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Time to Change your Plans for this Weekend

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.

Young Activists in Europe

Young Activists in Europe

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.

One of the before pictures, Nina Sapling on the roof of the expanded kitchen.

One of the before pictures, Nina Sapling on the roof of the expanded kitchen.

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 MiddenLiving 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 BankHealth Care for All and Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

ideas change the world

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.

Put on your dancing shoes

Put on your dancing shoes

Membership Override Mechanisms

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.

unamimous cartoon

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.

consensus road sign

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:

  1. ACCEPT
  2. ACCEPT WITH FEEDBACK (a contract is not a possible outcome of the feedback)
  3. EXTEND (which requires a Feedback, possible contract and a second poll at the end of a three-month extension)
  4. ABSTAIN
  5. REJECT

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.

override yes no

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.

 

European Income Sharing Communities Contrasted with US ones

GPaul has just returned from his summer adventure in Europe visiting urban income sharing communities. He just gave a wonderful report contrasting the US communes with their European counterparts. Here are some of the highlights from his talk:

GPaul about to take off

GPaul about to take off

* There are perhaps 40 or 50 secular income sharing communities in Europe and national and language boundaries largely keep them from networking together or even knowing about each other

* These communities of size 60 to 80 members (and of course much smaller) use consensus decision making without any problem. [Many small US communities, including Acorn, worry that they can not grow without consensus failing them, and almost all of them are far smaller than this].

consensus group line drawing

* One of the maxims suggested was “The commune is rich, the communards are poor” The objective is great shared wealth, not increased personal/private wealth.

* None of the 6 income sharing communities visited had a labor quota (though one had a non-specific requirement for members to work full time). Most FEC communities have labor obligations and several have quota – though in Acorns case it is a “soft” and untracked quota.

group in rings photo

* European urban income sharing communities are also both asset and debt sharing (unlike their US counterparts). The US based income sharing communities (most of them in the FEC network) were culturally founded during the rise of cults. Thus part of the desire to not be asset sharing at that time was to distinguish income sharing communities from cults (which took members assets).

* Very few people move to communes in there 20s (unlike in the US where this is our biggest demographic) instead they move in during their 30s when they want to settle down and have kids.

* Minimum stays at European communes tend to be much longer (on the order of 5 years) in sharp contrast to US communities where it is often just 12 or 18 months.

This is sort of a poor representation of some of the key ideas of GPaul’s presentation, but there is more i will elaborate on in future blog posts.  Especially the transnational nomadic anarchist cyberpunks.

no i dont know why there is a label marked "snowy"

no i dont know why there is a label marked “snowy”

 

What do you want out of the Monday Communities Conference Clinic?

It is just a couple of weeks before the communities conference and we are putting the finishing touches on it.  I believe this will be the best Communities Conference of the 10 I have helped organize.  Some amazing presenters, many interesting participants and robust and relevant content.  We have a number of options for the Monday program with is Communities Clinic.  If you are planning on attending the Monday program on Sept 1st, we are hoping you’ll write us and give us an idea of what kind of issues your group is dealing with and what kind of help you’re looking for. There are 10 common topics described below with various questions to help you think about what might be useful to you.

zylaphone surreal

Financing and development: Almost every community needs money. How can you secure funding for improving your community?  What type of fundraising options have worked for other communities and are they exportable to you?  Under what conditions can you borrow money from banks or run a successful crowd funding campaign?

Ownernship and legal structures:  Well before you move in, you will need to figure out what type of community you are in a legal sense.  Is it a land trust, a residential worker coop, a 501D community, LLC or other structure.  Come discuss what these all mean and which models would work best for you and your forming group.

i want you uncle sam

Recruiting and outreach:  If you have the right members, you can do almost anything.  But how do you find these people (if they are not already working with you)?  Many communities reach other through FIC websites and publications, others write articles in periodicals which appeal to their value sets, some buy advertisements, others speak at colleges or festivals, still others blog or recruit thru social media.  What is the right mix for the people you are trying to find?  What is cost effective or no cost?  What places should you avoid?

i would agree with you

Relationships and conflict resolution (problematic people and expulsion):  Many European communities have no expulsion process, almost all US ones do.  How do you maintain personal and emotional relationships with your membership?  What do you do when relationships inside the community sour to the point where it might be necessary for the group to split or someone to leave?  What have long lived communities done to successfully deal with problematic or high negative impact members?

Decision-making:  The US cohousing movement has widely adopted consensus (including sociocracy models) as the way they make decisions.  Some communities use voting models including super majority models.  Do you have what it takes to be a charismatic leader for your community (hint this includes tremendous patience and a willingness to listen)?  Does your decision model change as your group gets larger?  If you can’t agree to change something are you always stuck with the status quo?  These and other questions will be addressed in this participant driven workshop.

dominos decision makingLocal relations/involvement:  Does it matter if you shop in the town closest to your community?  Does it make sense to invite the neighbors over for tea or will it just leave them more scared than they already are? What about political protest in your own town – will this distance you from your neighbors or bring you closer?  Should members doing controversial things try to avoid the community being affiliated with their work to maintain local harmony?  Is it considered community work to be part of the local volunteer fire department or volunteering to teach kids to read?

Cottage industries/Cooperative business: We have started calling them “income engines”Choosing the right business is one of the most important decisions a community can make.  If you rely too much on the skills of a minority of the membership (for example web development) the community economy can collapse if these people move on.  Should you be looking for something that any new member can be trained in?  Is the cottage industry open to all prospective members?  Can the community hire people who are not members?

The range of membership statuses:  Full member, provisional member, associate member, child member, intern, guest, ward of the state, lover of member – there are many different ways someone can be at a community for a while.  Especially egalitarian communities try to limit the number of membership types to try to preserve fairness.  Other communities have more flexible membership policies to try to be more inclusive or more versatile for members.  In this workshop we’ll discuss how all these status’ have been used and which ones might be right for your community.share apple

Different levels of  sharing:  Many student coops share a few meals a week, a clothes washer, and not much else.  Their academic, economic and social experiences are largely independent.  Some communities try to share everything from bank accounts to businesses to boyfriends.  The more you share the more benefits you’ll see but the stronger your systems and communication needs to be.  This workshop will look at some of these systems and how they combat internal hording and envy.  It will also help forming communities decide what they want to share – are cars too big? are clothes to personal?  Can we swing a public computer?  Do we want to buy box seats for the games?

culture creationCulture Creation:  Communities can create their own holidays and rituals.  Often these cultural aspects are the most bonding aspect of the community members life.    Should we buy instruments to help catalyze a more musical community?  Should our parties be mostly us and our close friends or should we invite a wider audience?  How does the community value and promote artistic expression?  Do we strive for transparency in our feelings or privacy?  There are dozens of aspects of cultural creation that communities can consider and often influence.  What you choose to focus on will determine how most people perceive you and in many cases whether you will grow and thrive.

 

Are there still squats in NYC?

I feel a bit like a country mouse taking the crash course in gentrification from our city mouse cousins.  So we can start with the Wikipedia and Google definition:

Gentrification is a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values.

That seems simple enough.  And maybe not even bad.  Crime rates go down, services increase.  We want things to get better in the city, don’t we?

Film maker and NYC activist Spike Lee calls part of this problem the “motherfucking Christopher Columbus syndrome” In a recent talk at Pratt, Lee said “You can’t discover this! We been here.”  He told a story of how new residents had called the police on long time residents – including Lee’s father – who were playing drums, as they had been for 50 years.  The police sided with the new affluent residents and stopped the music.

But gentrification is far more than street jams getting shut down.  In NYC it is the pointy edge of industrial capitalism.  Real estate values in the city are so high that the economic incentives for landlords to harass, threaten and mistreat residents are hard to imagine.  Especially residents who have rent controlled housing.  Gentrification pits rich against poor and the poor almost always lose and get displaced.

New York City has changed a lot from the economic crisis it faced in the early 1970’s.  At that time property owners unable to find tenants for their buildings and with taxes which were far outstripping rents simply walked away from buildings, especially in the lower east side of Manhattan.  Abandoned urban buildings lead to squats.

better to squat poster

Squatters came in an fixed up these buildings and made them livable.  They pushed back the police at first and often after they had improved the buildings the original landlord wanted them back.  Some squatters were able to hold onto their work and ultimately gain control of these buildings.

But the 1970s are long gone and real estate speculation in NYC is a very high stakes game now.  Because of their potential value, owners now pay taxes on their unused and boarded up buildings.  And the police and private security (aka thugs) are used to control these unused spaces and protect them from squatters.

This lead a number of people to tell us that squatting was dead in NYC.

Turns out it is not so.  Traveler kids are still squatting in NYC.  They are much more discreet about it than earlier generations of squatters who might  graffiti the outside of buildings they control.  One sign of this is that they are regularly getting busted by the police.  Squatting is a high risk life style.

Our inability to see them does not mean they are not there

Our inability to see them does not mean they are not there

One friend who does risk reduction work amongst traveler kids said she would introduce me to some of these folks on our next visit.  Stay tuned.

 

Small Gems – The Big Ta Chai Video

There are some tremendous pop culture holes in my life experience.  Turns out the 10 years i was out of the US living in eastern Europe were the 10 years that the wildly popular TV show Seinfeld were airing.  Socially critical pieces of cultural information – like who is the soup Nazi – are lost on me.  I did not see Fight Club for many years.   And it was not until the Twin Oaks parody of The Big Lewbowski trailer came out, did i actually see the real thing..

This video was being shown off last night at a small party at the far edge of Bed Stuy last night and i realized it is just too good to leave it unpromoted.  There are lots of in-jokes for the commune, but if you have some experience with us, you might laugh as hard as i did.

 

Ambitious Parties and Missing Last Shuttles

One of my favorite aspects of life in the commune is that we are constantly trying new things.  This is especially true in the arena of party design.  Ali threw a new DJs party last night.  We have a cache of regular DJs who know what we like, can get an empty dance floor hopping with the right sequence of songs and serve us well.  With no disrespect for this collective resource, Ali wanted to explore some of our less conventional and newer music selection talent.  She did it at the warehouse.

not our warehouse, but there are similarities

not our warehouse, but there are similarities

When designing parties, one has to make a bunch of decisions which affect the event.  One of the critical ones is how much space do you create for the participants.  Too little and people will leave because it is too crowded. If you create too much, the party will feel under attended and people may drift off or cluster in some smaller area.

The warehouse is huge, the night was rainy, there were three nice spaces created – the dance floor, the hangout room and the smokers lounge outside.  All of the spaces had some folks, but the party would have been well served by another twenty people. Technical difficulties prevented us from hearing a few of the 30-minute sets that our alt-DJs had prepared; time to head to Acorn.

After all the sets that worked, the Acorners left en mass and we scooped up a few Oakers who were interested in continuing the evening.  We considered a couple of places at Acorn to play and ultimately decided on the Rec Collective – short for Recreation Collective – a lovely single-room straw bale building which currently has no residents.

Considerably smaller, only 6 or 7 people could dance at the same time here. One person felt comfortable enough that they were able to for the first time to dance topless, earning the party at least a B grade if not an A.   But the right combination of music and people who did not want to go to sleep made for an event which did not end til 4 AM when I drove home the last shuttle.

When I examine it thru a funological lens and ask “What made this after-party so charming?”  Of course, part of it was the choice of music and the people interested in dancing.  But as I look deeper, some of it was also that the participants all knew each other well enough to trust each other, but many had lots to learn and share with the other participants in the conversations which went on amongst the people who were not dancing.

For myself at least, there was a feeling of having taken a chance and gotten lucky.  Sometimes the after-party does not really work out.  Especially if they are in a different location that the original, the new site needs to be prepped, technical difficulties can derail the effort, the group needs to hold together while things are being set up and not drift off to bed or to the arms of some romantic interest they have been chatting with.

Skip the sleep, organize during the day

Skip the sleep, organize during the day

Ali is capturing funological principles & adages:

“What is the best way to run the last shuttle from the party?”

“To not do it because no one wants to go home.”

And while some people ultimately did go home at absurd o’clock, this after-party definitely had a dreamlike quality to it.

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