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East Greets West: A tale of two conferences

I do like the phone. telefon-table surreal 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.

Twin Oaks Communities Conference 2013

Twin Oaks Communities Conference 2013

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-header-image-v7

Images of Groundswell Institute

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.

IMG_0502

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.

Kyle at Work

Kyle at Work

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, faire@groundswell.institute 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 kyle@groundswell.institute

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 faire@groundswell.institute

Momentarily Viral – Don’t read the Comments

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.

Does this hype actually go anywhere?

Does this hype actually go anywhere?

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. Libertarianism Cartoon 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. polyamory_is_wrongThere 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.

Too often too true

Too often too true

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.

One way to solve the problem

One way to solve the problem

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.

The other way to avoid the last shuttle

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.

just_dance_kids_01

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.

StrangeFolx: Infinite Pizza

Brittany ran to me as i was walking through the Ash Street gardens of the Baltimore Free Farm. She was clearly excited to see me.

“I am so glad there is an old person here now!” was the first thing she said to me

I cracked up laughing.  She explained that the party was full of 20 somethings and she thought my experience would be a grounding effect.  Most people don’t find me grounding, but i was still totally flattered.

Brittany dances with chicken at StrangeFolx 2015

Brittany dances with chicken at StrangeFolx 2015

Many folks say they are busy, but you make time for what is important to you.  I really wanted to go to StrangeFolx, the Baltimore Free Farms anniversary celebration.  I wanted to go because i had missed the protests that BFF had played an amazing supportive role in.  I wanted to go because i am regularly impressed with daring, tenacity and street smarts of these punks.  I wanted to go, because i wanted a big, political party that someone else had organized.

StrangeFolx Invitational Poster

StrangeFolx Invitational Poster

On the way to the event i stopped at a roadside stand and got a flat of strawberries.  I was handing them out to the perhaps 100 people who were already at this event by 1 PM.  I walked by Billy who was pumping out pizzas.

Over 100 oizzas came out of this oven that day

Over 100 pizzas came out of this oven that day

As i approached the oven, there was a metal stake sticking up in the middle of the steps which dozens of people would soon be walking.  “Fix that!” i barked at Billy pointing to the offending stake, in the way busy organizers sometimes dispense with pleasantries.  A nearby anarchist reminded me, “You could fix it.”  Billy soon put a purple cup over the stake and pronounced it fixed.  Safety isn’t first with this crowd, otherwise they would not be rioting with the police.

Billy suggested that i change my thinking about pizza.  Moving away from the idea that it would be a point in time in which one might have pizza, to more of a continuum or infinite span of pizza.  And he made quite good on his promise to deliver unending pizza.  Recently toughened up by the tremendous cooking effort done to support protesters of police violence in Baltimore, the Free Farm kids prepped for this 8 hour long anniversary party of a few hundred people.  GPaul asked for a vegan pizza, and in moments it was there.  The advantage of these real pizza ovens is they can cook a full pizza in just a couple of minutes.

A protester throws a tear gas canister back toward riot police after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray,  in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A protester throws a tear gas canister back toward riot police after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect in the wake of Monday’s riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

When Billy finally took a break he greeted me warmly and gave me an illegal piece of riot swag.  I was touched and i looked at him curiously.  “We could not have done it without your cooks. It was amazing to have all this help and we desperately needed it.”  When Baltimore exploded, Billy called me.  He asked me to put out the call to Action: Baltimore needs cooks.  So i blogged about it, copied it to few facebook pages and crossed my fingers.   I got great reaction, with cooks responding to the blog post wanting to help.  Many had minor logistical problems (like little money and no car).  I cobbled together ride shares and other minor logistics, but folk were resourceful and wanted to get to Baltimore.  In the end about a dozen cooks ended up volunteering at BFF.  And i felt some pride around networking effectively.

But as though my ego were on some type of zen roller coaster, shortly after this i got schooled by Brittany on how unworkable my clever plans were to try to build coalitions with people of color (POC) activists.  She was clear and firm in telling me that the internship scheme i was proposing would not fly culturally.

Instead Brittany and Billy agreed that the best thing for white allies to do these days is be consistent in providing the type of food services for protesters that BFF and Food Not Bombs have been providing.  And be patient.

Barefoot, One Eye and Too Dim

NYC has changed me.

Two years ago, if i had walked out of the Richmond train station and seen three “traveler kids”, i would have headed the other way.  But having spent time doing support work for travelers in Tompkins Square Park has shifted my perception of this fringe group that i had not been connected to before.

Too Dim, Barefoot, and One Eye - or folks who could be them

Too Dim, Barefoot, and One Eye – or folks who could be them

I walked out of the train from Baltimore and saw these three, i had a bit of time to wait and decided that this could be fun.  I got a cheap pizza and approached my new friends.  They were welcoming.  I sat with them where they had found an open wall socket to charge their phones with.

They introduced themselves to me as: Barefoot – who claimed she did not own a pair of shoes.  One Eye – who had a fine line tattoo pattern on the check of side of his face where he had lost an eye to a fight or an accident.  Tex – who said he was from Texas. After i had been there for half an hour and they decided that i was at least interesting and perhaps okay, Tex told me “You should call me ‘Too Dim‘.  My friends call me Too Dim, not Tex.”

The conversation rambled.  They offered me beer and cigarettes.  They played an animated guitar and sang in a raspy voices.  They were generous, friendly and welcoming.  All the traveler kids i have run across have been.

The part about

The part about “angry” is a myth, in my experiences.

They train hopped from Jacksonville FL to Washington DC and discovered what many of us had experienced there.  Washington is tough for outsiders with no friends in the town.  They tried to talk to people, but no one had time for them.  They played guitar and sang, but no one was generous.  They tried lots of different types of places and nothing improved things.  So they left.

traveler and train

Move swiftly between trains before they leave to avoid the yard security. A good train hopper can sense  when a car will start moving, and how long before they have to jump.

They were hoping Richmond is better.  I don’t know, but something makes me think it will be.

At one point Barefoot complimented my shirt.  I asked her if she would wear it.  She said she certainly would, then i offered to give it to her, but she would not take it as a straight gift, she wanted to trade – which is how i got the stylish skull tank top i am donning in the picture below.

it is a bit tight

It is a bit tight.

After an hour or so of hanging out, i decided i need to be moving on.  They were lovely folks, dressed in tattered clothes.  I am thankful my previous prejudices are subsiding and i can connect with a greater array of people.

When i left, with no request on their part, i left a few bucks behind.  One Eye called out after me, “You have restored my faith in humanity”.  And strangely, i felt the same way.

“This is a hard letter for me to write”

The way i see it is, when it comes to the written word, there are basically two kinds of people in the world.  The most common kind of person is an editor.  You give them a page with a bunch of words on it and they read the words, tweak the words, tighten the meaning and the page gets better.

floating typewritersI am the other kind.  I am a blank page kind of a guy.  I depend on editors, not just because of my horrific spelling and grammar, but because i am sloppy and often other people need to make sure i am not making errors of fact or telling stories too far removed from reality.  And while i also do a fair amount of editing, the place i excel is when someone is starting with nothing and needs a document to get somewhere.

Thus i do a lot of ghost writing for other people, especially in the context of the community.  Twin Oaks requires written communication from visitors, long term guests and people who have run afoul of our occasionally labyrinth policies.  Many people i talk with don’t even know how to start these letters.  This is where i come in.

ghostwriter.pngTypically, i can get someone to explain their situation to me at a meal, ask a handful of questions and craft a draft response to the community which they are very relieved to have as a starting point.  Perhaps 25% of the time they can use my letter with only trivial modifications (like the above mentioned problematic grammar and spelling).   Universally, people are appreciative for the help.

Someone might be upset by this, feeling it is somehow cheating and people should write their own letters.  Nonsense i say.  The power of community is that we help each other by sharing our diverse skill sets.  I can’t cook worth a damn and will go nuts if i have to garden.   But i need these things to survive.   And while survival is not on the line with my ghost writing, i see it as part of our great skill share.

I’ll take care of you, you take care of me.

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 ]

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