Writings

Writings

You may also be interested in articles I’ve been interviewed for, which you can find here.

More than Microcosms

More-Than-Microcosms_-Follow-up-Notes

FIC Business Plan

I was the primary author for this plan, and coordinated the team that put it together.

FIC-Business-Plan-Public-2019

FIC Market Research Report

Cynthia Tina deserves the vast, vast majority of the credit for this market research report and all the work that went into doing the research. I helped develop the research plan, craft questions, and provided basic oversight and admin support for the project.

I particularly want to share it because of how valuable I think the information is to intentional communities, not just to FIC. It was crucial to developing the business plan, but I think any intentional community could gain useful insight from this report.

FIC-Market-Research-Report-Public-2019

Examining White Supremacy Culture in Intentional Community

Examining-White-Supremacy-Culture-in-Intentional-Community-Workshop-Notes

Loneliness

Why I Need Community: A veteran communitarian experiences the epidemic of loneliness

Loneliness is an Epidemic, Community is the Antidote

Written December 2019, about a month prior to my resigning from the FIC.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve been pretty lonely lately.

Here I am, Executive Director of the Foundation for Intentional Community, and while technically I am living in a community, my current transitional and transitory lifestyle, including working remotely, is leaving me isolated a lot of the time. It feels terrible, and it’s hard not to feel bad about myself for being in this situation.

And here we are on Giving Tuesday, the non-profit response to Black Friday, when, rather than buying a bunch of stuff, you’re supposed to support the causes you believe in and feel like you’re part of something. But for-profit or non-profit, it’s all fueling what is increasingly being identified as an epidemic of loneliness.

Last March I left my long-term home of Twin Oaks Community (14 years of membership total, 19 years in the area) and have been a nomadic communard, driving 25,000 miles, visiting over 20 communities, and attending 5 conferences. As much as moving on from Twin Oaks was the right thing, I acutely feel a painful, gaping hole where there had been a deep familiarity of people and place.

Being so used to having people around me all the time, even if they drove me nuts sometimes, the feeling of disconnection makes me realize how much we need each other to feel complete in our experience as social animals. I frequently feel both a sharp pain of something missing along with a numbness, a combination of sadness and despair, that can easily lead towards depression.

We in the FIC have been talking a lot about loneliness lately. All of a sudden a convincing body of research is being reported on and picked up by politicians that shows the impacts on health and society of pervasive and increasing social isolation. This has always been part of the reason why people start and move to intentional communities. Now we have the data to back up our assertion that there is a real problem here that we are addressing. The thing we do best at the FIC is connect people to communities, so this has become core to our messaging right now, a reminder that the antidote to loneliness is community and that FIC is a place where you can find community.

So it feels both ironic and somehow fitting that right now I am having the exact experience that we are trying to speak to as an organization. Knowing that I am part of the 40% of the US population that suffers from loneliness helps me feel empathy and compassion for others and myself. It makes what we in the FIC are saying and doing feel a whole lot more real and authentic, because it’s something I know I need.

I need community. Having had it, I can see the negative impacts of not having it. But I also feel extremely grateful, because unlike most people who are experiencing loneliness, I know I have options and that FIC’s resources are available.

Gratitude has become an important practice for me in dealing with loneliness.

I’m very grateful for the cohousing community I temporarily live in right now. It is a beautiful community, a reflection of the love and care the members here have for the place and each other. There are lots of communities out there that I’m connected to that would welcome me. And I have lots of people who love and care about me and are there for me, even if they’re not physically in my day-to-day life. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t know there were people out there I could reach out to or places I could go.

I want this for everyone. I feel so sad for people going through what I’m going through and having no idea how to fix it. This is why I’ve dedicated the last 20 years of my life to living in intentional community and helping build the movement. This is why I work for the FIC. 

I really don’t want to ask you to make an end of year gift right now, but the reality is we do need your support. And I can tell you as someone who is suffering from loneliness right now that I’m excited to take advantage of what the FIC has to offer me to find where I belong, and I want to help more and more people do the same.

Click here to make a donation and learn more about the new platform we’re creating to connect more people to community.

Why I left the FIC

Why-I-left-FIC-public-1

On the road, Earthaven Ecovillage

From my cross-country communities tour, March 2019

I last visited Earthaven Ecovillage in 2001, when I came down with some other Twin Oakers for an FIC Art of Community conference. I was this fresh faced 20 year old communitarian, and it was my first substantial point of contact with the FIC, visiting a community that at the time was only 7 years old. Now here I am, 18 years later, the Executive Director of the FIC, and Earthaven is now 25 years old and has really become a village.

Eathaven just emerging from a 7 year process of restructuring legally and has come up with a creative solution involving a Homeowners Association, neighborhoods organized as Housing Cooperatives, and a Non-Exempt Non-profit corporation, which you can read about in an article by Diana Leafe Christian in the new issue of Communities magazine on Community Land.

They’ve also changed their decision-making to only require 85% rather than 100% consensus. It sounds like the effort to reach consensus hasn’t really changed, but removing the ability of one person to block seems to have brought a more relaxed, cooperative atmosphere to their process.

Their economy has really developed in the last 18 years. There are numerous agricultural efforts, a couple businesses, and the community uses a combination of US dollars, internal currency called LEAPs, and barter.

It’s also great to see the outreach and education efforts, as well as the movement building efforts by some of the members of Earthaven. There’s the School Of Integrated Living (SOIL) and Culture’s Edge. Diana Leaf Christian is well known for, among other things, her books on starting and finding intentional community and sociocracy trainings. Lee Warren works for the Organic Growers School, who’s Spring Conference this year includes extraordinary community agriculturalists Pam Dawling from Twin Oaks and Ira Wallace from Acorn. And Zev Friendman works with Co-Operate WNC, which is working to apply mutual aid and permaculture principles on a bioregional scale through a network of centers.

Speaking with Arjuna, one of the founders, she spoke to feeling like the community is still fulfilling its original intention, even if it looks different than they thought it would, which, of course. Earthaven seems to have managed to stay in touch with and maintain a continuity of its sense of purpose that’s engendering a strong level of caring and participation. And with some the new legal structure now in place they’re more able to start bringing on new members and developing new neighborhoods.

One of the things I’m most struck by seeing this community again after 18 years is now much more relaxed they seem to be around their idealism. They don’t seem to hold their ideals any less strongly, but there’s a flexibility that they’ve matured into that has allowed them to adjust things to suit the circumstances. And as they settle down after some big changes they seem ready for a whole new chapter.

Earthaven Ecovillage – Vision, Mission, Goals

Vision: In the midst of planetary change the Earthaven experiment helps inform and inspire a global flowering of bioregionally appropriate cultures.

Mission: To create a village which is a living laboratory and educational seed bank for a sustainable human future.

Goals:

  • To promote and ensure the long-term structural integrity of the community.
  • To catalyze local and global change through learning, teaching, and networking.
  • To shift from wasteful to regenerative use of resources.
  • To use and develop ecologically sound technologies for water, waste, energy, construction, and other essential systems.
  • To develop and support a thriving local economy.
  • To grow, raise, and trade our own food, medicines, and forestry products in an environmentally responsible, bioregional network.
  • To practice fair, participatory, and effective self-governance.
  • To encourage an atmosphere in which diverse spiritual practices, conscious connection to all beings, and progressive social action can thrive.
  • To nurture personal growth, interpersonal understanding, and mutual trust, as the foundation for a deeply connected human community.
  • To practice healthy, holistic lifestyles that balance self-care with care for others.
  • To create a culture of celebration, beauty, and pleasure.
  • To use capital and labor resources to provide common infrastructure and meet our collective needs.

On the road, Koinonia Farm

From my cross-country communities tour, March 2019

Koinonia Farm holds a special and largely unknown place in the intentional communities movement. Founded in 1942 near Americus, Georgia, the word Koinonia means fellowship or communion, or as it was interpreted by the founders of Koinonia Farm, community.

In their words, “from the beginning, Koinonians emphasized the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. When we could afford to hire seasonal help, Black and White workers were paid a fair, equal wage. When the community and its guests and workers prayed or ate a meal, we all sat together at the table, regardless of color.” This was during a time when these things, if not outright illegal, were extremely dangerous.

Especially after Brown vs Board of Education, Koinonia was seen as a threat and became a target for violence. Through the 50’s Koinonia was subjected to drive by shootings, bombings, and boycotts. After having grown to 60 people the community began to shrink until it was just the two original families in the 1960’s. But in the late 60’s Koinonia started to grow again, particularly around the vision of Partnership Farming, Businesses, and Housing. One of the families who joined worked in particular on the Partnership Housing part, helping establish the Fund for Humanity, and later going on to found Habitat for Humanity. The International Headquarters of Habitat for Humanity is still in Americus, the nearby city.

I highly, highly encourage you to watch the documentary about Koinonia, Briars In The Cotton Patch, which you can stream for only $2.

Koinonia started a mail order business in the late 50’s to help sustain themselves amidst the boycotts. This eventually included pecans from their own orchards, which they still sell today, along with a variety of other products. Visit their store to support them.

Koinonia had another rough period in the 90’s, when they decided to move away from the focus on communal living to become a community development non-profit. This led to some poor choices by a couple Executive Directors, culminating in an Executive Director who embezzled large sums from the community. When this was discovered a large portion of the land had to be sold to covered the debt that had accumulated, and ultimately the community decided to go back to its roots and turned itself back into an income-sharing community.

This year Koinonia will be 77 years old. It was humbling to be in the presence of such history. They’ve been through so much and are still there humbly doing the work of hospitality and stewardship, feeding the hungry both physically and spiritually,  trying to live in the light as much as possible and be an example of what’s possible in community.

It was a real pleasure to be in the company of Christians I feel could relate to, and that I felt welcomed by without question. Whether or not I was a Christian wasn’t even a question. They’re seeking to reclaim what being a Christian means and really live it, which in essence is about living a good life, good for yourself, good for others. They gather each morning in their Chapel for a brief service, have a prayer and reading before meals, and someone rings a bell three times a day and everyone pauses for a moment of prayer, all of which I enjoyed participating in. There is a sense of family there that I immediately felt part of.

Their current vision and mission statements:

  • Love – through service to others
  • Joy – through generous hospitality
  • Peace – through reconciliation

“We are Christians called to live together in intentional community sharing a life of prayer, work, study, service and fellowship. We seek to embody peacemaking, sustainability, and radical sharing. While honoring people of all backgrounds and faiths, we strive to demonstrate the way of Jesus as an alternative to materialism, militarism and racism.”

On the road, Jackson, MS

I’m obsessed with relevance. I consider myself a global citizen with a shared responsibility to help make the world a better place. For me, intentional communities are not just an end in themselves. They’re also pre-figurative. They’re responses to a critical analysis of the problems in the world showing that something else is possible, while also being healthier, happier places to live under the current circumstances.

Living in community is an inherently radical act. We’re relearning how to think and relate as “we” in a culture of endemic individuality, which is a cornerstone to the global systems of oppression and exploitation that are driving us to the brink. The questions of applicability, accessibility, replicability, and scalability have to be addressed at some point, and we have to understand the depth and scope of what we’re dealing with.

One manifestation of intentional community that needs to be looked at more is how the design and organizing principles can be applied to communities that already exist. This is part of what drew me to Jackson, MS.

I’d heard about Cooperation Jackson (CJ) for years, and met some folks involved at New Economy Coalition (NEC) gatherings. More recently I heard about the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson (CCNWJ), where I ended up staying. And in reading about both projects I learned about the group they emerged out of, the Malcom X Grassroots Movement (MXG), which has been organizing in Jackson for decades.

Each group has a different a focus. CJ has been developing a number of cooperative enterprises. CCNWJ has focused on an 8 block area, moving houses into a land trust, and hiring the people living in the neighborhood to fix them up, as well as working on urban agriculture. MXG organizes People’s Assemblies and also interfaces with the city administration to have grassroots influence on work to revitalize the education and infrastructure of the city.

Mississippi was ranked 49th in country along various metrics, including education, health care, and opportunity. West Jackson in particular showed some of the worst poverty I’ve seen in this country. See images below. This is ground zero for the legacy of racism and capitalism following colonialism and slavery. It’s also a classic story of white flight leading to neglect and disenfranchisement. I’ve heard Ed Whitfield talk about the idea of surplus population in capitalism, and I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around the concept. I have a much better understanding now. Jackson is a place capitalism has decided isn’t worth it and the people are systematically disempowered from meeting their own needs.

Jackson seems like both the perfect place and the hardest place to build community. In so much of this country the issue is complacency and apathy, in part born out of the fact that people feel like they have too much to lose. That’s not the problem here. The problem is hopelessness and cynicism coupled with the fact that many people are in survival mode.

But ultimately, if we want our efforts to build community and find replicable, scalable models to be successful, we have to figure out how to include everyone. How do you do meaningful and genuine community engagement and organizing with a population that has such little capacity beyond basic survival? How do you do this in a way that isn’t patronizing, condescending, and perpetuating of a disempowering mentality, but that genuinely supports people developing their own capacity for self-sufficiency and community engagement?

These groups in Jackson are having success with this. Nia Umoji of CCNWJ outlined a framework they’re developing. People can progress through survival to active to participating to engaged, from a hyper-individual perspective born of necessity to becoming a co-generators of community, and she’s seen some in their community move through those stages over the last 5 years. But both Nia and Noel Didla, part of MXG and a special advisor to the mayor, also made it clear that this is a long path. We’re dealing with hundreds of years of trauma and systematic disenfranchisement. This isn’t going to change overnight, and probably not even over one generation.

Noel talked about the tendency to always be in crisis mode, and how that keeps the system entrenched. The 4 year election cycle is a key part of this. We’re never planning for the long term, or working with a long-term vision of how to actually heal generations of trauma and fundamentally repurpose systems like education to serve liberation and empowerment. It’s hard, because we are living in a daily set and series of global and local crises, but we’re always reacting to what just happened rather than preparing for what we know is coming or dealing with the underlying causes. The failure of non-profit philanthropy is another aspect of this, and Jackson was also a case study in how that’s really just another side of how capitalism perpetuates itself and inequality.

It’s also worth noting that I intentionally didn’t take pictures of what these groups are doing and am intentionally not going into great detail about what they’re doing in this post. The reason is that there’s been issues around how narratives about these projects are being created and shared. For example, CCNWJ was recently featured in an article in Yes! magazine and were on the cover. They actually didn’t want to be in that issue and asked Yes! not to include them. The author of the piece recorded Nia without her knowledge or permission. The images used were gotten by the author from another media outlet that had done a piece on them a couple years earlier. How these narratives are told, and how that affects things like fundraising, are complex and potentially problematic issues and I’m trying to be very careful about how I’m presenting what I experienced there. There’s enough out there that you can find out for yourself what’s happening, which I recommend you do.

On every level, from the impacts of racism and capitalism on the people of Jackson, to the dynamics amongst the organizations on the ground, to the challenges of generating collective, collaborative, community-supported, accountable leadership, to fostering genuine empowerment and self-determination in a community (especially an extremely oppressed one), all of it, it’s all the same shit that everyone is dealing with everywhere. Jackson is just an extreme case.

But this is what we have to deal with. In our idealistic efforts to build movements and solve the world’s problems, if our solutions are gonna be worth anything, they have to be grounded in the realities of survival and resistance that people in this country and around the world are dealing with everyday. Deep appreciation and respect to the folks at MXG, CJ, and CCNWJ for helping show us the path forward.

On the road, Los Angeles Eco-Village

It’s easier to recognize an intentional community when it’s rural. There’s simply less distraction and less interaction with the surrounding population. This has its pros and cons. The escapism and isolationism that was prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s came at a cost to the movement, there are undoubtedly levels of experimentation that being rural makes easier.

And yet, we have these cities. Lots of them. And lots of people live in them. More than half the world’s population.

Are cities sustainable? I don’t think we know the answer. But I don’t think the ecosystem could handle it if everyone who lives in cities moved out in the country tomorrow. Given the current global population, some amount of density seems inevitable. Regardless, we have all these people who live in these cities, and transforming them is going to take a while.

We have to start somewhere. We need more models of urban community.

The Los Angeles Eco-Village has been on my list to visit since the early 2000’s. It’s one of the more well-known communities, especially among urban communities, and especially among ecovillages. It’s original conception dates back to early 1980’s, before the term ecovillage ws even coined, and was reconceptualized following the Rodney King uprising in LA in 1992. The first apartment building was bought in several years later.

The original concept, which had city support, at least in theory, was to make use of an undeveloped 11 acre site in the city that had been a landfill. But after the 1992 uprising, the group made the decision to just do it in the neighborhood where founder Lois Arkin had already been living for 13 years. What followed was a solid effort in neighborhood organizing and community building simply as residents of the existing neighborhood, particularly focused on engaging with kids, until they were ready to start purchasing property.

Los Angeles Eco-Village (LAEV) is actually a placeholder name. There’s no legal entity with that name. The two apartment buildings are organized as the Urban Soil/Tierra Urbana Limited Equity Housing Co-op (LEHC). At some point the Beverly-Vermont Community Land Trust was formed to hold title to the land under the Housing Co-op. The CLT also owns a fourplex and old garage, and the garage has been leased to one of the ecovillagers for a bike shop. And then there’s the Cooperative Resources & Services Project (CRSP), an educational non-profit, which acted as the original developer for the ecovillage and operates a revolving loan fund. More recently CRSP bought the hold auto garage adjacent to the first apartment building, which it’s been remediating for lead, asbestos, and hydrocarbons, and plans to develop into a small co-operative business hub. A small food co-op of about 60 members called the Food Lobby also operates out of the ecovillage, including both residents and non-residents. Also, on the intersection with the ecovillage is a learning garden that’s owned by the school district but managed by the ecovillage.

In other words, there’s a lot going within several different organizational structures, with lots of overlap of who’s involved, and everyone identifies it all together as LAEV.

LAEV has definitely put some best-practices to good use.

They created a sufficiently but not overly complicated legal structure. At the same time, they were very intentional about building the culture of the group so that they values underlying the culture and legal structure were in synch, and from the beginning worked to make  sure that all of this would be solid enough to outlive the founders. Succession planning is a topic more communities need to look at. 

They’ve developed or supported economic opportunities, which, in additional to the benefits to members, helps people engage in more in the life of the community. Having a food co-op that’s available to non-residents helps grow their extended community, the strength of which is good indicator of the health of a community.

They’ve supported activism in the city, particularly helping foster to bike culture and community bike resources in Los Angeles.

They started off by making sure they were integrated into the neighborhood. I think this is so key. At some point we have to figure out how to create intentional communities amongst people where they are. Everywhere people live, urban or rural, you can identify clusters of people in proximity you could call a community. Let’s call them incidental communities. How do we turn these incidental communities into intentional communities? This is part of the question LAEV.

But while their efforts to integrate in the neighborhood were successful, they ended up being limited. As the community bought housing and started developing they turned inward more, and more than 20 decades later, most people in the neighborhood have moved, as have people in the ecovillage, and they’re seeing how there’s a need to return to that neighborhood engagement. While I was there they hosted a public form for candidates running for Neighborhood Council, and a couple ecovillagers are running for council (ecovillagers have sat on the Neighborhood Council before as well).

They also seem like a mature community that has its version of a classic issue: Getting people to engage and participate. It’s pretty easy for groups that are bigger than, say, 20 to get settle in and start attracting people who like the community but kinda just want to do their own thing. I don’t want to say this inevitable, but it’s incredibly common, and if the cultural gravity trends in that direction can definitely create problems. It didn’t seem that bad at LAEV. Again, there’s a lot going on with the at least 5 definable organizations operating there and a rich social life, but it was interesting to see a familiar pattern in another setting.

At the same time, LAEV hasn’t just settled in. They’re continuing to grow and develop, and seem to be at a point where they have the financial and legal resources, and the people, to grow pretty fast if they want to, or at least start putting themselves out more. Lois said they’ve been hesitant up till now of being too public because they didn’t feel like they were ready. But that seems to be shifting now that they’ve become something you can look at and really see how the vision for sustainable urban community can be put into practice.

Relearning We

4 weeks and 6 communities later

My first cross-country communities tour of 2019 ended with a 3 day training on Tools for Collective Self-Governance in Oakland, CA with the Nonprofit Democracy Network. I got to spend 3 days with a bunch of badass organizers working for awesome organizations trying to make the world a better place for everyone. It was an ideal place to synthesize what I’d been learning from the different communities I’d visited, and to explore some of the pressing questions the FIC has been grappling with in our desire to both grow and refocus the movement.

I see my role as Executive Director of FIC as being a kind of switchboard, and also as a synthesizer. When I’m visiting communities, at events, or working on group projects I try to do a lot of listening and asking questions. I listen for commonalities and themes in what people say and try to mash it up into something coherent. I don’t think I deserve credit for any of the ideas I express. I’m just trying to help us all be in synch so we’re moving forward together. I’m grateful to all the people I get to work with and interact with, all of whom are my teachers.

This post is a companion to more of a report on the ideas from training, which you can find here.

Two memories stand out that helped form my understanding of intentional community.

I was 19, new in a communal kitchen that had a kitchen cleaning system, and asked a wise older communitarian for clarity on what things I needed to clean and what I didn’t. She named a couple of the norms, and then said, just try and leave things a little cleaner than how you found them. I remember at the time feeling like someone had grabbed my brain and sharply turned it. Viewed as a practical summation of a life philosophy or paradigm, I’m still trying to understand the implications.

When I asked another wise older communitarian about why intentional community matters, she said, we’re here together, sharing finite resources, and trying to figure out how to do it without killing each other, isn’t that what the world needs to learn? Again, mind blown.

For me, intentional community isn’t an end in itself. I was raised with a sense of responsibility as a global citizen to help make the world a better place, and intentional community has been the path I’ve chosen to fulfill that.

When I started working for the FIC, I framed it with a core question: How is intentional community relevant and applicable? Over the last 3 years this continues to be my guiding inquiry.

What is being learned in intentional communities that is relevant to larger society and how can it be applied? And conversely, what is at play in larger society and how can intentional communities work with that more? I want to take what’s being learned in them and share it with the rest of the world.

Intentional communities in themselves are not going to end climate change, racial injustice, or political corruption, but they are places where these systemic issues humanity is dealing with on a global scale can be explored and addressed in a holistic way at a human scale. Not that the problems aren’t at a human scale too. But they are global, and it’s overwhelming to think about change on that scale. But at some point we have to, because we’ve set the world on fire and it could kill us.  

We are going for nothing short of global transformation. Our North Star needs to be beyond carving out these niches within an unsustainable system. We live in a society that seems to have a death wish, and for all our efforts at creating communities where something different is happening, we’re still going down with the ship. And we only get to do our thing because it’s not expedient for the system to assimilate us, and only as long as we play by certain rules.

We want a world where oppression and exploitation of people and planet is simply not considered, because it is fundamentally recognized that harm to one is harm to all. Like, why would you do that? We are learning that “my” liberation is tied up in “your” liberation, and that no matter where you are on the scale of privilege to oppression, we are all traumatized by this system. We also have to be pragmatic about the realities of the world we live in right now, manage our day to day lives, and figure out how to take doable steps in that direction.

Intentional community provides an access point, as do other forms of cooperative organization that are working to shift the culture and systems that underlie social and economic relationships, and the relationship between people and the planet.

These relationships operate on lots on levels, which different groups have visualized with concentric circles. Here’s a modified version based on what the Nonprofit Democracy Network (NPDN) offered at the training:

Organizations are in the middle, where you can access the personal and interpersonal as well as see how things scale outward to global human society and all life.

Looking at intentional community as a particular form of community/group/organization, what does the intentional part of intentional community mean? I think it means that the “we” part of the community have some degree of unity about what our intent is, how we want to move forward together in time and action in the creation of our shared society and its relationship with the world around us. There’s a shared awareness, a common understanding, which is codified in a system of governance that is organizing the community to manifest that intent.

What if a global human society could see itself as a community and set a collective intent to share this planet sustainably and peacefully? I’ve heard it suggested that one of the big steps in that direction came when the first images of the entire planet came back from space. It provided the first tangible affirmation that this (planet) is it and we’re all (all humans and all life) in this together.

I’d like to think we’re heading in the right direction. Wage slavery is certainly better than chattel slavery, but it’s still part of a system that legitimizes the dispossession and disenfranchisement of people from their ability to access the resources needed to survive. Essentially, it’s still legal to kill people. It’s also legal to extract resources and produce waste that poses a threat to the ability of ecosystems to sustain themselves, which has become one of Earth’s biggest extinction level events and has the potential to make the Earth uninhabitable for humans without major technological intervention.

The thing is, and this is where it gets really overwhelming, where we’re trying to go has to include everyone. No really, everyone. Everyone needs to be on board. Every human being. And we have to consider the rest of life of on the planet. How do you even begin to comprehend that level of decision-making process? Is it even possible?

I think we have to believe it is, and this is where I think intentional communities have something to offer, because getting everyone on board is part of what you have to do in intentional community. It’s hard enough to do it with a small group, let alone with 7.5 billion people. But we have to start somewhere and scale up. There are examples out there of larger scale consent-based decision making. The uprising in Seattle against the WTO in 1999 showed that coordinated action amongst tens of thousands of people using a consensus based, spokes-council model was possible.

One of the things we know is that the process is as important as the outcome.

At the NPDN someone threw out the idea of “sense-making.” I reminded me of what someone I interviewed said about the Quaker understanding of consensus, that it was about getting the “sense of the meeting.” I understood it as a kind of precursor to decision-making. The classic situation in consensus is when someone jumps to making a proposal before the group has really talked through the problem, there’s immediate push back, and you get stuck in a “this or not-this” argument.

If we’re going to make a truly collective decision about what to do, we’re going to need to have a collective understanding of the situation. We need to make sense of something before we can decide what to do about it. My take on Occupy was that this was a key part of what was trying to happen in that movement, and why it was so hard to say what it was about. Occupy was trying to get everyone to the table, on a level playing field, so we could begin to collectively understand the problems we were dealing with and figure out collectively what to do.

Intentional communities are fundamentally about relationships, relationships of sharing. At the NPDN, someone asked the question, what if the core of what we’re doing is building trust?

Sharing requires trust, trust requires intimacy, intimacy requires vulnerability, in the emotional sense. Another side of vulnerability is about being vulnerable to something. The idea of collective liberation has to do with making sure the most vulnerable among us are cared for, and, in today’s world, defended.

We need to make ourselves vulnerable to each other if we are going to be able to trust each other enough to share with each other in a sustainable and equitable way. There’s a deep irony in the obsession with independence and individualism in society. The American Dream is a key story behind this obsession.

We’re taught to value and pursue financial independence in particular. But financial independence means we have all the money we need to buy the goods and services we want. But if there were no goods and services, what good would the money do us? How long would most people last in the wild, or even on a farm? We are so utterly and completely dependent on each other, perhaps more so that ever before, and yet the entire world view of the dominant system tells us otherwise. We need to be vulnerable about the fact that we are vulnerable without each other.

Belonging is a core concept I’ve been hearing brought up repeatedly. There’s something core about intentional communities here. Who is a member? Who is part of the group? This leads to a whole mess of dynamics around acceptance/rejection, inclusion/exclusion, who’s in and who’s out, and why, and who gets to make the decisions.

At some point in human history this was matter of survival. Even before civilization, odds of survival were better as a group, and shame, shunning, and exile were methods of maintaining group coherence. Maybe this is a little melodramatic, but, deep in our bones, belonging is survival. But our needs as humans don’t end with survival.

Belonging is meaning. We need each other to understand who we are, and we need to understand who we are to be able to get out of bed in the morning.

The dominant institutions, infrastructure, and culture in our world are designed to create isolation, disempower communities, and extract resources at dangerously unsustainable rates. The pursuit of individualism and consumerism is tearing us apart and driving us to the brink.

Our response is to create a movement of decentralized, interdependent, cooperative communities that can thrive in adverse conditions, rebuild our social fabric, and bring us to a cooperative, just, and sustainable human society.

We are relearning we.

Tools for Collective Self-Governance

Gleaning Wisdom from the Nonprofit Democracy Network

In late March 2019, Cassandra Ferrera, FIC Board member, and I participated in a training by the Nonprofit Democracy Network titled Tools for Collective Self-Governance. It was a 3 day exploration in how nonprofit organizations working can better embody the change they’re trying to make in the world.

There were many themes, threads, and tracks explored in small groups during the training, and this is by no means a comprehensive summary of everything that was covered, just a report on my journey through the space. This post is a companion to a more narrative post connecting ideas from this training to the cross-country communities tour I’d just completed, which you can find here.

Governance

As a frame for the training, this was the definition offered for governance from the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute:

How people choose to collectively organize themselves to manage their own affairs, share power and responsibilities, decide for themselves what kind of society the want for their future, and implement those decisions.

To do that they need to have processes, structures, traditions and rules in place so they can:

    • determine who is a member of their group
    • decide who has power, and over what
    • ensure that power is exercised properly
    • make and enforce their decisions
    • hold their decision-makers accountable
    • negotiate with others regarding their rights and interests
    • establish the most effective and legitimate arrangements for getting those things done.

http://toolkit.aigi.com.au/toolkit/1-0-understanding-governance

In short, governance is our agreements about how we work together to reach our common goals.

Aspects of Organizations

Another frame that was offered covered the different aspects of organizations:

  • Culture – assumptions, norms, values
  • Structure – formal arrangement of power, responsibility, autonomy, and accountability
  • Rules – explicit directives, expected, cultivated and sometimes enforced
  • Process – procedures for accomplishing discrete time-bound tasks that require coordination and/or input
  • Practice – ongoing activities that enable the organization to function
  • Relationships – presence and quality of the connection between people

The surprising aspect of this for me was the inclusion of rules, though I also really appreciated it. “Rules” is kind of a bad word, like leadership. But as we work to understand appropriate leadership in cooperative organizations, there’s a place for appropriate rules too, rules that are collectively agreed upon.

Accountability

Accountability has a rich and nuanced meaning that morphs depending on focus and context and runs through all the Aspects of Organizations.

It was suggested that Accountability = mutual respect + trust + agreements. I wonder if accountability is about creating a collective mentality, a sense of identification with, and investment in, common purpose? Basically, it’s not about you, and it’s not about me either. It’s about creating and operating from an identify of “we.”

There are lots of core concepts to cooperative organizations that Accountability touches:

  • Participation & Engagement
  • Empowerment & Agency
  • Responsibility
  • Being on the same page about how things work and what we’re doing
  • Clarity of common purpose, what is the shared definition of success?
  • Collective Capacity and Prioritization
  • Transparency
  • Follow-through & Feedback
  • Communication
  • Integrity
  • Wholeness

Accountability asks questions:

  • Who are you accountable to? What are you accountable for?
  • Accountability relates to the idea of belonging. If you belong, who do you belong to? Is this what  we mean when we say things like “I got you”?
  • How do we decide how we make decisions? Who decides who makes the decisions? These are some of the building blocks of creating a “we.”

Accountability also asks some things of us:

  • Awareness and responsiveness to the impacts on others, both of your behavior and of others
  • Awareness of the difference between our intent and our impacts. We might mean well, but if there is information or perspective we’re missing then our actions could be harmful.
  • A deep commitment to transparency and collaboration in creating a common understanding of our shared experience
  • A base of agreement about how to be (culture, relationships), what needs doing (structure, rules), and how it will get done (practice, process)

Healing trauma and participation

We’re all traumatized by the system of white supremacy/patriarchy/capitalism, and it’s also important to remember that we’re traumatized in different ways. One of the trainers suggested that “human beings + systemic oppression = oppressed marginalized people and dehumanized privileged people.”

Here’s a great article for understanding oppression:

https://mrdevin.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/five-faces-of-oppression.pdf

Healing is critical to forming cooperative groups and ultimately to a cooperative society, because our trauma gets in the way of that work. We have to see the work of healing ourselves as integral to healing society and the planet. But you can’t make people do it. What we can do is support healing work structurally in our organizations, try to move the cultural center of gravity in that direction, and just keep doing your own work.

Organizationally, this means being honest about the challenges we face, our failures, our needs, and our capacity. We’re looking for a balance point where we can see the good in people and not create reactionary policies. Too often, I see a kind of naivete in our communities and organizations. In our efforts to design systems from a different paradigm, we somehow assume that we’ll automatically know how to function in them. And then bad things happen and we clamp down out of fear and make arbitrary yet rigid rules. All of the problems we’re trying to solve are also in us. Of course they’re going to come into play.

The challenge is to get real and tell our stories about how this stuff plays out in groups, particularly regarding power and conflict, and how we transform that. We need to practice having courageous conversations. The call is to be bluntly and compassionately honest about what where we’re are at, what we’re dealing with, and what we need to put in place to support us in the right direction.

This includes making space for grief, learning how to reduce stress, and lovingly intervening before people burn out. Making space for this is makes space for the beauty as well.  As a wise older communitarian said to me recently, we’re all blessed and broken.

We have to make space for ourselves and each other as whole people, and we need each other to become whole. Part of the brokenness in society is our own brokenness, and part of our brokenness is that we’re not together, in community. Community helps us see where we’re broken and how to come back together, individually and collectively.

Part of the challenge of dealing with trauma in community is that people have very different starting points in what they’re dealing with, which affects their ability to participate and to take responsibility. I was struck with the question, whose responsibility is it to create a culture of responsibility? The best answer I could get was, whoever has the ability to respond.

Every individual in a group has shit to deal with that helps determine how much they can give and how much they need, and the group as a whole has a capacity of what it can handle and continue to function as planned or intended. Sometimes individuals in a group need so much that it challenges the group’s ability to function. The question then becomes, should the group change what it’s trying to do, disband, or remove the person(s) who have needs the group can’t accommodate?

FIC Member Engagement

One of my main inquiries during the training had to do with how to engage our network of communities more, inelegantly referred to as member engagement. There were a few premises I was working with:

We want to both build and focus the network. There are just over 1000 groups listed in the Directory, and we have just over 100 groups who pay annual dues to be community members of the FIC. We believe there’s the potential for there to be more in both.

We also want more groups to see themselves as builders of this movement, helping it grow, helping the public to be more aware of it, as well as to look at this work through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Part of our work in this is to shift narrative about who intentional communities are for and why they matter. Central to this is decentering the perspectives and concerns of the privileged and  centering those of the oppressed. Potentially contrary to our desire to grow the movement, we recognize that this may shift may alienate some groups, but we believe it’s the right thing to do.

With that framing, I was led to a series of questions, with a few thoughts in response:

  • Why aren’t more groups getting involved?  
    • There are a lot of different reasons, and we probably know a lot of them if we think about it, and they’re somewhat different depending on race, class, gender/sexual orientation.
  • Who do we want involved?
  • Why do we think involvement is important?  
  • Who do we consider stakeholders?
  • What are their needs?
  • What’s the purpose of membership? What is it now and what do we want it to be?
  • We want to foster mutual support
  • What do we have to offer?
  • Where are trying to lead the movement?  
    • We need to be more transparent.  

Democratizing the FIC

This led me an idea. We could put out a sort of call to action that would make it very clear what we are advocating. We would see who responds and then work with those groups to begin shaping goals and directions for the FIC as organization and for the movement.

The FIC has always shied away from having direct representation from constituents. Organizing it as a non-profit with a Board that would serve the larger movement instead of supporting a specific subgroup was key to the intent of reforming the FIC in 1987. But to I wonder if meaningful involvement that gives groups more of stake in what’s happening might help build  support as well as legitimacy for the FIC.

In one session, a series of questions were presented, and here’s my exploration:

  1. What is the problem/tension trying to solve?

Shifting to DEI focus in the service of greater relevance and social impact for ICs

  1. Who do you have to move to solve the problem?

Most intentional communities in some direction or another. We need to get clear on who our different constituent bodies are and have appropriate representation so that groups feel that their concerns are being addressed and that they belong.

  1. What emotional needs are being met by the status quo?

Doesn’t seem like much. Is this the problem?

  1. What emotional needs could be met in a new form/solution?

Belonging, part of something larger, mutual support and security, access to greater resources, part of network that’s there for each other. Moral and tangible support.

If we want people to feel like they belong inside a community of communities, how do we knit this movement together, particularly along race, but all the other ways its divided? How do we shift to be an organization led by oppressed and marginalized people? What does that look like and what will it take? What are our values and intention around that?

During the training, Cassandra and I also recognized that we need help answering these questions from people who are outside of our immediate, usual circle but are inside the larger circle we want to be in, who can hold us in organizational transition, survey the field, and think about things differently.

It’s a long path, but I’m very grateful for the Nonprofit Democracy Network for hosting this training and helping me take a few more steps.

On the road, Taos Initiative for Life Together

From my cross-country communities tour, March 2019

“As Christians we have to atone and reconcile the atrocities done in the name of God.” That was Todd Wynward, during his 2 minutes in the intro go-round of the first Southwest Inter-Community Summit. I’d been kind of tuned out when he started talking, but that got my attention. I need to talk to that guy.

Todd is a Mennonite minister, wilderness guide, and follower of the Watershed Way. He and his wife Peg Bartlett founded and run the Taos Initiative for Life Together, in Taos, NM. The purpose of TiLT is to demonstrate as Christian faith-based people how to live in a way that embodies “creative cultural resistance, transformative economics, watershed discipleship, high-desert homesteading, innovative education and shared community practices to reimagine the ‘good life’ in America.”

According to the Watershed Discipleship website:

“Watershed discipleship” is an intentional triple entendre:

    1. Recognizing we live in a watershed moment of ecological crisis,
    2. Learning to be disciples in our watersheds, and
    3. Developing awareness of the ways our watersheds act as our rabbis (teachers), pointing us to God.

Todd authored Rewilding the Way, which explores an interpretation of Christian principles that leads us back to integration with nature, challenges our inculturation into imperialist, consumerist civilization, and solve injustice and ecological destruction through community organizing and action.

Todd and Peg are part of a diverse and extended community of activists and organizers in Taos working to build resilience, heal and reconcile the complex history of colonalism and imperialism, first by the Spanish, then Mexico, then the US, including a high number of counter-cultural folks and spiritual seekers over the last several decades.

There’s a lot going on in Taos. Right after I arrived, a First Nations man named Buck Johnson came down from 4 days on top of a drill for an exploratory well. It was a non-violent direct action supported by the Taos Water Protectors that stalled the drilling to create a media opportunity to address the problems with the water agreements in the region. From what I was told, Taos Water Protectors is led by a diverse group of people, many of them young people, and that part of the genesis for this was people from Taos working together at Standing Rock.

I also spent time in Taos with my friend Megan, former resident of Lama Foundation and coordinator for last year’s Southwest Inter-Community Retreat. She talked about the work she’s been doing lately leading a group of white people addressing white privilege, using a curriculum from the Healing & Reconciliation Institute, and with oversight from local BIPOC activists. This kind of work is happening more and more all over the place, which I find encouraging.

Todd was one of several radical Christians that I’ve come into contact with over the last year, the others being Canticle Farm in Oakland, CA, which I got to visit last Fall, and more recently my visit to Koinonia Farm in southeast Georgia. The early intentional communities movement of the 40’s and 50’s was highly influenced by Quakers and Bruderhoff, but this diminished over time, and there’s been a more pronounced, though by no means complete split between religious and secular intentional communities over the last several decades.

It seems like there’s a new convergence of religious and secular groups that hold the same values and are able to comfortably hold differences in belief. This feels like a new and important development, like everyone did a lot of throwing out babies with bathwater, and now it’s time to bring it back together to help the world see a different vision for humanity living in peaceful, sustainable community.

On the road, Arcosanti

From my cross-country communities tour, March 2019

I got a little out of order, but to wrap up my first cross-country tour I wanted to share a little about Arcosanti. I only stayed there a night on my way from Taos to San Diego, but I’ve helped host a couple gatherings there the last two years and I really enjoy the place. It was kind of just a convenient layover at a community I really like, but I also had an agenda.

Last year the group of us in the GENNA Alliance who organized the Regenerative CoLab also played a small support role in the Arcosanti Convergence, particularly around promotion and content curation. Since then I’ve been talking with the main coordinator for the Convergence, SeanPaul, about getting more involved with Convergence this year, which will be October 11 – 13. My early win is getting tentative agreement from Climbing Poetree to come perform and speak. Looking forward to sharing about this as it progresses!

Before visiting Arcosanti I didn’t know that concrete could feel warm. I mostly mean that metaphorically, but there’s also some thermal mass potential. Arcosanti is mostly built of concrete. Rounded, sculpted concrete, incredible architecture, and compliments the natural environment. It just feels good being there. Check out their explanation of the concept of Arcology and learn about Arcosanti’s more than 50 year history.

It’s been interesting connecting with folks at Arcosanti, in part because I’ve heard a number of current or ex-residents say, somewhat adamantly, that they’re not an intentional community. I’ve heard others express a sentiment along the lines of, well, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck….

The resistance to the term is challenging because it makes my job a little harder, but I also really appreciate it from the perspective of looking past concepts and terminology to the patterns and dynamics that tend to run through most if not all groups, and identify the core characteristics that create a similar experience even if the form seems very different.

I also understand the resistance from an identify and expectation management perspective. Some of what I heard from folks there is that some people who came thinking Arcosanti was an “intentional community” and were then disappointed to find out things didn’t match their expectations. These also weren’t the kinds of people that Arcosanti was very interested in either. Obviously you want to attract people who are going to be a good fit, for them and the group, and you want to make sure you’re communicating in a way that encourages that.

But for me, working for the FIC, the work is to try to broaden both the movement’s conception, as well as the public awareness and perception, of what an “intentional community” can be. To be honest, I don’t particularly like the term. But it is in common enough use that we’d only want to change it to something we knew would fit better for more people. I’ve asked a lot of people for other ideas, and no one has been able to come up with anything they thought would be better.  

When it gets down to it, I don’t care what we call it, I just want us all to be able to learn from each other and find ways to be mutually supportive. Whatever tools will help us, or whatever tools aren’t serving us anymore, let’s figure out together what works.

Social Justice in the Intentional Communities Movement

Publishers note, Communities magazine #178, Spring 2018 

Intentional communities are intrinsically idealistic. They’re based on a radical analysis of social problems and are an attempt to address them. They represent a personal desire to live in a way that feels more satisfying, but also the desire for a better society for all people. They are a recognition that some of the essentials that make community what it is—mutual support, love and caring, sharing lives and livelihood in a meaningful and satisfying way—are lacking in the world. Not all intentional communities share the same political or social views. Some mirror the trend towards isolationism and protectionism we see in politics today. But most value, at least in theory, diversity, equality, and sustainability, and want to help create a world that works for everyone.

We live in a world fraught with injustice and inequality. In the US in particular, we live with a legacy of slavery and genocide that affects the opportunities we have regardless of when our ancestors came to this land. We all live with the effects of racialized, gendered, and classist society. These are core issues that need to be addressed if intentional communities are to fulfill their potential as models for a better way of living.

If we want to create models for how to live that address the problems in society, it’s crucial that we hold central the perspectives and issues of those most affected by those problems. Certain people are more likely to have access to the resources to buy land, build buildings, and start businesses. Unfortunately, when they do, they’re going to create communities with cultures that are less comfortable for people who are not like them. There are systemic economic and cultural barriers to living in and starting intentional communities, both from external forces and from the unintentional perpetuation of oppression and privilege by intentional communities themselves and the people who live in them.

If we think about racism and classism not as personal failings but as a system in which we are privileged or disadvantaged, then those of us who benefit from this system have a responsibility to work to change it. Intentional communities are a means to the end of making a better world, but they’re also an end in themselves, of creating a way to live right now that’s better than what the mainstream has to offer. It’s a privilege to live in and start intentional communities, and we have a responsibility to help extend the opportunity to everyone who wants it.

The FIC is recommitting to our organizational value of social justice, particularly in the realm of racial and economic justice. At our Spring Board meetings, the Board went through an anti-racism training with the AORTA Collective (aorta.coop), and began identifying how to bring this into what we do, both internally as an organization and externally in our work as servants of this movement. FIC has often showcased ICs that are pioneers in addressing gender dynamics, ecological responsibility, and cooperative economics. Racism and economic inequality have not been a core focus, and we would like to more directly address the reality of how these factors affect who participates in this movement and how this movement can be a real force for change in the world. There are lots of different ways this can look. For example:

We’re publishing this issue of Communities magazine.

We’ll be working to create a set of questions about social justice practices for listings in the Communities Directory.

We will have a solid selection of materials that cover these issues available through Community Bookstore and a page on www.ic.org detailing resources for communities addressing social justice.

We will make sure to address these issues in interviews and articles.

We will provide extra promotion and social media attention to groups working to address these issues.

FIC has also recognized that our staff has almost always been made up of white people, and we believe this has limited our ability to fully understand our own movement. Thus, in recent hirings, we have made a point of being especially diligent to avoid racial biases and we are committed to this being our new normal.

Intentional communities have a unique opportunity to address oppression and privilege. And while most value diversity, they often struggle to achieve it. Why? There’s no easy answer, and we need to be asking ourselves some tough questions and be open to courageous conversations. How do racism, classism, hetero-cis-sexism, and other forms of oppression play out within intentional communities? How can ICs become truly accessible and inclusive spaces? How can people with privilege, especially white people, men, and straight people, let go of their privilege or put it in the service of others? How can intentional communities help address oppression in the larger society, both directly and by providing accessible and relevant alternatives?

We each have our own internal work to do here, and we also need to come together to do this work. Let’s make this movement a profound source of healing, reconciliation, and empowerment for the world to draw from.

Everything is in someone’s backyard

Publishers note, Communities magazine #180, Fall 2018

There was a time when dropping out and going back to the land to live the good life was a viable option. Perhaps it still is, but only for a very, very small percentage of humanity. There’s no escape. And at this point, with so much devastation and injustice happening around the world, we have to ask the question, is it even right to escape?

On an ecological level, escape is increasingly unrealistic. Climate change doesn’t care about your permaculture plan. (Permaculture can add to your resilience in the face of climate disruption, but cannot bestow immunity.) Radioactivity from Fukushima doesn’t care about national borders, and pollutants carried by water don’t stop at your property line. (While you can take measures to mitigate these threats, they will be at best only partially effective.) If you live in an ecosystem that’s collapsing it ultimately doesn’t matter how sustainable your community is.

On an economic level, there’s virtually no avoiding some amount of involvement in global, industrial, free-market capitalism. Even if you’re somehow able to make or barter for everything you need to live, chances are that some of what you’re bartering for was created with inputs of financial capital. Avoiding this entanglement becomes more possible the more low-tech you’re willing to live, but realistically, is this really an option for most of the 7.5 billion people who live on this planet given the realities of infrastructure that, for as unsustainable as it is, is depended on by billions of people?

And then the social dimension comes in, and you have to face the fact that pursuing this kind of lifestyle is a privilege, and as with any kind of privilege, a hallmark of privilege is getting to avoid facing it. No one is entitled to consume more than their fair share of the earth’s resources or to limit the access of others to the resources they need to sustain themselves. But even if you’re managing to live a lifestyle that doesn’t consume more than your fair share, and you personally are not actively limiting the access of others, there are global systems that are, and avoiding them is condoning them. Ethics aside, there’s also the real possibility of living in a region inundated by climate refugees, or, if there are food or water shortages, needing to contend with desperate people, assuming you’re not one of them.

Escape is impossible, and arguably immoral. If we want safety and security for ourselves, our families, our communities, then it needs to be available for everyone on the planet and done sustainably. We have to do something. But how do we even begin to deal with all of this? Recognizing the systemic, interdependent nature of it all is a start.

There is no more outside

Over half the world’s population uses the internet. Over half live in urban areas. The vast majority of people are dependent on local economic systems that are dependent, either for resources or legitimacy, on national economic systems, which are dependent on and to some extent beholden to global economic systems. There are almost no “uncontacted” people left on the planet. For all practical purposes all of humanity exists as a single global society. Trying to extract yourself or a community from this is virtually impossible.

I frequently hear people say things along the lines of, I want to live in a sustainable/self-sustaining community. People seem to have a glamorized image of self-sustaining and vastly underestimate what’s involved. I live in a community where we produce around 60 percet of our own food; it takes up a huge chunk of our capacity. Getting to 100 percent would be monumental. And there’s so much more than food.

Take nails for instance. Are you going to set up a forge to make your own nails? Or are you planning on living in structures that don’t require nails, or really any metal tools at all? Okay, say you want to set up a forge, how are going to set up the forge in the first place without buying the equipment? Or, are you going to make the equipment? How are you going to do that?

Okay, say you want to go neo-primitive. What land are you on? How did you get that land? Even if you own it outright, you still have to pay property tax, so where’s that money going to come from?

How far are you willing to go without dental or medical care? Are you ready to never use a mode of transportation other than your own two feet?

There is a compromise born of a deep acceptance of the way things are combined with a commitment to certain values and ideals mixed with a large dose of good-natured flexibility about how things turn out. Finding the right balance that cares for you, your community, and the whole world all at the same time is core to what intentional community is all about.

There is a beauty and an art in the pragmatism of building community. Building community includes everything that exists in our day-to-day lives. It’s the relationships, friends and families, the interplay of human habit with natural environment, it’s food and water and shelter, it’s raising the children, building the buildings, all the necessities of life, dealing with our shit, literally and figuratively, it’s the negotiations of all these things with others, it’s our sense of meaning and purpose, it’s fun and music and dance and culture, and the people you’re doing it all with and the places you’re doing it all in, and how all of that is cared for and managed within the context of the world as it exists around you. All of our ideals and intentions have been brought down to the level of, how exactly is this going to work?

We need to accept the fact that how it’s going to work is, at least at first, participating in global capitalism and using non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. It’s just the way the world works right now, and there’s no way to change it without continuing to participate in it to some degree. There’s no changing it from the outside. There is no more outside. There are no more backyards.

Yeah, it sucks, but it’s what we have to deal with, and avoiding it, hating it, being afraid of it, isn’t going to help. Our task is to transform this global human society from the inside out. We must become highly engaged global citizens understanding that, collectively, all our actions together make the world what it is becoming.

No one is free until all are free

Let’s get real. We are facing multiple, interconnected global dangers, rooted in the exploitation of people and planet. These dangers include climate change, wealth disparity, and social injustice.

These are co-created and mutually reinforcing problems. They are systemic.

This system perpetuates wealth disparity and dispossession of land, generates political disenfranchisement, makes legal the oppression and exploitation of some people by others, and supports resource extraction that is destructive of ecosystems.

It’s fostered by and reinforces cultures that promote or condone violence as a form of conflict resolution, that assert the superiority of one group of people over others, and that believe in or accept the entitlement of some people to resources and decision-making at the expense of others.

The legacies of oppression and exploitation of some groups by others have real impacts on the current ability of people to sustain themselves and thrive, and efforts need to be made to correct this and heal from the trauma it has caused.

Some people benefit from the systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism that underlie geopolitics and the global economy. Everyone is harmed by it to some degree or another.

We have to do this together. Everyone has to be on board. Everyone. That’s the only way this is going to work. However much you have, be it in material, social, political, or emotional resources, if you have more than others, share it, and if you can get others to do the same, do it.

Human society has the capacity to support the health and well-being of all forms of life, if we recognize the rights of nature, the interdependence of all life, and that the health and well-being of one depends on the health and well-being of all. This movement is about creating communities that endeavor to create solutions, work toward this ideal, and change the direction of human society. If you’re reading this I believe that you are part of this and playing a role in this movement. Thank you for doing this work.

Facing the hard things

Publishers note, Communities magazine #184, Fall 2019

This is going to be hard to talk about. But there’s no way around it. If we’re going to figure out how to create healthy, thriving communities that are replicable models for a cooperative, sustainable, and just human society, we’ve got to talk about the hard stuff.

Intentional community is not something we automatically know how to do. We have a sense of what we want, of what’s missing, or of what’s wrong in society that we’re trying to balance or correct. We have visions, ideals, and intentions. But for the most part community is contrary to what we’ve been taught in our hyper-individualistic, profit-driven, competitive, hierarchical, exploitative, and oppressive world. Stepping onto the property of an intentional community doesn’t make all of that go away, and all of that was there when the community was formed in the first place. Individually and collectively we carry it all with us and it impacts everything we do. Intentional community isn’t just about learning what we need to learn to make a better world, it’s about unlearning too, as well as learning to see our biases and blind spots.

We’re all traumatized. Some people are more impacted by the legacy and contemporary realities of slavery, genocide, colonialism and neo-colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and global capitalism, but they affect all of us. We can correct, repair, heal, but those of us alive today will always live with those traumas. You can’t undo what’s been done. The harm done by the systems that we live with today, and by us within those systems, is generational, and it will take generations to undo. But that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands. This is the work there is for us to do, so that our children grow up with a little less trauma, and their children grow up with a little less.

It’s hard to think in these terms because of the crisis we’re in. We have to slow down, take the time to try to regain our wholeness as people, our ability to work together, our sense of belonging with each other and the natural world. We have to focus on relationships and how to relieve the stress and trauma that so many people are trying to survive every day. But does the pace of global warming allow us to slow down? On some level, no, but I would argue that we don’t have time not to slow down, because we don’t have time to not do it right.

But what does doing it right even look like? People like to talk about replicable models, but I don’t think we know what they are. I think we’ll know when there are models that start replicating. But again, this doesn’t mean we give up. It means we keep trying things. And if we’re going to get anywhere, we have to be able to talk about what didn’t work.

Of course no one wants to be seen at their worst. On some level, intentional communities are about recreating a sense of belonging. But by their nature, intentional communities, with their property lines and membership processes, are also exclusionary, and we’re all coming to this endeavor with trauma around rejection. We’re all scared of being left out, ostracized. Most of us carry with us a sense that if you knew who I really am, warts and all, you wouldn’t accept me.

This is why we have to be courageous enough to be vulnerable. Community is about sharing. Sharing takes trust. Trust takes intimacy. Intimacy takes vulnerability. We have to learn how to call in instead of call out. We have to be able to touch our own shadows and allow our shadows to be touched by others, because if something doesn’t have a shadow, how do you know it’s real? Getting real, together, is how we’re going to find the path forward.

Don’t get me wrong, we know a lot about what works in intentional community. I don’t know if we’ve figured out the “best practices” but we’ve definitely figured out some good ones, and in many respects have a pretty good idea that we’re on the right track. We’re pretty good about sharing about this stuff too, but we could be better―celebration is also part of a healthy community. At the same time, it’s not about getting mired in the muck, but we can’t be afraid to get dirty, to step into the darkness.

Part of the fear is of being stereotyped, as intentional communities already are, and sensationalized, which also happens. But we need to help the rest of society be honest too. Sexual abuse and assault of adults and children, narcisistic egomaniacs who take advantage of people, racism, sexism, LGTBQ-phobia, classism, it’s not as if these things don’t exist in every community everywhere. Pretending that they don’t isn’t helping anyone.

I know it’s hard to talk about, because so often, when something really bad happens, the community is divided about what happened and how they feel about it. The person some see as the perpetrator is seen as the victim by others, and in many cases it’s impossible to know what really happened because the only people present have different stories, and people are forced to decide whom to believe. The martyrs and the slackers just complain amongst themselves about the others. The long-term members and the new members are frustrated with each other and can’t figure out how to see each other’s perspective.

And then there’s the guy who owns the property and has lured a succession of people with the promise of being able to build their own little place, but it turns out he’s a creep or a control freak. Or there are the people who simply don’t have the skills or the wherewithal to do reasonable work, and don’t realize that they’re not doing reasonable work, which makes more work for others―and then whose job is it to tell them? What do you do when some people feel that community systems aren’t working, but others feel there’s nothing wrong and don’t want to talk, and both perspectives have some validity?

We all have our baggage. We all react in ways we wish we didn’t. We can all gain greater understanding by looking at the issues others have with us. And at the same time, we’re all tired and stressed, trying to make ends meet, trying to make it all work, and sometimes we just don’t have it in us to address the problem directly or constructively.

How do we reconcile our conflicting perspectives? How do we hold each other with compassion while still holding each other accountable? How do we come together to collectively hold responsibility for our communities? How do we appreciate each other for saying the hard things, acknowledge what’s true, add what’s missing, and also be true to ourselves and stand up against what we believe is false? We have to be willing to talk about things openly, without denial, without making each other wrong for what we say or how we say it as a way to avoid addressing what’s being brought forward.

We know quite a bit about the practice of collective decision-making. But one of the classic pitfalls is jumping to a proposed solution before the group has had a chance to discuss the problem. You end up in a that-or-not-that argument. What we haven’t developed as much is our practice of collective sense-making. How can you collectively decide what to do about a situation if you haven’t collectively made sense of what’s happening and how you got there?

Sense-making is what we need to do, as communities and as a movement of communities, about the things that went wrong, the terrible incidents we don’t want to talk about. We have to be vulnerable to build the intimacy to build the trust to be able to share about the shadow side of cooperation. I know, it sounds like a catch-22, and it is, but we have to start somewhere. We have to commit ourselves to this work, knowing that we will make mistakes. It will be hard and uncomfortable, but if we’re doing our work, willing to learn and grow, there’s no need to feel guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed. All there is to do is acknowledge what’s so, keep reaching for each other, look for how to reconcile and heal, and keep putting in the effort.

Deep breath. Strong and open-hearted. Here we go.

Land in a Sustainable and Just Society

“How many people, whose doors I’ve knocked on, got kicked out of their homes, with their children, without a job, and I was the partial cause of it… So, that’s how this spark of the need for land came to me. Seeing the land, just the land itself. The beauty of the land, the purity of the land, and the acknowledgment that all power come from the land, and the land come from God. All power comes from the land.”

That’s Reverend Charles Sherrod, speaking about the founding of New Communities, Inc. in the documentary Arc Of Justice: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Beloved Community ( HYPERLINK “https://www.arcofjusticefilm.com/”www.arcofjusticefilm.com).

New Communities, founded in 1969 by black farmers in southwest Georgia, was one of the first land trusts in the United States. The founders of New Communities came out of the Civil Rights Movement (among them was Slater King, a cousin of Martin Luther King Jr.) because they recognized that, in the words of one of those interviewed in the film, “economic opportunity was…connected to civil rights, and that economic opportunity meant the opportunity for independence.” Charles Sherrod and others had traveled to Israel in 1968 to “learn about developing homes and cooperatives on community-owned land.” They brought back the idea of owning your own home but leasing the land underneath it, creating the basis for a cooperative economy.

During its existence through the ’70s and into the ’80s, New Communities was attacked physically, economically, and financially, finally forced to close in 1983 from discriminatory practices by the USDA. In 2009 landholders from New Communities received $12.8 million as part of a class action lawsuit against the USDA. New Communities is a powerful story that helps us understand more fully what intentional communities are, what they can be, and why they matter.

Well-meaning white people will sometimes ask, why aren’t there more people of color living in intentional communities? A common explanation is, well, they find community in other ways. While this may be true on some level, it doesn’t acknowledge the numerous examples of opposition or outright violence that people of color or interracial groups trying to organize intentional communities have faced. It’s not that they haven’t tried to create intentional communities, it’s that they’ve met barriers that communities started by white people don’t face. Land is indeed power, and some people don’t want other people to have it. But the desire to have land, to have the security and the access to self-sufficiency that land can provide, and a place where a community can come together on their own terms to collectively determine the conditions of their lives, this is a desire shared by all kinds of people.

When you stop and think about it, the idea of private property is pretty weird. If I “own” land then I get to do whatever I want with it, and I get to say whether or not anyone else can come onto this land or what they can and can’t do on it? Yes, as long as someone doesn’t take it from me. There is also likely a State or other authority willing to protect my “right” to that land, by force if necessary, but who can also take away that right if I don’t pay taxes, start doing something illegal, or am part of a demographic that’s being systematically disenfranchised and discriminated against. It’s all pretty arbitrary and based on whoever happens to have control.

It also pretends that land use doesn’t have consequences. Depletion of natural resources resulting in migration and war goes back as far as recorded civilization. Exclusive, unilateral land use makes even less sense with 7.5 billion people on the planet, and a global economy consisting of consumption and waste practices that are compromising the ecosystems on which all life depends. We live in a world where we’ve exceeded the sustainable use of renewable resources, meaning that some people are getting their needs met (or very much more than what they need) at the expense of other people’s ability to get their needs met. Self-sufficiency, the ability to access the resources needed to sustain yourself, has become a privilege, a luxury. How then do we reconcile our notions of private property with a sustainable and just society?

A key motivation for creating intentional communities is the desire to have control over the circumstances of your life—in other words, banding together with like-minded people on a piece of land where you get to do what you want. This in turn can be a result of a variety of motivations, from protectionism to social justice. Regardless, it’s what you have to do within the economic and political systems covering pretty much every square foot of land on the face of the earth—systems that are fundamentally based on the objectification and commodification of land. Collectively deciding how all people can get their needs met through sustainable land use isn’t even an available option for the world today. There are just too many vested interests in maintaining the current system based on an almost hallowed belief in private property.

Ultimately part of what intentional communities are trying to model, and what movements trying to bring back the Commons are aiming at, is this. We can have a different relationship with each other and a different relationship with the land that we all share and depend on for our existence, but it will take willingness from all of us to challenge fundamental assumptions and cultural norms we have about privacy and control. Are we able to share access and decision-making about the resources necessary to live in an equitable and sustainable way? Are we able to shift our approach towards land use away from control towards access and stewardship? Are we able to see ourselves in relationship to an earth that is very much alive? Are we able to honor the relationship to the land that all people and all life share, considering and valuing equally the needs of all life as inherently interdependent?

I believe we can and that intentional communities can help show us the path forward.

Transforming Economics

Publishers note, Communities magazine #175, Summer 2017

What if no one had to worry about money? Everyone worries about money, rich or poor, but particularly those whose access to money doesn’t instill confidence in survival. Struggling to acquire enough money to meet basic needs, let alone have a few nice things, is a reality for the majority of people on the planet. There’s an enormous amount of stress and trauma involved in money being the center of our socioeconomic existence.

Perhaps it’s not so much money in itself. I don’t really buy the argument that tools are value-neutral, but, going with the idea that money is just a tool, or a form of energy, which can be used for good or ill, I would say that capitalism is the problem.

I understand capitalism as being focused on the cycle of investment and return of capital. You invest money in something, eventually you get back your investment plus a return. You take that return, invest it again, get more money. Of course, it’s a gamble, there’s no guarantee of a return. It’s a game. And the reality is that only a very small percentage of people have enough chips to ante up. If you’re fortunate or lucky enough, you can take a seat at the table, and when your money is making money, your survival is less in question (though it’s all a matter of degree).

This game of capitalism, growing your money, is based on a geometric equation. It grows on an upward curve, not a straight line. Eventually that curve approaches infinity. In other words, capitalism assumes infinite growth. But the world is finite. Also, the current money system has a built-in deficit of available currency in relation to debt, so the only way for the game to keep working is if the economy keeps growing. It’s an inherently unsustainable system.

In today’s world, capitalism has been developed to peak efficiency. With the injection of cheap fossil fuels, global free-market capitalism has become incredibly proficient at expanding quickly to exploit people and resources everywhere on the planet. We’re so addicted to this game of making money that we’re creating threats to our very survival. There is a certain irony to the fact that, while people’s survival depends on acquiring money, the obsession with acquiring money is threatening the survival of our species.

This is not a game we want to keep playing. The thing is, it’s the only game in town. You can create games within that game, but you’re still playing the game, and since you’re playing for your life, it’s inherently stressful.

What kind of human potential would be unleashed if that stress over money were relieved? What if every person knew that they could get their basic needs met? I think the ability to get one’s basic needs met is a human right, and, it so happens, so does the United Nations. In 1948, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Declaration_of_Human_Rights). Article 25 says, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [themselves] and [their] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond [their] control.”

Obviously this right (among many others in the declaration) are not being honored for the vast majority of people on the planet. It begs the question, who’s responsible for meeting these needs? National governments seem like the obvious candidate, but while that may be their responsibility, they are clearly failing at it. This might seem odd given that most governments in the world at this point are democracies, and democracy is supposed to be government of the people, by the people, for the people. So, isn’t the role of government to facilitate the people of a country meeting their own needs?

There are lots of potential reasons why this isn’t working out. My inclination is to point to classism combined with the power of transnational corporations that prioritize profit over people and the planet, and the corrupting influence they have on elections and through lobbying. Regardless, unless we’re ready to overthrow the government and make it do its job, the reality is that we need to take of care of things ourselves.

Isn’t this one of the things that community is all about, groups of people taking care of each other? Community comes in all different forms, and intentional community is one way of identifying a cluster of similar forms. The body of theory and rhetoric on community in general is vast and I’m not going to attempt to summarize it. What I offer is one possible definition that provides context to the idea of intentional community: A community is a set of social and economic relationships and the place(s) where those relationships interact. The FIC defines an intentional community as a group of people who live together or share common facilities and who regularly associate on the basis of explicit common values. Essentially intentional community is distinguished by the presence of common ownership and a set of shared values.

At their core, to some degree or another, intentional communities are attempts to satisfy the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are attempts at collective self-determinism, the ability of groups of people to have reasonable access to resources and to control over the conditions of their daily lives. All people should have this right. All people should have access to the resources and decision-making they need, not only to sustain themselves, but thrive, and no one should be able to access resources and decision-making in a way that takes away from the equitable access of others. Intentional communities are small-scale models of this. However, because of the world we live in and the way most intentional communities are financially structured, living in intentional communities, or starting them in the first place, often requires an access to resources that most people don’t have.

It’s also important to note that, in the US at least, the people who have the resources to start or buy in to intentional communities tend to be white, and various private and public institutions that have to be dealt with tend to be discriminatory. Intentional communities are predominantly white and express white culture, which means that they are far less accessible to people who aren’t willing to conform themselves to white culture on that level. Cultural access is as important as economic access. This is also true of course for women, queer and trans people, disabled people, and any other group not seen as normative and afforded the privileges therein. In other words, we’re dealing with structural inequities that have disadvantaged many groups of people, and if we’re serious about taking care of each other, we have to actively look for ways of remedying that, both within our communities and in larger systems. We need to take care of everyone. We want everyone to be able to manifest their potential. Everyone. Period. This isn’t going to happen on its own.

I live at Twin Oaks Community, which is a member of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. Each of the FEC communities follows seven principles, the first two of which are the most relevant here:

Holds its land, labor, income and other resources in common.

Assumes responsibility for the needs of its members, receiving the products of their labor and distributing these and all other goods equally, or according to need.

I think we’re so inculturated to capitalism and private property that it’s hard to grasp how radical these principles are. Similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what if these principles were actually implemented for all people on the planet? It’s hard for people to imagine what this looks like for a community of 100 people like Twin Oaks (simply explaining it to people, or taking them on a Saturday tour, often blows their minds), let alone for all of humanity.

Something happened to me, from when I moved to Twin Oaks when I was 19 years old until I took a break from the community eight years later. Things that most people take for granted seemed very strange. When I ventured back out into the wide world, this stress over money, which is like air for most people, was glaringly obvious. Spending half your time working a job you don’t like to earn money to pay for the things you need, it’s just the way it is. Except, there are options, and after eight years in an income-sharing commune, I had ask, why would you do that?

Obviously the answer is most people have no real choice. Alternatives are in short supply and creating alternatives requires access to resources most people don’t have. It also brings its own stress, as anyone who has tried to start their own business will tell you. Cooperative ventures add a further level of stress, which is figuring out how to do cooperative governance, management, and decision-making. The responsibility, the interpersonal challenges, on top of trying to buy property or start a business in an incredibly unfriendly financial and legal environment, is just more than most people want to deal with.

I found all of this out the hard way after I left Twin Oaks. I spend four years living in Charlottesville, Virginia. I lived in a formal collective house, got involved with Food Not Bombs, organized some actions for the local alternative transportation advocacy group, helped start a small car co-op, and helped start two cooperative businesses, one of which partnered with a local nonprofit to help low-income families start vegetable gardens. People involved with various of these projects were also involved in other community-based projects and lived in other informal collective houses.

My focus was on starting the cooperative businesses. It seemed to me that if we wanted to start freeing people up for community-building, for activism, for art, for personal growth, we needed more opportunities for flexible work at decent wages that weren’t soul-sucking. I’d gotten some experience in business management in the businesses at Twin Oaks, but to learn more I went to the local chapter of the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE). For $80, they were offering a series of four three-hour seminars on starting a business. Plus, you could get as much free business counseling as you wanted. This was all extremely useful.

One of the most eye-opening moments in this process was during one of the seminars, led by a former venture capitalist from Dallas. He said that your whole goal is building up your business to the point where you sell it for a lot of money to some bigger business. Then, you take that money and start over. I was shocked, though not surprised, and ultimately it was gratifying to have this simple truth of capitalism laid bare. No shame, no qualms, that’s simply the game we’re playing. And since you have no choice but to play that game to some degree or another, I decided that I should learn how to play it well.

My overall goal was to help foster the same kind of social and economic support system that I experienced at Twin Oaks, but in a decentralized way in an urban setting accessible to more people. We had plenty of success, and plenty of failure, though I certainly learned something from every attempt. Also, it was just slow going, a lot of herding cats and pulling teeth, which will sound familiar to anyone who’s lived or worked in cooperative groups. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to unlearn, and it’s a lifelong process.

Ultimately I moved back to Twin Oaks for personal reasons, but the appeal of trying to transform the economy of a city so that cooperative economics are the norm is still an inspiring idea to me. What would it look like for an entire city to be organized on the principles that all land, labor, and other resources are held in common, and that the citizens are collectively responsible for meeting all their needs? In other words, what if an entire city were organized as an intentional community?

To some degree, I think that’s essentially what the Transition Town model is trying to accomplish. The idea with Transition Towns is ultimately to have the local municipality approve an energy descent plan that’s been generated by the citizenry through a massive community organizing effort. If the energy descent plan represents the “common values,” and since people in the city certainly live together, share common facilities, and regularly associate with each other, then a fully realized Transition Town would meet our definition of an intentional community.

Lots of organizations and movements are working on this problem with different frameworks. The idea of the commons, of natural resources being accessible to all members of society, goes way back, and many groups are trying to bring it forward again. The New Economy Coalition has over 160 member organizations all working on justice in its various forms, be it economic justice, racial justice, climate justice, or the intersection of them all. Also important are political groups fighting to dismantle corporate personhood and get money out of politics.

Intentional communities are part of a diverse, global movement to fundamentally transform the economy, from the hyper-local to the global. We’re creating a new game, and everyone will get to be at the table.