What existing communities teach us about new ones

When i first came to Twin Oaks, my plan was to learn how communities worked (or didn’t) and go back to eastern Europe and start an activist community with my lover Alyson.  Of course, it worked out nothing like that.

What i knew going in was that if you wanted to start a community you should learn from the people who are already doing it, by living in an existing community, so you dont unnecessarily recreate the wheel or other devices.  What i thought i was coming to learn about at Twin Oaks University was the decision models and how communities make money.  i figured, if i understood these two things i would have the most important aspects of community down.  As is so often the case, i was completely wrong.

Artist rendition of campus of Twin Oaks University – not

What i learned was that the Twin Oaks decision model was hopelessly broken and that the businesses earned well below the minimum wage.  And i discovered that this was not the most important stuff of community.

What is important is how you handle gossip and the type of culture you create.  Gossip?  Really?  Oh, i could fluff it up and say “interpersonal communication techniques”, but gossip is actually the most important part of this larger field.  What i discovered is that Twin Oaks had actually been thru a couple of different sets of agreements around gossip.  For the first many years of the community is was, as we say, “not okay” to gossip about anyone in the community, unless you were willing (and planned to) deliver this message to them directly yourself.

The community bylaws have directives that member of the community are supposed to be “kind and fair” and understandably, this was interpreted to mean that gossiping was outside of our agreements.  Then perhaps a decade or two into the communities life there came a crowd that objected to this restriction, claiming that this was a restriction of free speech and that members should be able to talk about anything (or anyone) that they wished to.  The young Turks prevailed and the community culture shifted.  While members are often encouraged to express their critiques or dissatisfaction with other members to them directly, it is not the cultural expectation that they will do so.

But the bigger cultural question is one of what does the community value.  Does it think parenting is important? How does it embrace kids in public spaces?  What is the work ethic?  How important are parties and holidays?  Does the community make up its own holidays (in this Twin Oaks excels actually)?  What is the spirit of cooperation like?  Do people share well (here again we excel)?  Do members strive to resolve their differences?  What is the policy/cultural norms around members in conflict needing to resolve (this Twin Oaks is a disaster in and Acorn took a totally different approach because of it)?

There is lots to say about all these things in the context of my current community and ones we might like to build, good material for pending posts.  Stay tuned  – or better yet, throw your two cents into the comment section of this blog.




About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

7 responses to “What existing communities teach us about new ones”

  1. Dan Kappus says :

    FWIW, after my visit, I was really taken by the idea that people at Twin Oaks don’t have to like each other for things to work. Like, co could live in community for years with someone co really detested, but there was no requirement that co work it out.

    Sometimes, I don’t think I would like to live in community without a firm and binding requirement that we would use the most carefully calibrated way of handling conflict. Other times, I think it’s neat that really the only requirement at TO, on some levels, is that co makes quota. It’s a great freedom to coexist with others without actual good intent towards working it out, to be able to ignore people, not to have to have processing and processing and mediation. As in, I don’t have to care what you think/feel about it if I find you detestable: instead, I can just avoid you and go about my way.

    That the system works despite people being able to talk sh*t about each other and not be proactive about conflict shows, like you say, the strength of culture, or else, like I say, the strength of the built up years of systems. The whole thang can continue even if people aren’t willing to work out every last detail of their relationships with every last person. In structure, freedom.

  2. Ian Mayes says :

    Heya Paxus,

    I’m very curious when you said this:

    “What is the policy/cultural norms around members in conflict needing to resolve (this Twin Oaks is a disaster in and Acorn took a totally different approach because of it)”

    Could you elaborate some more about what you mean by this? How exactly is Twin Oaks a “disaster” in this regard, and how did Acorn take a “totally different approach”?

  3. paxus says :

    Dearest Ian:

    As i think you know, Twin Oaks does not require people to resolve their problems or even engage about resolving them. As Dan points out above in the comments, in a way this is cool, that people who do not especially like each other can be in a high functioning community together.

    However the flip side is also problematic, people who cant stand each other, including when it negatively impacts the community can walk away from their responsibility to resolve their problems and thus build in dysfunction. And because it is the culture here, i end up even participating in it with some of my adversaries.

    Acorn requires people to mediate if the community is ill effected by their interaction. This is a far preferable solution.

    Paxus at Twin Oaks
    22 Icy 2012

  4. Dan Kappus, Huitzilopotchli says :

    How exactly does Acorn enforce such an agreement? With 90+ people, how would a process agreement work?

    (Maybe I’m being too legalistic about it and you’d prefer to just change the culture. Maybe there doesn’t need to be a new policy or rule.)

    I wonder if there would be drawbacks to this sort of accountability to interpersonal process. Do you, Paxus, think there would be drawbacks that would matter to you?

  5. paxus says :

    Acorn has a consensus culture, which is enforced by a mix of hard and soft agreements. But by talking regularly as a group they clear and re-direct behavior which is grating or problematic.

    You can do consensus with 90, i’ve done it at actions with hundreds and thousands (using spokes councils) and Occupy is pushing all types of new ground with 100+ group sizes.

    I’ve lived inside of consensus structures (mostly much smaller), but i rub against the egalitarian beliefs of some people who live here. i have access to resources when i am away from the community which understandably generates envy.

    And i am good with groups and can generally get along with vaguely like minded individuals.

    Paxus at Twin Oaks
    23 Icy 2012

  6. kelsey says :

    Can I expand this to a bigger question of what can we learn from existing communities about how to create more equitable culture as a whole? In your mind, is the ideal situation one in which a country is composed of many many different variations on small communities?

    I live in a country now (Tanzania) with vast inequalities and disparities in resources, and am soon moving to one (South Africa) that is even more so this way. When a part of my heart belongs to Twin Oaks and the communities movement, what does it mean for those of us that believe in these principles, but are not currently living with them being anywhere close to cultural norms? Clearly to create a new community where I am is the best option, but which systems of sharing or egalitarian living might be the best places to start, on a smaller scale? Especially in an extremely non-cooperative sort of environment? Or where people of different economic means are kept very very separate from each other?

  7. paxus says :

    Dearest Kelsey:

    My first choice of course would be for you to leave Africa, return to Twin Oaks and have this conversation F2F right after you play Shoulder in a rip roaring rendition of the Heroes educational role playing game. Failing that this is what i think.

    I dont particularly have an exclusive vision of what a better world would look like in terms of federated communities. What you point out about Africa is what i want these solution sets to be focused on. The problem is industrial capitalism and the disparity of wealth it creates and the environmental destruction it brings on and its anti-union/worker orientation.

    This can be approached from several directions. The least radical are models which place worker representatives, wise neutral third parties and other folks with public interest in mind on boards of directors, who in the best case mitigate the worst corporate behavior. You could have impacted communities be required to vote every 5 years or so on the corporate charter. The sister to this is the Japanese tradition of having local communities vote to repermit reactors to start up every time they are shut down. What this means in the wake of Fukushima is that there are only 5 operating reactors of the 54 in the country and by this summer, unless the goverment forces them open, it is likely all the reactors will be closed.

    Better would be to recognize that corporations are unreformable and that we need to move to entirely new forms of productive entities. These could look like worker owned cooperatives (like Twin Oaks), it could look like the integrated city economy like the Mondragon federation of cooperatives. Both of these models do a fine job at flattening wealth inequities.

    Well that is plenty of rant.

    Paxus at Twin Oaks
    26 Icy 2012

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