Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Community Grew on Staten Island

I'm currently on Staten Island, a borough of New York City, visiting the community of Ganas.  (I mentioned this was going to happen in my last post, Building Urban Communities.) I got here last on Tuesday and quickly settled in. I've been attending the planning meetings  that they have most mornings.  My name is on a waiting list to get into Ganas, but I have no idea how long that will be. 

Ganas has been around for 35 years.  It was formed around the idea of 'Feedback Learning', a process that they pioneered, which sometimes happens in the planning meetings.  As far as I can tell, the idea is that they don't hold back on their feedback to you with the idea that feedback can make a difference--with feedback you can change your behavior.  Ganas claims to have only four rules: 1) No violence to people or things, 2) No free rides (everyone is required to work and/or pay their way), 3) Nothing illegal (including drugs), and 4) All criticisms are supposed to be brought up in public meetings where they can be addressed.  This last rule (sometimes called 'no non-negotiable negativity') is intended to prevent people from private griping, talk that can be damaging to the community--especially if the community can't deal with it.  Anyone breaking any of these rules can be asked to leave.

There are about 75 people living here.  Similar to Twin Oaks, there are a bunch of different buildings (I think it might be seven but maybe six or eight) and most people have their own rooms (although some couples share a room).  Some people have been here since the beginning--and some people have just arrived recently.  There's a lot of diversity here.

There is also a core group of ten people who 'run' things, although they do it with a lot of input from others who come to the planning meetings and offer feedback.  Ganas describes itself as being several 'populations': the core group, an 'extended core' (the people who come to the meetings and are otherwise more involved) of perhaps 25 folks, and another maybe 35 people who live here but are not very involved with the community as such.  And that's fine with everyone as long as everybody abides by the four rules

Ganas is located in a rather urban area of Staten Island.  From the street the Ganas houses don't look that different from the other houses, but in the back the yards of a bunch of the houses that are next to each other (and one on the next street that's in back of them) are all interconnected.  The community tries to keep a low profile and not appear different from their neighbors.

The community owns three businesses in St. George/Tompkinsville, the area of Staten Island that the ferry from Manhattan lands at.  All three businesses are called Everything Goes, but one is a vintage/used clothing store, another sells furniture, and the third is a bookstore/cafe.  Unlike Twin Oaks or Acorn, there is no requirement that visitors work while here (and I suspect that most don't) but someone found out how much I like books and so I've been volunteering at the bookstore (giving me something to do while I'm here), cleaning, pricing, and shelving books.  I'm enjoying the work.

The businesses support the community in several ways.  One way is that most people here are required to pay a fee, which includes rent, food, utilities, toiletries, etc.  The workers at the businesses are almost all Ganas members and their 'pay' is usually a deduction from the fee (plus a small stipend, I think).  At a recent planning meeting, the group went over how well each of the businesses is doing.  I think that the community is supported by a combination of the income from the businesses, the fees from those who don't work in the businesses, the income from visitors (like me), and people in the core group who work outside the community and use their income to support the community.

Right now, Ganas is at a point where things aren't working as well as they had and the community is pondering 'restructuring' itself.  One of the goals is to have the structures of the community better match the current reality.  A number of options have been proposed and the core group is debating what to do next, sometimes in open meetings.  It's an interesting time to be here.

It's also an interesting time to be in this area of Staten Island for a completely different reason.  If you've been watching the news, you've probably heard about the death of Eric Garner and the decision not to indict the cop who choked him.  His death occurred a couple of doors down from the bookstore that I've been working at and there have been a lot of protests and rallies happening near the store.

I'm here until this Thursday.   Then I'll be back in Boston until New Years.  After that, I hope to be off to Virginia to see if I can be part of the Point A project. (Again see my last post.)  I may be there until there's an opening in Ganas.  And one of my biggest reasons for wanting to be at Ganas is that it would give me a base in New York City to use in building a community here.

Quote of the Day: "Ganas people dream of developing open minds with which to talk together and understand each other better. We want to learn how to cooperate, care, share resources, and welcome those who want to join us. ... Most of us think of ourselves as a bonded, caring, hard working, fun loving, extended family." - from the Ganas website 


Austan said...

I spent my teenage years in Tompkinsville, Ward Hill and Stapleton. They were founding Ganas as I was leaving SI! I'd love to hear more.

MoonRaven said...

Thanks, Austan,

I didn't know you used to live on SI. I'm still trying to figure out where St George ends and Tompkinsville begins.

In spite of setbacks, Ganas is doing well. If you have any questions about Ganas, I'll do my best to answer them (from my ten days there), but I hope to live there in the future, so I'll know (and will probably write) a lot more about the place then.

vera said...

Well there you have it. Another community growing past the comfortable band upper limit of about 65, and it develops problems. Duh! :-)

MoonRaven said...

Thanks, Vera.

There were a couple of things I neglected to say in my post. The community actually used to have a bunch more people but they have scaled down in the last few years (selling off houses) and thus the waiting list. Also, a lot of the problems have to do with an aging core group with some of the members wanting out. The problem is that they expect to be bought out but the community is trying to figure out where to get the financial resources to do this. (I think that the sold off houses helped pay for some of the earlier people leaving.)

Like I said, it's an interesting time to be there.

vera said...

I am looking forward to more on them. Sounds like a fascinating place. I am enjoying being back at Earthaven, great time of the year to be here... everything smells so good in these woods!

vera said...

Ok so I reread this, and my question that springs up is, how do they do the feedback thingy? In my experience, giving feedback in groups can be far more damaging than giving it privately, and can easily devolve into a "trashing."

Also, I am a big believer in gossip... one of the oldest tribal ways to get a sense of the community ongoingly. (Backstabbing is something else entirely.) But many groups are officially anti-gossip because rumors can be used to harm people. Kinda a murky area, all this.

MoonRaven said...

It is kind of murky.

From what I understand, a lot of the feedback is voluntary. First of all, people seldom need to come to the planning meetings and if they want feedback they put themselves on the agenda for it.

They don't do the feedback thing as often as they used to. During the ten days I was there, I saw one person put herself on the agenda for feedback--and it mostly consisted on questions people had about her and it was light and respectful.

I also saw a situation where someone did a few things out of line and was told to come to meeting. There were a number of issues but the group clearly decided to focus only on two, and he was basically told to he needed to do such and such (which seemed reasonable to me for the problems) or he would need to leave.

The no gossiping idea is that complaints that aren't addressed to the group can't be really dealt with--they only fester and Ganas thinks that's destructive to the group. Hence the 'no non-negotiable negativity' rule.

Again, if you don't like it, there are lots more communities out there and you don't need to stay at Ganas. It's interesting that Ganas does no membership screening (in spite of at least one horrendous incident) but feels that they can handle whatever comes up if it's brought to the group. They've lasted thirty-five years, so they haven't done too bad at it.