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.
A British racing green jaguar convertible sports car pulled up next to me as I was hitching outside Boston. I am surprised to see the door of the expensive vehicle pop open and the driver wave me over.
“Come on get it!”
“Thanks I needed a ride from here” I hop into the leather bucket seat.
“Where do you want to go? My wife says I am too drunk to be home”
Some years later I was driving in Los Angeles and picked up one of the quite rare hitchhikers inside the city limits.
“Thank you so much, I have been waiting there all day and I just got out of jail.”
In case you are unfamiliar with prison culture it is considered poor form to ask an excon what they were in the slammer for. If they want you to know, they will tell you. So assuming you are familiar with the culture, this statement (and the following lack of clarification) is basically saying, “i need you to trust me right now, and I am not giving you much info on why you should.”
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.
The fine folks at DDP have created an excellent comprehensive piece on Ferguson events and how you can participate in the movement against police oppression in the US. Strongly suggested reading
Originally posted on Disrupting Dinner Parties:
If you’ve looked at a computer or television screen in the last week, you’ve probably heard something about Ferguson, MO and a boy named Michael Brown. Perhaps you’ve heard a lot of conflicting stories. Let’s gets some facts straight.
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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:
* 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].
* 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.
* 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.