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Extended FAQs – Twin Oaks Decision Making

This is the second in a series of extensions to the FAQs found on the TwinOaks.Org website.  Members, ex-members and other informed folks are encouraged to send corrections or alternative interpretations of my extensions as well as of the official FAQs themselves.

Here is what the website says about our decision making system:

Our decision-making model is based on the Walden Two Planner-Manager system combined with our egalitarian values. Managers are responsible for the day-to-day decisions for their area. For community-wide decisions and larger issues, the Planners (3 rotating members) make decisions by looking at our bylaws and policies, and by soliciting community input by posting papers for comment, holding community meetings, putting out surveys, talking with members (especially members that are closely involved in the issue or have strong feelings), etc. They don’t make decisions based on their personal preference, but rather by gathering information and determining the larger will of the community on a given issue. Any member can appeal a Planner decision they feel is unfair, although this rarely happens as Planners generally do a pretty good job at considering all the aspects of a given issue.

The community as a whole does not use consensus for making decisions, but some decision-making bodies within the community use consensus to make their decisions (e.g. the Membership Team). In keeping with our egalitarian values, we all have a voice in making the decisions about how to spend our collective money and labor during each year’s economic planning. The Managers and Planners put out their proposed economic plan, and each member can alter the plan according to their values and preferences (e.g. I can cut the office budget, and shift that money/labor to the garden budget instead, if I want). Once every member who wants to has done this, the Planners synthesize everyone’s changes to create the final budget.

decision-making-processes sign post Decision making at Twin Oaks is complex and the origin of this complexity (in my opinion) is the noble notion that we can do better than have a simple majority win.

The founders of the community thought they could improve on voting.  They wanted a system which revised proposals, even if they would win a simple vote, so that they could take care of minority voices in the community.  But because there were not (in 1967) good secular models of consensus process, they decided to roll their own and create a whole new group decision making structure. Key to this structure is our own unusual internal communication system.

Every community has an internal communication system, and almost all of them are verbal.  The group gets together some number of times each week and discusses what needs to happen and who is going to do it.

Twin Oaks was founded by writers.  We have a written communication culture. I don’t know of any other community that does it this way.  It has several advantages and some disadvantages as well.

The principal advantage is we avoid the “sloppy majority effect”.  If you are making a proposal and you have general support for it, but there are people with concerns about it, you cannot just force it through as a simple vote would.  If there are reasonable ways you can take care of the minority by modifying your proposal, the expectation is you will try to find these and amend your proposal.

This is why the O&I board is more powerful than a meeting format for proposal reworking. The O&I board is a collection of 24 clipboards on which people post proposals for changes in our policy and decisions.  These clipboards are stocked with extra blank paper at the ends so that there is room for people to add their thoughts (and so they feel like the authors of the proposal are inviting them to do so).  Ideally, critics voice their concerns, make constructive suggestions, and these amendments get reviewed and integrated in part or in totality to the new version of the proposal. The problem comes when the comments are not constructive or not easily folded into the existing proposal.  This is especially problematic when a vocal minority wants the proposal not to go forward at all or has a significantly different alternative they would like to advance.

How are we getting there?

How are we getting there?

These contentious proposals test our decision making system and demonstrate both its flexibility and its hazards.  The person who posts the proposal has several different options when they get complex or contradictory feedback on what they have submitted.  The first and easiest option is they can simply drop the idea.  This happens with some regularity.  Many folks proposing things, however, have a vested interest in the improvements they have suggested, so they will typically go one of several routes:

  • re-write the proposal to include new suggestions
  • call a community meeting to discuss the proposal (this is rare)
  • do a survey of member’s attitudes on this topic (also rare)
  • consult with other area managers or the planners

It’s a complex process and can proceed at a glacial pace, but some proposals do pass and it works well enough at Twin Oaks.

[ edited by MoonRaven ]

Making the big labor credits

I live in a world that is slightly inconceivable to most people.  I do a lot of work, almost all of it stuff I am super pleased to do.  And I don’t get paid for it.  Instead the communities I live in (Twin Oaks and Acorn) cover most of the costs of my living: Food, shelter, clothes, education, entertainment, medical insurance, dental insurance, and most of my travel.

solidarity in stars

Instead of getting paid in money, besides the services listed above,  I accrue labor credits.  For each hour I work, I get one labor credit.  My labor obligation is 42 hours a week.  It makes little sense, however, to compare this work quota to most people’s straight jobs.  On the rare cases when I commute (like to a college speaking gig or a craft show) I get “paid” for my time traveling.  I get labor credits for voting and going to the doctor, and some small fraction of the time I spend taking care of my son Willow is labor creditable.  All the time I spend with Willow on home schooling, including the prep is labor creditable.  When I clean our collective dishes, I get labor credits.  If I were to cook for more than 7 people (which I never do) it would be also be creditable.

Working with Tofu

Working with Tofu at Twin Oaks

Some of the stuff I do is hard.  I do mediation between people who are furious with each other.  I work to stop nuclear power plants.  I am trying to start income sharing communities in NYC, where couples committed to each other for life find it easier to not share income.  I help find consensus when there is sharp disagreement.  With some regularity people thank me and appreciate the difficulty of this work.  When I am feeling clever or exhausted by my efforts I say, “That is why I make the big labor credits”, a silly knock off on the phrase “That is why I make the big bucks.”

Silly, because all labor credits are exactly the same size.  One hour is one credit.  It does not matter how hard I work in an hour to the accounting system (though other members certainly appreciate and celebrate anyone’s hard work).  The labor credit I get for an hour of preparing space for a party is the exact same size as the one I get for hour I spend getting a drunk and belligerent guest out of the party.  The labor credit I get for folding mail in the sun while talking with charming visitors is the same size as the one I get for counseling and talking down a manic or suicidal member.

Working in the Gardens

Working in the Gardens at Acorn

I don’t need to get a bigger labor credit for the harder work.  Turns out when my basic needs are met, I am pretty well off.  The communities are poor.  The people who live there have legitimately calculated taxable income below the poverty line (or at least in the case of Twin Oaks–Acorn is higher but still below the national average income).  What this radical sharing we deploy does is to permit us to live like kings (or at least like the upper middle class), while we live in technical poverty.

If you are thinking to yourself “Wait why doesn’t everyone do this?  We could eliminate the awful effects of living in poverty without having to make any more money,” you would be on to something.  Besides stopping climate change, we would be saving millions of lives from the sharp edge of poverty.

What stops us is we don’t trust each other enough to share what we have, almost all of which is sitting idle almost all the time.

Post Script:  I should clarify this thing about traveling, since it has sparked a bunch of questions.  Perhaps half of these trips are paid for by the communities i live in.  These include craft fairs trips with Hawina, college speaking gigs,  hammocks sales trips and almost monthly trips to DC/Baltimore and NYC for the Point A Project, With the possible exception of Ira from Acorn, no one at either Twin Oaks or Acorn travels even close to this much.  And i travel more than this.

I visit my mother at least two or three times a year, often in Florida, and she pays for this travel completely.  I also travel with the Star family (my family of choice) and i pay for this out of money i earn outside of the community.  I am also fortunate to have romantic intimates who pay for me to come and see them in all manner of curious or exotic locations.

Your grandchildren will hate you

Eugene is pleasant in the spring.  Flat enough to be excellent to bike almost everywhere, with little car traffic which is mostly well behaved.  The university brings new faces every year and clever talk. There is an impressive array of restaurants and natural food stores to serve locals and visitors alike.  Well maintained parks and nature preserves surround Eugene, with accessible hiking and biking.

bike trail eugene

The politics of the town are mostly liberal to progressive with some colorful radicals thrown in for spice.  It is also where some of my favorite people in the world live, including Tree and Abigail.  Abigail invited me to present at her work with SWAT (Sexual Wellness and Advocacy Team).  She wanted to do group trust building, so i did an introduction to transparency tools which was quite well received.

When i got there, some students expressed interest in the communes so i did a rapid introduction of them.  Which ended with the lines:

We keep track of our energy and materials use within the income sharing communities and what we find is that our per person carbon footprint is about 20% of that of our mainstream US counterparts.   This 80% reduction in carbon emissions corresponds with where the UN’s IPCC thinks all industrial countries should be by 2050.  The problem is that almost no one else knows how to get here.

The communes are not brilliant in our use of renewables.  Nor do we carefully conserve every kilowatt hour of electricity.  The thing we are really good at is sharing resources.  In my view, this is the only way to save the world while maintaining a lifestyle which is vaguely similar to what people in rich countries are already experiencing.  If your grandchildren don’t hate you, it will be because as a nation we figured out how to share resources well.

Switching to Renewables is just not enough

Switching to Renewables is just not enough

Frankly, i think i went over the head of some of these otherwise clever students.  It is not a message one hears very often and people are generally dismissive about the significance of sharing.  And for me there is no escaping the importance of it.  It is at the center of the Point A project and much of the outreach work we do.

If Willow has kids, i want them to like me.

commune kids

Willow and the commune kids – circa 2015

Climb like a Spider, Climb like a Monkey

We climb trees.  We often muse as to the number of other people in the county or state who are also climbing trees when we are (typically midnight under a full moon).  There is a new place to climb to at Twin Oaks.  Shal and Christian built it.

You can't get there from here

You can’t get there from here

​About​ 50 feet up a tree on Pagan Ridge​ there is a platform
​ complete with railings​ which is the perfect resting place as you are climbing towards the stars.  But don’t bother showing up to this new attraction​ yet​, unless you know how to climb both like a spider and like a monkey.

spider and web

This is not an easy climb​ (though Shal already has plans for how to make it much easier)​.  The tree has no branches for perhaps the first dozen feet which is plenty discouraging to most people.  Shal is not most people.  Launching climbing ropes into higher branches he set up the tree so for folks with the right equipment it is possible to climb.  You need​ climbing rope an​d harnesses and two types of​ ascenders, and quite some level of conviction


We arriving in the fading light, the tree is prepped, with a climbing rope up it​, but not in a way which would be at all inviting to a random passerby.  Shal helps me into the harness and sets up​​ ropes and ascenders and bags.  We will likely be the only tree climbers this evening to bring a powerful portable sound system.  We like to listen to Tangerine Dream​ space music​ while we watch the moon rise and talk about our lives and plans.

Shal and Platform

Shal and Platform

Shal reminds me of the slightly counter intuitive spider climbing technique.  You alternate between ascenders, standing in a loop connected to one, then sitting back being supported by the other​​ which is attached to your climbing harness​.  We have done this before, but he needs to teach me again, for it feels strangely backwards.  I ascend the first dozen feet, climbing ropes vaguely like a spider.  At the first real branch I​ ​leave the foot loop behind and start climbing like the monkey i am more closely related to.  The lower ascender remains attached to my harness and the rope​, so if i made a mistake the ascender would stop me in a couple of feet.

a tiny part of the panoramic view

a tiny part of the panoramic view

Even as the light fades the view from the platform is amazing, we can see far across most of the Twin Oaks land and soon appreciate the additional light from the moon rise.  We celebrate the new a​real place to reside on our monthly full moon outings, and we plan trips to the West Coast Communities Conference at Groundswell Community, and other adventures out we​st.​

​S​hal is also spent some time figuring out how to create a rope pulley ascending system that will make it much easier for several people to get to this lofty perch.  Only one person will need to climb it like we did last night, and then will be able to set up the pulley at the top so several people will be able to safely pull each other up one at a time.  S​o even non-climbers will be able to enjoy the airy view.  ​

Seeing the moon-lit world from high in a tree while listening to spacey music and planing new adventures might not be what anyone else was doing last night, and it might just be that everyone else got it wrong.


Which words can we still use? Commune? Communism?

There are all manner of messages which we want to get out to the world and recently myself and my comrades working on the Point A project have been thinking about what messages people are ready for.


These messages, perhaps?

On our most recent NYC trip we realized that we were making it sound harder than it really is to become income sharing.  “They don’t need to have a cottage industry.” GPaul said, “They don’t even need to live together.”

Indeed, the only thing which stops people from becoming income sharing is a lack of trust.  If you trust each other, you can change your agreements and begin taking care of more needs cooperatively almost immediately.

We started thinking about a workshop that would explain this. But what do we label the workshop?

I wanted to call the workshop “You can become income sharing now!” But GPaul and others thought it was not compelling enough or it was too abstract.  GPaul even questioned whether people would know what income sharing is. GPaul’s rework was “Communism Now! Why wait for the revolution?”  Alarm bells went off in my brain.

Can we reclaim this damaged name?

Can we reclaim this damaged name?

I wrote GPaul:
Communism is dead.  Sorry, it is a political non-starter, worse than anarchism actually (tho not as bad as Stalinism and Fascism).  Many progressives and almost all liberals do not associate it with a quasi-utopian desirable state.
Nothing jumps to mind to salvage the title, since I get your meaning and there is not an obvious substitute (Utopia Now!, Equality Now! Community Now! all don’t work).
In his provocative way GPaul replied:

I both agree and disagree: Communism is dead to some people, perhaps even most people, but communism is not dead.  The question here is “who is our audience?”.    We have many possible audiences.  One audience could be radical leftists.  When giving tours and explaining the communes to folks I’ve been leading with “anarchism” and “communism” for years and getting surprisingly little shock or pushback.  Radical leftists are one demographic that is more likely than others to be interested in what we are offering.  We can aim a workshop at them.  They will respond differently to the word “communism” than other people.  For other people we might have to rebrand this workshop.  For other people this might not even be an appropriate workshop (we might have to begin with “why should you want to share income?” in any of its various permutations).

I remain skeptical, but I am curious what my readers think. you say commie like it is a bad thing Some readers will be glad to hear that this blog is finally getting reorganized.  Specifically, the portion of the blog which is about community life (including the Point A work, the Virginia egalitarian communities, Freedonia and other underground efforts, Commune Snapshots [images with few words], the Communities Conference and advances in sharing techniques) may be spun off and turned into its own blog with its own domain name.

I was thinking of the name – but other experienced communards thought the name “commune” was too dated, too distant and too misunderstood and untrusted.  When we talked to twenty somethings, they had no baggage around the word commune and thought it might be cool.  The Fellowship of Intentional Communities actually uses the word commune as a name for income sharing communities and lists 166 of them under this category.

Again, feel encouraged to weigh in and discuss your thoughts about this.

When the Acute needs to be treated as Chronic

Crow screwed up.  They recently acted out in a way that had made people feel uncomfortable and some even unsafe.  It could have been any of a number of kinds of things:  An intoxicated incident, a minor consent violation, a petty crime, even an especially poor choice of guest.  The specifics don’t matter.  Crow knew that they had created a problem for themselves with Acorn and they were coming to me for advice.  What could they do to make things better?  How could they mend their frayed relationships with other members? At Acorn this answer is easy, you do what we regularly do, you have a clearness.

flying transformative person

And it turns out that this is a very good thing.  Many communities have self care mechanisms that feel punitive.  As i have written, the Feedback system at Twin Oaks very often feels punishing, even though it often need not.

But because Acorn does regular individual clearnesses, adding another one to normal rotation almost always feels accessible.  The clearness format is the same as a routine clearness (meetings with each individual member, checking in about their experiences of each other, and then a group clearness which summarizes all the individual clearnesses).


The lesson is clear here.  When you are designing self corrective systems within a community, you need to consider how they feel to the users.  It is not enough to insure the community is taken care of, these systems need to feel non coercive to the members who are going through them.  The best way to have that effect is to have a familiar and non-threatening group communication facilitating tool.  I think the clearness process is one of the better ones.

A week later i talked with Crow.  They had done a bunch of clearnesses and felt much better about their connection to the community. They felt better understood.

Clearness Directions

The most common complaint about community clearnesses is that they take a lot of time.  “Do i really have to talk to everyone else in the community one-on-one?”  Only if you want there to be cohesion in your community.  Only if you want to be able to fix significant mistakes people make and successfully rebound from it.  You only need to do this if you want a healthy community.

For many people this is too much work and i think this is central to why so many communities fail.

Commune Snapshot – Acorn edition

Yes, we have a pet cow, called Pandora

Yes, Acorn has a pet cow, called Pandora. Though she is most frequently referred to simply as “Cow.”  These friends include Dragon, Falcon, Mac and Rejoice.

This chalk board elephant is being used to develop a new language at Acorn

This chalk board elephant is being used to develop a new language at Acorn

Falcon and Irena picking orders at Southern Exposure

An alternating text and picture game we play

Exquisite Corpse: An alternating text and picture game we play

Canoe in a truck

Stephanie and Elan off to places which don’t require seat belts


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