When you create community, part of what you do is create language. Here at Twin Oaks, we have a tremendous collection of acronyms for places and things: OTF, CMT, TCLR, TOAST, OTRA, MHT, CPs, Hx, CVP, and there are much more.
Part of the reason we need to abbreviate and contract is that we need to write down these things for other people to understand thousands of times a week, literally. One of the people who have to do this the most is the labor assigner.
Twin Oaks has an amazing labor-scheduling system. A single person, with the help of every other member, assigns the labor the community does for the coming week. This job takes about 20 to 25 hours each week. It starts on Monday; people turn in their labor sheets and the tofu assigner (which is a different person) gets the first crack filling the 88 shifts which make up a full tofu production week. Some members have regular shifts: Saturday – start up Kettle at 5 AM or Tuesday – late-night tofu pack at 9 PM, for example. Most members, however, instruct the tofu assigner as to how many shifts they are willing to do this week. Most of us, including me, take only one shift.
After tofu is complete, the regular assigning begins. Two large notebooks; 91 labor sheets for members, guests, and visitors; dozen-plus masters and 40 or so requests for labor drive this process. When it is done, 49 dish-cleaning shifts, bread-making and cow-milking shifts for every day, dozens of childcare shifts, hundreds of visitor-labor and orientation requests will have been assigned—thousands of assignments in total. The labor assigners will make the first pass and then, at dinner on Wednesday, return the sheets to members for “revisions.” Members can then revise the schedule the assigner has created, asking to be taken off of things or resequencing labor to make things flow better (Please don’t give me a garden shift and a tofu shift and a dish-washing shift all in the same day, it is too much physical labor).
On Thursday afternoon, the labor assigner gets a few hours to rebuild the careful schedule they built and the members just demolished, filling all the holes and making sure everything gets covered. I love this job. It is crazy headachy and I have made lots of mistakes at it (especially on Shal‘s sheet).
There is an inside joke which comes from when I used to labor assign more often. My friend Coyote was on our labor system at the time, and when I was assigning I would put on his labor sheet that he had a dump run at midnight with someone whom he could not stand. Dump run is one of the many jobs we do here that are assigned. The first time I did it, Coyote got agitated, not wanting to work with this member. Then he realized, for a number of reasons (not the least of which is that the dump is never open at midnight), that it was a joke. But the term lived on, and “Midnight Dump Run” became the name both for labor assigners’ mistakes and for the unusual power this position has in the community.
My recent labor-assigning effort was rescued by Dev, who caught a bunch of mistakes I would have made, though perhaps not enough to permit me to keep the job. I put “Midnight Dump Run” on about 30 people’s sheets and this time it was code for a party happening at our dining hall, ZK. It was a perfect, small event, with Acorn participating in just the right way.
Update: I got fired.
Spoiler: This post has no descriptions of graphic sex.
“Can I kiss you?” it seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. It was asked across a cuddle pile in the midst of a party up at the conference site where several people were making new romantic connections.
“I don’t really know you very well.” Was the reply I was slightly surprised to hear. But then something really powerful and slightly profound happened. Nothing.
The mood did not change. No one got embarrassed and felt like they needed to leave. No one laughed at the rejection or felt sorry for someone. The party just moved on.
We think and talk a lot about consent culture in the communes. We do orientations for visitors and guests so they don’t make cultural mistakes around initiating intimacy, which is easy to do if you are just mimicking what you see others doing. We explore new types of agreements around boundaries. And the reward for our efforts is we get to take some types of risks, like my friend who got rejected from the make out session.
What this does is create comfort and safety. It makes people feel like their boundaries are going to be respected. This in turn often helps them to push limits out. This reveals new possibilities and new connections.
And thus the party drifted right up to the edge of becoming an orgy. As a funologist, this is something I want to understand. For when you push aside all the sophomoric jokes and embarrassment about what orgies are, assuming they are done in a healthy consent environment, they are daring and liminal events. They change peoples lives.
And in this case, the “almost” does not really matter. Everyone could feel the possibility, we had created the space that was that safe and daring.
If you live in community for a while, traditions form around you. And so it is with Hawina’s birthday. Part of the evenings festivities will be us singing the English translation of the Dutch birthday song. This is a song that is only sung this way here, Hawina imported it herself by accident many years ago when someone asked for her tradition to be adapted to local culture.
Werewolves is another birthday favorite game. Some people call this game Mafia. It is a good birthday game because it requires at least 8 people to play. In our first pass, we had 15 people and Sky played god. I was the first person killed. I did not even get a chance to accuse anyone else before i was silenced. I did not take it personally. Hawina won (except the last towns person (new member Emily) was “the Hunter” role, who gets to kill one person as they die, and thus killed Hawina who was the last surviving werewolf – so no one won).
In the second round of werewolves, i got killed in the first “evening” again! Now i had to take it personally. Hawina won again with Emily as her “lover” and they survived all the werewolves. [If you are unfamiliar with this game there is an interesting and exhaustive article on wikipedia on it.]
Part of the power of collective living is that we get to create our own holidays and rituals. After nearly two decades of doing birthdays, Hawina has this one just where she wants it.
The housing situation in NYC is intense. Gentrification has struck the big apple like a Mac truck hits a butterfly on the expressway. Housing is expensive, unstable and uncomfortably competitive adding to the other stresses of the city. New York City is not for the faint of heart.
When i was told there was a place in NYC that had below market rents, was a community which provided social events, food, and housing i was surprised. When i heard they had a very minimal selection process and you just signed up and got on a list i was blown away. How is this even possible, without them having a year’s long waiting list?
Part of the answer is that Ganas Community is on Staten Island. New Yorkers are fiercely territorial and many think that Staten Island is not really part of the city. It perhaps a lost county of New Jersey or its own autonomous regime. But a 25-minute free ferry ride puts you at the southern tip of Manhattan and into the best subway system in the country.
But it is more than the accessible services that make Ganas an important place. Ganas is daring. Having a very open admissions process permits people to join the community recognizing in advance it might not work out and while they are figuring out they will get a chance to be part of it. This is not what most communities do. Instead, we (in the Louisa communities) have a highly controlled visitor program, and if we are worried we can’t accommodate your needs, then we don’t offer you a place. Even though Ganas is not an egalitarian community, there is something deeply fair (as well as daring) in this approach.
Perhaps a decade ago i ran into one of the most inspiring pieces of Ganas culture. I was in a conversation with an Oaker who had lived at Ganas for some years and they were being criticized by another person. I did not feel like the critique was justified and actually thought (were i hearing it) it would be hurtful. But this Ganasian was not just taking it in stride, they were asking for the person to elaborate. And with all sincerity were basically saying “Tell me more about these things you think are wrong with me.” Culturally, Ganas does not fear criticism, instead, it embraces it. New Yorkers are often frank with their complaints, and in this way Ganasians are typical New Yorkers, they are going to tell you what they think you are doing wrong with you (i was told at one point during Ganas planning that i was “acting like a spoiled teenager” which made me reflect on how i should be more grateful for the things which were being offered to me).
One of the big differences between most small communities and most large ones is that small communities can afford to be “exception based” and larger groups usually rely on policy. When the group can comfortably meet together and work things out, then it is fine for some member to come with their exceptional situation and for the group to work out a collective fix. But when you get much over 30 people, this can be exhausting and time-consuming. Instead, you gravitate towards designing good policy which can be applied broadly to the membership, instead of doing lots of exception handling. Ganas at size 80, pretends it is a small community which can listen to the special needs of its members and adopt collectively to try to accommodate them. And once it has found a path to taking care of its members, Ganas goes the extra mile to make it work out.
The Point A project is indebted to Ganas. About every other other month for the last three years, activists from Virginia have come up to NYC and stayed at Ganas where they have welcomed us in and fed us. They have asked for nothing for this, and when i bring it up they tell me that this is their contribution to the communities movement recruiting and expansion work that we are doing.
Ganas is media shy. I’ve written a couple of flattering blog posts about the community in the past and they have asked me to respect their privacy and not post them, which i did. I did get permission to post one on the food line. For most of the past several years there has been a waiting list at Ganas, but recently it vanished.
If you or your perhaps one of your friends has always wanted to live in NYC, but were discouraged because of crazy high rents or the isolation of the city, now might be the time to try. Write to email@example.com or come to dinner on Friday at 135 Corson Ave, Staten Island, just a 20 minute walk from the ferry.
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