[This is an old post. When i wrote it i showed it to the planners and was told that i could run it if i wanted, but one planner asked me to hold off til the issue was no longer topical, which i did.]
One of the myths in community is you can’t keep a secret here. In fact, this place (i am thinking Twin Oaks, but to a lessor extent Acorn as well) holds a tremendous number of secrets. What you can’t do is keep a secret when a lot of people know about it and other members know there is a secret being kept.
That is what is happening tonight. The planners and the membership team had an unusual evening urgent meeting to talk about something. There are 3 planners and 6 members of the membership team and there were a number of other people at this meeting as well. The most plausible guess is that it is some expulsion level situation, the news for which has not broken to the membership. You may well never know what is happening, but i and a half dozen other communards i spoke with this evening certainly will and probably soon.
The math goes terribly against secret keeping in this kind of circumstance. In part because many of the people on these teams have romantic partners, who they want to tell about it and then need to be sworn to secrecy. Yet with every leak to an intimate, a general leak becomes more likely. As soon as a bit leaks out generally the rest can often be teased out, because people who know will feel the need to correct the inevitable rumors.
Also, it is only a question of time before the secret will have to be released because of the pressure associated with the existence of the secret being known. For the people who know it, especially the planners, there will be pressure to release it to folks who are curious or concerned and there will be pressure to set a soon deadline as to when the informant will be put out in a mailbox, from members only to read.
By the following morning the commune was buzzing and the people who were at the meeting were doing a heroic job of trying to maintain the secret, but simply by looking at who was inside the loop and who was outside and by lots of members asking lots of questions, before noon a likely scenario was established. But as i said, you may never know – because in fact the commune can keep some secrets, just necessarily from itself.
[It turns out the secret was soon revealed and was mostly about a controversial person who wanted to come to visit and was ultimately asked not to. This secret is old and largely forgotten news now.]
One of the most surprising evolutionary tales for me was the one of dolphins. Our best story tellers claim that cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) evolved from the seas into land mammals and then evolved back to aquatic based life. This is either a tremendous re-adaptation to the changing climate of the seas or a fantastic U turn in habitat of preference.
Back in August we hung out with traveler kids in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan. Point A folks helped a risk reduction outreach volunteer give out clean needles, anti-overdose medicine naloxone and clean socks. And we heard stories.
The most striking stories were of this dolphin effect, how these kids (which is used as a diminutive, rather than some indication of age) came to their traveler lifestyle. Usually some catastrophic event threw them into poverty, homelessness and addiction (typically alcohol, heroin or both). After a while, pressure from outside friends, family and often they themselves got them to “clean up”. They quit substance use and returned to a more conventional life style. Working a straight job (some even doing outreach work with traveler kids) and living in a house or an apartment.
Then something funny happened. They decided that they were happier as travels and living on little to nothing, but being with their friends and animals. Now from a place of choice, rather than catastrophe they returned to this life style.
i have plans and fantasies about the traveling kids. One of the interesting consciousnesses about this community (and it is deeply a community, where they share most of what they have with each other) is that housing is a burden. If you have a house or flat you have to pay for it, and this generally requires a job. So for most of the year the traveler kids are content to sleep outside, in parks when they can. Under scaffolding when it is raining. But in the winter, they continue the noble tradition of squatting.
My hope is we can continue working with them, introduce transparency tools to strengthen connections and hopefully learn about contemporary squatting from them.
The kid of comments i am uninterested in for this post is all the risks and warnings folks have about traveler kids. i’ve heard them, thanks anyway.
Both Twin Oaks and Acorn ask prospective members about 100 questions in our membership interview. One of the most revealing is the “Magic Wand Question”.
If you could change any single thing about the community what would it be?
At Twin Oaks, members will often curiously ask visitors about their answer to this, because it often gives insight. At Acorn, if there is any doubt in the candidacy of a prospective member, the current Acorners will ask the people who did the membership interview what the answer to the Magic Wand Question was. [Twin Oaks does it's membership interviews confidentially, complete notes to membership interviews are available to all Acorner members.]
For me the answer has long been the same, i would change the culture of fear of change at Twin Oaks. At first glance, this distrust of new approaches makes sense. Communities turn out to be quite fragile creatures. Some huge number of them (Diana Leafe Christen estimates 19 out of 20 new communities fail in the first two years) don’t survive. So if you are in a successful place like Twin Oaks, changing things (at least at first) is a threat to this success, you could change the wrong thing and hurt or even destroy the community.
But from my perspective, after a dozen or so years these arguments begin to hold much less water. With nearly a hundred person membership and money in the bank and a waiting list, it is much harder for the community to endanger itself by change, especially if the change has to be approved by the relatively conservative decision making process.
Some years back Twin Oaks decided to build an expansion to our tofu hut. This made sense on a number of levels. The business was expanding and we needed more capacity. The work in the tofu hut is some of the most physically demanding in the community and was occasionally hurting workers. Increased automation of production would elevate our hourly wage for this work.
We agreed to expand the tofu hut, and to manage this expansion ourselves. We generally build our own buildings. But especially the complex equipment of the tofu hut proved more difficult to design, purchase and install than we had originally estimated. We have since brought in an outside general manager for the construction effort, but we are significantly late and over budget on this project now.
Separately, the community is growing. We have hit our adult population cap, but we dont want to tell members who want to have children that they can not have them. And in recent years we have had many more new kids being born than children completing high school (or home school) and heading off to college or other places.
Many members believe we need to build additional housing to accommodate the needs of new families. And this is where our tofu hut experience slams on the breaks. The delays to the tofu expansion have made us collectively cautious about starting any new construction projects until the last one is finished.
Unfortunately, well before we break ground for a new building of any sort, we have to discuss what we want and agree on a design for it. This process can often take a year or more. And since we have not done it in several years, and the needs of the community for different types of space have increased, it could take a couple of years planning.
In my ideal world we would run in parallel the planning process for the new building and the completion of the tofu hut. Word on the path is that it is not going to happen this way.
With some regularity a young activist will come to me and ask
“What issue should i work on? There are so many important ones to choose from.”
Indeed there are. And some years back i would have found this question quite vexing. Clearly one should do some kind of analysis. Looking at the current state of political affairs, weighing all different possible effects of the various campaigning efforts, examining where the opportunities were, comparing your own skill set to what the various movements need.
Now i think differently. “Ignore the issues, look for the people who inspire you. Look for the group you want to be with and do what they do.” Issues matter, but it turns out that what inspires prospective activists matters more.
In a few hours we will start the communities conference. There has been tremendous work at the site, expanding and improving the kitchen facilities, fixing bridges, putting up domes all over the place. The place really looks great.
But it is not because of the physical plant upgrade, or even the killer program for this event that you should change your weekend plans. It’s because of the people coming. The colorful gang from the Baltimore Free Farm will be attending. Representatives from Ganas and Catalyst Communities in NYC will be here. Most of the income sharing egalitarian communities are sending ambassadors (East Wind, The Midden, Living Energy Farm, Sandhill Farm, Acorn and Sapling). Workshops will be done by folks from Red Earth Farms and Heathcote and The Farm and Dancing Rabbit.
Beyond existing communities there are compelling presenters coming from all manner of groups including Network for a New Culture, Hack RVA (the Richmond Maker Space), Charlottesville Time Bank, Health Care for All and Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).
If you need to be inspired, this group will do it. If you are trying to start a community, useful answers found here. If your idea is going to change the world, you should be presenting at the Open Space on Sunday.
Post Script: The Communities Conference Dance on Saturday night is reliably one of the best dances at Twin Oaks over the course of the year.
Decision models and the culture that surrounds them are central to a healthy and functioning community. When Twin Oaks was founded in 1967, it was before the widespread use of the consensus decision technique which is now used by many different communities as diverse as co-housing, the Occupy Movement and the daughter community that Twin Oaks spawned, Acorn.
Some of the most difficult decisions communities have to make are around membership. There is not much room for compromises here. With many things communities decide on, there are ways to start gradually, invest minimally at first, or stage implementation. This does not work with membership. We are either accepting this person (possibly with some type of feedback) or we are rejecting them.
Different communities have different effective control points for membership decisions. At Twin Oaks, if you are accepted as a visitor (to become a provisional member), almost always 6 (or 9) months later you will become a full member, which is like having tenure. At Acorn, it is somewhat easier to become a provisional member, but the jump to becoming a full member (because the community uses consensus) is much harder. Any single dissenting voice can block full membership, and with some regularity, it does.
Because it is innovative and slightly controversial, i wanted to describe the Twin Oaks full membership override mechanism. This is a modified voting model. At the end of a member’s provisional period (which is usually 6 months), the community is polled about the provisional member becoming a full member. There are 5 options:
- ACCEPT WITH FEEDBACK (a contract is not a possible outcome of the feedback)
- EXTEND (which requires a Feedback, possible contract and a second poll at the end of a three-month extension)
So what usually happens is that the total of type 2 thru 5 votes is less than 10% of the full membership (this would currently be about 8 people), the provisional member becomes a full member, and these concerns are simply ignored. There are all manner of special cases between 10% and 15% for which you can look at the full policy. But what i want to focus on is what happens when more than 15% of the community decides they want to reject a provisional member. This has only happened four times in my 16 years at Twin Oaks.
The starting place is that the provisional member is rejected and the membership team gives them between 3 and 30 days to leave the community. But it is occasionally the case that, while more than 15% of the membership wants to reject someone, there is a larger fraction of the community that wants them to stay. In this case, it is likely that someone will post an override. Unlike most overrides, which only require 50% of the full members, membership overrides require at least 60%
In addition, for every person over 15% who votes reject, another person has to sign the override. Policy sez:
For example, if 11 REJECT votes equals 15% and 44 override signatures equal 60%, then if twelve members vote to REJECT, 45 signatures are required to override; if 13 members vote to REJECT, then 46 signatures are required to override, and so on.
The thinking here is interesting. For the majority to be able to override the minority, they have to get an increasing fraction of the super majority. Since we are not operating by consensus (which would require us to all agree on every new member) and overturning the decision of the 15% who rejected is something of a big deal, this is our best guess as to how to make it fair.
And of course this is somewhat arbitrary, we are making up with fairness and justice look like in this eco-village we have designed. It also means that there is a level of community rejection at which the decision can not be overridden by the majority (something like 27% rejects), without some of the original rejectors changing their minds.
One of the most valuable and toughest parts of community living is deciding what type of culture we want to have. This includes how we want to empower significant minorities to block a candidate from membership. Equally importantly we are calculating how big a super majority must be to reverse these minorities, if possible. While all the time reminding ourselves that we are just guessing at what is just and fair.