The Magic Wand Question and a Culture of Fear

Both Twin Oaks and Acorn ask prospective members about 100 questions in  our membership interview.  One of the most revealing is the “Magic Wand Question”.

If you could change any single thing about the community what would it be?

At Twin Oaks, members will often curiously ask visitors about their answer to this, because it often gives insight.  At Acorn, if there is any doubt in the candidacy of a prospective member, the current Acorners will ask the people who did the membership interview what the answer to the Magic Wand Question was. [Twin Oaks does it’s membership interviews confidentially, complete notes to membership interviews are available to all Acorner members.]

magic wand


For me the answer has long been the same, i would change the culture of fear of change at Twin Oaks.  At first glance, this distrust of new approaches makes sense.  Communities turn out to be quite fragile creatures.  Some huge number of them (Diana Leafe Christen estimates 19 out of 20 new communities fail in the first two years) don’t survive.  So if you are in a successful place like Twin Oaks, changing things (at least at first) is a threat to this success, you could change the wrong thing and hurt or even destroy the community.

But from my perspective, after a dozen or so years these arguments begin to hold much less water.  With nearly a hundred person membership and money in the bank and a waiting list, it is much harder for the community to endanger itself by change, especially if the change has to be approved by the relatively conservative decision making process.


Some years back Twin Oaks decided to build an expansion to our tofu hut.  This made sense on a number of levels.  The business was expanding and we needed more capacity.  The work in the tofu hut is some of the most physically demanding in the community and was occasionally hurting workers.  Increased automation of production would elevate our hourly wage for this work.

We agreed to expand the tofu hut, and to manage this expansion ourselves.  We generally build our own buildings.  But especially the complex equipment of the tofu hut proved more difficult to design, purchase and install than we had originally estimated.  We have since brought in an outside general manager for the construction effort, but we are significantly late and over budget on this project now.

Separately, the community is growing.  We have hit our adult population cap, but we dont want to tell members who want to have children that they can not have them.  And in recent years we have had many more new kids being born than children completing high school (or home school) and heading off to college or other places.

Many members believe we need to build additional housing to accommodate the needs of new families.  And this is where our tofu hut experience slams on the breaks.  The delays to the tofu expansion have made us collectively cautious about starting any new construction projects until the last one is finished.

Do we remember how to make these?

Do we remember how to make these?

Unfortunately, well before we break ground for a new building of any sort, we have to discuss what we want and agree on a design for it.  This process can often take a year or more.  And since we have not done it in several years, and the needs of the community for different types of space have increased, it could take a couple of years planning.

In my ideal world we would run in parallel the planning process for the new building and the completion of the tofu hut.  Word on the path is that it is not going to happen this way.



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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.

6 responses to “The Magic Wand Question and a Culture of Fear”

  1. ezrafreeman says :

    Yup. Truth is, even if we started the process now for a new building, it would be several years before breaking ground on it. However, the mood of the community seems to be such that we are unwilling to even entertain the thought of a new SLG. Which means that we are likely to default to lower population and/or children doubling up permanently. At this point, I think the smartest thing we could do would be to sell the new tofu equipment and use the building for something else. For all of our ‘careful planning,’ I can see this tofu addition as having the potential to do serious harm to the community– a decade or more of austerity budgets, a complete stop to all new construction (or even consideration of new construction), a general decline in morale leading to greater turnover. It has already cost us several good members through burnout, and I don’t see us ever getting it up and running.

  2. paxus says :

    How can we house ourselves? That’s the question that never ends. Half of our buildings dissallow children. Hence the need for housing falls heavily on children and their parents and would-be parents.

  3. Kelpie says :

    Ok, Paxus, sign out next time. The above statement attributed to Paxus is mine. I think he agrees with it, though.

  4. dondilyons says :

    Toby was born in tupelo exactly 29 years ago yesterday. We left twin oaks about 28 years ago for these very reasons. Twin oaks needs more space for families and children. Don’t be having this same conversation 30 years from now, or even 10!

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