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 Is the policy totally outdated?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.

____________________________________________________________________________

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

____________________________________________________________________________

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?

We Build Community by Building Community

By Thumbs  from Cambia

“Work is love made visible”

                          The Prophet, Khalil Gibran

           This Spring a team of colorful communard builders convened for a secular barn raising.  Even though everyone came for different personal reasons, the shared goal was clear, make an old sheep barn more hospitable for commune members.  One would assume that a simple, tangible goal would lead to a predictable week, but jumping to that conclusion would skip all the flying fish and cornucopia of magic that happened in-between.

           Within the Federation for Egalitarian Communities (F.E.C.) this type of trip is called a LEX, and it’ as culturally far from the norm as East Brook is from any major city.  With each turn down another unmarked country road, you are taking another deviation from the cultural norms around work, leadership, and purpose. Officially a LEX, short for Labor Exchange, is a time based currency used between participating members of the F.E.C. through which community members can help their fellow communities, and expect equitable hourly return of help at their own community   Yet, the culture of LEX goes far beyond any quantifiable market exchange, and unlocks a culture of radical generosity that questions cultural norms most people take for granted.

           While driving down Country Highway 22, the first intersection I had to make a turn at was “Construction projects need clear blueprints in order to be productive.”  It seemed obvious that would be a right turn, but I was wrong. On the first day of the build, the travel weary crew was introduced to a small warehouse of materials and an even smaller dilapidated barn, with the general guiding principle being, “The more of these new building materials that we can refurbish the old dilapidated barn with, the closer we will be housing more communards.” One week later 1,000 square feet of insulated flooring was installed, two new walls were built, two doors were installed, and the ceiling was made watertight with a glistening new roof, and yet I didn’t see a single blueprint drawn.  Not even a back of the envelope sketch was made. This whole project was a streaming interplay of experimentation, action, teaching and rethinking.

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Snowing on the last day of April, normal doesn’t happen at East Brook Farm (from left Nina, Rebecca, Ananda, Rachel, Skylar, Keenan, Becky, Thumbs, Mittens, Denise)

          The next crossing on the road was across the train of thinking that says “successful projects need leaders”, which I expected to be a mandatory stopping point, but instead we rolled right passed it.  While gaining labor credits through LEX was a periphery benefit to some of the builders, the majority of us came with the intention to gain more confidence in our building skills. Keenan and Nina have decades more building experience than the rest of us, but I’d be surprise if an observer would have been able to discern this.  Both of them held space for learning in the egoless way a graceful mentor let’s you flourish in the skills you already have while opening the door for you to lean into your learning edge. It wasn’t that we were leaderless, but more accurately it was that each of us lead ourselves to show up the responsibilities we could fearlessly accomplish.

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Step aside patriarchal norms of men leading construction, this is an egalitarian team of communards (from left Becky, Mittens, and Nina)

            Now that the previous turns had lead me to unfamiliar territory I knew to turn the other direction when I arrived at the assumption that “efficient productivity needs schedules”.  One of the experiences of commune culture that has profoundly changed my life is the experience of abundant food, beauty and friendship without the sweaty palm anxiety of fiscal scarcity putting you a couple paychecks away from being homeless.  This separation of work from pure fiscal survival, to making work a voluntary choice to celebrate ones gifts within their chosen commune family, is rarely more alive than at a LEX build. From 6 a.m. till 7:30 p.m. there was a steady stream of workers gracefully picking up the hammer where the last person left off.  Slipping away for a nap or meandering down to the stream to get lost in the glistening water where so common that announcing you were taking a break felt unnecessarily formal. We all trusted that everyone was giving as much as they felt called to, and our love for each other dwarfed the importance of renovating a barn, so we skipped planning our day in the morning, and instead celebrated our accomplishments in the evening.

EBCF Last Nail Dance Party
Mandatory dance party initiated by Becky after the last screw of the floor was finished! (from left Becky, Thumbs, Nina, and Keenan)

            I knew I was close to my destination when I was faced with the assumption that “hot tubs are expensive indulgences for wealthy people” and I turned the other direction to arrive at East Brook.  Communes tend to be wealthy in “resource yards”, sometimes called junk piles by other Americans, which are often stocked with a variety of metal tubs. These bulky containers are as hard to find a use for as they are to get rid of, so they tend to become vernal pools for mosquitoes.  However a few of us had experience turning these treasures into fire heated hot tubs, lovingly referred to as Hippy Stew pots. With juvenile enthusiasm we tinkered and toiled until the old barn was outfitted with the makings of a hot tub. Granted it took a few kettles of water boiled in the kitchen to nudge the temperature up to the point of indulgence, but the sensation of winning at life was authentic.

 

EBCF Tractor and Hot Tub
Moving the insulated cow trough into position to be the new Hippy Stew pot! (from left Skylar, Keenan, Thumbs, Ananda, and Grant)

          Now that all my assumptions on people’s relationship with work had been inverted, I was hardly surprised when fish began raining from the sky.  We were cautiously enjoying a hot afternoon, after a couple days of snow in late April left us suspicious of the order of the seasons, when an epic toil of prehistoric ferocity began in the sky above us.  An osprey resolutely clutching a fresh fish catch from the adjacent brook was blindsided by an eagle that mistook the osprey for a food delivery service. The two toiled hundreds of feet above the ground, claws and feathers rolling through the sky in defiance of gravity, until the still squirming fish slid out from the talons and came plummeting towards us.  With a crash it landed gasping for water on the metal roof. Maximus and Rachael swiftly collected, gutted and fried it. That night I ate flying fish, and when I tasted it, I realized that to be abundantly wealthy is to be grateful for all that I have already been given.

 

EBCF Sky Fish Fry
The bounty of East Brook feed our souls in so many ways!

 

We Build Community by Building Community

Is Gossip the Fabric of Community?

By Paxus Calta-Star

I co-moderate a large diverse facebook group on intentional communities.  Recently someone posted:

Gossip gets embellished as it travels. Things heard second hand should be verified with the speaker. Beware words taken out of context, even if the context is the room next door. Good communities practice all that.

While this is true as far as it goes, it misses the tremendous complexity around the issue of gossip and how important it is to both the culture and success of a community venture.

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What is gossip?  It is certainly more than an opinion expressed about someone who is not in the room.  “Trump is a misogynist racist,” isn’t gossip, unless you are close to him.  It is just an opinion.  “Cindy is gifted at fixing cars,” almost certainly does not qualify either, as most people think gossip is a negative opinion.

“Paxus is a poor driver.” What if this is something I have said myself and you are simply repeating it?  Is it gossip if the target is the source?

 

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They did what?

Let me propose a harsher definition: Gossip is a critical judgment shared about a person or group, often in conspiratorial or secretive tones, while not directly communicating with the subject of the gossip.

Using this definition one might reasonably be concerned that gossip would have an acidic effect on the fabric of the community.  One of the common anti-gossip norms that exist in the communes is if you hear something critical about someone you could ask, “Have you told this to them?”  This is the antidote to gossip; being transparent with the subject of the rumor.

 

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Back in the 80s, as I was just becoming aware of community living, when I was making a critical comment about gossip, my dear friend and mentor Crystal replied “Gossip is the fabric of the community,” and it took me a couple of decades to understand what he was talking about.

Even when using the negative it turns out gossip is important for a community to be healthy.  Members need to confide in confidants about their frustration with others in the community.  Ideally, this is less about spreading rumors and more about seeking advice.  “How do I deal with this headachy circumstance?”  or “Do you understand their motivations for this strange behavior?” or “I was so upset and they were clueless, what is really happening here?”

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In the best light, gossip is the flow of self-critical and self-correcting messages which members share in the lead up to actually addressing the problems.  [Where the “self” here is the larger collective one, rather than the individual personal one.]  You talk about things which are on your mind with the people who you live with and they help you reflect back on what you should do about it.  Recognizing that if you are being critical of another member of your community, you are obligated to get back to them with your concern.

In this way, gossip within a community is different from what happens in the mainstream.  If I am being critical or concerned about another member, I have a larger obligation to do something about it than I do if it is a co-worker or random stranger.  If you have a substance abuse problem and we live collectively, not only can it blow back on me in a problematic way, but I have made some level of commitment to take care of you.  If we are part of the same intentional community and I am worried about your mental health, I can’t casually gripe about it to another member, we have to be considering what our course of action is regarding this problem.  Even less dramatic problems other members are experiencing a poor choice of romantic partners or headache with a boss are much more shared in a community setting than when living independently.  Gossip in community has more obligation to it.

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It is worth pointing out that Twin Oaks does not embrace this culture.  In my large commune, if you don’t want to deal with someone you can completely shut down communication with them.  This is terrible for clearing gossip but might make it possible for some people who really do not see eye to eye to be able to live together.  And because the community is so large these estranged members (including me) just try to avoid each other.

It is worth pointing out that when ex-Oakers founded Acorn with financial assistance from Twin Oaks, this was one of the most important things they wanted to do differently.  Acorn (and many other communes) have a communication covenant which makes it the community’s business when members are failing to communicate.  When you are designing communities one of the thorniest issues is when do you give power to the collective over the individual members.  And gossip is one of the few places you should seriously consider it.

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Is Gossip the Fabric of Community?