On Wednesday of this week the number of kid members at Acorn doubled from two to four. Stephanie and Sean’s two kids, Elan and Adira, were joined by newborn, Tullulah, and Sappho.
It is a big deal to go from one family with two kids a couple years apart to three families with kids ranging from newborn to eight years old. It shows an interesting stability in Acorn, which has long been a culture dominated by more transient young people.
To my optimistic eye it harks the beginning of a golden age, in which Acorn uses its considerable resources to make all manner of enviable things happen here. I’m game.
Fortunately for our insurance rates, a disproportionate number of adult communards choose not to drive. This does put pressure on those of us who do drive, to ferry our comrades around. My dual member status allows me access to both the Acorn and Twin Oaks vehicle fleets, so i am often asked to drive, and i am generally happy to to oblige.
Sporadically, Twin Oaks throws a “No Party, Just Dance” event. Typically what this means is that the organizers don’t want to have to prepare treats or decorate the space and instead want to focus on just having a DJ who provides music and people can rock out. The other slightly curious aspect of these events is that they have very minimal internal promotion. Usually this is limited to a single card posted at the main dining hall. But this micro-promotion does not prevent these events from being well attended.
Last night i drove the shuttle for one these events. Half a dozen Acorners and LEFers (plus one dog) hopped into the minivan and we arrived moments before the party was really hoping. A couple of hours into this event i decided it was time to ask the going home question:
If there were a shuttle in 20 minute and another in an hour and 20 minutes, which one would you likely be on?
I went around to the folks who i had brought and asked them all this question. After two hours of rigorous dancing, they were all ready to go home in the early shuttle. This is exactly what the shuttle driver wants to hear. Assuming you can’t get the last shuttle cancelled, because everyone wants to stay all night, the second best way to cancel the last shuttle is to get everyone to come home on the second to last shuttle.
Yesterday Nick Secret was sentenced by a jury to 23 years in prison for setting Acorn Community on fire back in October of 2013. This is the minimum recommended sentence by the state of Virginia for 9 counts of attempted murder in the first degree (2 years each) and 5 years for felony arson. It is possible judge Sander (who sentenced me to 5 days in jail for trespassing at the North Anna nuclear plant information center in 2010) to reduce this sentence, but he likely will not.
i don’t believe that jail works to rehabilitate prisoners (most just get better criminal training), it is a minimally effective deterrent, and for most of the people at Acorn this does not look like justice.
Fortunately, the defense attorney did not try to put Acorn on trial. Though we were warned by both the police and the commonwealth attorney that they likely would. The reason this strategy might have worked in Nick Secret’s favor was that if the defense attorney could make Acorn look like a bad place, that we were harboring dangerous people (like Nick), has a bizarre culture and behavior then he might win sympathy from the jury for a lesser penalty.
He did foolishly try to make us look bad by trying to point out the peculiar names used in the community. But he did not do his research thoroughly enough.
Defense Attorney: “What do you call Jacqueline?”
Member under Oath: “Jac”
DA: “and what do you call Virginia?”
M: We call her “Ginger”
DA “and what do you call Jason?”
Had he selected more carefully he would have gotten members who we call after Tolkien characters, ancient celestial gods and rainbows. And just because you have an odd name, does not make it right for someone to burn your house down, while you are sleeping in it.
The most fun part of the trial for me personally was when the jury and i were temporarily removed from the court room and i was in the hall by myself with an elderly police officer. He had retired from police work and moved down to Louisa and then decided to take it up again. When i came into the hall with just him he said “I know you”
i was surprised and said “Really?”
“Yes” he replied. “i was working security at the North Anna nuclear power plant when the head of the reactor was talking with the head of the Vermont Yankee reactor. They were both complaining about you getting arrested at their plants.”
I was hugely flattered, for i did not think they were even paying attention. It is worth pointing out that we have successfully shut down Vermont Yankee.
Several people have asked me how i feel about the verdict. My feelings are mixed. I don’t think this punishment will do much other than trash Nick Secret’s life and if i could reduce or eliminate it i would. And it is still unclear Nick is well connected to the pain and suffering his actions caused. I am glad it is over (there will be an appeal, but it likely wont be approved). I am glad it was not damaging to Acorn.
[Update: Rolling Stone has issues a lame apology for it’s poor reporting. And people seem to think this changes much – it does not. There are lots of reasons why, and the best summary i have found so far is here. Thanks Abigail for the link.]
i tend to miss introverts who visit the community. And so it was with Charlotte. Acorn had a big visitor group and i had only heard her say a few words in the first couple weeks of her visitor period.
i had noticed that she was hovering around the edge of a number of the better conversations which pop up regularly at Acorn in the kitchen, or various living rooms or the smoke shack. And while she did not say anything, it was clear that she was listening.
Nine of us went to the anti-rape action at UVa which resulted in 4 communards getting arrested.
The way it is supposed to happen at an arrest action is the people who are risking arrest are trained. They do a non-violence direct action workshop in which they roll play getting arrested including how to deal with different levels of threatening and physically assertive police. You are given a lawyers number, often written in marker on your arm. You are insured there will be people waiting for you. If you end up stuck in jail, your plants will get watered and someone outside will be monitoring the system to make sure you don’t get forgotten. And the reason we do all this is so activists will be prepared for getting arrested, so they wont have to worry.
Charlotte skipped all that. No training, no prep, no reassurances, it was not actually even supposed to be an arrest action. Instead of these things she just showed up with the conviction that rape is wrong and injustice should not be tolerated. She also did not want her new friends to be arrested alone. She stepped out of her comfort zone and into the arms of the begrudging police who kept telling us the action did not matter.
Except that it did. I’ve never been in such a small remote arrest action which got so much press. The New York Times, the LA Times, The Washington Post, the International Business Times, Rolling Stone Magazine, Slate, NBC, The NY Daily News, Washington DC news, and a host of other media. And the University is feeling the pressure. They are talking zero tolerance, which of course means nothing if the system is broken badly enough. But if the current pressure persists, it will quite likely break the institutionalized rape culture which has flourished inside the fraternity system. And truth told, if there is anyway this broken system is going to get better, it is by people being willing to step way out of their comfort zones to express rage about it.
People are talking and protesting about rape on campus for the same reason they are talking and protesting about cops killing unarmed black kids. It is a huge on-going problem and the system in place was relatively comfortable ignoring it, until now.
Charlotte saw this was wrong and stepped up to do something. Now she has my attention.
Charlotte was recently accepted as a member at Acorn. i am happy she will be around more.
[Update: Please read the comments at the end of this post for the proper history of what has happened at East Wind Community in Missouri regarding Personal Shelters. They are the ones who have pioneered it, and the story i have in this post is slightly wrong. I will fix it in the coming days. Paxus]
Egalitarianism is tricky. It starts out tricky because we don’t even have a common definition of it in the income sharing communities where I spend most of my time. The relevant parts of the principals from the Federation of Egalitarian Communities which describe it are:
- Hold land, labor, income and other resources in common.
- Assumes responsibility for the needs of its members, receiving the products of their labor and distributing these and all other goods equally, or according to need.
- Uses decision making which gives members an equal opportunity to participate, either through consensus, direct vote, or right of appeal or overrule.
- Works to establish the equality of all people and does not permit discrimination on the basis of race, class, creed, ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
[There are other FEC principals, like non-violence and sustainability, but these are not the core of egalitarianism.]
So what is missing from this important list? For starters the idea that all work is evaluated as equally worthy. An hour of my time spent writing a blog about communities is worth the same as an hour spent making a hammock or cooking a meal for many members.
One aspect of egalitarianism (that is touched upon in the second point above, but some FEC communities take much further than others) is that we are trying to avoid envy. We do this in part by avoiding the uneven distribution of our collective resources, except in agreed cases of need (for example golf carts for people with mobility problems at Twin Oaks is a needs based intentional unequal distribution).
Which brings me to the controversial idea of personal shelters. The FEC communities provide housing for our members. In several cases these communities are located on pieces of land large enough for members to build their own housing separate from typical dorm-based housing. We call these usually small buildings “personal shelters”.
Quite some years ago East Wind community (on over 1,000 acres in the Ozarks) decided to permit their members to build personal shelters. This resulted in some handy/artistic folks building some really beautiful places. The problem is that these structures created envy. The bigger problem was when the original builder/owners left, they created a fairness problem. Members who had not been involved in the work of creating these shelters could potentially end up in housing that felt much nicer than what most people living in the community had access to.
The problem this created ultimately lead to East Wind banning the creation of more new personal shelters. Twin Oaks has never permitted them, largely because of East Winds’ experience. Acorn wrestles with permitting them and so far has not allowed them. Some Acorners who were really excited about the idea left to form new communities where such things are possible.
The arguments against personal shelters which GPaul outlined to me, late one night while we were driving back from a Point A gathering in NYC are:
- Energy Use/Carbon Footprint
- Psychic Space
One of the things income sharing communities do especially well is minimize their ecological impact. The dormitory style buildings we have share kitchens, bathrooms, living space and meals. This low impact living is very hard to achieve without a lot of people under the same roof. Personal shelters are usually just one or two persons under a roof.
The fairness issue is covered.
The issue I had never heard before was one of psychic space. In a regular community residence dorm, you know you can stand in the hall in front of someone’s room and not worry that you are infringing on their space. The same is not true of personal shelters. The space they take up is much larger than the physical footprint of their construction. Peoples don’t know how to behave around them and this can cause discomfort and confusion.
Do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
I am quite sensitive about comparing Twin Oaks to Acorn. It is perhaps like trying to compare great books. There is so much done right, does it really make sense to focus on the downsides? And i firmly believe that propagandists (like myself) should be vocal critics, trying to make the ideas and experiments they are advancing be better.
So it is with some trepidation that i compare the different systems my two communities use for dealing with problems between members or between a member and the rest of the community. In theory, both approaches look quite reasonable.
At Twin Oaks, one part of the system we use is a technique called the Feedback system. Someone does something outside our agreements (they don’t make their labor quota for a long time, they spend more money than the community provides – creating a debt to the community, or they have other problematic behaviors) and they get a feedback called on them. If someone is in a conflict with another member, there are a number of things which are supposed to be done before a feedback is called, including mediated face-to-face conversations between the people who are in conflict. If this mediation goes poorly, a member can call a feedback on another member and if 10 members agree it is appropriate (by signing the proposal to call a feedback) then the feedback is launched. If things are really bad, the feedback can be the entry way to an expulsion process. But this is quite rare actually, perhaps happening less than every couple of years.
When a feedback is called, a date for the community to meet with the individual is set. A facilitator is selected, if the focus person wants they can also have an advocate. The facilitator of the feedback is clear that we are trying to create a safe space for people to express their views and concerns. Usually, there is some mix of appreciation and critique of the person who has had the feedback called on them. Their friends and supporters will often come to make sure they know that their are positive voices in the course of the community. Usually the conversation is dominated by different members perceptions about what the problems with the focus person are and in some cases constructive feedback on how to address them.
When we coach people on how to handle feedbacks, it is generally about how to manage their defensiveness. When someone gives you a critical observation, almost all of us jump to what is wrong about the critique. This is exactly the wrong way to respond at a feedback. Instead, you start by validating the part of the expressed concern which feels genuinely true to you. You reflect back, ideally summarizing and using different language, so that the person with concerns feels heard. And it is important to say how you disagree (if you do) but not in a charged and defensive way.
After listening to the concerns, there is a “Next Steps” portion of the feedback, in which the community investigates if there is something which needs to happen next. Are we done with this issue? Do we need a behavior contract with consequences if the problematic behavior repeats? Do we think the problem is so big that we need to start the process of expelling this person?
At first glance this seems complete reasonable, especially in a one-on-one conflict there is lots of mediated conversation before the problem comes to the entire group. And this is another one of those cases where completely reasonable is not quite as it appears.
Alternatively, Acorn uses our clearness process to deal with these types of problems. One important difference is that the clearness process is not an extraordinary process, it is the same process which is used by every member at least twice every year. The other central difference between a clearness and a feedback is that the clearness requires one on one conversations with every member of the community. After these conversations are finished there is a group clearness, which appears at first glance would be of the same form as the Twin Oaks feedback, but it is not really. Typically, in the Acorn approach the inner personal heavy lifting is done during these one on one conversations and the group event is summarizing the set of (generally successful) conversations so everyone can get an overview of concerns and solutions. It is important to note that this format is much more accessible at Acorn (which has a population of 30) than at Twin Oaks with it’s 93 adult members.
This process can also be used in an emergency, as with me recently where i was inviting guests in a way that made people feel run over. Plus i had the misfortune of co-hosting Nero who set Acorn at fire. It was not time for me to do one of my regular clearnesses, so we put together one that was principally focused on this particular problem. I talked with everyone and other issues came up and even before we had the group clearness at the end, i was already feeling quite good about the groups response to my mistakes and feeling like the resolutions we were coming to would work for everyone.
From my perspective there are three critical differences here, all of which make the Acorn system generally preferable. The first is that these clearnesses are part of regular life and membership at Acorn. You don’t need to be messed up to have a clearness, though if you do mess up, it is a familiar tool for helping to decode that. The second is that everyone is involved in a one-on-one conversation before the big group meeting. These can be facilitated, work i have done and enjoyed at Acorn. Finally, the consensus underpinning of the Acorn system means members are seeking solutions which work for everyone.
“I wondered how long it would be before the honeymoon wore off,” said Puck to me when he saw me clearly upset about some members at Acorn who had concerns about my interaction with two teenage female friends.
It is impossible to live in both of these communities without comparing them. It is nearly impossible not to do it, even if you only move between them occasionally. Twin Oaks meals are on time. Acorn has quick decision capacity. Twin Oaks has multiple different businesses and lots of different work opportunities. Acorn does not use labor sheets. Twin Oaks vehicles basically always work and are signed out properly. Acorn runs the super cool Seed Business. Twin Oaks hosts the communities conference and women’s gathering. And it goes on and on.
We were talking recently about the differences in the visitor program. Visitors in the Twin Oaks program get labor sheets like Oakers and are required to work full quota, if they are interested in membership. Over the course of the three week visitor period, besides the regular community work they do, visitors also get 19 different orientations (what we call Oreos for short) these include:
- Community Government Oreo
- Hammocks Shop tour and lesson
- Community nature walk
- Tofu Oreo
- Child Oreo
- Health/Mental Health Oreo
- Labor Oreo
- Membership Process Oreo
- Movement Support/EcoVillage Oreo
- Social Oreo
- Land Walk
- Community Tour
- Process Oreo
- Legal Oreo
- and a number more which are not coming to my tired mind
At Acorn when people come in, we give then a 40 minute tour and outline of our norms and say “We depend on you to manage your visitor period, including your clearness and interview process, you need to make sure these things happen in a timely way.” Then everything else they want to know about the community they can ask members about. It is a completely informal orientation for visitors.
Twin Oaks has 19 orientations, Acorn has 1. Some will point to the size differences and claim this is why, but more fundamentally it is a culture difference. Twin Oaks believes it can control some things by monitoring and directly informing them. Acorn thinks (on some level) we are riding the crest of a chaotic wave and we will hold on and see what happens.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]