes a bunch of other interesting books (including adrienne maree brown’s book on Emergent Strategy which I based two blog posts here on).

As the cover illustrates, this is a funny, cynical book that has a bunch of cartoons illustrating some frustrating problems.  It also has a lot of hard won lessons about how all these wonderful processes that we talk about here and which other commune building guides extol can go terribly wrong.  It’s written by a couple of anarchists who believe strongly in “egalitarian collectives” but have seen the pitfalls in the process and have looked at ways that form what the authors term “predictable patterns” that can lead well-meaning groups to things like “hierarchy, mistrust, looking out only for oneself, and sometimes even underhanded scheming.”  

Although this is a modest sized book (and a quick read–127 small pages) Delfina Vannuchi and Richard Singer look carefully at issues like misusing consensus, how not to do power sharing, the difference between politeness and kindness, character assassinations and banning, justice and due process and free speech, and how vagueness can lead to authoritarianism.

I’ve seen reviews of this book that complain that this book is overly ‘pessimistic’.  However, I think that it provides a nice counterbalance to all the books on the wonderful things you can do with group process.  (See my two previous reviews this week.)  The cartoons are also a nice touch that makes the emphasis on problems easier to take.

The authors end the book with a section that they entitle “There’s hope” where they talk about how “Virtually all problems in collectives can be overcome by applying compassion, and by being thorough and even-handed in our thinking.”  Sounds lovely but not easy to do, especially when things are tough.  

Here’s the last paragraph in the book, which is a nice summary of their thinking:

“An egalitarian collective is meant to accept and incorporate differences and heterogeneity.  The task is to create a productive, relatively peaceful community out of all the different and sometimes contradictory personalities that form the group.  No collective will ever be a perfect picture of unity, but it doesn’t have to be.  A working collective is more like a crazy-quilt of disparate styles, all stitched up by a common thread.  Frayed edges and all, that’s what a functional egalitarian collective looks like.”

It’s a nice reminder for people living in or trying to build 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! 

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NorthernSoul Truelove

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Twin Oaks

Warren Kunce

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Come Hell or High Water

Consensus–Pro and Con

by Raven Glomus

I am always trying to think of provocative questions to write on our Facebook page. (It’s the nature of the beast–provocative questions generate more comments.) I started thinking about consensus. While I, personally, am a fan, I also know there are people who don’t think that it works. This is the question that I wrote on Facebook:

I got nine comments, which wasn’t bad–and over three hundred folks looked at it, so I would say that it did fairly well.

Here are the comments that we received. As you can see, people had feelings.

I will add that I have seen consensus work and suspect that when it doesn’t, it’s usually because it isn’t being done right–or folks are trying to use it to get advantage–or both.

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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 patron communards:

 Aaron Michels

Brenda Thompson

Cathy Loyd

Colby Baez

Heather

Janey Amend-Bombara

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Kathleen Brooks

Lynette Shaw

Magda schonfeld

Michael Hobson

Montana Goodman

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NorthernSoul Truelove

Oesten Nelson

Peter Chinman

Raines Cohen

Sasha Daucus

Suzi Tortora

Tobin Moore

Twin Oaks

Warren Kunce

William Croft

William Kadish

William Scarborough

Thanks! 

Consensus–Pro and Con

It’s about Relationships

by Raven Glomus

I’m into systems theory, which I see as related to community since I see communities as systems.  One way I introduce systems is by asking the questions: What is the difference between a pile of rocks and the solar system?  What is the difference between a random group of people on an office skyscraper elevator and an intentional community?  The answer is basically about relationships and connections.

The planets in the solar system affect one another by means of gravity–literally pulling on one another.  A couple of the planets were found by astronomers because their gravity was affecting the orbit of another planet.  They are literally in relationship to each other.

Communities are truly all about relationships.  There is no community without relationships.  I will repeat that.  There is no community without relationships.  It’s surprising but many people don’t seem to know that.  You can have lots of lovely buildings, all sorts of eco-friendly technology, and plenty of people, you can design what might seem to be the perfect community, but without working on building and maintaining relationships, there will be no lasting community.

Unfortunately, building and maintaining relationships is hard work.  It takes time and commitment and lots of effort.  There is no easy answer about how to do it, but probably the most important thing that you can do is to commit to staying with the relationships and staying with people.  

Getting lots of support for yourself is also very important.  Find people outside the community that you can talk with about what’s going on.  Thinking with someone outside of the community who will just listen to you, who will help you when you need to have difficult conversations with community members. You don’t need advice, you just need a neutral person to think with.

The next most important skill is being able to listen.  Stephen Covey states it as “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  Learn all that you can about consensus decision making ( or sociocracy or some other decision making process) and conflict resolution. Finally, don’t be afraid to bring in outside mediators if things get stuck.  

The point isn’t to win all the arguments or make sure that the community goes in one direction or another, the point is to make everyone in the community feel heard and taken care of.  More than anything else in community (and there is a lot else) relationships matter.  If you can keep all the relationships in the community strong and healthy, the community will, most likely, be strong and happy.

I am not saying that you don’t need to worry about finances or the goals of the community or your infrastructure, but I am saying that these are things that the community needs to deal with together, and the better the relationships are in the community, the easier it will be to deal with all the problems that you encounter.

It’s about Relationships

Declaration

On July 4th, Theresa posted her declaration of how communes need to be governed:

I think it was a great little post and it got a lot of views, but only one comment, and that was on the original Declaration of Independence:

I will add that I, Raven, also believe that more voices need to be heard, especially if we want to create communities that really challenge the status quo rather than just being comfortable places for white, middle-class folks to live in.

Declaration

When Does Consensus Work?

by Raven Glomus

I have long been a subscriber to Communities magazine.  In Issue #155, way back in the Summer of 2012, Diana Leafe Christian wrote an article that started a multi-year, back-and-forth disagreement that played out in the pages of the magazine.  It was called “Busting the Myth that Consensus-with-Unanimity Is Good for Communities Part I”.  Consensus consultants Laird Schaub, Ma’ikwe Schaub Ludwig, and Tree Bressen were apparently shown the article before publication and wrote responses that were published in the same issue.  The cycle of articles and responses played out over several issues spanning a couple of years before Diana settled down into writing articles about how sociocracy works.

I have a memory that in the last article before she moved on, she wrote what I will call a ‘truce’ piece. (Although maybe I imagined this article because I can’t find it in my collection of Communities and didn’t see it in the online collection.)  What I recall is that, after there were many stories of consensus working published, she admitted that consensus could work under certain circumstances.  And even if that article was only in my imagination, she sort of said something similar in her very first article when she pointed out that consensus consultant Tim Hartnett noted that “the smaller and more homogeneous the group, the easier it is to reach agreement using consensus-with-unanimity”.

Basically, I think that the reason Diana Leafe Christian knew of so many communities that were having trouble with consensus is that most, if not all of them, were large, diverse cohousing and/or ecovillage groups. I know of many communities that have used consensus for years with little difficulty, but these have almost always been either small communes or co-op houses.

Consensus, in many ways, requires a large degree of trust among the participants and it needs folks who have deep commitments to shared principles.  Especially since one of the few reasons that you can block a decision is when it violates a community’s core principles, you need to have people who share a commitment to and understanding of those principles.

As Diana Leafe Christian points out in a later article (“Consensus and the Burden of Added Process”, in Communities Issue #158, Spring 2013) there are lots of people who didn’t come to community (especially cohousing or ecovillage community) to build deep connections with others and don’t want to spend lots of time doing process.  Folks in these communities often joined for things like neighborliness or to live more ecologically or sustainably. Consensus works far better in a group that is committed to working through process with each other.

I believe strongly in consensus decision making and I have been advocating that we use it in our community, Glomus Commune.  However, I am not a believer that any method works for everyone or every community.  

I don’t have a real problem with sociocracy, for example, although I wouldn’t say that I completely understand  it. I do know that Ms. Christian advocates sociocracy for better decision making and when I studied it, one guide said to start by creating a couple of circles in your group and then find a way to intersect them.  A circle, apparently, should consist of about six people. However, when your whole community consists of six people, it seems hard to imagine creating two separate circles. It seems that sociocracy works better with larger communities.

In summary, I believe that if you have a small commune or co-op house, that is based on some shared principles, consensus decision making may work very well for your group.  I am certainly not saying that it’s the best thing for every community.

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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! 

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Thanks! 

When Does Consensus Work?

Consensus 101

by Raven Glomus

One of my commune mates asked me to write this in preparation for work that we are doing on our decision making process. This is just the basics of achieving consensus. There are nuances you learn as you go along.

Consensus is a process of discernment, involving listening to each person that is affected, in order to reach a decision that everyone agrees with or, at minimum, can live with. Consensus doesn’t necessarily mean total agreement, but it means everyone’s concerns must be heard and everyone must feel that they can abide by the decision.

The first step in the consensus process is that someone brings a proposal to a meeting.  The proposal is discussed and concerns are heard. The proposal is usually modified to meet the concerns.

Eventually, when it feels like the proposal has reached a point where most people’s concerns have been addressed, there is a call for consensus.  There are three possible responses that can be made: agreeing, standing aside, or blocking.  

Agreement means that you are in favor of the proposal as it is by the time it has gone through the process or at least can go along with it.  

Standing aside means that you still have concerns but you are willing for the process to go forward.  Usually the concerns of those standing aside are noted. If more than one or two people feel that they need to stand aside, it is usually a sign that consensus hasn’t been reached and the proposal may need to be further modified.

Blocking is a way that any person can stop the decision from being made.  Blocking is very serious and should only be done for principled reasons. Caroline Estes (a consensus teacher) claims that if you have blocked for six times, you have used up your lifetime quota. If a person continually threatens to block decisions, that is usually a sign that the person probably shouldn’t be part of the group, since they disagree so strongly with everything.

Generally it is said that blocking can only legitimately be done for two reasons: the proposal goes against the basic principles of the group or the blocker believes that the proposal going through would destroy the group.  I will add a third reason that only occurs during a membership process: that you feel that you would not be able to live with the person applying for membership. 

Consensus has been the decision process at Acorn for many years, is usually used by the Federation of Egalitarian Communities in their meetings, and has been used or considered by many other communes.  Glomus Commune is now considering it as our method of decision making.

Two resources for more information about consensus are: On Conflict and Consensus by C. T. Lawrence Butler and Amy Rothstein and ”Consensus Basics” by Tree Bressen.

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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

  • Compersia Community
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  • Brenda Thompson
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  • Cathy Loyd
  • Em Stiles
  • Jenn Morgan
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  • Jonathan Thaler
  • Joseph A Klatt
  • Julia Elizabeth Evans
  • Kai Koru
  • Kathleen Brooks
  • Laurel Baez
  • Lynette Shaw
  • Magda Schonfeld
  • Michael Hobson
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  • Peter Chinman 
  • Raines Cohen 
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  • Tobin Moore
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  • William Croft
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Thanks! 

Consensus 101

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