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So you want to start a community

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:

  1. See if there is an existing community which meets your needs
  2. 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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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Having kids in your community is also clever.

This article first appeared in the Commune Life Blog

 

The House that Numbers Built

This post first appeared on the Commune Life Blog.

We had two naming parties to find a name for the new commune in DC. They both failed. Unlike naming a car or a rope machine, it actually matters that you get a good name out of a party, if you are naming your home.  Naming parties tend to gravitate towards sillier or complex names. For example, the Mighty HaHas of TomorrowLand was the disputed result of the last Compersia party.   But even this silly name did not go to waste completely, the Ivy City house which Compersia Community just moved out of is called TomorrowLand.

But the community itself needed a bigger name, and stronger name. I was quite satisfied with what they choose without the help of a naming party – Compersia.  Derived from the word compersion, this name is a big ask.  It’s about trying to let go of our jealousy and envy and be happy with those we care for being happy, even if our special connection is not exclusive.

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The Compersia community has a new house. They moved out of Ivy City and now are in Crestwood (one of the proposed names was Bestwood). It is a much larger house, with a real yard and an ample basement play space. This basement space got named Bonkersville at the naming party, which seemed apt since Sappho, Meren, Zadek and Julian were boxing with oversized gloves for much of the evening.

I was asked to facilitate, which i really should take as a compliment, because both of the previous two meetings that i facilitated failed. We got about 50 suggestions from Bagel and The Situation to Emma’s Tea Room and Whitetop’s Castle.
There is an origin story to that last name.  Whitetop was the gambling tzar of DC in the 50s thru 70s. Someone said running the numbers ended not long after this with the advent of the state sponsored lottery. He built this house in Crestwood, a quite suburban enclave beside a park, within the city limits of DC.

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We eliminated many great names

Perhaps 50 people participated in the naming party that i facilitated. In the first round they had all 50 choices and 6 yes votes and 3 no votes. Over half the list got eliminated this way. People added names in, but generally these did not make it to the next elimination round. Bougie’s Bugaloo did not make it to the 3rd round, (Bougie Galore is Jenny’s comic commune name), and we also dropped Neverland and the Lucky Heretics. Lucky was for gambling, and heretics because they don’t believe in private income. The last three names on the list were:

  • Sheppards Gamble
  • The House that Numbers Built
  • Asterix

Technically, Asterix won, but only by a single vote after 4 rounds of eliminations. We agreed to call the Bike Shed, “Wheels Up,” and the Basement, “Bonkersville.” There already is a holy site dedicated to “Our Lady of Perpetual Container Shortage” which houses a giant four door refrigerator filled with well organized dumpster treasures.

But the name i think the house is going to go by is “Numbers” which is what folks will call “The House that Numbers Built”. It references Whitetop’s business success. It can quickly be abbreviated by a single #. Googles parent company is Alphabet, the Communes star model is Numbers.

We will see if this one sticks.  It is a lovely place.

Binghamton – Hello and Goodbye

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.

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Emily and Eddy in the Genome Kitchen

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.

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Maximus and Rachel – right people, right place.

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.

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Lion’s mane mushroom growing in Genome Mushroom farm

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.

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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.

Crafts House and Tufts

[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:

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Nina on site

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.

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Kristen with this unlikely couple

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.

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Skylar at some unidentified beautiful location

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.

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Rare picture of Raven at William St Coop, Somerville

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.

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GQ revolutionary poster person – Maximus

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.

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Telos at the TO greenhouse – Photo by Wren

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:

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.

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Finally out of the closet – Skylar and Paxus

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.

Commune Exports – Fatherhood

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.

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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:

This is a rich topic.  Your comments are welcome.

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Willow behind me, before Women’s March (Pussy hat by Hawina)

Accessible Anarchists: Can Masdeu

It started with the asparagus and a hole.  

For 50 years the lepers hospital had been abandoned, fenced off and losing the struggle against entropy.  Late in the fall of 2002, a handful of liberators cut a hole in the fence, letting themselves and the locals in. These mostly poorer pensioners from the outskirts of Barcelona had for years watched the fenced off asparagus sprout inside and go to seed.  Not this year.

But the story only begins with this “chance harvest”. While locals reclaimed and seeded this newly available agricultural land, the squatters planted roots of their own in this place they renamed Can Masdeu (house of many springs).  And as expected, before the first plants had sprouted, the police had arrived – not worried about the vegetables, but rather a different  “weed” taking root.  In April 2003, several dozen Barcelona riot police arrived to remove the illegal occupants from this long abandoned 3 story “mansion”.

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The gardens of Can Masdeu

What the police found was 11 people suspended on various platforms and perches designed so that to remove any one person, would cause another (or in some cases two other) people to drop from great height, potentially to their deaths.  To this day, there are chairs mounted on the outside of the building – outside the top floors, where protesters sat for 3 days, through a rainstorm and mostly without food – waiting for justice.  And finally it came.  A local judge ordering the police to retreat, declaring human life is more important than property. It did not hurt that the dozens of local and imported supporters at the squat were aided by very visible protests and lobbying going on inside the city of Barcelona and even the Spanish Embassy in Am*dam was under siege by sympathetic anarchists.

But as romantic and exciting as the origin myth of Can Masdeu is, it is the current projects and dreams which makes it such an important and seductive place. Two dozen young people (from 22 to 39) have built gardens and bread ovens, opened a community bike shop, constructed meditation spaces, planted fruit trees, installed solar cookers and reversed entropy. They have inspired a DIY/”we can do it” culture which manifests both cordial relations with the locals and deep connections to the rural squatting movement (which is more secure than urban squats, because Spain, like most places, is suffering from urban flight).  Meals at Can Masdeu are a cross between a noisy family reunion, a conspirators clandestine gathering and a polyglot’s wet dream, with the colorful players switching languages every few moments.

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The internal economics are pretty simple.   Everyone (visitors and members alike) pays 1 Euro (about $1.20) a day for the dry goods – mainly organic and bio regional foods which are collectively cooked by volunteers each day.  On our last night there no one signed up to cook and cheerful, last minute, self selecting recruits finished cooking at 11 PM. (Which is only an hour or two later than dinner normally is.  This is Spain – or more precisely Catalonia – after all.)  The food is good. It is mostly vegan of necessity since cheese is expensive – but there are no culinary restrictions placed on the group.

Though simple, the meals were wonderful.  Culinary success is fostered by a culture of joy and political action.  Stuff from the gardens, food left behind after the farmers market (in a novel twist, farmers don’t feel it necessary to put broken glass into food which they can not sell, to keep others from eating it as we are so fond of doing in the US), bread from their clay ovens, dry goods purchased with the money chipped in – all create a squat cuisine which kept us out of the wonderfully tempting Barcelona restaurants.

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Every Saturday a free coffeehouse with local and intl talent.

We were lucky to get in.  Jana and Frodo recommended the place, but June is one of their closed months.  They have been so popular that they need to control the visiting of folx so as not to get overrun with outsiders. Our boat into Tarragona arrived just as a closed month began – but we were generously granted an exception (which we had arranged by e-mail in advance).  We gave back to the squat with a presentation on Twin Oaks which was attended with great interest. They were trying to figure out many of the sharing systems that more mature communities have already developed.  At 1 AM I was still answering questions, Hawina having fielded the first hour of them, while I chased after Willow (at this writing was age 2), who seemed to get the infectious spirit and thought that he owned the place.

It is not utopia yet either;  one problem and benefit is the clash between the Spanish “manana culture” and the North European (esp. British and German) punctuality.  The squat is perhaps 2/3rds locals and 1/3rd internationals and Gesine (who was our host and is from Germany) was really struggling with the group’s ability to make decisions effectively.

While we were there a couple of Dutch co-counseling instructors were there teaching a class.  But their meeting techniques did not seem to take hold the way some of the squatters had wanted. I found myself wanting to be able to materialize Tree and plant her in this place for some months.

Squats, especially large ones which are likely targets for eviction are generally a mix of disheveled and broken stuff – and that which has been repaired or renovated.   There is dodgy wiring and the same “second world” plumbing style as East Wind (running water inside, but outside composting toilets).    But these folx were fast on their feet.  At one point Willow charged into one of the living rooms, with cushions missing from chaotic couches, piles of papers on the dirty floor.  An hour later we returned and the couches were complete and positioned for a meeting, the floor cleaned and cleared, a meeting agenda on the easel in front of the space.  And in my favorite anarchist tradition, no one was claiming credit for the magical transformation. It just sort of happens, because it needs to.

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It is not hardware or architecture which makes Can Masdeu important, it is the culture creation, the social relations and the politics which does.  “We don’t just wear black,” says Gesine, explaining that part of the perceived threat of the squat to the establishment is that they are media friendly, accessible to (and in fact supporting of) locals from different ages and classes and constantly doing outreach.  Barcelona is one of the most heavily squatted cities in Europe. The combination of poverty, speculation on rising real estate values and a legal system which does not deify property rights has caused an explosion in squatting and the anti-military service campaigns.  The moneyed class does not want popular, accessible squats like this one – it emboldens folx to take matters into their own hands.  Squatters are supposed to be dangerous fringe criminals, not helpful, friendly, folx fixing people’s bikes and respecting each other and the land and local tradition.

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Bike powered washer – like Quercus had

Even during their closed month there are tours and workshops every Sunday.  There was a series of sessions on healing arts when we were there – taught not by folx from the squat, but by Barcelona practitioners using the space with the squat assisting in promotion for the event.  The local school has several student groups who choose (and are encouraged) to meet there, in the café and ample conference spaces.  There is a growing book library, a free shop (a commie clothes look alike), and a tool library as well as all the squatting propaganda you could possibly want.  One of the rooms is for storage and construction of giant protest puppets and is also the flamenco dancers practice space.  These types of multicultural mixed use spaces are common.

My last day, by good fortune, I ended up in a long conversation with Martin from the UK, who spent a year looking for this place before actually squatting it. His was an amazing and tragic tale, complete with getting cut from the rope which was blocking the G8 from arriving at their Swiss retreat.  He dropped over  60 feet into two feet of water, broke his back and was lucky not to be paralyzed, much less alive (see www.aubonnebridge.net website for the amazing and disturbing video of the action). We talked about the culture of Can Masdeu, the meetings and process, the hopes and relations with other projects.  For me it was the perfect arrival to Europe.  People who had a very high level of commitment to radical political work, but were not stuck in old boxes, which would for example, keep them from the media, or distance them from the local population.  We talked about his desire to protect this ecosystem, which he felt was at the edge of its carrying capacity with the gardens which had already been planted.   And how amazed he was at what they had so far created.

And it might all end in October.  After 5 failed criminal cases have been run against them, Can Masdeu now faces a civil suit, which it may be nearly impossible for them to win – because in fact they don’t own the property and someone else does.  The police might not evict – this happens sometimes.  But the most likely future is that in the winter of 2004/05 there will be a call to defend the squat.  They hope hundreds of people will help defend the house and if they resquat there may be a popular action, hopefully with many hundreds of people especially people from the barrio. They have grown deep roots.  My guess is many more than the original 11 people who risked their lives will be in dramatic and dangerous positions, with more than 3 days food and a very enthusiastic and very large group of people all around them supporting them.

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Follow the graffiti which looks like this

I’ve seen the future and it is off the end of the metro green line in Barcelona

Update Nov 2016:  The police did not come.  To this day Can Masdeu continues to host events, political protests and a dynamic scruffy band of anarchists, who are now joining 20 other Catalan communities to build their movement.

Compersia lands on the Atlantic

A collection of intrepid adventurers have launched the newest income sharing commune in Washington DC and it is called Compersia. After failing twice to name this new community using naming parties, they discovered that one of the limitations of naming parties is that they are good at coming up with funny or lighthearted names. But when you are naming your home you might want something a bit more serious.

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Compersia retreat January 2016

Compersia is derived from Compersion, which is roughly defined as the opposite of jealousy.  More precisely compersion is when you feel good about your intimate experiencing intimacy with another person.    Part of the reason why compersion is only roughly defined as the opposite of jealousy is that you can feel both compersion and jealousy at the same time.

The name is barely a month old and the major liberal magazine, the Atlantic, has completed a 6 minute video on them.  Here is the link to the Compersians discussing their community.  The reportage is all in the words of the members and thus it is a pretty upbeat piece of coverage.  Compersia is looking for new members and this might well help.

Curiously, just the day before the Atlantic posting, Realtor.com ran an article called “With Housing Costs Sky-High, the Commune Makes a Comeback” Which quotes a number of our friends at Ganas and Twin Oaks.

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A collection of Old Twin Oaks photos use by Realtor.com

Nice to be seen a bit by the more mainstream press.