I live in a world that is slightly inconceivable to most people. I do a lot of work, almost all of it stuff I am super pleased to do. And I don’t get paid for it. Instead the communities I live in (Twin Oaks and Acorn) cover most of the costs of my living: Food, shelter, clothes, education, entertainment, medical insurance, dental insurance, and most of my travel.
Instead of getting paid in money, besides the services listed above, I accrue labor credits. For each hour I work, I get one labor credit. My labor obligation is 42 hours a week. It makes little sense, however, to compare this work quota to most people’s straight jobs. On the rare cases when I commute (like to a college speaking gig or a craft show) I get “paid” for my time traveling. I get labor credits for voting and going to the doctor, and some small fraction of the time I spend taking care of my son Willow is labor creditable. All the time I spend with Willow on home schooling, including the prep is labor creditable. When I clean our collective dishes, I get labor credits. If I were to cook for more than 7 people (which I never do) it would be also be creditable.
Some of the stuff I do is hard. I do mediation between people who are furious with each other. I work to stop nuclear power plants. I am trying to start income sharing communities in NYC, where couples committed to each other for life find it easier to not share income. I help find consensus when there is sharp disagreement. With some regularity people thank me and appreciate the difficulty of this work. When I am feeling clever or exhausted by my efforts I say, “That is why I make the big labor credits”, a silly knock off on the phrase “That is why I make the big bucks.”
Silly, because all labor credits are exactly the same size. One hour is one credit. It does not matter how hard I work in an hour to the accounting system (though other members certainly appreciate and celebrate anyone’s hard work). The labor credit I get for an hour of preparing space for a party is the exact same size as the one I get for hour I spend getting a drunk and belligerent guest out of the party. The labor credit I get for folding mail in the sun while talking with charming visitors is the same size as the one I get for counseling and talking down a manic or suicidal member.
I don’t need to get a bigger labor credit for the harder work. Turns out when my basic needs are met, I am pretty well off. The communities are poor. The people who live there have legitimately calculated taxable income below the poverty line (or at least in the case of Twin Oaks–Acorn is higher but still below the national average income). What this radical sharing we deploy does is to permit us to live like kings (or at least like the upper middle class), while we live in technical poverty.
If you are thinking to yourself “Wait why doesn’t everyone do this? We could eliminate the awful effects of living in poverty without having to make any more money,” you would be on to something. Besides stopping climate change, we would be saving millions of lives from the sharp edge of poverty.
What stops us is we don’t trust each other enough to share what we have, almost all of which is sitting idle almost all the time.
As regular readers of this blog know, we are trying to start urban based income sharing communities in cities in the Northeastern US, specifically NYC, Washington DC, Baltimore and Richmond VA. We have different strategies in all these towns and friendly competition between the organizers as to what the best approach is to get these new communities off the ground.
In NYC, where we knew fewer people who were interested in this lifestyle, we have been doing public events for the last year. We have one coming up the weekend after this one called Community Matchmaking. Please consider coming if you are excited about intentional community in the NYC area.
In Washington we have a group of people who are willing to seriously investigate this style of living. Cities make things more complex and for the last year this DC group has been working on its agreements, strengthening its social fabric and doing the first round of recruiting to people inside our networks. DC is now ready to step up its outreach efforts and is having its first public outreach effort on March 24th. If you are in the Washington DC area and have a strong interest in intentional communities, this is certainly the place to be. Dinner and introductions start at 6PM.
What you should know about this ambitious DC group:
- The plan is to launch this new community within a year.
- There are 6 to 8 people planning on being income sharing members and another dozen and a half who are considering it.
- Most of these folks are currently living in group houses in the DC area.
The event on Tuesday is reaching out to people with collective living experience. Later events will focus differently and reach out to different audiences. Do you find collective living enriching and strengthening? Want to talk about ways to make collective living a lifelong option for more people rather than the transitional living situation that it so often is? Want to talk about ways to accentuate the positive and ameliorate the negative of living with a bunch of people in close community? Come out on Tuesday and join the discussion!
Crow screwed up. They recently acted out in a way that had made people feel uncomfortable and some even unsafe. It could have been any of a number of kinds of things: An intoxicated incident, a minor consent violation, a petty crime, even an especially poor choice of guest. The specifics don’t matter. Crow knew that they had created a problem for themselves with Acorn and they were coming to me for advice. What could they do to make things better? How could they mend their frayed relationships with other members? At Acorn this answer is easy, you do what we regularly do, you have a clearness.
And it turns out that this is a very good thing. Many communities have self care mechanisms that feel punitive. As i have written, the Feedback system at Twin Oaks very often feels punishing, even though it often need not.
But because Acorn does regular individual clearnesses, adding another one to normal rotation almost always feels accessible. The clearness format is the same as a routine clearness (meetings with each individual member, checking in about their experiences of each other, and then a group clearness which summarizes all the individual clearnesses).
The lesson is clear here. When you are designing self corrective systems within a community, you need to consider how they feel to the users. It is not enough to insure the community is taken care of, these systems need to feel non coercive to the members who are going through them. The best way to have that effect is to have a familiar and non-threatening group communication facilitating tool. I think the clearness process is one of the better ones.
A week later i talked with Crow. They had done a bunch of clearnesses and felt much better about their connection to the community. They felt better understood.
The most common complaint about community clearnesses is that they take a lot of time. “Do i really have to talk to everyone else in the community one-on-one?” Only if you want there to be cohesion in your community. Only if you want to be able to fix significant mistakes people make and successfully rebound from it. You only need to do this if you want a healthy community.
For many people this is too much work and i think this is central to why so many communities fail.
Supermarkets are hugely problematic. They distort purchasing behaviors, contribute to obesity, cut wages to farmers and more. There have been several responses to this situation, including farmers markets. The direct workaround for supermarkets is Community Support Agriculture or CSA for short. CSAs have customers buying shares directly from farmers and typically every week they get part of the harvest in a box they go pick up. When harvests are good, customers share in the bounty, when harvests are low customers agree not to complain, and as a result, they feel like they are in the game together with the farms.
CSAs give better prices to farmers by cutting out the powerful broker of the supermarket. They provide money faster to farmers, earlier in the season when they often most need it. They share the risk between farm and end consumer in a way that supermarkets have no interest in sharing. They typically offer better profits for farmers and lower prices for end customers.
Our fine friends in Freedonia have taken this idea to the next level. [If you don’t remember Freedonia is our pseudonym for actual urban communities which are doing clever but illegal things in undisclosed locations.] They are starting Community Supported Dumpster Diving (CSDD) or what one communard calls Community Supported Gleaning.
Active dumpster diving collective households pull in dramatically more food from dumpsters than they themselves can use. Other collective households agree to sort, clean, prep, store and divide the bounty as it comes in (often at absurd o’clock in the morning). Finally a set of other collective houses come and pick up the recovered food and feed it to their people.
If you have not been dumpster diving in an urban area, you might miss the cleverness of this plan. Normally, dumpster divers are presented with a dilemma. There are 60 bunches of perfectly good banana’s here, but if i bring them all back 1) we will never eat them in time and most of them will rot. 2) We will spend a bunch of time cleaning and storing them and will end up losing out on other dumpster bounty.
CSDD solves this problem in several ways. Crews get sent out knowing their own collective household need not clean and consume everything they rescue. By having the different people doing food prep from the people who are doing the dumpster diving, you avoid asking exhausted dumpster divers at 3 AM to then spend hours cleaning and in some cases food processing all the bananas. By spreading the dumpstered treasure over several different collective households, you share pro tips, strategies and critical information about urban dumpsters among a growing crowd of experts and don’t burn people out by having to do so much dumpstering in an given week. By having separate crews doing cleaning and food processing, you rescue a greater fraction of the salvaged food.
There are complex discussions going on between Freedonia and other collective households. Who can join the CSDD? Is it possible to just buy shares (like in CSAs) and not do any of the work? How do we evaluate the different types of efforts, space needs, storage costs, administrative work etc?
But the Freedonians i spoke with said the project (still in early stages) is going fabulously so far, people are not sweating the details and are upping the collective dumpster diving game dramatically – dropping food prices for people living in cooperatives, reducing the amount of wasted food in the system and providing adventurous activities for people who might otherwise simply be sleeping.
i am excited about where this idea can go, and that it proves that by cooperating we can create a lifestyle which is both more resilient and more fair.
I am not into birthdays, including my own. Turns out if i simply turn off the Facebook birthday notification of mine, I can avoid the dozens of robotic “Happy Birthday” messages which I get from otherwise creative people who like me. I had a lovely birthday including a trip to the free STI clinic, an unrelated rushing around adventure and lovely conversations about forming new communities in Colorado. It felt like a good day to be alive.
As an anti-materialist, I am an unusually difficult person to get presents for. Most people don’t even try. With the exception of my generous mother, it was almost a gift free celebration. Lovely.
But as the day ended, in the last look at email messages I got the most lovely present from Audrey from the far reaches of Quebec. Audrey is one of those shooting stars we get through the communes, who enchant us endlessly but we can’t hold onto because they have other adventures that beckon them.
Without even knowing it was my birthday, she game me the most lovely of presents – a translation.
One of my favorite self-generated pieces of propaganda is a morsel of writing from way back called “Why I am an anarchist.” There is a strange history to this piece, which includes that it exploded the collective that was supposed to turn a set of these essays into a book. But that is another story.
Audrey appreciated this proclamation and mentioned when she last left Twin Oaks/Acorn that she planned on translating it. And I did not think much of it. People offer these kinds of things with some regularity, but translation is non-trivial work and can easily get lost behind the rest of the things you are doing.
I am pleasantly surprised and gratified for my multi-lingual friends who help spread these radical ideas around. What a lovely unextraordinary day to be alive.
It is busy season.
Most of my days start the same way. Jah and i find each other somewhere between his blueberry pancakes (he often does a breakfast shift, despite the fact we have no agreement anyone will cook breakfast) and the smoke shack at Acorn. We go into the seed picking room and stare down a huge collection of orders. Then, we sort them, taking the smallest ones (typically 5 items or less) and put them in one pile the rest in another.
Now our dance begins. Jah and i spin around the seed picking room, grabbing orders and dodging each other. The sounds system is pumping Soldier or Michael Franti or Marley. Jah is especially good with large orders, strong solid picking. The nature of small orders is that you are running around the room a bunch and (if you are like me) trying to fill several orders as once, so you can avoid doubling back.
Jah is the elephant knocking down huge trays of seeds. I am the bee, buzzing around him and flying around the room. We move with haste, people get bumped into occasionally and brushed up against all the time, it’s is just what is happening in the busy seed picking office early in the morning. We are regulars, but there are lots of people in the picking room these days. The late night crew picked orders at 2 AM this morning. Aster, Sunshine and Jah were part of that. Para and Lola were in this morning with us. Picking seeds for orders is the beginning of our order fulfillment process.
Anyone who has worked in the tofu hut (or has studied industrial engineering) knows that the first step of the assembly line is the heartbeat of the entire process. The full line can’t go any faster. And the speed of the first step often drives the speed of the entire line. We want to pick everything that comes in during the say the same day. This insures that the shippers (who make custom bundles for mailing of our picked orders) are always busy, if there is anything for them to process. Jah and i are determined to keep the picking room heartbeat thumping right along.
Sales are up. We are picking and packing much faster (in part because some packing is being done by the new seed packing robot, which some of us are referring to as HAL) than previous years. Almost all the varieties are in stock. Ken and Irena and Charlotte are making sure all varieties are packed and ready for us (which is why there are so few numbers on the daily Unpickable Seeds sheets depicted below). It feels like a well oiled machine.
And it feels like an anarchist Utopian dream. Almost all the workers are self assigning almost all the time. There are people, like Irena, Ira, Ken and myself who almost always have tasks which people can help with. Sometimes we are approached, other times we approach people. And especially during this season, when everyone is hustling, almost everyone says “yes” most of the time when asked if they can help. [Ken points out that accountability of task work also helps us maintain quality. At each step the worker records what they did so that workers further down the chain can gently inform folks earlier in the process about mistakes they made. ]
The structure is almost as flat as it can be. It is trust based, so there are no time clocks. It is trust based, so no one is telling you to work faster or longer. It is trust based, so you need to do your own quality control. It is trust based, so for most people the only person who really knows if you are doing your share is you. And it all mostly works.
People work because it is clear there is lots of work to do. People work because we make most of the money the community needs and uses in these few months. People work because the work is super pleasant and relaxed and better than any light physical work than anyone ever had before they got here, and there is this distant fear that if we don’t all do our parts here, some of us might end up back there in jobs which were considerably less wonderful. People work because they can stop when they like and switch jobs when they want to. People work because they want to show up in community as a contributor to this thing that they believe in.
Turns out the money thing is not all it is cracked up to be.