One of the best parts of living in community is getting to design the local culture. I am spending a lot of time at Cambia Community these days which is just 2 miles from Twin Oaks, where I hope to become a dual member (but that is a different story).
Every morning at 8:30 we are getting together and plan our day. One of the things we organize is who is going to write a love letter that day and who are they going to send it to and a bit about why. The community has committed to writing at least one every day.
We are using the broad definition of love letter, where anyone you feel strong affection or appreciation for is an acceptable recipient. Thinking about someone who we have not sufficiently expressed appreciation for is one of the tools we use to figure out which letter should get written next.
Who should you write today?
When you go through customs at the Havana airport, you see this digital screen of an analog clock.
To be convincing, the sweep second-hand jerks a bit every time it moves. And thus you are introduced to the temporal paradox which is Cuba’s capital.
The vast majority of cars on the streets of Havana are from two eras, the last decade and the period immediately before the revolution and US embargo, around 1959.
The time machine affect has numerous positive aspects. The old city streets often have wide parks running through the middle. A crippled economy means there is little traffic. High gasoline costs mean that vehicles rarely have just one person in them. Huge trees line the streets.
There are some innovations which other places would do well to mimic. Stop lights on major intersections count down the number of seconds before they turn either red or green, to better inform drivers.
The city streets in Havana are named in a novel and clever way. The main dividing street is Avenido Paseo. To the west the streets are increasing in even numbers. To the east the streets are lettered. Perpendicular to these, running parallel to the coast the streets are odd numbered. Thus you can tell uniquely where you are by just knowing 10th and 11th or C and 9th. No confusing East and West like DC or Streets and Avenues like NYC.
The architecture favors balconies, flat roofs and porches and the social structures take advantage of these. Many doors down the street are left open with people inside and outside often visible. Most buildings were built before there was air conditioning and the architecture encourages placing people in breezes.
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.
Some of us who live in established successful communities regularly get questions about how to start new communities. There is pretty standard advice which is worth sharing in this format.
Before you start a new community you should:
- See if there is an existing community which meets your needs
- Live in an existing community before you start one
Starting a new community is crazy hard work. Even if you have a clear vision, excellent people to start it with, a place to move into and ample resources to start it, your chances of success are low. And the chances that you are starting with all these advantages is pretty low.
For all manner of reasons, many people feel that community life would be good for them. Perhaps they have fond memories of living collectively in college. Or maybe they miss a close knit family and wish to reproduce this environment with friends and intimates of their own choice. It is easy to imagine an isolated life in the mainstream which makes people long for something richer and more interconnected.
Beyond this, people like to create. They want to build something new, craft something with their preferences and identity built into it. This is fantastic. But because community creating is so difficult, your first step in this adventure should be a serious review of the communities which already exist. It is far easier to join an existing community than it is to start a new one. (This does not mean that it is easy to join a community; this can be an ordeal in itself.)
And even if the community you find is not perfect for you to live in long term, there is a strong case to be made for trying to live in an existing community before you build your own. My own failed thinking might be instructive in demonstrating this point. Before I came to Twin Oaks, I really wanted to start my own activist-oriented community in eastern Europe. I had been fighting Russian-designed nuclear reactors which were being completed by Western companies after the Berlin Wall came down and I was convinced that a community of organizers would be a powerful tool in preventing dirty energy solutions from spreading.
I also thought I knew what was critical in making this proposed community succeed. Specifically, one needed to have a good decision-making model and a carefully selected income engine. I guessed at the time that consensus would be the governance solution. I also thought the business should be something that it was easy to train people in, which was not a classical assembly line situation. I visited Twin Oaks nearly 20 years ago now, with a focus on these specific aspects.
What I found was that I was wrong. Twin Oaks did not use consensus and while I often complain about our decision-making model, it functions reasonably well and there are lots of different models which serve different communities (sociocracy, voting models, charismatic leaders, councils of elders, boards of directors, etc). What I see now is that members being cooperative and flexible, is more critical than what specific decision format you select.
Consensus does have advantages
It also turns out that there are lots of different ways to pay the bills. And while I thought what I was looking for was a well-structured community owned cooperative business, in most cases, new communities don’t have this and the individual members pool income from straight jobs. Businesses which support income sharing communities (the income engines) come in all manner of different shapes and as long as you have some people who are willing to do sales work (often a problem in communities) you have a chance at building a culture around your business and being viable. It also helps tremendously that income sharing communities are very cheap to run because of the high degree of sharing which is happening.
What I did not realize was how central a role internal communication culture and especially managing gossip would play in the survival of communities. This does not come up in most guides on how to start communities. But if you get it wrong, it will be more important than if you selected voting over consensus. Because of the intensity of community living, you need to be able to recover from events where trust gets damaged, or the fabric of your community will likely unravel. This is why some of us spend so much time working on things like Transparency Tools.
I would not have known this if I had not lived in a community. I would have prioritized solving the wrong problems. The lived experience of being in a community will also help you find out what about community living does not work for you. Like it or not, community life will almost certainly push your buttons. Learning this about yourself before you take on the giant task of starting your own community is basically a necessary prerequisite for success.
Having kids in your community is also clever.
This article first appeared in the Commune Life Blog
This post originally appeared on CommuneLife Blog.
We got to Binghamton via MIT. It was one of the first presentations of the Communities in Crisis materials. It was a small crowd, perhaps half a dozen people not affiliated with the Point A project in the room.
“But they are the right people,” Raven said, and not knowing much about the Boston coop scene, I was happy to defer to him. Turned out he was right.
Rachael from the audience said we had to talk with Maximus and put Genome Collective on our agenda. And with Genome came our growing connection to Binghamton University and David Sloan Wilson and the birth of the Chloroplast Research Institute.
It is from these connections that we have started seriously exploring the thesis that living in community is more sane than not and that people who join heal with time. A radical, if not obvious, notion. There is quite some chance that Maximus’s PhD thesis will be working with the income sharing communities in an effort to prove this. Which would be wonderful for us.
We have been working with Genome Collective in Binghamton for over a year, with several Point A visits. We did some strong group process work in our early visits to Genome and, at one point, even hoped they would morph from being a group house into being an income sharing community.
The house itself has a number of positive attributes. A large separate meeting space over the garage called “the temple” is ideal for workshops, meditation or yoga classes. The house has the beginnings of a thriving culinary mushroom business. Genome has both numerous bedrooms and a top floor which can host several sleepover guests.
Maximus gave us a full schedule of classes and workshops while we were there. We presented on a number of topics including climate change, polyamory, income sharing communities and sustainability. Our classes spanned the range from large freshman lectures to small grad student seminars. What was universal was that we got thoughtful and insightful questions from every group of students and several students interested in visiting and/or studying our cultures.
It is also clear that, while we are welcome in Binghamton to do more speaking gigs at the university and to stay at Genome, the house has decided that they will be a group house instead of an income sharing community, and will not be needing the services of Point A to help them go in that direction. Our future visits will be more connected to the Twin Oaks Academic Speaking Tour (TOAST) instead of Point A work.