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.
The way i see it is, when it comes to the written word, there are basically two kinds of people in the world. The most common kind of person is an editor. You give them a page with a bunch of words on it and they read the words, tweak the words, tighten the meaning and the page gets better.
I am the other kind. I am a blank page kind of a guy. I depend on editors, not just because of my horrific spelling and grammar, but because i am sloppy and often other people need to make sure i am not making errors of fact or telling stories too far removed from reality. And while i also do a fair amount of editing, the place i excel is when someone is starting with nothing and needs a document to get somewhere.
Thus i do a lot of ghost writing for other people, especially in the context of the community. Twin Oaks requires written communication from visitors, long term guests and people who have run afoul of our occasionally labyrinth policies. Many people i talk with don’t even know how to start these letters. This is where i come in.
Typically, i can get someone to explain their situation to me at a meal, ask a handful of questions and craft a draft response to the community which they are very relieved to have as a starting point. Perhaps 25% of the time they can use my letter with only trivial modifications (like the above mentioned problematic grammar and spelling). Universally, people are appreciative for the help.
Someone might be upset by this, feeling it is somehow cheating and people should write their own letters. Nonsense i say. The power of community is that we help each other by sharing our diverse skill sets. I can’t cook worth a damn and will go nuts if i have to garden. But i need these things to survive. And while survival is not on the line with my ghost writing, i see it as part of our great skill share.
I’ll take care of you, you take care of me.
Hawina and i were at an engaging after dinner conversation at Ganas about what good communication culture looks like within community. There were lots of examples of different community cultures. I pitched the Acorn Clearness process, which is part of the Point A kit of tools for improving trust and transparency in your community. We talked about whether it was important to greet everyone you see each day. We discussed and disagreed on the fundamental nature of people who are in conflict and the availability of mutually agreeable bridges.
At one point a Ganasian confessed that there was confusion around what the appropriate protocol was for sitting at a table with someone who was already sitting there. Do you ask if it is okay? Do you just plop yourself down next to someone? It may seem like a tiny point, but in the occasionally hyper sensitive world of commune culture, you want to get the social cues right.
The way we have resolved this type of problem at Twin Oaks is thru zoning We use spacial and temporal zoning to help with a collection of issues: kid noise, nudity, smoking, sex noises, bike sharing, gardening and much more. In the case of who sits where at meals and what to expect in those places we have evolved three different types of tables.
Tables: Most of the tables at and around the dining hall at Twin Oaks are simply tables. If they are free you can simply sit at them. When the next person comes to the table the etiquette is to simply check in “Can i sit with you?” Or if there is already a group of people you might ask “Is this a meeting?” which you might be invited to sit in on, or it might scare you away from the social lunch you were hoping for with these people. Simple enough, no?
Fun Tables: For reasons i can imagine but don’t know for sure, the community wanted a place you could go reliably and socialize. A place where you never needed to ask if you could sit down and where you were sure there would not be a closed meeting or work discussions happening. And thus the fun table was born. The informal rules are that we will always make room for you at the fun table. And if you start talking about work at a fun table my son and others will call you out about talking about work. There are two fun tables at Twin Oaks, one inside and the other outside. They are popular and oft lively.
Super Fun Table: Turns out there was a greater need for fun tables than just these two. And it turns out that members don’t want there conversations controlled. So there is now a very long set of three picnic tables end to end which are super fun tables. You can talk about anything, you don’t need to ask to sit down and while it seats perhaps 30 people we will always make more space if it is needed.
Crow screwed up. They recently acted out in a way that had made people feel uncomfortable and some even unsafe. It could have been any of a number of kinds of things: An intoxicated incident, a minor consent violation, a petty crime, even an especially poor choice of guest. The specifics don’t matter. Crow knew that they had created a problem for themselves with Acorn and they were coming to me for advice. What could they do to make things better? How could they mend their frayed relationships with other members? At Acorn this answer is easy, you do what we regularly do, you have a clearness.
And it turns out that this is a very good thing. Many communities have self care mechanisms that feel punitive. As i have written, the Feedback system at Twin Oaks very often feels punishing, even though it often need not.
But because Acorn does regular individual clearnesses, adding another one to normal rotation almost always feels accessible. The clearness format is the same as a routine clearness (meetings with each individual member, checking in about their experiences of each other, and then a group clearness which summarizes all the individual clearnesses).
The lesson is clear here. When you are designing self corrective systems within a community, you need to consider how they feel to the users. It is not enough to insure the community is taken care of, these systems need to feel non coercive to the members who are going through them. The best way to have that effect is to have a familiar and non-threatening group communication facilitating tool. I think the clearness process is one of the better ones.
A week later i talked with Crow. They had done a bunch of clearnesses and felt much better about their connection to the community. They felt better understood.
The most common complaint about community clearnesses is that they take a lot of time. “Do i really have to talk to everyone else in the community one-on-one?” Only if you want there to be cohesion in your community. Only if you want to be able to fix significant mistakes people make and successfully rebound from it. You only need to do this if you want a healthy community.
For many people this is too much work and i think this is central to why so many communities fail.
[This article was posted 2014, population, acreage and business counts have been updated for Sept 2019. ]
Twin Oaks is an established income sharing community in central Virginia of 85 adults and 15 children. Now located on a 485 acre farm, the commune operates 7 businesses, grows most of its own food–organically–builds it’s own buildings, teaches it’s own kids, and repairs it’s own appliances and vehicles.
Here is some of the mainstream and alternative media coverage of us:
- BBC circa 2017
- Russia Today circa 2010
- Russia Today circa 2014
- Vice Money circa 2017
- Sustainability Bus circa 2016
- Voice of America circa 2009
- CNN circa 2015 (not in the video)
- Frequency555 circa 2010
- Mojo Productions circa 2009
Central to the community’s operation is the idea of sharing resources. Twin Oaks has developed robust systems for sharing cars, bikes, clothes and businesses. These systems are in sharp contrast to the casual sharing practiced in the mainstream where brittle agreements generally lead to failure.
One of the many advantages of sharing resources is dramatically reducing our negative ecological effect and carbon footprint. The numbers below demonstrate we are already near the 80% reduction in carbon emissions that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is recommending by the year 2050.
[Note: It is unclear if the below numbers include our income generating businesses or not. My guess is they do, and thus we are even more sustainable. But i will check and indicate here what is true.]
Gasoline: The average Virginia resident uses about 530 gallons per year. Twin Oaks consumed about 15,267 gallons of gas in 2007. With an adult & child population on average of population of 96, that would put our consumption at 159 gallons per person. That is 70% less gasoline consumed.
Electricity: The average Virginia resident uses 13,860 kWh of Electricity per year. Twin Oaks consumed 268,065 kWh in 2007. With an adult & child population on average of 96, that would put our consumption at 2,792 kWh per person. That is 80% less electricity consumed.
Natural Gas: The average household in Virginia uses 767 therms of natural gas. Twin Oaks consumed 16,221 therms of natural gas in 2007. With an adult population on average of 87 adults, that would put our consumption at 186 therms per person. That is 76% less natural gas consumed.
Solid Waste: The average American produces 1,460 pounds of trash a year. Twin Oaks produced 18,780.00 pounds of solid waste in 2007. With an adult & child population on average of 96, that would put our production at 196 pounds per person. That is 87% less solid waste produced.
The cultural aspects of community life are as important as the economic ones. We develop our own holidays. Almost all our operations are run by volunteers. We don’t use money internally and there is effectively no crime.
In many ways , the community is an island, culturally and economically separate from it’s immediate surroundings. This cooperative model, however, is one of the very few solutions that can actually avoid the climate catastrophe the US is hurtling toward at breakneck speeds.
The original data for comparing Twin Oaks with US average consumption of electricity, natural gas, gasoline and solid waste were researched by Alexis Ziegler of Living Energy Farm.
In the story i tell, at it’s inception Twin Oaks wanted a decision model which was better than simple democratic voting. The founders thought that communards could make better decisions than what came from the “50% plus one” model which dominated elections and government process. In the search for the elusive super majority, they did not want to set a threshold percentage, perhaps because they wanted something more subtle and dynamic than vote counting at the core of our process. They wanted to leave open the possibility that a small group with strongly held beliefs might be able to shift the groups outcome by carefully reasoned arguments and compelling logic.
Twin Oaks started in 1967, before the feminists had borrowed and adapted the consensus process from Quakers – creating a decision tool which could be used in a secular environment. And since simple majority rule had created so many dysfunctional system it seemed wise to try for something which was more representative, even if it was slower. Now over 45 years later we often wish we could go back to the founders and say “hey, the problem with this system is that we often can not tell when we are done. We don’t know when to run over a vocal minority in favor of the super majority. We don’t know how to interpret silence from most members on most issues. It would appear that decision making power is tilted towards those who write on the O&I board.”
Six years later, in 1973, East Wind was founded in the Ozarks. This was another income sharing community, which used the same base concept that members would each work a quota of some number of hours each week (currently 35 at East Wind and 42 at Twin Oaks) which would satisfy their obligation to the community. In exchange, the community would cover all the costs associated with their living. In many ways, East Wind was a close sister community of Twin Oaks. But most of the founders had come from Twin Oaks and they were ready for a new decision making model.
East Wind would embrace a voting model for many of its decisions. And in a significant deviation from Twin Oaks, it would elect it’s managers every year. [At Twin Oaks typically managers stay until they decide to leave the job or the community.] But the frontier culture of the Ozarks would influence the East Wind decision method and anarchism would creep in. People unfamiliar with commune decision making systems often laugh when they hear the East Wind technique characterized as anarcho-democratic, having a hard time imagining how that might work. But in what might be some libertarian’s wet dream, East Wind uses a dynamic mix of respecting (or tolerating) a high level of personal initiative (often without any formal group making decision process) with voting based group decision making.
Enter Acorn. Born a mere 21 years ago Acorn had a number of tools available to is which it’s older sisters did not have or choose to use. Specifically, it had consensus decision making. For those unfamiliar with the process here is a quick flow chart of how it works:
But you can look at it more simply. We sit around and talk, someone facilitates, but we agree to keep working the problem until everyone is okay with the solution. There are some technicalities (like blocking and standing aside) but it is a lovely elegant decision system for groups our size (about 30). Can consensus work with these larger communities (Twin Oaks is currently 93 adults, East Wind is at 73 adults – both communities are at their population capacity and have waiting lists)? The answer is certainly yes, i have worked in much larger groups that use consensus. Neither of these communities is likely to change their culture so dramatically as to embrace this newer decision system, despite there being (i believe) general belief that it produces better results.
And Acorn does not have managers. This is an interesting configuration, it works surprisingly well. The community is committed to anarchist organizing techniques. Instead of formal managers various members will in a flexible and decentralized way pay attention to certain aspects of the community. We don’t have a kitchen manager but we do have one person and sometimes more who is most involved with the kitchen and who generally takes care of the area, manages its needs, and who you should probably check in with before doing something in that area so that you don’t duplicate or frustrate other folks’ efforts. It is, we like to say, a system emphasizing personal initiative and responsibility. And without bureaucrats it’s hard to have bureaucracy. There are no forms, no legalistic process, no committees. If you want to know or do or change something you have to find the people who care and talk to them about it.
When i was doing fund-raising work for east European environmental groups, i often applied for money at the Regional Environmental Center in Budapest. My lover Krista was on the staff that reviewed the grants which i was submitting. I asked her boss to kindly withdraw her from the group reviewing applications i submitted. He flatly declined me saying, “You Americans are always worried about conflict of interest, don’t tell me how to do my job.”
Living part time at Acorn is creating some borderline conflict of interests for me (or perhaps they are full fledged and i just cant see them). At Twin Oaks i am the manager of Outside Work. I try to find work for members of the community (outside of our cottage industries) and typically the community gets the money (or most of it) and the members get labor credits.
At Acorn i am running the staffing initiative for the construction of the new seed office. Part of my job is hiring people to work at Acorn (typically for a meager $10/hour) to supplement the Acorn work force on the building, so hopefully we can move the seed business in by the end of the first week in December.
There is a long tradition at Twin Oaks that anyone can post a Vacation Earnings job of the 3 X 5 board. Vacation Earnings (VE) differ from Outside Work (OW), because with VE the member actually gets to keep the money (with OW you get mostly or completely labor credits). Though money earned for VE can only be spent when you are off the farm for more than 24 hours (this is how we define “on vacation”).
So here starts my dilemma. Am i the seed building chief of staff posting a $10/hour position to Oakers who might want some liquidity beyond the $85/month the community provides? Or am i the manager of Outside Work who is offering these members $3.33 an hour and 2/3rds of a labor credit for each hour worked?
So it seemed appropriate as Outside Work manager for me to bring this up with the planners (which is a group i am also part of). Therefore what are our objectives here? Are we trying to make more money for the community or are we trying to provide some additional pocket money for members? Many will answer that we need to find a balance, some of both – all of the above. But there are reality constraints.
If we tell members that for this job they can only make $3.33/hour because they are getting labor credits for the rest of the work, they are quite unlikely to take advantage of this opportunity, because they can make better money at a regular VE job. It is also the case that Twin Oaks wants this project completed in an expedient fashion and Oakers are playing an important part of that effort. On the other hand, Twin Oaks does not want to feel taken advantage of by Acorn or that they are drawing for personal pay labor away from the Twin Oaks system, which needs a lot of labor to run as well.
The key with “Conflict of Interest” is to recognize that others can make good decisions and that often despite how wise or experienced you might be, the best thing is to let others choose so you can be sure that your bias does not slip past you.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
A crew from Twin Oaks came over to help with the cleaning up of Acorns steel building which burned a couple weeks back. i ran around with a dust mask on mostly shoveling and moving wheelbarrows full of charred often indistinguishable items to the large rented dumpsters. We dutifully separated out copper and other valuable parts, which one day might be usable. But it was not until today that i really realized the magnitude of the loss.
A newly purchased vehicle was destroyed (despite Daniels heroic efforts to move it from the steel building inferno). A $2K table saw is now junk. Tens of thousands of dollars in seed inventory was destroyed (though curiously, some thousands of dollars of seeds which where were being stored in a deep freezer that was completely engulfed in flames may have survived – as did some ice cream).
And it leaves Acorn with the vexing problem of what to do with the hull of the torched Quonset hut. The structural engineer we employed to review it says that the building is probably structurally sound, but the galvanization which coated the steel has been burned off and if we want to use the building we should 1) paint it to prevent rusting and 2) store things in it which it is okay if the building collapses on it. Sadly we do not have enough stuff which can have buildings collapse on them and as an operating farm and agricultural business, we have significant storage needs.
We are faced with an odd problem: we are not poor–the businesses are pretty successful, so we are reluctant to ask for financial help from those who have offered it. And at the same time we can not afford to build a new building on this site (at leas this year), with the new seed building under construction and other business capital needs.
And while this is certainly a high class problem, it is a problem none-the-less.
Both of the intentional communities I live in have cottage industries. These are the economic engines which allow us to buy the many things we don’t make or grow ourselves. Most of Twin Oaks’ income comes from the hammocks business and the tofu business, over 90% of Acorn’s income comes from the seed business. I’ve been involved with tofu and hammocks for over a decade, but I’m just starting being involved with the retail part of the seeds business.
There are some highly desirable features to Twin Oaks’ Hammocks business, which i believe are part of the reason the community has been successful. The first aspect is that production is highly flexible. You can come in to the hammock shop at any time and weave or do other fabrication tasks.You can work for as long as you like, there is no “boss” telling you what to do although there are people who will train you and direct you, should you need it. You track your own hours on a trust-based system.
Despite there not being “bosses,” the hammock shop has a manager (my dear friend Shal) who is responsible for lots of things related to the work flow of the shop, especially ensuring that supplies are available when needed and that the multiple steps to make hammocks are balanced. If we need more harness makers, he encourages people towards that work (if they can do it), trains visitors to do it, and will bring in people to do it, if the group is falling behind. Twin Oaks uses behaviorist incentives during our busy season (which is the winter for production, because agricultural season is off, but we sell most hammocks in the spring and summer) — we set goals for production and we get rewards if we succeed and quota goes up if we fail. Hammocks management (which I was part of for some years) does not like quota increases being our “stick” to get people to work. We have tried several other approaches — treats, music and events in the shop, nice coffee — to get people to work in the shop and they have mostly been appreciated, but ineffective. Now we start with the behaviorist sticks pretty early and raise quota until we have filled the orders, then quota drops down.
The Twin Oaks Tofu operation is a much more classical assembly line structure. Frankly, I think we had to be a much more mature community to operate it. It has long been the case that a dedicated team of tofu managers (usually working quite hard in the tofu hut itself) maintain an esprit de corps for the large collection of workers in the hut. Unlike hammocks and seeds, the expectation is if you have a tofu shift scheduled, you will either go to it, or you will find someone to take your place. Because it is classical assembly line format, production requires at least one person at each of three stations and the pace of the workers influences the speed at which subsequent workers need to be moving. Specifically, a fast kettle worker (where the tofu management often works) drives the speed of the entire hut.
For years I marveled at the effective anarchist chaos of the Twin Oaks hammocks business. Lots of workers, almost completely unsupervised, coming at all different times, leaving little to no communication for subsequent workers, working short or long shifts as they liked…seemed to get all the hammocks made.
It was not until I got to Acorn that I realized that there was an even larger step-up in the self organized workplace. The seed business also has three production stations, which are not a classical assembly line, because each step is temporally independent. Packing the seeds in little packets, followed by picking the seeds for each order from the storage room where all the varieties are represented. Finally, the shipper takes the picked order, checks to make sure it is correctly filled and then creates a mailing package for it (occasionally a custom one for oddly shaped orders) and puts it in the post.
There are lots of other parts to the seed business work here at Acorn — processing back orders, dealing with customer calls, prioritizing orders when the customer has paid extra for this, contracting seeds with farmers, germination testing seeds, deciding which seeds to carry, attending trade shows and much more.
During the busy season what most of the people at Acorn are working on are these three order filling steps: packing, picking and shipping. Hundreds of person hours go into this work, and the amount of management, supervision, training and planning which goes into this process is the lowest I have seen for any of the many business operations i have ever been involved in. It is, as I have been slightly shockingly referring to it recently, an anarchist’s wet dream.
Because there is so little supervision/management instruction from above, combined with a very high feeling of affinity and connection to the business from the line workers, there is a high level of conscientious behavior on the workers to make sure that the right things get done, and that the right mix of work happens.
My personal experience is that I have come into the picking room, done a bunch of organizing, and taken over the management of that part of the operation without asking anyone. And we are definitely more on top of things than before I stepped into the picking room. There is better communication about out of stock items and back orders. But I hold no illusion that if I were hit by a bus tomorrow, we could not return to the old, less centrally-organized approach and things would function just fine.
And from an anarchist perspective what is most important here is that the line workers are empowered to take responsibility. They do not feel oppressed by supervisors or managers and they are happy and proud of their work. Something that exists far too rarely in my experience.