Feminist Plumbers

We live in a curious combination of squalor and affluence.  We have hot tubs and saunas and hybrid cars and expensive Eco-friendly buildings.  And there is abandoned farm equipment, driveways with pot holes, a few too many mice and uncleared hallways.  Communards shower significantly less than their mainstream counter parts.  And i believe we are mostly pretty happy about the mix (except i think most of us would be happier if the places were somewhat cleaner).

The thing none of us like is things breaking, especially stuff that is difficult to fix,  especially electrical and plumbing systems.  This has lead to many discussions about how we might attract more “tool turners” to the income sharing communities.  Here problems abound.

plumber sillotte

For starter, mechanics, electricians, plumbers and other craft persons typically command pretty desirable salaries.  This means when you ask them to give it (almost) all up to come live on a commune you are talking about an especially dramatic drop in access to resources.  This is a hard sell.

Then men trained in these trades (and the dramatic majority of tool turners we get are male identified) tend not to be feminist.  Some would be quick to ask if there is an ideological purity test to get into the communes and the answer would be “only sort of.”  Over my 15 years at Twin Oaks, we have accepted a handful of tool turners who did not identify as feminist and in some of these cases were dismissive of it.

More than just a label

More than just a label

Yet i would argue to be happy and thrive here, you need to at least understand and probably embrace feminist principals (some of which are within the egalitarian principals).   Your love life will likely not work well if you don’t have your consent practices down.  You can’t simply order people around because you have more knowledge or experience in something than they do.  If you are wedded to the ideas of “men’s work” and “women’s work,” you will discover most people here strongly disagree. Part of the reason i think we have trouble holding on to some tool turners, is that they feel a bit out of step with the local culture and politics.

All of which leaves me with the vexing question, “From where might we recruit feminist plumbers or electricians?”  Email me suggestions or put them in the comments field.

[Edited by Judy Youngquest]

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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.

17 responses to “Feminist Plumbers”

  1. santalorena says :

    One of my fond memories was of the night a performance was scheduled in ZK. Chairs were set up and a makeshift stage was decorated. As the audience began to take their seats, a loud pop came thundering up from beneath the floor, and we could feel it give way a bit. Of everyone there, only Lynn, Donna, and another woman whom I can’t remember had the experience and knowledge to assess the situation. That made me happy.

  2. someeverydaystories says :

    I would say it’s not so much a problem of finding feminists with skills, I would say it is a symptom of the one hour equals one hour of any other work scene.

    As a past communard with some building skills, you try and do all these really important never ending tasks that are usually uncomfortable and unpleasant but necessary, and you do them for the love of the commune, and then you crawl out of a crawlspace covered in mud and literal shit under your fingernails and then you spy a communard doing something fun and frolicsome or working really inefficiently, and you know they are taking hours for it, and it just does something to your soul.

    So I have a lot of sympathy for commune plumbers who don’t plumb, or computer types that don’t program, because when you get down to it commune pipes and wires and wood and computers aren’t any different from outside world ones, so why am I spending all my time with them? There are so many other jobs that are interesting and commune specific that you will not get paid to do and learn about anywhere else, why am I spending all my time doing this?

    • Kip Gardner says :

      As someone who has only observed egalitarian communities from various distances over the years, I think this comment is very cogent. While it’s a noble idea, I think the practice of making all labor “equal” does function as a disincentive. Just one aspect of why we decided that an egalitarian community would not be a good fit for us.

  3. Ed Zavada says :

    Have you considered having community fund professional training for some of its members to do those jobs?

    • paxus says :

      Well, my co-dad Sky is actually training to be a plumber now with the help of Alexis X who is around these days. The conversation was more actually about Acorn than Twin Oaks. And much of our needs are simple enough so that we dont need a master electrician or plumber to get them accomplished.

  4. ted says :

    Actually, the more I think about this post the angrier its premise makes me. When the commune needs more tofu makers, seed packers or gardeners they don’t ask, “How can we find more people that share our community values, that like to work in factories for 20 hours a week?” No the commune asks, “How can we make this work more pleasant, so more people want to do it?” and if that doesn’t work, “How can we force people to do this?” The idea that manual labor skills equates improper gender ideas is ridiculous.

    I’ve heard you (Paxus) say plenty of times that few people at the commune want to do marketing so you do a lot of it. You don’t say, “most people that do marketing are too materialistic so we don’t want them here” you say, “most people who join a commune don’t really want to do marketing, and I don’t mind it”

    I agree that the commune has accepted members in the past who they shouldn’t have because they have good skills, and I think this is a terrible idea. But I also think the commune as accepted people in the past they shouldn’t have because they were physically attractive, or had a business.

    I think you should treat the labor shortage like any other, the community dialogue should be how to make the jobs more appealing so that people that are at the commune with the skills or the inclinations actually want to do them.
    I think general plumbing (for instance) has less specialized knowledge then organic gardening, it should be no problem to find people to train if their is an interest and a desire.

    I think here are some ways to make people actually want to do your utility work:

    Stop hassling them: I never did IT, but the friends who did talked about anytime the internet was down 20 people told them about it. When I started learning about how to take care of machines Alexis X told me that the commune had a weird attitude towards their utility people, you get a great deal of respect, but they are very entitled and treat you like a servant. No one would take the plumbing managership at TO because people would feel free to wake you up at 2 in the morning to tell you the toilet was clogged, if you were the manager.

    Let them do their jobs: As a good communard I am well aware when I am inconveniencing others, so I only do it when I have to, but sometimes you really need to turn off the power/water to a main building to get a project, and I KNOW this is stopping you from doing your work, and yes you feel, I should do my work some other time when people aren’t working. But this is a main building even at 2 am someone is awake and doing something, and I’m sorry, I’m just not willing to work at the middle of the night all the time.

    Have a better tool situation/bigger budget: I felt that have my time spent working on projects was spent tracking down and repairing the tools I needed to do the job. I know TO’s IT budget is miniscule compared to any other comparable business size doing a similar thing.

    Technology is not evil, treat it nicely: I feel there is a small segment of the population of the commune that treats anything of a technique nature with suspect, this is a little frustrating. What is more frustrating is communes are really hard on their stuff and it is really demoralizing to fix the same thing over and over again, because people don’t take good care of it, or misuse it.

    • santalorena says :

      Wow Ted. Aside from the anger at the premise, everything you stated accurately reflects my feelings on the subject.

    • paxus says :

      Okay, some of this i a totally down with, other parts feel logically weak to me. Technology is not evil? Never met a nuclear weapon that i was down with. Napalm is value neutral, just doing it’s job. Death rays don’t kill people, people kill people. Technology is not value free, this is just intellectually lazy.

      Give IT a bigger budget? Perhaps, when he IT people asked for $25K for faster internet, they got it, over whelminging from the community. Sure, “real companies” have bigger IT budgets, but they also have bigger budgets in almost every area, even when you don’t count the free labor.

      Certainly we have burned out IT manager and others by waking them at 3 in the morning with our problems or not respecting their own lives or requests for problems to be reported to them in a specific way. This behavior on our part definitely has an acidic effect on our managers.

      We agree that the commune decision making process around membership is occasionally problematic. People with skills have been accepted when they re not great cultural fits. Old people are systematically discriminated against. Physically attractive visitors are much more likely to get accepted. And generally, if we make a mistake in membership for these reasons, the person does not stay that long (there are painful exceptions to this notion). And one way to get around this problem is to use an Acorn style clearness system. But i don’t think TO is willing to change in this way, so it is the system that we have for now.

      The reason you have not heard me complain about materialistic marketers, is because i don’t think it makes much sense to complain about materialist beliefs of others, regardless of their occupation. Materialism is very common in society and it is completely logical to not join Twin Oaks if this is something that is important to you (regardless of your skills or occupation).

      You reflected my statements accurately, i am willing to do some marketing, most people are not – but the same is true for many jobs here. What i see is that far more people are willing to learn than plumbing.

      Perhaps you think it is ridiculous that folks with construction skill are on average less feminist than the population in general, but this has been pretty consistently my experience both within the communities movement and in the construction crews i have worked with. Perhaps it is sampling error, but i have been doing this for a while, so if it is, i must have tremendous bad luck.

      • dh says :

        That $25k was a fixed asset, and it’s not going anywhere because Verizon wants $500k. The actual compserv budget this year: $2,000.


  5. Amoreau says :

    Warren Wilson has a plumbing and electrician crew.

  6. richard w. lisko says :

    why not recruit from within and send them out to learn what they can from some community minded plumber and electician.

  7. dh says :

    It’s not that we can’t get feminist plumbers, it’s that we can’t get the employable. We can’t get anyone employable unless they have the financial independence to leave work for three weeks to visit us. The three week visitor program is the barrier. I had a single month window in which my real world jobs would be slow enough that I could take three weeks away. Of my visitor group of 7, only two of us currently had jobs (the same two that live here now). The three week format definitely favors those who have no responsibility or rent, those who are on community tours, and those who wan’t to check out something wild before the start of their next semester at school. I left on the final friday morning of my visitor period and drove back to north carolina, so I could work that night. Most of my visitor group remained behind a few extra days for the Greasel performance, and some even stayed beyond that to catch the ride to East Wind.

    I don’t think we’re going to see skilled tradespeople before we provide them with an alternative entry route. Maybe a one week visit, followed by four or five weekend visits? Seven three-day weekends would amount to the same time as a three week visit. It would require different attention certainly, but things break every day here, and we’ve got to find another way to get people here who can fix shit.

    • paxus says :

      Dearest dh:

      It is certainly the case that the communities long visitor period prohibits people with regular employment from even being able to consider membership at TO.

      We did at one point try a one week visitor period, and it was not well attended and thus we dropped it. It did not have the possibility for membership, so perhaps this was too much of a disqualifier.

      We are in agreement that we need to get people to fix things.

      And proposals to change the visitor program to make it easier for anyone to join are likely dead in the water politically during periods when we are at population capacity.

      Paxus near Boston
      Xmas Eve 2013

  8. santalorena says :

    Is there a looming or existing crisis with regard to repair and maintenance at Twin Oaks? I know you were talking about Acorn, but unless an unsatisfied need for skilled labor is resulting in impending doom for the community, I see no reason to radically alter the visitor program or labor system.

    But what do I know? Maybe after brand-new Twin Oaks has a few years under its belt, we’ll have a better sense as to whether it can make it through the long haul.

    • paxus says :

      Oh we are not facing a looming crisis, this is a long lasting low burn problem. i don’t think we are going to change our visitor program – tho that might be wise. Nor the recruiting system, in that it is not especially special to outreach to a desired group.

  9. Tree Bressen says :

    Maybe you could recruit from educational programs aimed at wimmin entering the trades? Offer them a spot where they’d be respected, supported, and not have to fight sexism. For example, http://vtworksforwomen.org/su-electrical-plumbing/ or http://www.bikeschool.com/classes/mechanic-classes/introduction-to-bicycle-maintenance-for-women.

    I think you were too quick/defensive in your response to Ted. I share your feelings on nukes, etc., and i agree tech is far from value-neutral; nonetheless, i think it’s a misinterpretation of his point . . . it’s easy to sympathize with his frustration at fixing the same thing repeatedly due to careless or uneducated user error. IMO the effect he refers to is actually less about tech attitudes than it is a “tragedy of the commons”-type problem–as such it falls into your domain as someone who promotes sharing and thinks society can learn from the commune to do lots more of it. How can you improve attitudes toward common goods at the commune? What can the commune learn from successful tool-sharing programs outside?

    • paxus says :

      Well, what the communes can learn is that tools degrade with time and need to be replaced or at least repaired. We like to pretend that things (esp tools) last forever and we dont need to plan for them breaking, especially breaking with use.

      We like to use things up, which is a fine predisposition from a sustainability perspective, and having old banged up tools is not always the way to inspire people to use them or get things accomplished.

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