Some of us who live in established successful communities regularly get questions about how to start new communities. There is pretty standard advice which is worth sharing in this format.
Before you start a new community you should:
- See if there is an existing community which meets your needs
- Live in an existing community before you start one
Starting a new community is crazy hard work. Even if you have a clear vision, excellent people to start it with, a place to move into and ample resources to start it, your chances of success are low. And the chances that you are starting with all these advantages is pretty low.
For all manner of reasons, many people feel that community life would be good for them. Perhaps they have fond memories of living collectively in college. Or maybe they miss a close knit family and wish to reproduce this environment with friends and intimates of their own choice. It is easy to imagine an isolated life in the mainstream which makes people long for something richer and more interconnected.
Beyond this, people like to create. They want to build something new, craft something with their preferences and identity built into it. This is fantastic. But because community creating is so difficult, your first step in this adventure should be a serious review of the communities which already exist. It is far easier to join an existing community than it is to start a new one. (This does not mean that it is easy to join a community; this can be an ordeal in itself.)
And even if the community you find is not perfect for you to live in long term, there is a strong case to be made for trying to live in an existing community before you build your own. My own failed thinking might be instructive in demonstrating this point. Before I came to Twin Oaks, I really wanted to start my own activist-oriented community in eastern Europe. I had been fighting Russian-designed nuclear reactors which were being completed by Western companies after the Berlin Wall came down and I was convinced that a community of organizers would be a powerful tool in preventing dirty energy solutions from spreading.
I also thought I knew what was critical in making this proposed community succeed. Specifically, one needed to have a good decision-making model and a carefully selected income engine. I guessed at the time that consensus would be the governance solution. I also thought the business should be something that it was easy to train people in, which was not a classical assembly line situation. I visited Twin Oaks nearly 20 years ago now, with a focus on these specific aspects.
What I found was that I was wrong. Twin Oaks did not use consensus and while I often complain about our decision-making model, it functions reasonably well and there are lots of different models which serve different communities (sociocracy, voting models, charismatic leaders, councils of elders, boards of directors, etc). What I see now is that members being cooperative and flexible, is more critical than what specific decision format you select.
Consensus does have advantages
It also turns out that there are lots of different ways to pay the bills. And while I thought what I was looking for was a well-structured community owned cooperative business, in most cases, new communities don’t have this and the individual members pool income from straight jobs. Businesses which support income sharing communities (the income engines) come in all manner of different shapes and as long as you have some people who are willing to do sales work (often a problem in communities) you have a chance at building a culture around your business and being viable. It also helps tremendously that income sharing communities are very cheap to run because of the high degree of sharing which is happening.
What I did not realize was how central a role internal communication culture and especially managing gossip would play in the survival of communities. This does not come up in most guides on how to start communities. But if you get it wrong, it will be more important than if you selected voting over consensus. Because of the intensity of community living, you need to be able to recover from events where trust gets damaged, or the fabric of your community will likely unravel. This is why some of us spend so much time working on things like Transparency Tools.
I would not have known this if I had not lived in a community. I would have prioritized solving the wrong problems. The lived experience of being in a community will also help you find out what about community living does not work for you. Like it or not, community life will almost certainly push your buttons. Learning this about yourself before you take on the giant task of starting your own community is basically a necessary prerequisite for success.
Having kids in your community is also clever.
This article first appeared in the Commune Life Blog
This post originally appeared on CommuneLife Blog.
We got to Binghamton via MIT. It was one of the first presentations of the Communities in Crisis materials. It was a small crowd, perhaps half a dozen people not affiliated with the Point A project in the room.
“But they are the right people,” Raven said, and not knowing much about the Boston coop scene, I was happy to defer to him. Turned out he was right.
Rachael from the audience said we had to talk with Maximus and put Genome Collective on our agenda. And with Genome came our growing connection to Binghamton University and David Sloan Wilson and the birth of the Chloroplast Research Institute.
It is from these connections that we have started seriously exploring the thesis that living in community is more sane than not and that people who join heal with time. A radical, if not obvious, notion. There is quite some chance that Maximus’s PhD thesis will be working with the income sharing communities in an effort to prove this. Which would be wonderful for us.
We have been working with Genome Collective in Binghamton for over a year, with several Point A visits. We did some strong group process work in our early visits to Genome and, at one point, even hoped they would morph from being a group house into being an income sharing community.
The house itself has a number of positive attributes. A large separate meeting space over the garage called “the temple” is ideal for workshops, meditation or yoga classes. The house has the beginnings of a thriving culinary mushroom business. Genome has both numerous bedrooms and a top floor which can host several sleepover guests.
Maximus gave us a full schedule of classes and workshops while we were there. We presented on a number of topics including climate change, polyamory, income sharing communities and sustainability. Our classes spanned the range from large freshman lectures to small grad student seminars. What was universal was that we got thoughtful and insightful questions from every group of students and several students interested in visiting and/or studying our cultures.
It is also clear that, while we are welcome in Binghamton to do more speaking gigs at the university and to stay at Genome, the house has decided that they will be a group house instead of an income sharing community, and will not be needing the services of Point A to help them go in that direction. Our future visits will be more connected to the Twin Oaks Academic Speaking Tour (TOAST) instead of Point A work.
[This story originally appeared on the CommuneLife.org blog]
It’s been too long since we have organized a Point A trip, and it’s fun to be on the road again. Tufts University, outside of Boston is proving a worthy first stop on our adventure. I am lucky to have a capable fun group of people to be presenting with:
Long experienced communard and construction wizard, Nina is not the chatty type, but what she says is more than worth listening to. She was the principal presenter of the Community as the Solution to Climate Change workshop on Saturday.
Skylar is Nina’s strongly bonded partner. Twin Oaks brought them together and they are enjoying a long honeymoon. Most people who meet Skylar don’t believe she can actually be as happy as she appears, but I know better. Optimistic, fanciful, quick to comment and engage, Skylar is, in a positive way, Nina’s mirror image. Skylar navigated the workshop on Transcending Jealousy and Building Compersion that we did at the Tufts LGBTQ center.
Raven is my steady ally on the prolonged roller coaster ride of the Point A. He tries, with some success, to catch all the flying pieces of wreckage hurling from my poorly organized multi-city trips. He is making sure our crew gets fed (me: people need food?) and that local organizers know what to expect from our small invasion of commune activists. When I neglected to secure housing in Somerville, Raven tapped his deep Boston co-op roots and found us all places to sleep. He is the wrangler in chief for the commune life blog.
Maximus from the Genome Collective in Binghamton, NY has been the godfather of this trip. Getting dates months in advance so they fit into the several classes we are doing at Binghamton; finding us honorariums for presenting; finding us amazing venues and local support at Tufts (where he went to school). Specifically, he hooked us up with the fine folks from Crafts House, who have an adorable college collective living situation, combined with stewardship of the well stocked student art space at Tufts, the Craft Center.
Telos did not think he was going on this trip. He made the mistake of calling me for advice on rides to Virginia, after he was disqualified at the last minute from a medical study that his community, Cambia, was doing in Baltimore. He ended up going North instead, where he joined this intrepid crew with his organizing and writing skills, and experience from previous Point A trips with the Genome collective, who we are advising later in the trip. Moral: I am happy to help find you a ride, it just might not be to where you think you were going.
The way these trips work, ideally, is we work with a group house (Craft House in the case of Tufts, or the Genome Collective in the case of Binghamton) and give them a collection of workshops to choose from.
Elise from Craft House consulted with her coop and choose three:
- Polyamory Principals: Transcending Jealousy and Crafting Compersion
- Intentional Community as the solution to Climate Disruption
- Community Communication: Clearnesses and Transparency Tools
Craft House itself has been supportive and hospitable. When our team grew in size with Telos arrival and needed another place for someone to sleep, Craft House gave us a luxurious closet to sleep in. It is currently their small costume commie clothes. I jumped at the chance to sleep in their fine closet, even before i found out it’s august history. It also turns out to be the closet the be off the room where Tracy Chapman lived while she went to Tufts in 1987.
The audiences to our workshops have been growing steadily since we started presenting at Tufts. A number of people are interested in coming to the Virginia communes to visit and dozens of fingerbooks have been distributed on various topics. We have several solid offer to host us when we return next semester and well as Tufts students and area residents who want to explore the path from dorm to student coop and then from coop to egalitarian community. It feels like important beginnings.
On to Binghamton.
Update March 2017: Crafts House is coming to visit the communes over spring break! 12 members of Crafts House will be coming down and staying at Simple House (a property near Twin Oaks controlled by Cambia) for 4 days and visiting the communities and working at income sharing farms in Louisa.
In the time of Trump, it is critical to seek high functioning alternatives to the mainstream culture. Twin Oaks and the surrounding cluster of egalitarian communities could be a model for new behaviors of sharing technologies and cooperative culture. But perhaps our most daring export, because many default culture citizens think they are expert in this, is how to be a father.
Keegan and adder (sic) are two young fathers living in a rural income sharing egalitarian commune. But if you are willing to listen, i think their advice might be applicable for your world as well.
Other articles about communes and families:
- Parenting in Community – It takes a Village
- Negligent Parenting Magazine
- Wrong from word 2 – Yahoo Parenting discovers the Commune
- Utopia Child Rearing – by Keenan (not Keegan)
- Momentarily Viral – Don’t Read the Comments (on Yahoo Parenting article)
- Being a “Yes”
This is a rich topic. Your comments are welcome.