As i was going through the endless array of stupid comments in the recent Yahoo Parenting article on Twin Oaks, i found myself wanting a good summary of why Twin Oaks (and other secular and especially egalitarian communities) are not cults. Fortunately, these communities have designed themselves to make this easy.
Let’s hop in our time machine for a moment. It is 1967 and the original 8 founders of Twin Oaks are looking at the principals and cultural norms around which they will form the community where they want to live. Reverend Moon had just visited the US and set up holy grounds in the 48 contiguous states. The FDA had just raided Scientology offices and seized illegal medical equipment, and the religion was being banned in Australia and other places. And the Church of Satan was performing it’s first recorded baptism.
The intentional communities movement wanted to distance itself from these kinds of organizations, so it looked at the behaviors which typified cults and set out to make themselves different in as many ways as possible. The 4 things which typify a cult are:
- It has a living charismatic leader
- You give them all your money
- You are kept away from your old friends and family
- You can’t leave when you might like
Cults are also exclusive, often highly secret and universally authoritarian. Let’s take a quick look at these components.
Living Charismatic Leader: Twin Oaks has a complex internal decision making system. Specifically, we have 3 or more planners who serve 18 month terms but can not serve consecutive terms. Over the last 18 years i have been at Twin Oaks, the problem is not having people want to do consecutive plannerships, the problem is getting people to complete their terms – recently several planners have quit this generally thankless job. Holding onto leaders in an egalitarian community is hard, because they get extra headaches without the extra perks. Plus at Twin Oaks we have a distrust of people in leadership roles and they often get extra flack for this reason. We would appear to fail the charismatic leader cult test.
Give up your assets: This one is understandably complex, because the difference between income sharing and asset sharing is often confused. When you join Twin Oaks, we ask you not to touch your pre-existing assets, if you have any, for the duration of your membership. This does not mean we ask you to give them to the community. If you want you can lend them to the community, and when you leave you get them back. Without interest. The interest is income. Because the community pays for everything when you live there, food, clothing, medical, housing, entertainment, taxes, dentist, etc we ask that any income your assets earn (including Social Security and pension income – excluding 401K interest, which you can’t get at) be given to the community. This feels fair to us. We also don’t take your debts if you arrive with debts. Most cults require you give everything over. Some (like Scientology – which fails the living leader test) require you to pay for expensive classes and encourages significant donations to the community. Members are not encouraged to make donations to Twin Oaks of pre-existing assets nor do we charge our members for anything.
Isolation: Bring your friends and family to the commune, by all means. They can stay for free and the host determines what work, if any, is appropriate for them to do (if you are going to stay for a while we would like you to work quota). It is true there are people who live at Twin Oaks who rarely leave the farm. But we design our selection process so that it pushes you back into the arms of those who care about you, before you come to join. At the end of your visitor period at both Twin Oaks and Acorn you must leave, even if everyone thinks you are great and you should stay forever. After you have been home for 10 days you find out if we have accepted you and then (at TO at least) you have to wait another 3 weeks before you can come. My joke is if your friends and family can’t convince you not to join this hippie commune in 3 weeks, then you are free to come.
No Exit: I dislike grumpy communards. I really dislike communards who are grumpy about the community that they are living in. I want these people (after making a good faith effort to fix their situation) to leave. Every one of them represents a misallocated space, because there is someone on the waiting list who wants to take that person’s place and really wants to live with us. Again we have had waiting list for years.
Exclusive: One of Twin Oaks and Acorns missions is to be a model. To be a model you have to be open to outside guests – friends, media, academics, curious travelers and more. Cults won’t let you inside, and while it is wrong to say our doors are always open to anyone, if you ask in advance and come to any of the Saturday Tours or 3 Week visitor periods you can see pretty clearly what we look like.
Secretive: Similarly, models can’t be secrets.
Authoritarian: This seemed to be where many readers of the Yahoo article got hung up. The assumption seemed to be that, if there were a self selecting group which was not following the roles of the mainstream, then there had to be an authoritarian oppressive structure.
Look, these communities are filled with anarchists. We are not going to work if the structure is authoritarian. We want to do better than majority voting. All the egalitarian communities require democratic decision making systems, at least voting, ideally consensus. This does not absolutely insure authoritarian structures will not emerge, but consensus is one of the best ways to maximize the power individuals have over oppression by a group.
Thus by any of the standard criteria for determine cult status, we fail. But you dont need to believe me, come visit and see for yourself. Call 540-894-5126 and arrange a Saturday tour.
I do like the phone. Most recently i have been calling communities about coming to the Twin Oaks Communities Conference this Labor Day weekend. It is early enough in the year that we get to brainstorm all manner of possibilities. What workshops they might do in the open space technology section? Who they might be able to bring with them? What kinds of ride sharing is possible? Labor Day is far enough away that people don’t have things scheduled and are willing to consider this, especially the highest ranked communities which i am calling, many of whom are predisposed to coming out again or checking it out.
The Twin Oaks Communities Conference runs a bit like a well oiled machine. We have been literally doing it for decades. We have notebooks which reminds us when to do everything and google drive docs which chronicle many previous schemes and name all the tasks and past volunteers who have made this complex event happen. This year we are putting out the call for presenters quite early. This is not to say that the Communities Conference doesn’t need good organizers. Despite being well understood, there is always something which tests us in putting it on. Transformative movements can’t be content to keep doing what they already do well, we need to expand and touch the lives of more people. And so i was extremely happy when the fine folks at Groundswell Institute agreed to host the West Coast Communities Conference.
Groundswell is a new community, two hours north of San Francisco and founded by radical queer friends of ours, some of whom are ex-Oakers. Groundswell is interested in growing to about 15 people in the next year from the handful they have now. When i asked what type of people they were searching for, there was a short but comprehensive consultation amongst the members present. “Non-heteronormative” was the response (more on this soon).
The physical plant of Groundswell in impressive. It is an ecovillage on over 180 acres of land (with all human activity concentrated on 40 acres). It is a former campsite which can sleep 80 people indoors in cabins. It has a full sized institutional kitchen, pond, amphitheater, dance hall and some amazing trees.
How amazing you ask? Well if you read this blog you know my dear friend Shal is very into trees. We climb them regularly. Shal and i visited Groundswell together last year. When we were on our way, Shal was concerned that this visit to my friends would delay our visiting the big trees of California that he had heard so much about. He was not expecting to be impressed with the trees at Groundswell. We arrived there at night, and after being welcomed with conversation and good food, made our way in the dark to one of the many cozy cabins.
In the morning when Shal came out of the cabin to go to the main house, he stopped in his tracks as he saw the view and the trees. Fortunately breakfast was going to be available for a while, so he could afford to give in to the powerful urge to gaze at the amazing view of Groundswell and the valley and hills beyond. And he saw beautiful trees! They were more human scale than the giant redwoods, but the closest one was magnificent, reaching out as well as up, with big mossy branches at chest level, easy to touch and climb on, which he did. And when he moved on to the main house for breakfast, he found that also had a very impressive view.
Later Kyle took us on a tour of Groundswell, and Shal spent much of the time looking at the views and trees, including spending some time at the Grandfather tree at the top of the hill, from which there is a grand full circle view of the beautiful hills valleys and hills surrounding Groundswell.
Groundswell has put out the call for presenters to this event. There will be Open Space Technology at WCCC, just like there is at Twin Oaks Communities Conference, which is an appropriate place for content which might be your expertise, but is not specifically related to community life (permaculture, renewable energy, anti-oppression work, polyamory workshops, etc). Topics appropriate for scheduled portion of the program are listed below, as distinct from the Open Space section. There will also be a number of workshops on topics directly related to community living which will be presented. There is a list of these topics below. Think about your west Coast and especially Bay Area friends and let them know this is happening. Tickets (including one day passes) are available here.
Call for Presenters Living as Community: West Coast Communities Conference, October 9 – 12, 2015, Groundswell Community & Institute, Yorkville, CA (2 hours north of bay area)
Groundswell, an emerging ecovillage and retreat center, is proud to announce a new West Coast Communities Conference. Organized with sponsorship from the Fellowship for Intentional Communities (FIC) and the Federation of Egalitarian Communes (FEC), the main goal of this conference is to provide opportunities for networking and skill building for people involved with the communities movement. Those who already have experience with community will be able to share and increase their skills, while those who may be new to the movement will learn a wide range of models and practices that others have used in starting and sustaining successful communities. We are hoping to have a wide range of community movers and shakers to present workshops, dialogues, and demonstrations. Anyone with interest or experience in worker cooperatives, rural communes, artist collectives, or any other kind of communal enterprise is invited to participate. We encourage people to be creative in the matter and manner of these presentations and ask only that they hold some relation to intentional community. Some possible topics include (but aren’t limited to):
- different approaches to creating communities
- membership and financing
- sustainable building and living practices
- social and organizational skills
- decision-making, consensus, and practices of inclusivity
- diverse communities and diversity within communities
- communications and group process
- conflict resolution
- resource management
- models and sources for community building
- visions and charters
In addition, the organizing team is still looking for help with logistics both before and during the conference. If you are interested in being involved in that way, please don’t hesitate to be in touch. To propose a presentation, get involved in other ways, or for more information, please contact:
Kevin “Faire” Faircloth, Project Coordinator, email@example.com 714-342-0809
Kyle is organizing the Meet the Communities” so if you are in part of a place based community which wants to present please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Special Communities Salon: On Saturday of the conference, representatives of different communities will have the opportunity to introduce themselves through short presentations to the attendees. In addition, communities are invited to bring tabletop displays to help show off their home. This is a great opportunity for communities to meet potential new members and vice versa. Please contact assistant organizer Faire at email@example.com
It was a great meeting. Port was facilitating, and he was afraid of the meta-discussion on the topic of what Acorn thinks its labor is about/for. He had been afraid that this digression would lead us to a world of complaining and depressed talk. But it is hard to restrain the hippies, especially when it comes to meta-discussions.
And a funny thing happened on the way to reviewing our labor situation. People did not think huge changes were needed and many of the suggestions (like doing our clearnesses on time and using existing structures to solve problems) felt genuinely helpful. The group identified the individuals who felt overworked and overwhelmed. [This did not include Ira and me, who only know how to function if we are overworked – by things we are excited about doing.]
Then Jayne spoke:
I agree that the measure of the labor system should be how happy are we? It sounds like people feel they live interesting, enriching, and productive lives. Going around, I do catch a common frustration that it is too difficult to pass on a job you’d like to be done with. I think about this thing Nightshade said three months into my membership: “If you want to get involved in a labor area at Acorn, just sleep with the person who’s already doing it.” It’s sort of horrifying how often this is kind of true. Aside from sleeping with them, how can you learn to pass responsibility to new people?
This brought on a whole raft of jokes about Sexually Transmitted Responsibility and it quickly became clear that Jayne was right. All manner of lovers had dragged their partners into work areas which needed help. Many intimates had decided one of the better ways to spend time together was to share the tasks that the community needs to function.
Acorn functions as an Adhocracy (a flexible, adaptable and informal form of organization that is defined by a lack of formal structure. It operates in an opposite fashion to a bureaucracy). When we need something done, we form a group of volunteers to do it and give them significant power at least of analysis and often of decision making and purse strings. When your intimate joins one of these temporary groups, you are often enticed to be part as well.
I wrote yesterday about the recent Yahoo Parenting article about the community. Turns out this piece had over 3 million hits in the first 24 hours. This generated so much traffic to the Twinoaks.org website that our web host server crashed. Even my blog, which is not mentioned in the article at all, got over 1000 hits in two days.
And the media contacted us also. We got three requests from conventional news sources (including my first ever request for an exclusive) and two excited reality show producers. We have considered working with Reality TV as an income engine for new community start ups and i floated it by the Point A DC folks, who rejected it overwhelmingly. This did not stop there being animated discussion about the possibility at Acorn last night at dinner. The chances we will be able to work with reality TV are vanishingly small.
There were over 500 comments to the Yahoo article. There were quite a few positive ones, some from people who had lived in community which worked for them or they appreciated, some from folks who had visited us at some point and felt the need to dispel the false statements which were being made. But perhaps half the comments on this Yahoo article were negative or critical. They came in a few flavors:
Communism is Bad: My favorite of this ilk was “Why hasn’t someone called the National Guard to rid us of these communists?” Unlike past articles i have read, there were not any direct “Go back to Russia!” suggestions. Many came from Libertarians who feel a need to attack anything which does not look like their version of free market capitalism. There was our personal chapter of the endless Tea Party debates in which all ills are blamed on Obama and each of the two main political parties are attacked for the Democrats being Communists and the Republicans (in the long run) being anarchists. News flash folks, there are two pro-business parties in the US. Look at who funds their campaigns. There are also a whole slew of comments contenting that we 1) Don’t pay taxes. In fact we are the second largest tax payer in the county. 2) Are on Food Stamps and Welfare. In fact none of the membership uses these government assistance programs.
Polyamory is wrong: There was the expected amount of slut shaming and name calling. I should not have been surprised at the frequently expressed concern that pedophiles would have easy access to our kids, when in fact the opposite is the case. There were a refreshing number of people who felt like this was an acceptable choice, only not right for them personally. For many critics this simply feed their notion of moral decay on the commune. There was a prevalent opinion that this reflected an easy way to have lots of sex partners, when actually the form of polyamory most often practiced in the communities requires lots of discussion, negotiations and process.
This can never work: Despite the article mentioning that we had been around for nearly 50 years, there were a surprising number of comments predicting our imminent demise or our failure in the long term. I chalk this up to people not wanting the story to be true, so they lash out against it in ways that don’t make much sense. Because the article was focused on parenting and not pension, there were many comments about what happens when people reach retirement age. In fact our pension program is far more robust than the default one in the mainstream.
Applying for Pregnancy !?!?! It is true this is very odd and i totally get why this flips people out. And when you read why we do it, it will make a whole lot more sense to you. This linked article also has the bonus section that it includes the only (to my knowledge) exhaustive list of Twin Oaks prohibitions.
Eeww you have Lice!: Apparently, only the community suffers from lice. Every couple of years we have a lice outbreak. We fight some, internally, about the use of chemicals to push it back. We clean a ton of laundry, some people dramatically shave their heads to avoid having to treat or retreat. Frankly, they are more psychologically problematic than actually physically problematic, but try telling that to someone who is freaking out.
While i had a good time going thru the comments and correcting people misconceptions and laughing about the haters, i counseled everyone who was actually in the article not to read the comments. They don’t yet show the thoughtful dialog we would hope to find on the digital pages of the internet.
What the article did not mention is that:
1) Twin Oaks has had a waiting list for more than 7 years now. So if you are in a rush to find a new place, we are a poor choice.
2) It is far harder for families to become members than individuals. In the last 10 years there has only been three families accepted (and perhaps a dozen who have tried to come). The visitor period is longer, the waiting list is tougher and every member of the family must be accepted or none of them can come.
Presidential candidate and corporate crony Hillary Clinton wrote a book some years ago called “It Takes A Village“. The central thesis of the book is that the lives of individuals outside the immediate family are tremendously influential on kids. And while i disagree with Hillary on everything from drones to the Iraq war, this is one place we agree. [Though i would point out Chelsea does not have a village, she has a security detail. My son Willow has a village.]
Yahoo News came through here and wrote a fine piece about parenting in the community which has just been published. The community has a quite mixed relationship with the press, and this mostly positive article strikes a good balance of the problems with the parenting program and the advantages. The article outed the community as being mostly polyamorous and the liberal author apparently got that this is not a detriment to the kids. In fact, it is a boon. What is really true is that Twin Oaks is an “embrace diversity” community, which means we don’t tell our members what to do in terms of diet, spirituality, relationship models, smoking, really anything. The article also inspired a number of inquiries to the community through our Facebook page, which of course is the wrong way to get in touch with us (write firstname.lastname@example.org or better yet, read the webpage about the community before you ask any questions). We don’t have all the answers about parenting at the communes. But what is clear to me is our kids are happier, better adjusted, more curious and more self aware than the kids i bump into in the mainstream, on average. Turns out villages are important.
Before discovering the communes I thought a lot about getting a tiny house, one of those adorable little things that you can pull on a trailer, like a modern gypsy wagon. I wanted the small environmental footprint, a way to minimize my impact. But I had all this stuff, a three bedroom house full, and I couldn’t fathom getting rid of it all. My books, 9 large bookcases full? No way. Spinning wheels and sewing machines? Bins of yarn? Historical gowns that I’ve been collecting since I was a teen? I couldn’t fathom life without these things. So I stayed in my big house.
When the idea of moving to a commune came up last summer, I knew I had to do it. It’s perfect for me in every way. The stuff problem was still there, I’m going to have to shave my life down to a single dormitory sized room – with no closets! But now it’s not optional, this has to happen, which puts a whole new perspective on the task.
I started the process about 6 months out and have approached it with repeated combings through the place. The first time was hard. Maybe I can let go of the Victorian Savonarola chair I wanted all my life and finally splurged on a few years ago. But my mother’s hand-blown Israeli wine glasses? Impossible.
But by the second pass it was easier, and the third and fourth easier still. Why do I really need those glasses? So I can take them out once a year, say ‘aww’, and put them away again? So I won’t forget my mother? I don’t need wine glasses to keep me from forgetting her. I found a lovely young woman just setting up her home to whom to give them and the pleasure I had in giving them to her was far greater than any I ever got from owning them.
And so it goes, letting go one thing after another, and with each release I feel a little lighter, a little freer. The temptation to acquire new things has vanished entirely.
Through this process I find myself wondering about the human urge to acquire and hoard. The explanations we give – I need two couches and seven bookcases and three televisions because I have guests, they remind me of grandpa, whatever – seem to be quite false, though we believe them ourselves. Somehow we feel safer surrounded by objects, as if they make us more real, give us more legitimacy in the world, perhaps help to stay the hand of the Great Separator. But in fact what they do is use up the already scant resources left on this planet, take from those who truly have need, and give us who are wealthy enough to hoard a shield from seeing those who have nothing. We cling tightly to our precious things and do not ask at what cost they are accumulated.
The more I let go, the more clearly I see these things, and see my own criminal complicity. I have a closet full of coats while passing freezing people on the streets, I heat my three bedroom house with fossil fuels, I drive my car and let its poisons fill the air. And I didn’t think there was any other way.
Finding the communes finally opened my eyes. I can live with great comfort with one room’s worth of personal possessions. And for the rest, I can share. Share cars, share a kitchen, share computers, share bicycles, almost everything. And by doing so I can live better than I do now, work less, play more, have access to more, have more community, more help, eat better, and feel far, far better about it than I do now. It’s a prospect of so much wealth that I almost feel guilty.
Emilia starts her visitor period today.
Fortunately for our insurance rates, a disproportionate number of adult communards choose not to drive. This does put pressure on those of us who do drive, to ferry our comrades around. My dual member status allows me access to both the Acorn and Twin Oaks vehicle fleets, so i am often asked to drive, and i am generally happy to to oblige.
Sporadically, Twin Oaks throws a “No Party, Just Dance” event. Typically what this means is that the organizers don’t want to have to prepare treats or decorate the space and instead want to focus on just having a DJ who provides music and people can rock out. The other slightly curious aspect of these events is that they have very minimal internal promotion. Usually this is limited to a single card posted at the main dining hall. But this micro-promotion does not prevent these events from being well attended.
Last night i drove the shuttle for one these events. Half a dozen Acorners and LEFers (plus one dog) hopped into the minivan and we arrived moments before the party was really hoping. A couple of hours into this event i decided it was time to ask the going home question:
If there were a shuttle in 20 minute and another in an hour and 20 minutes, which one would you likely be on?
I went around to the folks who i had brought and asked them all this question. After two hours of rigorous dancing, they were all ready to go home in the early shuttle. This is exactly what the shuttle driver wants to hear. Assuming you can’t get the last shuttle cancelled, because everyone wants to stay all night, the second best way to cancel the last shuttle is to get everyone to come home on the second to last shuttle.