I had a long time crush on Kat Kinkade. Our time at Twin Oaks overlapped for the first couple years of my membership and we were involved in several projects together and generally appreciated each other. In a configuration that would be impossible today, Kat, Keenan, Pam, and i were in a group which meet weekly that i called “the shadow planners” (Twin Oaks highest executive office is the plannership and all 4 of us had served as planners, though i had not been selected when this group started). We talked about the different problems the community faced and what we thought were clever solutions to them.
Kat had been married in her younger life, but had definitely moved on from romance being a focus; she was doing other things and happy with them. So i was not surprised at her hesitancy around my proposal.
“We should get married.” I proposed one day while visiting her.
“Why on earth would we do that?” Kat asked, more curious than surprised.
“Because we could throw a large party …”
“And we both know a lot of people who care for us and the commune …”
“…yes…” Kat was waiting
“And we could ask them all to give us only sheets and toasters.” I concluded.
Kat cracked up laughing and never seriously responded to my offer. We had spoken several times about the ephemeral nature of both sheets and toasters in the commune context. These are two of the things the commune burns through at a pretty stunning rate. We are hard on toasters and they don’t last long in our busy kitchens. And apparently we have some combination of sheet flight/hoarding or rough sleepers because we are regularly in need of sheets.
Kat cofounded Twin Oaks, East Wind and Acorn communities. She also wrote the books Walden Two Experiment and Is it Utopia, yet?
Kat was interviewed by Tamara Jones of the Washington Post Magazine in 1999.
The second best thing for an organizer is when someone takes an idea you think is important and replicates it. So I was more than thrilled when I learned that there was a regular Transparency Tools (TT) group happening Wednesday nights at Acorn that I was not organizing.
The best thing for an organizer is when someone takes an idea you think is important and evolves and enhances it. And so it was with the Acorn Transparency Tools group which I attended for the first time the other day after some weeks of being on the road.
Confidentiality is key to making transparency work. You are asking the people in the group to take a risk. You are asking them to describe some of the most important thoughts and feelings which are going on inside of them. We ask people share with us their most intimate details. You can’t do this unless you feel like the group can maintain your confidences.
There have been two general confidentiality agreements that TT groups have been using.
- Strict Confidentiality: People in the group don’t talk about the other members’ disclosures outside of the Transparency Tools group.
- Identity Confidentiality: You can talk about things which came up in your TT group, but you must do it in a way that hides the identity of the person who said the thing, even to someone who is listening who has great knowledge of the group.
I personally prefer identity confidentiality. I want the people in these TT groups to be talking about their experiences, which are often powerful and sometimes transformative, and the strict confidentiality agreement often limits this.
The Acorn TT group developed a new type of confidentiality which might be called Group Confidentiality. The group agrees to strict confidentiality, but invites members of the TT group to talk about things people brought up, but only amongst those who were present. While I don’t like this as much as identity confidentiality, I do see several advantages to it.
With identity confidentiality there is always the chance that you might inadvertently break your agreement, because your listener might have a bunch of information about people in your group that you don’t know. So they might be able to figure out the identity of the person you are talking about. Because of this, people inside the group might be reluctant to share important information about themselves for fear it might leak out.
With group confidentiality, there is yet another incentive to be inside the group. You are given a special permission to continue to work on these interesting issues – but exclusively with people who are in the group. This further encourages people who think they might want to come. It can create post-meeting group identity and lead participants seek out members of the group to continue their own work on things which come up.
The other exercise which got modified in the Acorn TT group was the Flow of Feelings tool. This tool invites the users to talk about their different emotional states without worrying about the logical accuracy of their statements. You might say, “I am sad because I have no friends.” Your friend in the group might well object, “You have a bunch of friends, including me!” This is not helpful. If you are feeling sad, we want to invite you to explore why, not get into an argument over the ‘truth’ of your feelings.
Flow of Feelings invites the participants to check in with the group around 8 different types of feelings:
I feel angry that … I feel grateful that…
I feel sad that…. I feel happy that…
I feel afraid that … I feel secure that…
I feel guilty that… I feel proud that …
In the original flow of feelings format, one participant would cycle through these feelings, usually giving at least one statement of each. In the new format developed by the Acorn TT group, a single feeling is selected and everyone in the group throws in a response to it. The difference is significant. Even though the root causes are often quite different, being with others in the group at your moment of sadness or of pride reconnects you to them, and builds bonds and tribe.
I am very excited about these developments. Big thanks to Brude and Batco for their work on this.
I personally name many months of the year. Sometimes this is prophetic, when i think i can guess the future. More often it is simply a memorable event, like the birth of a friends child or the collapse of a foul dictator.
This month after much discussion and a fair amount of throwing stuff into a rented dumpster we knocked down the building we called “The Falling Down Shed” See the above video for the dramatic moments with Mike on the tractor.
Now the curious thing is that this month naming tradition did not start with me, it is actually a Slavic tradition, where they named the months after things which are actually happening in the physical world at that time, rather than unimportant gods. So for example August is Harvest and March is Pregnant Animals
Curiously in the warmer Slavic countries (like the Croatia) it is the month of October which is called “Falling Leaves” or Listopad. .In the cooler Czech Republic and the Ukraine, this is the month name for November. Because we knocked down the “Falling Down Shed” in November, i am calling this month “Fallen Down Shed”. It served us well.
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.
As i was going through the endless array of stupid comments in the recent Yahoo Parenting article on Twin Oaks, i found myself wanting a good summary of why Twin Oaks (and other secular and especially egalitarian communities) are not cults. Fortunately, these communities have designed themselves to make this easy.
Let’s hop in our time machine for a moment. It is 1967 and the original 8 founders of Twin Oaks are looking at the principals and cultural norms around which they will form the community where they want to live. Reverend Moon had just visited the US and set up holy grounds in the 48 contiguous states. The FDA had just raided Scientology offices and seized illegal medical equipment, and the religion was being banned in Australia and other places. And the Church of Satan was performing it’s first recorded baptism.
The intentional communities movement wanted to distance itself from these kinds of organizations, so it looked at the behaviors which typified cults and set out to make themselves different in as many ways as possible. The 4 things which typify a cult are:
- It has a living charismatic leader
- You give them all your money
- You are kept away from your old friends and family
- You can’t leave when you might like
Cults are also exclusive, often highly secret and universally authoritarian. Let’s take a quick look at these components.
Living Charismatic Leader: Twin Oaks has a complex internal decision making system. Specifically, we have 3 or more planners who serve 18 month terms but can not serve consecutive terms. Over the last 18 years i have been at Twin Oaks, the problem is not having people want to do consecutive plannerships, the problem is getting people to complete their terms – recently several planners have quit this generally thankless job. Holding onto leaders in an egalitarian community is hard, because they get extra headaches without the extra perks. Plus at Twin Oaks we have a distrust of people in leadership roles and they often get extra flack for this reason. We would appear to fail the charismatic leader cult test.
Give up your assets: This one is understandably complex, because the difference between income sharing and asset sharing is often confused. When you join Twin Oaks, we ask you not to touch your pre-existing assets, if you have any, for the duration of your membership. This does not mean we ask you to give them to the community. If you want you can lend them to the community, and when you leave you get them back. Without interest. The interest is income. Because the community pays for everything when you live there, food, clothing, medical, housing, entertainment, taxes, dentist, etc we ask that any income your assets earn (including Social Security and pension income – excluding 401K interest, which you can’t get at) be given to the community. This feels fair to us. We also don’t take your debts if you arrive with debts. Most cults require you give everything over. Some (like Scientology – which fails the living leader test) require you to pay for expensive classes and encourages significant donations to the community. Members are not encouraged to make donations to Twin Oaks of pre-existing assets nor do we charge our members for anything.
Isolation: Bring your friends and family to the commune, by all means. They can stay for free and the host determines what work, if any, is appropriate for them to do (if you are going to stay for a while we would like you to work quota). It is true there are people who live at Twin Oaks who rarely leave the farm. But we design our selection process so that it pushes you back into the arms of those who care about you, before you come to join. At the end of your visitor period at both Twin Oaks and Acorn you must leave, even if everyone thinks you are great and you should stay forever. After you have been home for 10 days you find out if we have accepted you and then (at TO at least) you have to wait another 3 weeks before you can come. My joke is if your friends and family can’t convince you not to join this hippie commune in 3 weeks, then you are free to come.
No Exit: I dislike grumpy communards. I really dislike communards who are grumpy about the community that they are living in. I want these people (after making a good faith effort to fix their situation) to leave. Every one of them represents a misallocated space, because there is someone on the waiting list who wants to take that person’s place and really wants to live with us. Again we have had waiting list for years.
Exclusive: One of Twin Oaks and Acorns missions is to be a model. To be a model you have to be open to outside guests – friends, media, academics, curious travelers and more. Cults won’t let you inside, and while it is wrong to say our doors are always open to anyone, if you ask in advance and come to any of the Saturday Tours or 3 Week visitor periods you can see pretty clearly what we look like.
Secretive: Similarly, models can’t be secrets.
Authoritarian: This seemed to be where many readers of the Yahoo article got hung up. The assumption seemed to be that, if there were a self selecting group which was not following the roles of the mainstream, then there had to be an authoritarian oppressive structure.
Look, these communities are filled with anarchists. We are not going to work if the structure is authoritarian. We want to do better than majority voting. All the egalitarian communities require democratic decision making systems, at least voting, ideally consensus. This does not absolutely insure authoritarian structures will not emerge, but consensus is one of the best ways to maximize the power individuals have over oppression by a group.
Thus by any of the standard criteria for determine cult status, we fail. But you dont need to believe me, come visit and see for yourself. Call 540-894-5126 and arrange a Saturday tour.
Some media reports have forecasted hundreds of thousands will March against Monsanto corporation on May 23rd in over 400 cities around the world. We went into Richmond to join the fun.
The march began with background information about how it got started 3 years ago. The inspiration was the US congress passing the despicable Monsanto Protection Act, which was basically written by Monsanto to make things better for them. The most horrific parts of the 2013 Monsanto Protection Act are that even if it is found that GMOs have adverse health effects on consumers, companies using them 1) can not be sued, 2) can not be stopped from harvesting them and 3) cannot be blocked from planting more and selling more of them. Little could be more revealing of how sold out our elected leaders are.
The perhaps 100 marchers went through the fashionable Carytown portion of Richmond with a substantial police escort. The response from the many people who saw us was pretty warm, especially the staff at the many restaurants on that trendy street. As for the tactics of the MAM i have strong split feelings (the technically correct definition of ambivalent). I love the decentralized approach to the organization of these events. People come, bring signs, and a megaphone.
There is a fairly informal rotation of speakers at most of these, anyone who is inspired can grab a megaphone and address the crowd. While I did not speak this year, i did in 2013 in Washington DC.
This type of decentralize approach is important, because it is at its base populist. Also it proves that the internet can be a highly effective organizing tool (not requiring strong–read authoritarian–leaders) with global reach and the capacity to facilitate multi-city/multi-country mass actions.
The problem with this lovely grass rootsie approach is that these decentralized groups do a third rate job with media. There was some media at the Richmond event, and there might even be a bit of press coverage. But overall, this movement is pretending that it is possible reach millions without a media budget, without media handlers and without carefully crafted messages sending. While i appreciated the considerable decentralized effort, i remember working with the experienced media folks at Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Greenpeace US. They speak at a high level about when a story has to be out by, what images make sense to broadcast, what are the talking points, what is the group demanding. With hundreds of protests around the world, there are but dozens of articles up (mostly in small papers or on local tv stations). I can’t help but think if one of the better big green groups were to take on this cause, we would have much larger media echo.
It was great to see Drew on my recent trip to the West Coast. He is a networker who is excited about the Point A project and has mad skills. He also has stories.
One of his stories that i was excited about was his experience of playing Frisbee at Acorn. An ultimate game he claimed was the best he had ever played. Not because we are especially good players, tho we can field a respectable team. It was the way we play. In his blog he writes:
We didn’t keep score, something I hardly noticed at the time. It wasn’t necessary to keep score because we were all infinite players playing a series of finite games.
It was at the moment of the opening disc thrown that the finite game started. We played for the point at hand. Not for the accumulation of points. Once that point was scored the finite game ended, the winning team got the title of team to most recently score a point then we started play on the next finite game.
We played to keep the game going. If one team kept winning and the other team was getting frustrated we would trade players to even out the skill levels. We would adjust the rules, boundaries on or off, people rotating out, etc. to ensure that the game continued (until sun down, of course).
Each finite game was played to it’s fullest. We played with great seriousness. Even more serious than professionals I would guess. Because no point was worth any more/less than another. We were never so far behind in points that scoring couldn’t keep us from losing or so far ahead that we could go easy on our opponent. We were never playing warm up or pre-season games that “didn’t matter”. We were playing for the point, the only point—at that moment in time—that mattered.
I had not thought of this analysis before, but i found it compelling. While not universal, anarchist score keeping (aka not keeping score) is common in the communes. Quite some Volleyball games start and end with scores of 7 to 7. They are no less fun that ones i played with highly competitive rules and cultures.
As regular readers of this blog know, we are trying to start urban based income sharing communities in cities in the Northeastern US, specifically NYC, Washington DC, Baltimore and Richmond VA. We have different strategies in all these towns and friendly competition between the organizers as to what the best approach is to get these new communities off the ground.
In NYC, where we knew fewer people who were interested in this lifestyle, we have been doing public events for the last year. We have one coming up the weekend after this one called Community Matchmaking. Please consider coming if you are excited about intentional community in the NYC area.
In Washington we have a group of people who are willing to seriously investigate this style of living. Cities make things more complex and for the last year this DC group has been working on its agreements, strengthening its social fabric and doing the first round of recruiting to people inside our networks. DC is now ready to step up its outreach efforts and is having its first public outreach effort on March 24th. If you are in the Washington DC area and have a strong interest in intentional communities, this is certainly the place to be. Dinner and introductions start at 6PM.
What you should know about this ambitious DC group:
- The plan is to launch this new community within a year.
- There are 6 to 8 people planning on being income sharing members and another dozen and a half who are considering it.
- Most of these folks are currently living in group houses in the DC area.
The event on Tuesday is reaching out to people with collective living experience. Later events will focus differently and reach out to different audiences. Do you find collective living enriching and strengthening? Want to talk about ways to make collective living a lifelong option for more people rather than the transitional living situation that it so often is? Want to talk about ways to accentuate the positive and ameliorate the negative of living with a bunch of people in close community? Come out on Tuesday and join the discussion!
She had me from “Batman”.
It is intriguing to observe the cultural differences between the communes and New York City. On the last Point A trip, Acorn’s newest intern (who back then was called Batman) introduced herself a few dozen times over the trip. No one blinked.
It was as though they had had dozens of people call themselves Batman before. Knowing there must be some revealing or at least interesting story, none of them thought it would be appropriate to ask for it. While on the communes, this introduction reliably drives the next part of the conversation.
But the origin of Batman was problematic, it hailed from a romantic partner who was no longer in the picture. So I suggested a naming party, and she embraced the possibility. She wanted a dual purpose new name. One which could embrace the exotic strangeness and quirky freedom which the communes could offer, while also having a more mundane nickname version which she could answer the business phones with. Nickelodeon could become Nick, for example. Prof Pocket could become Po. She, having a traditionally feminine given name, also wanted something which sounded masculine.
But Batman was a cool name and some communards were reluctant to give it up. Strandbeest in particular wanted to contribute by keeping the old name with a new origin story. When Batman challenged “What will I say when people ask about my name?” Strandbeest (who is now called Jayne – along with a half dozen other things – after the Firefly character, who is apparently both stupid and mean) countered “Because I am the hero Gotham deserves”. Which in the early moments of last night’s naming party was pretty compelling and almost derailed the entire event.
There were a few other attempts at new origin stories to rescue the old cool name from the ash bin of history, but it was not to be. Our vivacious new intern had fully embraced the idea that a new name was an opportunity and was compelled by the daring prospect of having a group of friends rename her from the very long list of possibilities.
She did of course whittle down this list. She was not going to be called Styrofoam, or Lasersnake or Ronald Raygun. Though to her credit she was willing to consider Styrofoam if there was a clever Babylon acceptable nickname which was spawned. But despite our best efforts none was revealed.
Acorn does not do naming parties like Twin Oaks does. We don’t name our cars or our buildings generally. Names appear comically or organically or mysteriously without explanation. The event was well attended, perhaps because of it’s novelty but more likely because she is an unusually well-liked new addition to our colorful hyper-family.
Besides the attempted new origin story, we also tried some new things at the naming party. It is not uncommon for us to reduce the list of names thru a number of binding polls. The first is usually that you have 5 up votes and 3 down votes. As an experiment after we had done a couple of elimination rounds, we did a non-binding round with three negative votes and single positive one – just to see what people were grumpy about. The least favorites were the more bland options, such as Dylan and Neil.
In the end, we choose “Triple Threat Tony”, in part because this was a name that she herself quite liked. It satisfied the male identification aspect with Tony. It has the option of endless entertaining sub-names (I am calling her Triple Threat, others have compressed to just “Trip” or “Tone”). She will still answer to Batman, which some Acorners are unwilling to part with (perhaps this will lead to her name drifting into free fall).
And despite the name change, for me she will always be hero that Gotham needs.
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.