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.
Back in 2007 and 2008, it was heady times for the US nuclear industry. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were in power. Nuclear subsidies were large and generous and opportunistic nuclear utilities advanced plans for 31 new reactors to be built.
These heady days were not to last. Since then well over half of these 31 reactors have been canceled. Some, like the proposed North Anna 3 reactor, are going through the licensing process (at the costs of hundreds of millions of dollars) with little hope of ever being built. And the actual number of reactors which started construction in the US of this original 31? Just 4, until this week.
You have to have a special set of circumstances to build a reactor in the US. The first and most important thing you need is CWIP or its equivalent. CWIP is short for Construction Work in Progress. Under CWIP utilities are allowed to charge their current customers for projects which are not yet finished. Utilities claim that this reduces costs to customers. What it really does is ensure their profits, even if the project is never finished or tremendously late and over budget.
But this is hardly enough. When the project starts to go bad, you need an electricity regulator, typically the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), that will allow rates to be increased to cover the costs of construction mistakes. In the case of the two Summer reactors in SC, there have been 9 rate hikes since construction started in 2013 totaling over $1.4 billion added to rate payers rates. The overall cost of the project has ballooned to $25 billion, a 75% increase over the original contract. This abandoned project will cost each of the utility customers $21,000. It also appears that the utility did not have a specific timeline and thus may be liable for some of the rate increases and are having a class action suit against it.
The Bush administration tried to do everything it could for these new reactors before construction started. Most importantly, they put tremendous federal tax credits in place to encourage construction. There was a catch, however. The reactors needed to be completed and connected to the grid by 2020, otherwise, the tax credits would vanish. Because these reactors were repeatedly delayed, central to the utilities decision to quit the project was that it no longer believed it could make this connection deadline and thus would suffer even greater losses. Efforts to extend the tax credits died in the US Senate.
Now there are only 2 reactors under construction in the US, Vogtle units 3 & 4 in Georgia. They have many of the same problems that the Summer reactors do. They are also the AP 1000 design being built by now bankrupt Westinghouse corporation. They are years late and billions over budget. Specifically, more than doubling its original $14 billion contract price to an estimated $25 Billion (according to Southern Company). But perhaps, more importantly, the same new filing for these reactors says that they will not be operating until 2021 and 2022, which is after the 2020 tax credits expire. This project is further complicated by the $8.33 federal loan guarantee which the Obama administration offered out of the Bush energy bill. Toshiba (Westinghouse’s parent company) has offered $3.68 billion for the completion of these plants in the wake of Westinghouse collapse. [A similar $2.2 billion offer for the Summer reactors was not enough to convince management to continue.] But Toshiba has many problems of its own (largely sparked by Westinghouse’s $9 billion debt because of Summer and Vogtle) and may not be able to provide any support for these troubled reactors. The thing which stops cancellation from happening is that no matter how out of control the project goes, the utilities make a profit, over a billion dollars so far.
This month (August 2017) Southern Company and Georgia Power will decide the fate of these two reactors. With a bit of luck, they will see that these reactors will never pay for themselves and similarly cancel the project. This would be the end of new nuclear power in the US as well as the end of Summer.
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.
The media is a bit unsure what to do with the communes and National Geographic is no exception. After being specifically asked not report on an expulsion meeting that was happening in 2005, the Nat Geo reporter lead their story about East Wind Community with the incident they had agreed not to mention.
“Well,” says Kara Jo, an East Wind resident for nine years, “people always show up for a lynching.” She’s kidding (mostly). Yet when a majority of the commune’s 75 free-spirited residents appear in one place at one time, something clearly is at stake: Yarrow, 26, has been getting drunk again. He’s failing to meet his labor quota; he’s smashed up a communal car; and he’s ticking people off
East Wind received an advance copy of the article for fact checking and freaked out. The commune threatened to sue over the authors claims that the community was a revolutionary communist group which was a clear exaggeration. Nat Geo changed the article before publishing but left in the lead on the expulsion meeting.
In 2011, photographer Sarah Rice showed up at Acorn. She was not with National Geographic when she arrived and she started taking pictures of Acorn which pretty much everyone loved. She returned a number of times over the last 6 years and was generous with her gifted work.
She worked with National Geographic on a recent story. This time the story about commune life was quite idyllic. After i read it i wanted to move there.
Time moves at a different pace on the farm and though hard manual work is expected, members are encouraged to explore whatever makes them curious. One woman took it upon herself to learn how to raise and slaughter turkeys and ducks, while another learnt how to build a garden that holds rainwater. No idea is considered “stupid”; all thoughts are nurtured and supported. “It’s interesting to see what crazy projects people want to explore when they have the freedom,” says Rice. One person made a ‘goat circus’ as part of their annual founding celebration; which consisted of a series of platforms for goats to climb, constructed purely for entertainment.
I wish this were all true. Ideas that are “stupid” get shot down all the time at Acorn (though lots of crazy things do get consideration and some get implemented). But the hyperbole of the article does catch some essence of the place. And unlike the piece on East Wind, this new article is appreciative and respectful.
As a story teller, i have to be forgiving about the medias tendency to frame us in extremes. Now i am going back to my place where time moves at a different pace.
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