Community lifecycle

by Gil Cambia

Intentional communities are a strange creature, they can be only as strong as their weakest link, but in other ways they could be greater than the average or even the sum of their parts. I’m referring to the various ways of decision making / agenda setting in a community. At least in theory, the larger the community the greater range of ideas and knowledge and therefore the greater possibilities for excellence. However, I think it mostly depends on the age of the community both in physical years, and in spirit, and not necessarily the share number of members.

When Cric House was a young community, just like a young child, it was very playful, spontaneous, social, optimistic and even adventurous.

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It wasn’t very coordinated, organized, or thoughtful, even though many of its members, individually were much more “together”, the “super organism” that it created was clearly young.

We just loved doing shit together. Didn’t matter what it was. We invited tons of wwoofers and interns, and could not even tell the difference between work and play. Everything was fun and exciting. When money was needed, we found ways to make money, when work was needed we all got together to make it happen.

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But of course this phase didn’t last, Cric house got older and grumpier, lost much vibrancy and adventure. Though its earning potential and resources increased, the willingness of the members to give to the commons had shrunk in both social, monetary, and even artistic ways.

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In the same ways that kittens sleep in a pile but older cats just want alone time, the energy of a community can be young and compel its members, regardless of age, to need less personal space or autonomy, and more interaction and group expression.

Cambia community is only 2 years old. Some could say that it hasn’t fully been born yet because we have not had consistent membership. That is completely fair and I can’t argue against that, but still, at Cambia we adopt much more adventurous measures than some of the older communities.

We are currently known for the community that has a boat that won’t float.

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It’s kinda crazy, right? It was a huge project to get it here, to cut the lead keel, to build a deck for it, figure out the solar-electric and water system, and now we are thinking about how we are going to erect a mast and set up a windmill and a zip line from it. So it’s extra crazy, right?

Why does a small struggling community that has so little money, labor, or other resources invest in such a challenging form of housing? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to get a used camper or a single-wide trailer with some water damage for cheap?

Why spend so much work building a pond instead of a doughboy pool with some bleach from the dollar store?

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Why build a barn out of live-edge lumber instead of painted OSB? Now that’s really insane. Not just the cost, but the fact that every piece has to be chosen and cut to size. We also didn’t get a bushhog to carve a path into the forest, instead we went with hand-clippers and worked for hours on what a machine would do in a few minutes.   Furthermore, we continue to have to maintain such paths with the same slow tools that made it.

So the explanation for this insanity has to do with our age again. We are in some kind of teenage phase.  It’s a phase where we have to wear our identity externally so to communicate it with the world as well as internalize it more thoroughly.

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This is also analogous to cultural development. In small tribal societies, all over the world, it might seem to us as if a disproportionate amount of effort is spend on wearing one’s identity.

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It is completely natural and maybe even healthy to be in this phase, but when some people from Twin Oaks community came to visit, they were rather bewildered; we were asked “how are you guys able to accomplish so much when you have so little?” a more cynical questions could be: “why are some under-developed cultures wasting so much time on non-pragmatic things?”

So there is one other part to this answer that goes beyond identity expression: in a small community, there is a greater chance of people saying “yes!” to someone’s crazy idea. That craziness could be art, it could be environmentalist ideology, it could be implementing a new ritual, and it could even be a financially risky move.

In older communities there seems to be much more caution and pragmatism. Much more of an institutional memory of all the ways and which things have gone poorly before when people were irresponsible. But there is also something even deeper than that: there are disappointments and grief that simply don’t get worked out, they are old scars that never heal, and they manifest in the unwillingness to rejoice in someone else’s party, because one’s own party didn’t go so well.

So communities end up recapitulating the normal biological processes of aging by turning every injury into chronic muscle tightness around it. With age, flexibility is reduced and tensions increase, certain routine ways of doing things turn into deep grooves of wrinkles, and a general tiredness sets in.

This doesn’t mean death. And even death doesn’t mean death because communities keep on being reborn all the time. And members of community X that may have been grumpy and conservative might become much more liberal and open when they move to community Y after it falls apart.

But I’m not sure this is actually always true, and I’m even less sure that its inevitable. In the same way that tribal cultures and religions can be thousands of years old but maintain elements of inspiration and vibrancy rather than cold pragmatism, there must be a way for communities to be able to pursue this quality. By analogy, there are endless anti-aging products, services, and exercises out there. We need to figure out how to be able to apply these to community to keep it thriving longer.

There was a time when colonizers simply treated land as though its useful when its young but after it has been worked for a few decades it will be depleted of its vitality and new land must be acquired.

Everyone of us in the commune world knows a fair bit of what it means to give back to the earth so it can continue to sustain us. I think we ought to start thinking more of community as having similar depletion process if we don’t really know what the process of replenishing would be.

I would love to hear ideas!

 

 

Community lifecycle

Laboratories or Modules?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Laboratories or Modules?

A Year of Communes

by Raven

This is the one year anniversary of this blog.  It means that we’ve had a full year of articles, photoessays, and reprints, all centering on life in egalitarian, income-sharing communities.

Part of the point of this blog was to show some of the variety that exists among the communes, from Twin Oaks, which has almost a hundred people and is going to be fifty years old this year, to Compersia, which is small and just celebrated its first anniversary.

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Someone recently said to me, “Egalitarian, income-sharing communities.  How many are there?  Eight?”  I’ve counted more like eighteen–world-wide–and I feel like that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I know of thirteen US communes, two Canadian ones, as well as one in Spain, one in Germany, and one in Australia–and I keep hearing stories of other ones.

She then said, “So what? Maybe twenty, forty communities world-wide?”  This is true, but the communes are at the far end of the communities movement.  There are thousands of communities of various kinds in the US alone, and perhaps tens of thousands world wide.  But we represent what is possible, the radical end of the sharing and equality spectrum for communities.  The fact that a community has been able to do this with a lot of people for fifty years and going strong, and the fact that there are a bunch of communities doing this with new communities still emerging is important.  Not every community needs to look like this (and it’s okay that only a small percentage do) and, of course, not everyone wants to or should live in a community, but we are showing the world what is actually possible.

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Unfortunately, not all of the eighteen communities that I’ve identified have been featured in Commune Life.  We’ve reached out to all the ones that we know about but sometimes we don’t get replies, or we get responses that they are too busy or they’ll send something “soon” (which probably means eventually).  Communal living, especially in the smaller, newer communes, is really busy and often folks don’t have the time or energy to contribute to this blog.

I am very grateful for all the folks who have taken the time and contributed with articles and pictures.

Also, part of the difficulty of community building is that is doesn’t always work.  At least one community that was featured here (Quercus) is completely gone and another one has moved and took over the land of a different, dying community.  I’m hoping that we can have their stories in here soon.  It’s important to look at what doesn’t work as well as what works.

On Wednesday, we’re going to feature photos from all the communities that have contributed to Commune Life.  I love the fact that we have so many different pictures of communal living.

Finally, Commune Life is also about the projects and organizations that support life on the communes, from the Federation of Egalitarian Communities to the Point A project.  I think it’s important to emphasize that you can find out more about any community or project or communal subject (from aging to the Transition Movement) by clicking on the three lines in the top right hand corner of this blog.  We want this blog to be a useful tool for anyone interested in any aspect of communal living.

I think the most important thing to note is that there’s real people doing communal living.  It’s not some pie in the sky fantasy, but an ongoing endeavor of many people around the world.  On this blog now is a year’s worth of stuff to prove it.
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A Year of Communes

GPS Directions for Community

by Valerie Renwick, from Communities Magazine, Winter, 2016

EXIT the mainstream urban / suburban / rural single-dwelling lifestyle you’ve been living. Depending on your life experience, you may need to VEER LEFT to accomplish this.

directions1IMMEDIATELY ENTER into the heart of your new community home. You will need to NAVIGATE THE COMPLEX TWISTS AND TURNS that seem to pop up with alarming frequency. Who knew that such a simple change in the kitchen would upset so many people? It was just one little thing.  What was wrong with the suggestion to adopt a community puppy–don’t people here want to provide a good home for a stray? Why isn’t the brilliance of my new business proposal obvious to everyone? Well, except for you-know-who’s constant bias against all post-Industrial-Revolution technology.

PAUSE to consider: When the other person said what they said, how did I feel? What is their piece of the truth?  Do I need to give them some space?

Even after traveling the road for years, you may find yourself in the middle of a tricky community conflict, looking like it’s going to end in a horrific pile-up of emotions. You have several options:

YIELD to the more vocal, more articulate, or more tenacious energy.

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TAKE A SHARP TURN and attempt to address the festering, long-term issues that have slowly calcified over years into unwavering caricatures of process, then QUICKLY DODGE the head-on collisions and emotional shrapnel that comes flying towards you and everyone else.

RECALCULATING.

Now SIGNAL your willingness to work together, and MAKE A DETOUR by adjusting your position and offering a modified proposal that addresses the concerns that have been raised.

Before proceeding, BUY YOURSELF SOME INSURANCE by investing in other peoples’ viewpoints and building up some goodwill in your community-karma bank account.

As you continue on the journey, ENTER A ROUNDABOUT of meetings, discussions, and surveys. In due time, you will…..directions2

ARRIVE AT YOUR DESTINATION.  You find a solution that works for the group!

Now that the situation has resolved and the communal dust has settled, SLOW DOWN AND IDLE for a while, relishing this period of time and enjoying the glow of some skillful, caring cooperation and warm feelings towards your sister/fellow travelers.

Soon enough it will be time to RESET and start again…..

GPS Directions for Community

Networking the Communities

By Raven

I wrote in my piece on Communities of Communities about what was happening in Louisa County, Virginia, and in Rutledge, Missouri.  In Louisa there are five income sharing communities (plus a nearby Catholic Worker house) and in Rutledge there are three very different types of communities–and a fourth (different again) community only forty miles away.  In both of these areas, the different communities strongly support each other.  They flourish not in spite of one another but because of one another.  I’ve been at Twin Oaks and watched folks from Acorn, Living Energy Farm, and Cambia come by, and been at

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A Mailbox Sign from Long Ago

Dancing Rabbit and seen folks from Red Earth Farms and Sandhill hang out.  (Not to mention being at Acorn and working with folks from Twin Oaks and Little Flower–the Catholic Worker community.)

But I’m seeing connections growing between communities that aren’t even near one another.  I’m currently living at Ganas (not an egalitarian, income sharing community) which has a long history with Twin Oaks.  I joke about a conveyor belt between the two communities (300 miles from each other) because so many people go back and forth so often.  What’s interesting to me has been watching another ‘conveyor’ belt starting up between Acorn in Virginia and East Wind in Missouri as members of each community began spending serious time in the other one.

Then there’s a Federation of Egalitarian Communities and last year’s Assembly featured a host of starting communities.  The FEC exists partly to support and network egalitarian, income sharing communities.  Similarly, this blog exists to feature them–not only to make people aware that they exist and how many and diverse they are, but to keep communes aware of each other.

Most importantly, as David from las Indias argued in his post called On Diversity, the greater diversity that we seek is likely to come not so much within communities, but among communities.  He talks directly about the need to network our communities.

Going back to Louisa, Twin Oaks has a 100 members.  That’s a lot and many members are resistant to growing more.  Acorn has thirty members and doesn’t want much more because, as one person put it, they don’t want to become Twin Oaks.  But now there’s

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A Building at Cambia

three more communities down there, trying to grow and new people are often encouraged to investigate them.  Telos has written about why he decided to leave Twin Oaks in order to help build Cambia.

 

What we are talking about here is not just having a few alternative communities, but slowly creating a movement.  As we help create more and more communes (through projects like Point A) and network them, we are creating a real alternative to the situation we are inheriting.  With networks of income sharing communities, we are not only talking about a few communities in the US, or even North America (and there are a couple of Canadian communities in dialogue with the FEC), but throughout the world, as we connect with communities in Spain and Germany–and maybe the kibbutzim and other communes throughout the world.  There is already a Global Ecovillage Network and the Fellowship of Intentional Communities is busy connecting diverse communities from communes to urban co-op houses to large cohousing projects.  Communities matter and as we begin to connect with each other and network together, we are creating that movement.

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A Point A Organizing Meeting in DC

It’s certainly not the way I think everyone should live, but I do think there are a lot of people who might be interested in living this way if they knew it was possible.  Twin Oaks has a waiting list again, and I suspect Acorn and other communities do as well, and that makes me realize that there’s a lot more interest in the communities than there is space in them.  The Atlantic magazine just published a piece on people looking at communes because they’re “Seeking an Escape from Trump’s America“.  I only think that in these times, the movement is going to grow.  As I said in my first piece on this blog, I think that communes are important.  I think that it’s equally important to network and grow.  This is true social change.

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las Indias in Madrid

 

 

Networking the Communities

Questions Groups Should Ask (But Probably Haven’t)

by Laird Schaub, from  Laird’s Commentary on Community and Consensus, Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I just finished doing a weekend Introduction to Facilitation Workshop at Heathcote Community in Freeland MD. Friday evening through Sunday afternoon I worked and laughed with 16 participants as we explored a wide range of group situations and typical challenges that facilitators face. As a student of group dynamics and a teacher of facilitation, I am frequently in the position of describing the pitfalls that groups fall into by virtue of not having discussed and made explicit agreements about how they want to view to handle certain things.

By Sunday afternoon the workshop participants were all over me to give them a list of these questions, so here goes.

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The main thing to understand about this is not there is one right way to address all of the questions (indeed, different groups come up with all manner of good answers). Rather, it’s to understand that having no answer is guaranteed to be a problem. Sooner or later, the ambiguity will to bite you in the butt, and it’s much worse to attempt to sort many of these things out when you’re in the midst of tension resulting from members proceeding from different assumptions—or guesses—about the group’s position.

Almost all groups have some basic agreements: for example, about common values, how one becomes a member, and how the group will make decisions. While that’s a good start, it isn’t nearly enough. Here’s a much longer list of things that groups should discuss—preferably before the water gets hot: Note that none of these questions is limited to residential communities: they are meant to apply to any group trying to function cooperatively.

Meeting Culture
1. What is the purpose of meetings? To what extent is it to solve problems, and to what extent is it to build relationships among members?

2. What topics are worthy of plenary attention? Absent clarity about this, groups tend to drift into working at a level of detail that is beneath them rather than effectively delegating. This is directly related to the phenomenon of meeting fatigue.

3. How do you want to work with emotions that surface in meetings? Hint #1: Ignoring them doesn’t work. Hint #2: You can allow expression of feelings while at the same time object to aggression.

4. How do you want to work with conflict? (This is the most volatile subset of working with emotions.) While asking conflicted people to “take it outside” can work some of the time, it won’t always. What’s more, at least some of the time progress on the topic that triggered the distress may be held hostage to resolution of the upset. It can be very expensive to not have an agreement about how to work conflict.

5. Under what conditions, if any, is it OK to speak critically of a member who is not in the room? Caution: Be careful here. You don’t want people to be able to control by their absence what gets examined.

6. How do you protect the rights of members to have an opportunity to have input on issues examined at meetings they missed? Conversely, how do you protect the right of the group to move forward on issues when members miss meetings? This is a balancing act, and a good answer here probably involves clear agreements about advance notification of draft agendas, advance circulation of proposals, and standards for minutes.

7. What authority do you give facilitators to run meetings? Hint: If they’re not explicitly allowed to interrupt people repeating themselves or speaking off topic, you’re in trouble.

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Communication
8. What are your standards for minutes? What should minutes include? Where will they be posted? Are they indexed? Are they archived? Do the same standards apply to committees that apply to the plenary?

9. Do you have protocols for how email is used? Hint: Email is great for posting announcements and reports; OK for discussions; dangerous for expressing upset; and downright thermonuclear for trying to process upset.

Membership
10. What are the rights & responsibilities of membership? While groups tend to be pretty good at being clear about financial aspects, they tend to be less good at spelling out labor, governance, or social expectations. Hint: It generally works better if you think of these two questions as being paired.

11. What does membership imply about how much you want to be in each other’s lives? How much does membership imply a social connection beyond a business connection? Big gaps in answers (or assumptions) here can really hurt.

12. What are the expectations around giving one another critical feedback about their behavior as a member of the group? Caution: Is a member allowed to refuse another member a request to discuss their behavior?

13. What are the conditions under which a member may involuntarily lose rights, and by what process will that be examined? Caution: While it’s hard to get excited about tackling this delicate topic before there’s a need, it’s a nightmare to attempt to clear it up once the need has arisen.

14. How much diversity can you tolerate? While most groups aspire to embrace diversity (in fact—given that human cloning is illegal—some degree is unavoidable), there is always a limit to how much a group can tolerate and it’s important to have a way to talk about it.

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Governance
15. How do you select managers and fill committees? Caution: Simply asking for volunteers can work fine for some positions, yet can be downright foolish in others, where a definite balance or skill set is critically needed.

16. How do you evaluate the performance of managers and committees? This includes how, how frequently, and overseen by whom? Hint #1: Have people self-evaluate before the group takes a crack at them. Hint #2: This will tend to work much better if it includes both a chance to identify what’s not been working well and a chance to celebrate what is.

17. What is the group’s model for healthy leadership? Absent an agreement, cooperative groups tend to be much more critical of leaders than supportive, suppressing members’ willingness to take on leadership.

18. Do you regularly discuss how power is distributed in the group? Do you have an understanding about how to discuss the perception that people are using power less cooperatively than the users think they are? Caution: Tackle the first question before the second. Absent a clear sense of the need to talk about power, and an understanding about how to go about it in a constructive manner, this topic can be explosive (think Krakatoa).

Questions Groups Should Ask (But Probably Haven’t)