Power Dynamics in the Communes

by Raven

I found a book in the library called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.  It was focused on business executive teams, but I found a lot of it applicable to communities.  His five dysfunctions were Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. To put it in positive language, I would say that in creating a team or a community you need to build trust, be willing to disagree, be able to make commitments, and also be held accountable, before you can achieve results.

A friend of mine pointed out that every group, including communities, has to deal with power dynamics. It may be especially true in the commune world.

I have written about how a new community with an aggressive, dominant man at the core will often fail to grow. In December, with the MeToo movement in the news, we published a series of articles about how communes and communities need to deal with the problem of abusive men among us.  While sexual abuse and harassment are the worst examples and have been what has been featured in the media, there is also a strong problem of men (generally white men) dominating discussions, and often ignoring or disregarding the contributions of women and people of color–or, worse yet, claiming those contributions and taking credit for them.  (Full disclosure, I am a white man.)

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If we want to build diverse, inclusive communities, we need to deal with these dynamics. We need to deal with anyone dominating conversations, and ignoring or disregarding the contributions of others.   While white men are the prime offenders, we need to call out anyone with these behaviors. And it’s not just women and people of color who get trampled on, but queerfolk, people with disabilities, and working class and poor people. In fact, the whole community is often being trampled on.

To return to what I began with, when you have a person or a few people dominating in a community, it’s impossible to build real trust.   People become afraid to disagree with these folks and have no desire to give real commitments to the community.  Accountability is at least difficult, if not impossible, under these circumstances, and what results happen are usually not what the group wants.

Patrick Lencioni claims that what gets in the way of teams achieving results is a focus on people’s status and ego.  Well functioning teams do not have stars; they have a group of people willing to listen to each other and work together.  If that’s true in the business world, how much more so with communes.  Having dominating people makes true community impossible.

Power definition

Changing all this is not easy.  If you are dealing with strong people, you will probably need a cohesive group to confront them.  The more the group can be clear about what it wants and needs, the better the chances of getting it.  And that goes back to the need to build trust among this group.

It’s difficult work, but if our communes are going to be truly egalitarian, it’s work that needs to be done.

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Power Dynamics in the Communes

WE ARE NOT SELLING A PRODUCT

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A few days ago several people sent me this article about co-living in New York City. Co-living came to national attention a year and a half ago when co-living groups in the San Francisco bay area, like the Embassy and Campus networks and Open Door Development, got a flurry of press attention (herethere, and elsewhere).

I spent some time trying to reach out to the folks mentioned in the story and am still unclear about whether the stories described a genuinely new thing (communal living updated for the networked age) or simply an old thing (group houses) with good branding and fancy websites made by people whose success in life depends on their ability to cast what they’re doing as innovative and disruptive. The label encompassed diverse assortment of houses, networks, and projects that sometimes shared little in common aside from a demographic and not all of whom were aware that they were being labeled as “co-living” spaces.

It was an interesting development of ambiguous meaning that I’ve continued to keep an eye on and occasionally try to research further. At best they could harbor some innovative ideas on how to adapt collective cooperative living to the modern networked age, its technology, its economy, and its culture. At worst, it was group houses for the techie crowd and its aspiring capitalists. Harmless enough.

The recent story in the New York Times highlights a different model, though, and raises different worries.

The article describes several attempts, mostly in New York, to commodify the group living experience, in one case by a single landlord but in others by corporations. The whole thing strikes me as a quixotic recuperative attempt by capitalism.

Much has been written about the ways that capitalism and consumerism, sometimes accidentally and sometimes intentionally, leads to isolation, alienation, the destruction of community, and the impoverishment of meaning. Because of this we have been, for some time but especially recently, in the midst of a realization of the value of what has been lost and a mass attempt to recapture it. The longing for community, authenticity, and meaning has spawned, in whole or in part, the back to the land movement, the local food movement, intentional communities of all stripes, foodies generally, the tiny house movement. Sometimes this quest for meaning and connection has led to radical departures from and alternatives to capitalism. Sometimes it has led down a path of quick recuperation with capital once again creating spectacles and commodities that promise community, connection, and meaning.

The problem, of course, is that capitalism is structurally incapable of fulfilling these very human needs. Community is the result of a web of relationships and arises where people have some common context or experience choose to enter into relationship with each other as equals. Hierarchies and inequalities make free and authentic relating nearly impossible. It is a deeply and essentially democratic process and simply cannot be enforced from above or outside and thus cannot be packaged and sold. Meaning, similarly, is something that can only be generated by a person through experiences that are important to them. Objects themselves have no inherent meaning or authenticity. Those qualities are imparted by the relationships that they take part in. You can no more buy meaning than you can buy love.

co_living-cartoon-300x169The New York City Co-Living projects profiled in the article are trying to take something essentially internal and induce it from outside. They promise that through them you can buy satisfying friendships and meaningful experiences. But they can only awkwardly ape the results that cooperative communities achieve spontaneously. Their communities are doomed to be hollow simulacra with all the appearance of a cooperative community of peers but none of the guts that actually make it work. Should a genuine community arise it will be a happy accident and would exist in an awkward tension with the profit driven owners who were not responsible for it but will try always to charge for it (a commonplace strategy of the networked age).

Although in a way I am happy for him, the story of the chef who moved into a Pure House property and describes how satisfying it is that people ask him how his day was when he gets home makes me sad. He has to pay $2400 or more per month to get friends to live with. And even those friends, so dearly bought, do not stay.

The whole idea presented in this article reminds me of a management handbook I once read. It began by explaining how study after study and anecdote after anecdote showed that morale was better, productivity was higher, absenteeism was rarer, and creativity and effort flowed in abundance when workers on a project felt like equal partners, felt like they had real agency and freedom, basically when they felt empowered. It then went on to suggest ways to trick your employees into thinking they were equal empowered partners without actually changing any of the fundamental power dynamics in the corporation.

income sharing venn diagramThe idea of a cooperative community of equals is an incomprehensible absurdity to capitalism because it exists outside of the profit-seeking and individualist paradigm. There is no way to understand it within those paradigms. To attempt to privatize, systematize, and commodify such a thing is to destroy it.

They are doomed.

WE ARE NOT SELLING A PRODUCT

Feminist Think Tank: Past and Future

from The Leaves of Twin Oaks, Spring 2017

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The Feminist Think Tank (FTT) group at Twin Oaks began in fall of 2015 in response to concerns about inter-community boundary-crossing issues. It’s gone through some changes since then and has recently re-formed. Originally, our process team was tasked with looking at the sexual assault and harassment response policy and organized a focus group meeting of women to help guide the process. This group continued to meet and ended up discussing all sorts of feminist issues at twin oaks, gradually inviting some gender-non-conforming folks and men to attend every other meeting. Over time, the group became more focused on events and activism in the community.

In our first year, we accomplished many things:

  • movie showing
  • play reading
  • two consent workshops
  • feminist dance party
  • feminist creek walk
  • reviving monthly women’s tea for female visitors
  • two men’s meetings
  • women’s (and mixed) tool-using workshops
  • introducing the values oreo to the visitor program
  • supporting racial justice at the Women’s Gathering
  • supporting the “visiting our visions” program
  • supporting the zine discussion group
  • publishing an article in geez magazine about living and working together in community despite having differing individual philosophies of feminism
  • sparking conversations with other communards
  • ftt e-mail list to share additional resources, articles, etc
  • bringing together folks from different social circles
  • helping to increase focus on the bylaws on a community-wide scale

As with many regular meetings at Twin Oaks, the original group dwindled in attendance over time due to a variety of reasons (people leaving the community, scheduling conflicts, general attrition, interpersonal conflicts, political differences, etc) and so we decided to revamp the group this past fall 2016. The new incarnation of FTT now meets every two weeks and is open to anyone of any gender who:

  1. Acknowledges the patriarchy exists
  2. Identifies as a feminist or feminist ally, and
  3. Recognizes that patriarchy is at play at Twin Oaks and wants to do something about it

Since re-forming the group, we’ve organized another two consent workshops prior to the 2017 New Year’s Eve party, designed and distributed fingerbooks about consent expectations for the New Year’s Eve party, had several folks participate in the Women’s March on Washington, and have continued to discuss our sexual assault and harassment response policy.

Ideas we have for the future include a consent tea party, consent fingerbook for Validation Day, increasing men’s support around the Women’s Gathering, more feminism 101 programming and educational opportunities, better bridging of issues between Twin Oaks and the outside world, doing more outside activism in order to gain connections and resources, re-inserting Twin Oaks into radical circles, dealing with the perception gap between how men and women see feminism at twin oaks, a feminist discussion group, and more. While Twin Oaks is certainly less sexist than mainstream society, we’re definitely “not utopia yet” and need to continuously strive to improve our culture at twin oaks and the world at large.

FemTO2

Feminist Think Tank: Past and Future

What’s Egalitarian?

by Raven MoonRaven

This blog focuses on egalitarian, income-sharing communities, also known as communes.  Several weeks back I put out a piece called “Why Income Sharing?”  This might be considered a companion piece, exploring the egalitarian nature of the communes.

The Oxford Dictionary defines Egalitarian as meaning: “Believing in or based on the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.”

For the way the communes structure themselves, the opposite of egalitarian is hierarchical.  Most businesses and religions are organized in a hierarchical way–where the leaders have leaders and the bosses have bosses.  Cooperative businesses are one big exception to this.  I also think it’s interesting to note that there are a few very egalitarian religions–that is, religions without hierarchical leadership:  some forms of Quakers, the Chavurah movement, and the Reclaiming pagans.  (I’m personally curious to hear of other egalitarian religious groups.)

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Many intentional communities define themselves as egalitarian: almost all co-op households and many ecovillages and cohousing communities.  The reason that the communes that we talk about on this blog use the term egalitarian is that there are many hierarchical income sharing communities, where there are leaders or gurus who decide how to manage the money.  (Unfortunately, these are also known as communes.)  The Federation of Egalitarian Communities  in the US was specifically set up to support secular, egalitarian income-sharing communities, as opposed to hierarchical, religious communes.

How egalitarian are the communes in the FEC?

Twin Oaks is the community that some people wonder about.  They have planners and managers and make decisions by a type of voting (many of the newer communities have none of these things and make decisions by consensus).  There are folks who wonder if the planners run the community–aren’t they in charge and don’t they have the power?

But planners can only be in the position for eighteen months (hardly gurus running the place) and what’s more, their power is limited by the Twin Oaks membership.  And since they, themselves, are members of the community and live with, work with, and eat with everyone else (as do the managers) they find themselves very beholden to the community.  They constantly read what people write on the O & I board and pay attention carefully to what members think.  An unpopular decision can have pretty bad consequences.  I heard one story about a planner who after making a membership decision that many people disliked, was run out of the dining room by a member who was upset by the decision and wanted to make it very clear.  This makes it difficult to find people who want to be planners.  And apparently, recently Twin Oaks ended up (at least temporarily) without any planners.

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Similarly with managers.  Folks at Twin Oaks point out that most people work in a lot of different areas and people who are managers in one area are just workers in another.  It can happen that in the morning person A will be the manager in an area that person B is working in and in the afternoon person B will be the manager in another area that person A happens to be working in.

And, again, Twin Oaks is the most structured of the communes, the only one with planners and one of the few with managers.  In most of the communes, it’s just a group of people living together, sharing income, and often working together. In the communes, leadership is just something people do, not a position.

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So my point is that the communes on this blog not only share money, but they share leadership.  That’s what’s egalitarian about them.

What’s Egalitarian?