For something in the range of 3 years, I have not had my own bedroom either at Acorn or Twin Oaks. I have been ghosting. I have a shelf in the suite that Hawina and Willow share, where I have some stuff. Some other possessions reside in the Tupelo attic. Beyond this, I live out of and a collection of travel bags and I also draw heavily from our collective clothes library. Between the communities there are always enough slack rooms and when I had the job of room assigner at Twin Oaks I had an intimate understanding of where the slack bedrooms were. I could float.
I get that this would not work well for most people. You can either look at it like you are homeless, or as though you are on a marathon traveling adventure, where you are looking for just the right place to land, knowing it might well not be an option the next night.
I’ve stayed a lot in GPaul’s room at Acorn, because he is mostly doing Point A work in Washington DC. He is still an Acorn member. Fortunately for him and me, Acorn values the network building efforts he does do. While he is away he does not count towards Acorn’s soft agreed population limit of 30 people. So i often sleep in his room. But the last two times i have tried to use the room, i failed.
The first time i just wanted my shoes. I was going to Italy and i thought it would be nice to have the only reasonable piece of clothing i actually control, which are these simple leather shoes. I don’t use them much but sometimes, for public speaking or trade shows, i take them. They are comfortable and i think they look nice.
As is my way, i am packing at about 4 AM, before a 6 AM departure. I have my little flashlight and i am going to into GPaul’s room to rescue these shoes. I figure if i am really quiet, it should be fine. It was a hot night.
I opened the door slowly and there is a naked body sleeping on top of the sheets. I close the door. The penalty for tardy packing is that i don’t get to take my shoes to Italy. I was never able to figure out who was actually in that bed. It appears that they were wildcatting (sleeping in a room that was not assigned to you). It doesn’t really matter.
The second time I tried the room, I wanted a place to sleep. This time there was again a person sleeping there, a relative of a member who was visiting. I could have gone to the Rec Collective, which has 6 bunk beds which almost always has a free bed. But instead i opted for a couch. Acorn has pretty great couches for sleeping.
I am becoming an Oaker again as part of my dual member switching and, unlike the last two times i rejoined, i am going to take a room this time. The room i am technically taking over is one of the most bizarre on the Twin Oaks campus. It is called the Hobbit Hole. It is called this for a number of reasons, but mostly it is because of the unusual door to the room. This door is 3.5′ tall, at the high end. The low end is about 2′ tall. Most people have to crawl into the room.
Update: While the Hobbit Hole was lovely, i am following the cool kids and moving back to Ta Chai, into the same room i shared with Puck for quite some time.
There are a number of minor parts of the reporting that are wrong. They mess up the sequence of the visitor period and acceptance process. They also said we had a waiting list, which as of recently, is not actually true.
But overall, it portrays the community accurately and is mostly upbeat.
Whenever the mainstream media comes, it attempts to exotify us. The reporter said basically, “You can live in this comfortable paradise, but you have to give up most of your material possessions.” What is true is that you can bring whatever fits in your room and a bike. You can bring larger furniture items if you are willing to lend them to the community (you can take them when you go if you want) for use in the common spaces.
For many people, this represents a significant scaling down of what they have. No one says, “You have to give them up.” It is not a mandate from the community. If you move to a smaller place, you shed things.
The video makes a point of mentioning that Scott, who is running the saw mill, used to be a computer programmer. It implies that he gave up programming to do this lower paying work. However, Scott does not think about it this way.
Perhaps in an effort to make home viewers comfortable, the news people talk about how this would not work for them or how they can’t imagine seeing their colleagues at a place like Twin Oaks. The terms “hippies” and “communists” are thrown at us and quickly batted away. You can try to see it as stereotypical or comically diminished, but really what is happening here is more complex and i would argue more important.
CNN did a curious piece partially about Twin Oaks recently. It was odd because it did a fairly good job of representing the commune in the text portion of the story, much better than ABC Nightline did, but it mixed in a video about the San Francisco Co-Living movement.
The article is called: Utopia: It’s Complicated – Inside Vintage and New Age Communities. We are clearly the vintage part.
Taking this apart a bit, let’s consider the clever title. Utopia is a slightly charged and especially foolish word to use when describing a real life living situation. We are not perfect, nor appropriate for everyone. We never claim to be, though academics and the media love to throw that label on us. What we do claim is that our living situation is far better than most and some (including myself) claim that on a good day, we can see utopia from here.
But this is a detail, really. What is more peculiar is lumping contemporary “co-living” spaces with income sharing communities like Twin Oaks. It is something like grouping tug boats with hover crafts.
In both circumstances there are people living together and sharing things and selecting each other (this is my definition for intentional community.) But if the affluent residents of co-living circumstances are disagreeing about maid service, it is about how often it is necessary. Maid service is inconceivable to most income sharing communes, not just because we don’t think we can afford it, but because we feel responsible for cleaning up our own messes.
As GPaul points out in “We are not selling a product,” the differences only start here. Co-living replicates the landlord/tenant dynamic, FEC communities largely own their own properties which are land trusts. Think corporate hover craft and co-op tug boat. Sharing income means you need to listen to those you live with about what their needs are and the survival of the community depends on trust building. Sharing an expensive group house means you stay until you have a serious fight with someone living there, are bored, or find a better offer and you are constantly on the look out for that offer.
None of the co-living situations I have seen or read about have children. Mostly what we see is twenty-somethings appearing to live the good life. Nothing wrong with that, but for me the good life is multi-generational.
So there is no utopia. And the differences between different approaches to the better life are significant. I am glad CNN got so much right about us. I am sad that they decided our neighbors in building a better world were mostly affluent people who are likely making gentrification worse.
This is number 2 in the randomly occurring series which extends the answer provided in the Twin Oaks website FAQ section. The first was on personal possessions. And this post appends to the answer given about our membership process. That answer is:
Basically, in order to become a member, a person needs to be willing to abide by the agreements of the community (e.g. no personal cars, our income-sharing agreements, and lots more). They also need to be able to fit into our social norms which, because we live so closely together, are quite particular (e.g. being sensitive to people’s “personal space”, being able to pick up social cues, being able to be cooperative and share control, etc).
The process for membership involves an interview with the Membership Team during a Three-Week Visitor Period. The interview consists of telling one’s life story, and answering questions about how one deals with various aspects of community living like conflict, anger, people with different values, etc. Then there is an input period during which all visitors leave Twin Oaks for some time, and have the opportunity to reflect on their experiences and decide if they really do think they want to live here. During this time, each member of the community has an opportunity to give input on the visitor (Accept, Visit Again, or Reject for membership). If there are outstanding health (including mental health) issues those will also be taken into consideration. The Membership Team makes the final decision about a visitor becoming a member.
While generally a fine answer, there are all kinds of things missing here. The first is the complexity of Twin Oak’s own visitor and membership process. We have no less than three separate teams inside the community to deal with this process.
Another thing missing from this answer is that pretty consistently for the last 4 years the community has had a waiting list. This means if you are in a big hurry to live in community (a state i would recommend no one be in) then Twin Oaks might well be a poor choice of places to come. Some communities permit accepted visitors to stay indefinitely after their visitor period waiting for a space to open up. Twin Oaks is not like this. If accepted, expect to wait 3 months to a year.
One of our stronger rules is that after your visitor period (if you are applying for membership) you need to leave the community. Usually, this is for at least one month. This is part of our “anti-cult” orientation. We want you after your visitor period to return to your family and friends. If they can’t convince you that the idea of joining a commune is a little bit nuts, they you can come.
And while it is true 95% of the time that that membership team makes the final decision on accepting, rejecting or visiting again a prospective new member, the remaining 5% of the time is interesting to consider. While i complain about the internal decision making process in the commune, there are numerous well designed components of it. How do we deal with splits within the community around membership? A minority of the membership can reject a visitor or provisional member trying to become a full member, but this minority can be overridden by the majority. One of the clever aspects of this policy is that the larger the minority rejecting someone, the larger the super majority must be to override them. At something like 27% rejecting a person, it becomes impossible for the majority to override the minorities decision.
One of the community agreements not explicitly mentioned in the above FAQ is working quota. During your visitor period you will get assigned a bunch of labor, including an incredible number of orientations. Including these, you need to work your 42 hours of quota a week. There are all manner of areas you can work in as a visitor. Reliably the kitchen has cooking or dish washing cleaning help to offer. We used to train people in hammocks, because they could always fill up their quota in this area. Though this is less true these days and some visitor groups don;t even learn how to make hammocks these days. And we are a bit unforgiving in this. You stay with us three weeks, if you are interested in membership, you better work 42 hours each week – or have some compelling excuse for not working (remember being sick is labor creditable – to a point). Visitors not making quota consistently lose their ability to apply for membership on that visit.
Another thing to be aware of is the commune has a second process step for people who are interested in membership who are 55 or older. One of the policies i most dislike is out Age Cap policy. It comes from an understandable place, when the average age of the community exceeds 43 years of age, we slow our acceptance of older members to not pre-maturely age the community. And the reason this is relevant is that Twin Oaks has a very clever pension system, which slowly decreases the quota of members over age 49 by one hour per year.
The other membership cap is around gender. While i think the community is increasingly well educated in the fluidity of gender (strong gender binaries are so twentieth century) we still maintain an existentialist policy when it comes to capping lopsided gender balances. Specifically, if we end up with more than 60% male, we cap our admissions of men until we become more balanced. It would be true for females as well, but this is not really our problem or any of the other FEC communities. For slightly inexplicable reasons, many fewer women apply for membership at Twin Oaks and of those who do apply, a significantly smaller fraction of those we accept decide to come. On the positive side of this imbalance (again for inexplicable reasons) women tend to have longer memberships on average then men.
Fortunately, in the 16 years i have been hanging around Twin Oaks, we have never hit this 60%/40% ratio, so unlike the age cap we have not implemented a gender cap to membershiping visitors. Unfortunately, East Wind has not been so lucky and has had well over 60% male membership for a long time, which gets in the way of the problem correcting itself.
For a look at some of the other restrictions Twin Oaks puts on it’s member, take a look at this post on our most controversial approval.
It is just a couple of weeks before the communities conference and we are putting the finishing touches on it. I believe this will be the best Communities Conference of the 10 I have helped organize. Some amazing presenters, many interesting participants and robust and relevant content. We have a number of options for the Monday program with is Communities Clinic. If you are planning on attending the Monday program on Sept 1st, we are hoping you’ll write us and give us an idea of what kind of issues your group is dealing with and what kind of help you’re looking for. There are 10 common topics described below with various questions to help you think about what might be useful to you.
Financing and development: Almost every community needs money. How can you secure funding for improving your community? What type of fundraising options have worked for other communities and are they exportable to you? Under what conditions can you borrow money from banks or run a successful crowd funding campaign?
Ownernship and legal structures: Well before you move in, you will need to figure out what type of community you are in a legal sense. Is it a land trust, a residential worker coop, a 501D community, LLC or other structure. Come discuss what these all mean and which models would work best for you and your forming group.
Recruiting and outreach: If you have the right members, you can do almost anything. But how do you find these people (if they are not already working with you)? Many communities reach other through FIC websites and publications, others write articles in periodicals which appeal to their value sets, some buy advertisements, others speak at colleges or festivals, still others blog or recruit thru social media. What is the right mix for the people you are trying to find? What is cost effective or no cost? What places should you avoid?
Relationships and conflict resolution (problematic people and expulsion): Many European communities have no expulsion process, almost all US ones do. How do you maintain personal and emotional relationships with your membership? What do you do when relationships inside the community sour to the point where it might be necessary for the group to split or someone to leave? What have long lived communities done to successfully deal with problematic or high negative impact members?
Decision-making: The US cohousing movement has widely adopted consensus (including sociocracy models) as the way they make decisions. Some communities use voting models including super majority models. Do you have what it takes to be a charismatic leader for your community (hint this includes tremendous patience and a willingness to listen)? Does your decision model change as your group gets larger? If you can’t agree to change something are you always stuck with the status quo? These and other questions will be addressed in this participant driven workshop.
Local relations/involvement: Does it matter if you shop in the town closest to your community? Does it make sense to invite the neighbors over for tea or will it just leave them more scared than they already are? What about political protest in your own town – will this distance you from your neighbors or bring you closer? Should members doing controversial things try to avoid the community being affiliated with their work to maintain local harmony? Is it considered community work to be part of the local volunteer fire department or volunteering to teach kids to read?
Cottage industries/Cooperative business: We have started calling them “income engines”. Choosing the right business is one of the most important decisions a community can make. If you rely too much on the skills of a minority of the membership (for example web development) the community economy can collapse if these people move on. Should you be looking for something that any new member can be trained in? Is the cottage industry open to all prospective members? Can the community hire people who are not members?
The range of membership statuses: Full member, provisional member, associate member, child member, intern, guest, ward of the state, lover of member – there are many different ways someone can be at a community for a while. Especially egalitarian communities try to limit the number of membership types to try to preserve fairness. Other communities have more flexible membership policies to try to be more inclusive or more versatile for members. In this workshop we’ll discuss how all these status’ have been used and which ones might be right for your community.
Different levels of sharing: Many student coops share a few meals a week, a clothes washer, and not much else. Their academic, economic and social experiences are largely independent. Some communities try to share everything from bank accounts to businesses to boyfriends. The more you share the more benefits you’ll see but the stronger your systems and communication needs to be. This workshop will look at some of these systems and how they combat internal hoarding and envy. It will also help forming communities decide what they want to share – are cars too big? are clothes to personal? Can we swing a public computer? Do we want to buy box seats for the games?
Culture Creation: Communities can create their own holidays and rituals. Often these cultural aspects are the most bonding aspect of the community members life. Should we buy instruments to help catalyze a more musical community? Should our parties be mostly us and our close friends or should we invite a wider audience? How does the community value and promote artistic expression? Do we strive for transparency in our feelings or privacy? There are dozens of aspects of cultural creation that communities can consider and often influence. What you choose to focus on will determine how most people perceive you and in many cases whether you will grow and thrive.
The good news is that Keenan has started blogging. If the reason that you come to this blog is that you are interested in the inside story about what is happening at Twin Oaks, then you are quite likely to be more satisfied with Keenan’s blog which is mostly about those types of issues. If you are looking for news about nuclear power, thoughts on polyamory, Funological analysis of trasnformative festivals or grading of our events, practical critiques of contemporary anarchism or what the front line is of growing the communities movement in eastern US cities, then you probably want to keep coming back to this blog.
If you are looking for proper spelling and good grammar, well thought out and argued positions on community policy, a rational long look at what make the community tick. Then Keenan’s blog might be a great choice for you. And of course you don’t need to choose, you can check out or subscribe to both.
Below are the first few paragraphs of a recent post he wrote which is nominally about not granting a leave to a member who left the community under a cloud of upset. But really what it is is an explanation of how planners make exceptions to policy (or not) and how we are not a democracy, but something more interesting and hopefully more fair.
To see the rest of this article click the link below.
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.