Monday, February 25, 2013

On the Road Again

Once again I'm setting off. 

My first stop on this next voyage will be another three week visit to Twin Oaks.  I'm going back for three reasons: 1) I like it there and want to soak in a well functioning, ongoing community, 2) While I'm there, I'll get a chance to catch up with stuff in the nearby communities of Acorn and--more importantly--Living Energy Farm, as well as checking in with someone at Twin Oaks who is trying to set up yet another community in the area, and 3) The visitors group attracts people who are interested in community.  Reasons 2 & 3 touch on my current goal and the reason I'm journeying again: I want to be part of building new communities.  (Living Energy Farm is a new and struggling community.  And as I'm trying to find people to build community with, the visitors group in one way to meet folks interested in community.)

I'm currently at Twin Oaks and will be hanging around here (working my 42 hour a week quota) until March 15th.  From there I will be going to visit relatives for the weekend and then off to Pennsylvania where I will explore the likelihood of building community there with the two people I had visited with last November.

My time in Pennsylvania is basically an indefinite stay.  I don't want to commit to anything at this stage because it's unclear what's going to happen there.  All I can say beyond this, is that I have backup plans, and have been joking about having backup plans for my backup plans.  Among other things I've been thinking about are returning to the Virginia communities and visiting another hub of communities that has developed in Missouri.  I've also got the next Communities Conference (at the end of the summer) in the back of my mind, whether I stay in Pennsylvania (as a way to find people for what might be developing there) or not (in which case I'd go there to network again).  As you might remember, that's where my voyages started last fall.

So, I'm traveling once again.  I have one more book review that I wrote while I was in Boston that I will post soon, and I hope to keep posting in my 'Issues in Community' thread because I have a bunch more that I want to cover--and I may have yet more from what I learn in this round at Twin Oaks and with the struggling folks in Pennsylvania.  Community isn't easy, but it's definitely worthwhile.

Quote of the Day: "A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving." - Lao Tzu

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Issues in Community: Size

How much does size matter in community?  The community I helped found in North Cambridge never had more than five or six adults (plus two children), and FEC groups like Sandhill Farm (currently seven adults and one child) and the Emma Goldman Finishing School in Seattle (currently eight adults) are relatively small.  My belief is that you need at least four members to have a functioning community.  There are joys about living in a small community (closer connections, for example) and difficulties (closer connections, for example).  My experience is that the smaller a community is, the more intense it can get.

On the other hand, communities can be fairly large.  Consider Twin Oaks (with ninety something adults and around fifteen children) and East Wind (with around sixty adults and four children).   Acorn (with around thirty adult members) holds a kind of middle ground.  (And then there are communities like Skyhouse, with four adults and one child, that's part of a much larger community, Dancing Rabbit, which now has nearly seventy people.  A small group within a large group.)

In my recent post Connected (2/3/13), I mentioned 'Dunbar's number', which the authors said was the optimal size for social groups, around 150 members.  I think this is often the high end for communities.  Notice that within the FEC only Twin Oaks approaches this number and they have decided not to grow any larger than they are.

Acorn has also decided that they don't want to have any more than the thirty odd members that they have.  Both communities feel that they would lose what they currently have (and like) if they got much larger than they are.  Still, for a community such as Dancing Rabbit that wants to have a population of 500 to a thousand, it is worth noting (again from Connected) that "The Hutterites explicitly regard a community of 150 to be the limiting size, and they make arrangements to split into two groups as they approach that number."  I suspect DR may want to pay some heed to this advice if their community ever begins swelling over a hundred.

Certainly communities function differently at different sizes.  Twin Oaks, which is the largest of the groups, is also the most highly structured.  Acorn prides itself on all of its face to face meetings and they acknowledge that if they began growing any larger, this would be less possible.  In fact, that's one of the reasons that they don't want to grow larger.

And 'Dual Member' (Twin Oaks and Acorn) Paxus tells of someone excited about joining a community with 'No Meetings'. Quoting from his blog, "One member is leaving Acorn, because a smaller sexy community in Missouri is offering a culture which is free of meetings.  Members make decision on the fly and informally.  This is great for a group of 4 or 6, but at 28 (Acorns current membership) or heaven forbid 100 people (Twin Oaks is this size), this gets much harder."

I suspect that the current controversy about consensus and sociocracy boils down to that consensus tends to work well in small groups that know each other and share common values (Acorn uses it and it seems to work fine there) but for large ecovillages and cohousing arrangements, something like sociocracy may be a better fit.

Obviously, when it comes to communities, one size doesn't fit all, but size is important to think about because different sizes offer quite different possibilities.

Quote of the Day: "...a community's population size and their physical proximity totally affects its social and interpersonal dynamics.  In large communities, say, with 20 to 50 or more people... you don't need to be close to or like everyone in the community, since you won't be interacting with everyone in equal amounts....
"In a smaller community, however, with, say, less than 20 members, you'll have a different experience. ... You'll find it easier to live in a smaller community, however, if you like and get along with everyone most of the time, and much harder to live in a community of this size if there's even just one person who bothers the heck out of you." - Diana Leafe Christian

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What about the Children?

This, in a sense, is a continuation of my post on Issues in Community: Children (1/26/13).  I want to explore more about some of the questions raised, not only by raising children in community, but in any unorthodox setting.  I know people fear that somehow children will be damaged by this, but it doesn't seem to be the case.

First, something I meant to include in my post on children in community is a little bit about children at the Acorn community.  Whereas Twin Oaks has raised many children, it hasn't worked out as well at Acorn.  People have started families at Acorn, but then moved on.  I know one person who decided to move to TO to raise a child b/c he thought it would be a better setting for a kid.  (TO has more experience with children and there are also more children around.)  But I also know a couple at Acorn that just had a child and seem determined to raise him there.  I do hope it works out--someone has to change that cycle.

But there are other settings that people wonder about raising children in.  One that has come and gone is the counterculture of the 1960s.

Wild Child (edited by Chelsea Cain) is a collection of essays from women who grew up in 'hippie'/'counterculture' type households.  Not necessarily communities (although there's definitely mentions of 'communes') but an interesting look at what being raised in a free and open environment was like from a grown up girl's perspective.  Most of the experiences were mixed, and one (from a young woman who was sexually used and abused in the name of 'free love') is horrific, but there's also a strong thread of enjoying the freedom that comes when you know it's okay to be different.  One woman who grew up in a very non-countercultural (in fact, fairly repressed) household talks about the afternoon she spent visiting a hippie family in the neighborhood and of the positive impact that had on her life.  Another woman, who tells how her family was changed when her parents got involved with an unconventional couple ends her essay by saying her parents have no idea now where that couple is, "But a breeze continues to blow through the window that they opened."  In many cases, being raised in unconventional setting has opened door for people.  This is true even if they decide to live a seemingly more conventional lifestyle

And then there are questions about children being raised by GLBTQ parents, and even more questions about children being raised in families where people are practicing polyamory.  Fortunately, there are studies that indicate that families with polyamorous relationships can still raise children well

It will be interesting to see how these kids take on the world.  A few years back I saw something about a new group wanting to claim a space on the queer spectrum, claiming that they were 'sexually straight, but culturally queer'.  I assumed that this was some wannabe group, until I realized that this was a group of young adults raised by gay and lesbian parents.  And then I realize that they really were culturally queer--these are our children.

Again, from my own experience in having helped raise two children in communal household, I'm pleased at how they turned out.  This is not to say that there aren't horror stories of abuse in these varied settings, but I'm not sure that there's any more than in more conventional settings.  That is to say, you can raise a child well or you can raise a child poorly regardless of the setting.

Quote of the Day:
  "It turns out I am part of a tribe... I am proud that I ... will never have beige carpeting in my house, will never own or wear a skirt suit, will never rever misogynistic steak-house politics, and will never be a Rules girl, obedient to some outdated, fifties model of partnership.  I find that there is a common bond and an actual language that is immediately understood by super-crunchy-granola types... Growing up, between two worlds, I learned to judge people by their actions, not their outsides." - Moon Zappa

Sunday, February 3, 2013


(As promised, I'm taking a break from my series on Issues in Community to talk about a book I'm currently reading.  I'll do this from time to time.)

Connected is the name of a book by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. Subtitled 'The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives', it's written by two men who were originally studying at Harvard University at around the same time.  They didn't know each other and were in different departments studying what at first might look like very different things.  Christakis is a physician who was studying how illness in one person might affect someone close to them.  Fowler is a political scientist who was studying "how one person's attempt to solve a social or political problem influenced others".  A mutual friend introduced them to each other thinking that they might have a lot in common.  They cite this as a perfect example of what they are studying, social networks and how we are connected through friends and friends of friends.

They begin by looking at the influence each of us has on others.  And while they cite the 'Six Degrees of Separation' phenomena (experiments have shown that two random people in the US--and in one experiment, the world--can reach each other by using a connection that they already have, with that person using a connection she or he has, and so on through just six connections), the authors claim what is more important is that each of us has Three Degrees of Influence.  What that means is that we not only influence our friends, but our friends' friends, and even our friends' friends' friends. To quote the book, "Our influence gradually dissipates and ceases to have a notable effect on people beyond the social frontier that lies at three degrees of separation.  Likewise, we are influenced by friends within three degrees but generally not by those beyond."

The authors go on to look at the ways that illness and STDs are transmitted, how people connect as friends and sexual partners, how we can influence people we don't know (but are within the three degrees) in terms of behaviors like joyfulness and depression, suicidality, smoking, drinking, and weight gain, as well as looking at phenomena such as bank runs, market transactions, finding jobs, creativity (not surprisingly, Christakis and Fowler also cite Brian Uzzi's study of Broadway musicals that I mentioned in my review of Imagine, 1/18/13), political polarization, and the interconnections of the internet.  It's all interesting but it might be a bit much at times, especially when they illustrate it all with diagrams of social networks.

One chapter, however, particularly spoke to me.  It's entitled 'It's in Our Nature' and focuses on how social networks form and function.  The authors look at cooperation, 'free riders' (I want to look at the 'free rider problem' in the future as it impacts on communities), loners, and what they call 'punishers' who are the people who deal with free riders.  They claim that any system will evolve to have all of these.  They also claim that Homo economicus ('Economic Man'), that 'rational', selfish person that economists rely on for their market model, leaves out altruism and even why people want what they want in the first place.  The authors suggest, instead, that we look at Homo dictyous ('Network Man' [sic]), people that are part of an interconnected network.  From there they go into genetics and religion and end the chapter by looking at 'Dunbar's number', the optimal size for social groups, around 150 members.  They note that "The Hutterites explicitly regard a community of 150 to be the limiting size, and they make arrangements to split into two groups as they approach that number."  I would say that if you don't have the time or inclination to read through the whole book, those interested in social change and intentional communities should at least read this chapter.

They end the book with a thought provoking chapter on social networks as 'superorganisms'.  Just as cells in our bodies are able to function more effectively together (as parts of organs and organisms) than by themselves, human beings are able to function better together (as part of groups, social networks, and humanity) then we can alone.  This book can be pretty inspiring (when it doesn't get bogged down in details).  It truly is an invitation to connect.

Quote of the Day:
"...the surprising power of social networks is not just the effect others have on us.  It is also the effect we have on others.  You do not have to be a superstar to have this power.  All you need to do is connect.  The ubiquity of human connection means that each of us has a much bigger impact on others than we can see.  When we take better care of ourselves, so do many other people.  When we practice random acts of kindness, they can spread to dozens or even hundreds of other people.  And with each good deed, we help to sustain the very network that sustains us." - Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler