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?
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.
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