Acorn had a long and difficult membership meeting on Sunday. All manner of assumptions were tested and after 30 years of practicing consensus i found myself learning some important new things.
We had several tricky membership decisions and membership is one of the hardest in community because it is basically binary. You are either accepting the person or you are rejecting them. In some cases we ask people to visit again, because the community did not get to know them much (perhaps they are quiet) or because there was something else extraordinary going on (perhaps a building caught on fire). We did decided to restart our visitor program, with some more structure. In the aftermath of the arson, we decided to create a mental health team (MHT). Twin Oaks has an MHT, which was founded after a member took their own life almost 20 years ago.
But the thing which really took me back was when we did not come to consensus despite there being no blocks to the process. We did a non-binding go-around about how people felt about this visitor becoming a provisional member. Some concerns were expressed but there were no strong objections or blocks, several people stood aside. The facilitator took this as the group not being in consensus.
When we investigated the several stand asides, some of them were because the people were leaving the community and felt it was inappropriate for them to have their opinions bind the group, especially considering the group is somewhat divided. At least one stand aside was a protest of the 5 hour long meeting we had not yet completed. But at least a couple had strong concerns about this member joining and felt like they could not give their full consent. In this case a stand aside became at least temporarily a block. We tabled the decision for the upcoming meeting. And i have been mulling this over in my head searching for a better way to approach it next time.
We need to dissect the stand aside status which has gotten terribly muddied, for these two interpretations of it (defer to the group versus concerns not strong enough to block) obfuscate the process, rather than enlighten and inform it. So what i am proposing is that people who want to drop out of or not influence the process, but still wanted to be recognized instead of saying they stand aside should say they “defer”.
We also need to set a threshold for too many stand asides to be in full consensus. One number which was proposed for this limit was 10% or in our case 3 people. So in answer to the question posed in the title of this blog post. A stand aside is not a stand aside when 1) it is really deferring to the group and perhaps 2) when it is 1/3 of a block.
This long and difficult meeting was not bad in my thinking. i feel like we did an admirable job of balancing the long term needs of the group with those of the candidates. i thought Thomas did a fine job facilitating in territory where there was not yet a clear map out. i felt like despite emotions being high, the group held together and listened to our many divergent views and often found common ground. We need to get our communication and process agreements a little tighter and we can return to this vexing decision and hopefully make a decision we are all at least at peace with, if not all happy about.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
Twenty years ago. when the pioneers of Acorn were designing a different membership and decision making structure than the parent community Twin Oaks, they decided they wanted to create something called a clearness. It is two distinct things actually – or perhaps most precisely two parts to the same clearing process.
The first part is a face to face conversation with everyone who is a member of the community. So for the last week or so i have been catching Acorners, going for walks, chatting while packing seeds, chatting over making dinner or quietly in someones room. And with the exercise i finally learned all of the names of all of the members and the guests (because to a new person it is occasionally hard to tell who is who). The purpose is for people to share concerns, specifically about my membership. Overall, these were wonderful conversations in which genuine appreciation and what felt like quite transparent communication took place.
Some members were concerned that my motivations behind joining Acorn were indirect, in that i have been clear that part of my reason for wanting to be here is to work with Acorn on starting up Chubby Squirrels. But to a member, these concerns were secondary to the nearly universal desire to expand the communities movement and specifically to strengthen the eco-system of income sharing intentional communities in central Virginia.
Ira said “I never know quite what you are doing.” To which i had to confess was my own experience with myself with quite some frequency. “I have nothing to say to you, Paxus.” a generally taciturn Abe told me, followed by “and i mean that in the nicest way”
The second part of the clearness is everyone getting together in the dining room and talking about whether you would be a good fit in the community. i had my community clearness and people were very friendly and supportive of both me and Acorn fostering the Chubby Squirrels project as well as my recent efforts in the picking room. The facilitator started the round of check in’s with asking people what their favorite band was when they were 12. The Beatles and In Sync both got more than one vote each.
The last community meeting Acorn will have about my provisional membership will be the Sunday after this one in which the community will meet without me and make a decision if i can join. Given what people said in the meeting which just took place, it is unlikely a hidden concern will derail my effort to become a dual member. And as several people jokingly reminded me, these types of last minute concerns do pop up.
The clearness process is a sister to the transparency work i have already been doing, but is clearly something which i would mimic in a membership process for a new consensus based community.
When i told Angie there were no real concerns about my potential impact on the community, her reply was “they are not paying careful enough attention.”
The community has three different internal areas which deal with incoming visitors who are interested in membership. This post is not about how the community at large sees these different groups interacting, but rather how i (as a person involved with recruiting) think that these groups should interact and how they are structurally different from each other.
The three different areas are:
- Recruiting and Outreach
- Community Visitor Program (CVP)
- Community Membership Team (CMT)
If you are familiar with how these parts of the community function you might want to skip to the Cheerleaders and Gate Keepers paragraph below.
Recruiting and Outreach has two different aspects (which are Recruiting as distinct from Outreach) when it comes to visitors. There is the visitor correspondence piece, which is the job Valerie does. It entails responding to the literally hundreds of emails and letters we get from people interested in visiting or guesting at Twin Oaks. These have questions about the community in general, or relating to the specifics of someone interested in living with us (“Can i bring my pet horse?” no, “Do you accept ex-convicts?” yes, “Can i be a member and drive my motorcycle as i like?” no, etc). With patience and tenacity Valerie handles this flood of questions. There is also a new FAQ section to the Twin Oaks website which you can look at to find the most commonly asked questions.
The back end of recruiting and outreach, as it pertains to people interested in living with us is where i come in. If you have been accepted and are thinking about coming to live with us, i become your pen pal. I write you about interesting things which are happening on the commune. Make sure you are invited to the bigger better events (Validation Day, New Years, Anniversary, etc). And i give you my highly unofficial, but unusually well informed prediction about when you will actually make it thru the top of the waiting list.
There are responsibilities in this work area which dont have to do with the direct recruiting of specific new members/ We also talk at colleges and universities and write articles about the community. Our focus shifts to the more complete intentional communities movement instead of Twin Oaks specifically when we have a long waiting list as we have had for sometime now.
One of the slightly terrible practices we had before i joined recruiting was we let the CMT evaluation and acceptance of a visitor be our last communication with a prospective member until it was time for them to join. Frequently this was of the form “32 people think you are wonderful and would like you to join and two people think your are irresponsible and blow off shifts without getting yourself replaced.” This type of feedback sits on many peoples mind uncomfortably. With time the appreciation of the 32 accepts is likely to recede. At the same time your worry and grumpiness with the two rejects will probably rise. This may well poison your relationship with the community and after we call you a year later saying there is a space for you. You are likely to turn it down. What i started, tho i am somewhat erratic about it, is having a conversation with accepted members which is welcoming to the community and keeps them updated as to interesting news in the community. So their experience of us stays fresh and current.
The Community Visitor Program is the group of members who are responsible for the visitors when they are at Twin Oaks for their three week viz period. If you are interested in membership in the community this is the only way to get accepted (unless you have grown up in this community or lived with us as a member inside the last year). CVP does several of the orienting sessions for new visitors. CVP gets the work covered for visitors who leave early and mediates between members and visitors should there be a need.
The Community Membership Team has many of the responsibilities associated with joining and leaving the community. It conducts the polls on visitors who are interested in membership and it conducts their interviews, typically in the second or third week of their visitor period. These polls, which are an important part of the idea behind this post, are not simply head counting, when it comes to a visitor becoming a member. CMT weighs the input they get – weighing negative input and concerns more strongly than simple accepts. They also get recommendations from the various teams in the community which might be brought in to evaluate the guests situation.
If you have had a significant mental health struggle in the last few years or attempted suicide, you will get a referral to the mental health team. They will talk with you and see where you are on your healing path. The community recognizes its own weaknesses in handling people with significant mental health challenges. And while it is often the case that people in this situation think Twin Oaks might be the best place for them to come, we regularly disagree.
While the community will not take on your debts, if you have significant external financial obligations (which will be very hard to meet with your $80/month allowance as a member here) you might get referred to the Legal manager, who would then report back to CMT. You would also talk to Legal if you had complex finances, including alimony payments or receipts or rental property you own, etc. And you would talk with Legal if there were outstanding warrants for your arrest in that failed coup attempt you were organizing (this almost came up for me).
Cheerleaders versus Gate Keepers: These areas of the community are not always running in parallel. Specifically, recruiting (which i co-manage) is generally encouraging people to think about whether membership is a good thing for them. We are cheerleaders both for Twin Oaks specifically and for the movement in general. At the college speaking tours we are now promoting communities generally, and with folks who are part of the visitor program we do it quite specifically for this place.
CMT on the other hand plays a gate keeper role. Their job is to make sure that the people who do get selected for membership are acceptable to the membership and are a “good fit”. For example, CMT will discourage people who do not have the ability to accept membership in the community in the next 9 months from doing the 3 hour long membership interview. [Our acceptance is only good for 6 months and can be extended an additional 3 months if you come back for a week.] Recruiting does not always make the same recommendation.
If you are interested in living here and you have obligations which prevent you from joining for the next 3/4 year, i may well encourage you to do the membership interview, for several reasons. First, the membership interview is informative. Besides listening to your life story we ask 100 hard questions about what it is like to live here. If you really want to live here at some point in the future, best you start thinking about these questions now. If you get accepted and can not take the acceptance because of other obligations, it will change the way you think about us. Specifically, it will make you think about living here more and increase the chances you return for another visitor period when you are actually available to join. Finally, if you get rejected by us or receive a “visit again” you will have a better better understanding of where you are with the community and a perhaps more realistic view of your chances of getting accepted in the future.
Only a place this size can be giving labor credits to members who are approaching these tasks differently. Smaller communities, like Acorn, often overlap these functions – but Acorn’s ace in the hole is that their membership decisions are made by consensus. So any single upset member can block a visitor from becoming a member. Despite these radically different selection models both communities are full and have waiting lists these days.