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Evolving Transparency

The second best thing for an organizer is when someone takes an idea you think is important and replicates it. So I was more than thrilled when I learned that there was a regular Transparency Tools (TT) group happening Wednesday nights at Acorn that I was not organizing.

Transparency fade

The best thing for an organizer is when someone takes an idea you think is important and evolves and enhances it. And so it was with the Acorn Transparency Tools group which I attended for the first time the other day after some weeks of being on the road.

Confidentiality is key to making transparency work. You are asking the people in the group to take a risk. You are asking them to describe some of the most important thoughts and feelings which are going on inside of them. We ask people share with us their most intimate details. You can’t do this unless you feel like the group can maintain your confidences.

locked mind

There have been two general confidentiality agreements that TT groups have been using.

  1. Strict Confidentiality: People in the group don’t talk about the other members’ disclosures outside of the Transparency Tools group.
  2. Identity Confidentiality: You can talk about things which came up in your TT group, but you must do it in a way that hides the identity of the person who said the thing, even to someone who is listening who has great knowledge of the group.

I personally prefer identity confidentiality. I want the people in these TT groups to be talking about their experiences, which are often powerful and sometimes transformative, and the strict confidentiality agreement often limits this.

The Acorn TT group developed a new type of confidentiality which might be called Group Confidentiality. The group agrees to strict confidentiality, but invites members of the TT group to talk about things people brought up, but only amongst those who were present. While I don’t like this as much as identity confidentiality, I do see several advantages to it.

question marks hanging

Remind me, what can I say to whom?

With identity confidentiality there is always the chance that you might inadvertently break your agreement, because your listener might have a bunch of information about people in your group that you don’t know. So they might be able to figure out the identity of the person you are talking about. Because of this, people inside the group might be reluctant to share important information about themselves for fear it might leak out.

With group confidentiality, there is yet another incentive to be inside the group. You are given a special permission to continue to work on these interesting issues – but exclusively with people who are in the group. This further encourages people who think they might want to come. It can create post-meeting group identity and lead participants seek out members of the group to continue their own work on things which come up.

emotion geometry

The other exercise which got modified in the Acorn TT group was the Flow of Feelings tool. This tool invites the users to talk about their different emotional states without worrying about the logical accuracy of their statements. You might say, “I am sad because I have no friends.” Your friend in the group might well object, “You have a bunch of friends, including me!” This is not helpful. If you are feeling sad, we want to invite you to explore why, not get into an argument over the ‘truth’ of your feelings.

Flow of Feelings invites the participants to check in with the group around 8 different types of feelings:

I feel angry that …                 I feel grateful that…

I feel sad that….                     I feel happy that…

I feel afraid that …                 I feel secure that…

I feel guilty that…                   I feel proud that …

In the original flow of feelings format, one participant would cycle through these feelings, usually giving at least one statement of each. In the new format developed by the Acorn TT group, a single feeling is selected and everyone in the group throws in a response to it. The difference is significant. Even though the root causes are often quite different, being with others in the group at your moment of sadness or of pride reconnects you to them, and builds bonds and tribe.


I am very excited about these developments. Big thanks to Brude and Batco for their work on this.


Vacancies in Paradise (big asterisk)


For almost all of the last 7 years there has been a waiting list at Twin Oaks. It is now gone.


Welcome, have some of these!

People seek explanations for why we dropped down into the low 80s of adults, when we had been at our population cap of 92 for so long. There is no single reason.

But because there are now spaces available to people who come to do the visitor period, it is worth reviewing why it might be a good time to ditch your mainstream life and consider living in a full service commune.

No Bosses: Our managers are nothing like your manager. They don’t generally fire people, they don’t determine raises or promotions. Instead they organize trainings and make sure the needed materials are available and the machines are functioning properly. Every one of our ‘managers’ also works on the production line. Because all jobs are volunteer, managers who exploit their co-workers find themselves lonely. This drives the MBAs a bit crazy.

collectivism worth fighting for

No Money: Can you imagine going through your day and not touching cash or credit cards? The commune strives to and largely succeeds in providing all the things people need outside the conventional money system. Food, housing, clothing, medical services, education, and entertainment are distributed freely and fairly. You work your quota (currently 42 hours a week) and all your needs are met.


No advertising: Transformative festivals like Burning Man make a big deal out of being non-commercial and largely advertisement free. For many attendees the break from the constant onslaught of commercial images and invitations to buy things, most of which you don’t want, is a big relief. But you can’t live at these festivals. You can live at Twin Oaks, where if you stay off the internet and don’t read one of the many magazines we collectively subscribe to, you can avoid advertisements indefinitely.

BM costumes

Commie Clothes is less colorful, but more practical

No punch clocks: One of the other things the boss you don’t have is not doing is keeping track of your hours. In this trust-based system you record the different work you do. Our flexible work system means you can always find work in the hammock shop or in the kitchen and if you want to be scheduled you can be, but if you prefer to figure it out yourself each day, that is available also.

clocks surreal

Are you a slave to clocks?

No fear: What do you feel if you hear someone behind you in the dark whom you don’t know? While it is not true to say we completely escape all crime, we avoid so much of it that some visitors realize the difference between where I live and where they live is that there has been a constant mostly low level threat for most of their waking hours, which vanishes in this prosaic collective rural living.

no_fear_walk on the railing

It is not just what we don’t have that defines us, the things we do choose and possess are crucial.

We strive to be self-sufficient: We build our own buildings, organically grow most of our own food, run our own businesses, teach our kids,  and create our own holidays and culture. The community has spawned and nurtured painters and poets, quilters and woodcarvers. We’ve had folk singers, rock bands, chanters and primal screamers. You can find someone to teach you how to juggle, or program a computer, or deliver a newborn calf. We stage our own theater productions and provide an unusually appreciative audience for visiting performers. We have our own coffeehouses, writing groups, and social clubs.

Twinoaks aerial view

Aerial view of a small part of Twin Oaks


Economic self-sufficiency means we have seven businesses:

  • We make about 8,000 hammocks a year and sell them online and in stores and at the craft fairs we attend.
  • We make 400,000 lbs of tofu.  We are just starting a new line which will enable us to double production.
  • We indexed 60 books last year, mostly with academic presses.
  • We have a contract services business which does demolition, elder care, house cleaning and removes the basketball floor at midnight on Thanksgiving at UVa John Paul Jones Arena.
  • We do seed growing and wholesale distribution of Acorn’s Southern Exposure organic and heritage seed business.
  • We run conferences and gatherings, like the upcoming Womens Gathering (Aug 19 thru 21) and Communities Conference over labor day (Sept 2 thru 5) as well as the Herb Workshop.
  • We sell beautiful organic ornamental flowers.


IMG_4122 (1)

Acorn’s seeds become flowers – photo credit Gryphon

We live lightly on the land: We heat our buildings with sustainably harvested wood from our land. Most buildings have a solar hot water preheating system and half of the newest residential building is off the grid completely, using only electricity provided by the sun, with residents agreeing to keep consumption low and use efficient appliances. We sort our waste into over a dozen different categories and reuse and recycle fiercely. The food we don’t grow we buy in bulk, which cuts down on packaging. We have our own sewage treatment plant, which runs at well-above state required standards and are planning a constructed wetlands. We have 20% the carbon foot print of our mainstream counterparts, mostly because we share things so robustly: clothes and cars and buildings and bicycles and musical instruments.


Installing solar panels at Twin Oaks

We are self-selecting: You cannot simply move to Twin Oaks tomorrow, and strangers who just drop in are politely asked to leave. You need to write us first and link up with one of the regularly scheduled three-week visits, or just take our Saturday tour. During the three-week visit, we orient you to our culture and more importantly, it gives both you and us a chance to live and work together. Then we ask visitors to go away for a month and think about whether they really want to live in our slightly odd and extraordinary village.


Are you really one of us?

[This is the big asterisk part] *But it is not paradise: There are all kind of good reasons why people leave my commune (or never come in the first place.) Some people want more independence, they don’t want to have to ask the health team for some expensive exotic medical procedure. Some people want more of their own space than their own room. Some members leave because they don’t find the romantic partner they want, or the one they had ended the relationship and it is too hard to see their former partner every day.  It is hard to make enough money to take long trips or far away vacations (our members get a tiny allowance of $100 a month.)

And then there is this resume problem. If you want to be a millionaire or CEO, you should probably skip the commune step. This is not to say that some members have not used the community as an applied university. And we have had many general managers of million dollar businesses who were in their early twenties. But when they ask you how much you were paid at your last job, your next employer is likely to be unimpressed by in-kind wages.


The real question to ponder is, “Are you ready for a radical departure from what you are used to?” Community could be the answer. And now that there is not a waiting list at Twin Oaks, perhaps this is the right one for you.

If you are interested in applying for membership click here.

The post originally appeared in the CommuneLife blog.



CommuneLife Blog – Contributors wanted

On the first of May of this year, we will be launching the blog.  We are putting together a collection of articles and photo essays about the challenges and benefits of collective living.  We are especially excited about the flavors of community where there is a high degree of resource and income sharing.

in Mineral, VA, on Thursday, June 18, 2015.

Acorn Porch – photo credit Sarah Rice

The proposed format for this blog is that we will do three postings each week:

  1. Monday – New article of general interest on community life
  2. Wednesday – Photo essay from communities across the country
  3. Friday – Historic blog posting which was popular and remains current

We are stocking articles and photo essays now.  If you would like to be involved in this volunteer project as a contributor, editor, social media promoter, photographer or in another capacity, please comment on this post and we will get back to you.

solar hot water and bikes

Twin Oaks Solar Hot Water System and Shared Bikes

The project is part of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC) Point A project.  While the Point A project is promoting new communities in north eastern US urban areas, the CommuneLife blog is promoting both rural and urban shared living solutions across North America.




Boston Area Workshops March 19th

If you have friends or allies in the Boston/Cambridge area, I recommend two workshops on Intentional Community:

  • Community in Crisis: How to Manage and Mend – 1 PM (Facebook Event)
  • Community as the Solution to Climate Change – 3:30 PM (Facebook Event)

Saturday March 19 at MIT Room 13-4101.105 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge Mass

It’s a short walk from the Kendall Square Subway Station.

Residential intentional communities both represent a solution to major problems facing humanity and work with some of our most complex interpersonal dynamics. These two workshops examine how to navigate some of these troubles and what fixes communities are offering the greater society.

These two workshops are open to the general community, though the first workshop (Community in Crisis) is especially applicable for members of cooperative houses and co-housing communities.

Community in Crisis: How to Manage and Mend

Invariably, communities will experience conflicts and interpersonal problems and occasionally these are quite serious. This workshop looks at different types of critical problems that have hit communities, especially ones where the cohesion of the membership is threatened, and looks at best practices for managing them. How do you avoid putting members on trial? What are the trigger words that escalate conflicts and how do we communicate effectively and avoid them? How do you use shuttle diplomacy before mediation to lower tension? How do you know when the whole group is involved or when it can be managed by a smaller sub-group? When is it clear the group needs to break up/change composition to make things better?

Once you are on the other side of a crisis, what can be done to rebuild trust and intimacy? How do you harvest knowledge from the problem to avoid repeating it in the future?

This interactive workshop will use role plays and case studies to explore different approaches to the art of building community harmony.

Presented by Paxus from the Point A project.

fifth sacred thing

Intentional Community as a solution to Climate Change

Central to the problem of climate disruption is idle material resources. The UN IPCC recommends an 80% reduction in carbon footprint by 2050, yet no industrial nation is on track for this level of reduction. In central Virginia the members of income sharing communities are living middle class (or some might argue upper middle class) life styles while outperforming this target reduction. The secret to their success is radical resource sharing.  

The  Twin Oaks Community represents over 100 people sharing cars, clothes, income, businesses, buildings, and bicycles and thus dramatically reducing their per person climate effect. This lifestyle is also culturally rich, economically sustainable, and mutually supportive.

This workshop will begin with a presentation on the sharing technologies which underpin these village economies and how the members maintain the trust needed. The second portion of the workshop is interactive and will explore how urban dwellers, including workshop participants, can foster sharing systems in urban environments.  

Paxus Calta manages recruiting and outreach for Twin Oaks community. He is coordinating the Point A campaign to spark new high model-value communities inside the five boroughs of NYC. He has fought nuclear reactors in eastern Europe, hitchhiked across the Pacific on sailboats, and smuggled monks out of Tibet.  


Norms versus Rules

“I would not want to be the police for this policy.” Someone wrote recently about my blog post on fun tables.

And it made me realize that I had not blogged about one of the most important aspects of community life.  Which is the stratification and interrelation of our agreements and how it is that they are enforced.

At Twin Oaks we have basically three levels of agreements:

  1. Bylaws
  2. Policy
  3. Norms

To become a member, you have to sign to ByLaws.  These are the defining general agreements we make with each other.  They include general text like this:

Together our aim is to perpetuate and expand a society based on cooperation, sharing, and equality:

A. Which serves as one example of a cooperative social organization, relevant to the world at large, and promotes the formation and growth of similar communities;

and much more specific text like this:

All assets not loaned or donated to the Community shall be left inactive from a management or investment point of view, except that, at the Community’s discretion it may allow a member to reinvest or manage assets, if it is to the Community’s advantage that this be done.

The bylaws are fairly short, perhaps 8 pages or so.  They are the highest level of agreement the community has.  As an incoming member, you are supposed to have read them and have some familiarity with them.

wavy roads

Sometimes the path is not direct

Twin Oaks has a lot of written policy.  There are two large three ring binders full of instructions on how we have agreed to do things.  There is detailed information about how we should conduct an expulsion.  There is the complex zoning of our nudity policy.  We carefully describe our prohibition of live television and restrictions on cell phones.  There is also some slightly silly policy like the restriction of transport of nuclear waste through the community.  No one is expect to read all our policies.

None-the-less written policy is important at Twin Oaks.  It is a central pillar in our decision making process.  And we spend a fair amount of time discussing and debating what makes good policy.  With some regularity, members will say “I went back and looked at the policy and it was quite clear.”  I personally think well crafted policy has been important in the success of the community, which is now heading into it’s 49th year.

brains floating

But what happens if you break a policy?  One of the things you will see very little of in our policy is consequences for breaking policy.  Unlike laws, where the punishment for breaking them is clear, mostly it is a bit up for grabs what happens in the community when someone violates policy.  If you violate the cell phone policy, someone is likely to simply tell you that they are annoyed by your behavior, perhaps remind you of the policy and then we are done (this happened to me the other night).  If you violate the restriction on firearms, you might find yourself looking at expulsion.

There are no police at Twin Oaks.  At least none with special powers.  Any member can remind another member of an agreement we have about a behavior which might be problematic.  If they don’t feel comfortable confronting the member they can go to the Process Team or the Planners (our highest executive body).  It is possible nothing will happen with the complaint, we simply ignore some number of small problems.  When something does happen, most of the time it is a simple reprimand and a request to stick to our agreements.

The lowest level of agreements we have are norms.  We don’t write norms down.  Norms are intentionally called norms rather than rules, because generally speaking there is no consequence to someone violating a norm (unlike rules, where there is generally a punishment from breaking a rule).

path to living well

What is the path to living well together?

All of the fun table agreements I discussed in the earlier post are norms.  We don’t have any written agreements about protocols for how to sit at which table and what they can talk about.   As much as we like policy, even for us this would be over the top.

So what about my digital friend who wants to know about policing agreements?  Why do these norms get followed if there are so little in the way of consequences for violating them?

The real answer is that we mostly gently police each other, and much of it is unspoken and self policing.  We are crafting a dynamic binding social contract.  When I was reminded to be discreet about my cell phone use, it was at it’s base a request from my fellow communard to not include them in my habit.

In the larger society a fair case can be made that for laws and rules to hold sway, they need to have punishment teeth to back them up.  In the tiny culture of community, we can spend more time working on our agreements and less time worrying specifically about what happens when they are not followed, because our softer social controls will encourage us to abide by them without police or punishment.




A day with the Sanders Campaign

Generally, I am not excited about personality politics, it rubs my anarchist roots the wrong way. But I have to confess that Bernie is different. Besides having a long history of doing the right thing, he is running on a platform that is basically about re-orienting American priorities to take care of the majority of the people in the country, and especially those who are disadvantaged.

Hillary’s platform says she will do a similar thing, as do many conventional politicians. The differences is Bernie has decades of elected experience doing and trying to do exactly this.

bernie arrested

I do like a guy who is willing to get arrested.

The thing which tilted it for me, the thing which got me out of my chair and had me spend a couple of days campaigning for Sanders leading into the Virginia primary, was his position on nuclear power. It is simply a reasonable position, cutting government subsidies for nuclear development and liability insurance.

It does not take much to satisfy me on this issue. Sadly, not a single major political candidate for president has had this position in my lifetime, not Carter, not Clinton (either one) not Obama. Certainly not any of the Republican candidates for president.

Sanders on Vermont Yankee and more nuclear issues

And it is worth pointing out that this simple, reasonable position would mean the rapid phase out of nuclear power in the US and the complete abandonment of new nuclear development. Without serious subsidy and open ended liability insurance covered by tax payers, nuclear power is economically nonviable.

So after I took some Acorners to a construction job I went to the Sanders campaign office in Charlottesville on the day before the Virginia primary. I said I was at their disposal for the rest of the day and election day. When I said I would make phone calls or go door to door, they told me the face to face personal touch was more important. When I told them I lived in Louisa County, they asked me if I could go back home, because due to some delegate math that I did not quite understand, Louisa County was more important than Charlottesville County. I happily returned to Louisa.

fell the bern t-shirt

I was given 13 regions inside Louisa County to canvas. I was told that we were only looking to talk with people who were already leaning strongly towards Bernie. This is a real “Get out the Vote” effort (called GPTV by the folks who live this stuff.) “Don’t talk with Hillary supporters, and quickly disengage from Trump fans, despite the temptation to argue with them,” I was told by the Sanders campaign staff.

Our conversations with prospective voters were to be mostly about logistics. “What time were you planning on voting?” “Do you need a ride?” “Did you know your polling place is the Moss Nuckalos Elementary School?” “You know the polls are open until 7pm?”

I wanted to spend some time doing it myself before I went back to the communes and got other people involved. Partially this was because I wanted to know if it made sense to send teams of two people. It did.

We were not hitting every house on the block. This is the age of big data and there is all kinds of information about people out there. When I talked with the folks at the Sanders office about where the data about the houses I was visiting came from I was impressed by the answer. “We have address data on everyone who has given Sanders money, we know who is registered to vote as a democrat and most of the addresses in your packets come from modeling.” Computer models are forecasting who you will vote for. They were right a surprising fraction of the time.

Because there is distance between houses and all manner of circuitous driveways, I decided that I would try to assemble two person teams to hit each canvassing areas (which typically had 25 to 30 houses in it.) One person would drive, the other person would talk to people or leave fliers if no one was home. Both would try to navigate, which despite the well designed turfs was often the most complex part of the job.


We finished Turf 3 and several others

Shal and I partnered. He was happy to drive me and preferred not to be talking to lots of strangers. And he, like a half dozen other communards, was excited at the prospect of doing something for this election. Even on just a day’s notice, mobilizing folks was surprisingly easy, and I wish I had started a week earlier.


Shal – my committed driver

The eight canvassers covered about half the territories we were given, which was the only effort in the county. I had some interesting and insightful conversations with people. At least one couple said they were going to the polls because of my visit. Several people were secretive about their plans for voting. The nuclear power plant technician said he was unable to vote because of the planned shut down of the reactor which would have him busy all day. I suppressed my happiness with his apathy and encouraged him to pay attention to the safety of the North Anna reactor complex.

Despite the instructions to stick with logistics conversations, some folks wanted to talk about politics. Fortunately, Sanders’ views are more populist than mine. I talked with a family of vets, where Sanders’ record is strong. I spoke with folks who were worried about jobs and minimum wage, here again Sanders’ positions are popular and his record stronger than Clinton’s.

If the Sanders campaign is going to succeed, it is going to have to learn from the Trump campaign and break through the media’s disinterest in Bernie’s radical agenda. Theoretically, this should not be hard. The Sanders campaign is full of cultural creatives who should be able to come up with the progressive equivalent of ‘Mexicans are rapists,’ ‘Let’s ban all Muslims, and ‘End birthright citizenship.’

Belladonna, who occasionally writes for this blog and equally often hacks in for some of the wilder posts, has done her part.  Below is her clever video parody of Lorde’s haunting tune ‘Royals,’ slamming the former secretary of state. Please share widely.

We did not win in Virginia, not even close (though Kristen points out we did win the Yanceyville precinct, which is where we campaigned).  But this game is hardly over.  Almost regardless of your issue, if you are a progressive or radical, it might be two decades before you get a better presidential candidate with a better record (okay, he is off on drones and Israel) and a better chance of winning.

There are meetups, phone banking opportunities and more.


excluding those pesky superdelegates





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