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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Come Hell or High Water

group works: A Review

by Raven Glomus

I said that I would be reviewing things other than books this week and today I want to review a deck of cards.  

It sounds like this would have little to do with communes and communities, but this is not a deck of playing cards or tarot cards, this is a deck of what they call ‘pattern cards’.  Essentially, the Group Pattern Language Project compiled a workbook (which they call group works) for analyzing group processes (they describe it as “A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings”) but instead of putting it in book form, they published it as a deck of cards!

The deck is partly based (as is referenced in their description) of the idea of developing ‘pattern languages’, first popularized by Christopher Alexander and his cohorts in the book, A Pattern Language.  Each card describes what they see as a pattern that is useful to groups–what they refer to as “…the seeds of a more dynamic and effective group experience.”  An example is the card on ‘Commitment’, which reads: “A group dedicated to its work persists through obstacles, distractions, and lulls.  Remind yourself of your larger purpose and what you really care about.  As the group moves toward action, support effectiveness by getting clear on who will do what by when and how to ensure it really happens.”  Each card also has a list of the patterns (other cards) that it is related to, in this case:  “Closing ~ Purpose ~ Courageous Modeling ~ Honour Each Person ~ Setting Intention ~ Taking Responsibility ~ Shared Leadership and Roles”.

Putting these patterns on cards rather than pages actually has several advantages.  You don’t have to flip through pages and there is no particular order to the cards, so that you can organize them in whatever order you like.  You can group stuff together or just take out and look at the cards that you are particularly interested in or seem relevant to what you are doing.  You can use the list of related patterns to create something focused on your particular needs.  (I did actually try using the deck once for a tarot reading but that didn’t work out very well–of course, that wasn’t what the deck was designed to do!)

The deck also comes with two booklets, one on what the deck is all about and how to use it effectively, as well as a bit about each of the authors.  This serves as what would be an introduction if this was a standard work book.  The other booklet organizes the patterns into “Pattern Categories” showing which card goes in which category, gives a list of all 91 patterns (cards), and gives a “Key to the Cards”–looking at all the parts using an example.  The parts they list consist of the Pattern Title, the Pattern Image, a Photo Credit, the Pattern “Heart” (the description I listed above), a Category Icon which reflects which of the Pattern Categories the card belongs to, and Related Patterns (again, the list I cited above–also see the picture below).

There is more information available online, including pictures of the cards, a free pdf of all the cards, and information on how to order a deck for yourself. (It’s $35 to buy a deck.)  I’m not sure that this is the most important thing you could get for your community, but if you are really interested in group process–or thinking about how to have better meetings, a real need in many communes–you might well benefit from having a deck of these cards to consult with.

group works: A Review

Why doesn’t Twin Oaks have community meetings?

from Keenan’s Twin Oaks blog

Why doesn’t Twin Oaks have community meetings?

I have been asked this question many times in recent years by people new to Twin Oaks, and I burble some sort of platitudes about trusting people who make the decisions, but the truth is that I don’t actually know why Twin Oaks doesn’t have more community meetings.  Other communities have more meetings; East Wind’s democracy-based culture means that they have decision-making community meetings; Ganas’ culture is based on daily hours-long community meetings; new-age spiritual communities like Sirius start every work shift with a group gathering.

The common bias is that collectivist groups are systemically hamstrung by the necessity of ponderous and contentious group decision-making—which means many hours hammering out agreements in group meetings. But Twin Oaks is as collectivist as it is possible to be—and we don’t have community meetings. How is this possible?  Are we all being oppressed by a mysterious and powerful ruling elite?

We used to have community meetings.  During much of my tenure there was typically a once-a-week community meeting.  During economic planning time, or when a building was being designed, or during contentious issues in the community, that was bumped up to twice-a-week meetings. Why does Twin Oaks so rarely have community meetings now? I have a few guesses. Twin Oaks doesn’t have community meetings because:

Being in a meeting is an unpleasant experience.

Meetings are typically poorly attended, therefore, being unrepresentative of the community, there is little justification for allowing the people in a meeting to make a final decision.  After a meeting there will be an O and I  paper posted, or a survey taken. Meeting attendees have little more influence over a final decision than non-meeting attendees, so why bother going to a meeting?


Or maybe it’s the lack of chairs 

Decisions get made anyway.

Twin Oaks has a decision-making infrastructure.  If no communal decision gets made, then some sub-group of the community has the power to make decisions. In fact, Twin Oaks has somewhat overlapping spheres of organizational influence, so even if there is a non-functioning sub-group of the community, the default isn’t that the collective steps forward, but that some other subgroup will step forward and make a decision.

GOOD decisions get made.

Due to our lack of hierarchy and inability to accrue political power (or really, who knows why) the planners and other decision-making groups typically make good decisions.  There is not really any need on the part of the membership to be hyper-vigilant to protect the community from heading off of a cliff, because competent and capable people are making decisions that fairly consistently accurately reflect the will of the community.  Why spend two hours in a meeting when you know that the planners are going to make the right call anyway?

Twin Oaks has loads of policies.

Over the years, Twin Oakers have hammered out and written down many policies.  These days, when an issue comes up,  people on a decision-making committee will consult Twin Oaks’ policies.   It is much easier for a committee to look up an appropriate policy than it is to get a community of people to gather together and agree on a new policy in the first place.  Lots of those earlier meetings were to determine Twin Oaks policy.  That work has been done, so now fewer community meetings are needed.

  The pace of growth has slowed.

The whole community wants to be involved in the design of a building.  A new building uses lots of the community’s resources and to some degree determines the future direction of the community.  There were many community meetings involved in the whole process of approving and designing new buildings. There is now very little need for these sorts of community meetings.

There ARE lots of meetings, just not community meetings.

Lots of Twin Oaks’ fairly routine decision-making has been delegated to subgroups of the community–planners, econ team, membership team, health team, child board.  In fact, there are lots of meetings necessary to live at Twin Oaks, just not very many large-scale community meetings.

Twin Oakers eat and work together.

One function of community meetings (in other communities) is to encourage members to get to know one another. At Twin Oaks there are many ways that we hang out with each other casually in our day-to-day lives. I have noticed that most Twin Oakers can, at a distance at twilight, recognize other members just by their stride.  If we know each other’s walks, we must know each other pretty well.  Mainstream people might gossip about people at work, or people in the neighborhood, or complain about the government, but for us, it’s all the same group of people.  We have a fairly intimate knowledge of the life details of our co-members.

There are lots of small social gatherings.

Throughout most of Twin Oaks’ history there were only two things to do: work and huge parties.  The culture these days favors smaller social gatherings—and LOTS of them.  This builds the bonds of community.  All of these mechanisms of social interaction means that we don’t really need meetings to get to know each other better.

 We facilitate meetings poorly.

As we have had fewer meetings, our group experience in having meetings worsens.  We have less experienced meeting participation, and less experienced facilitators. Going to one poorly run meeting is a powerful disincentive to go to a future meeting.

It’s painful to recognize our diversity of values.

We don’t actually want to recognize our diversity.  That is, we can maintain the illusion that we are living with like-minded people for a long time, as long as we don’t put it to a vote.  In a meeting, people voice their opinions and, inevitably, someone’s opinion will be in the minority. I have often heard (or said) as I walked out of a meeting, “What sort of people do I live with?”

People are busy.

Twin Oaks’ population hasn’t risen for a long time, but Twin Oaks expands businesses and infrastructure.  We keep doing more with the same number of people.  In thinking about going to a community meeting, everyone has to weigh whether going to the meeting is more important than whatever else they might do during that time.  For most people, the value of doing the other thing is more worthwhile than the value of going to a community meeting.

People are happy.

Twin Oaks’ turnover continues to be very low.  People are staying at Twin Oaks, presumably because we are all happy.  In any case, there isn’t much clamor for big changes in the community.  Unhappy people want changes in the community and go to meetings to campaign for these changes.  Happy people go to happy hour.

In conclusion,

I am a believer in the power of meetings. I believe in the wisdom of the group.  I believe that we are made smarter when we meet together and share our communal wisdom.  Admittedly, this is a somewhat faith-based rather than empirically-based opinion.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the community would be stronger and feel more supportive if we met together as a community more often.  But I don’t know.  I keep expecting the fabric of the community to begin to unravel because we don’t do stuff together as a community. But numbers work against this belief of mine.  If there were a chart tracking community turnover and community meetings, it would show that when Twin Oaks had more community meetings, turnover was very high, as there have been fewer meetings, turnover has dropped. Coincidence, no doubt.

I am interested in other people’s opinions about this topic. Are there points I make here that you disagree with? Is this a problem in the community?

Maybe we could have a meeting about it…

Posted 26th February 2014 by keenan




Why doesn’t Twin Oaks have community meetings?