Friday, October 29, 2010

Real Models 4: Post-Mortems

I mentioned in my last post (Real Models 3: Other Models) that we can learn a lot from models that aren't around any longer. In this post I want to talk about four attempts at community that I have made and what I learned from each. Therefore, this post will be longer and much more personal than my usual writings.

I dreamed about community for years but my real community adventures began in 1988 when someone visiting my then housemate turned to me and said, "If you really want to build community, you should talk with R."

R was a man in the same political group that I was in and I knew him vaguely. I was not particularly impressed with him but I really wanted community and at that point would talk with anyone.

The day I got together with R, the two of us laid out the parameters (personal growth, social change, spiritual diversity) that would guide our community building together over the next twelve years.

Our first attempt at community happened the next year. There were 4 of us (myself, R, a man I'll call C, and a woman, J) rented an apartment (with space for six) and embarked on a very structured, detailed attempt at community. Community1 lasted six months--by that time J had left and another woman, V, had joined us, only to see the community fall apart just after she became part of it. Two learnings I got from this were to get the people before trying to build community, and not to try to do everything all at once, right from the beginning.

But R and C and I all wanted to try doing it again. In looking for a place to live, I ended up sharing an apartment with A, a man that I came to really like and still one of my best friends. After I moved in with A, I kept talking about the community we had built and how we wanted to do it again, and I got A intrigued. Eventually, R and C and I gathered a group of people (including A) and we began holding events and formally organized ourselves as Community2. Everyone was interested in personal growth, social change, and spirituality, and everyone was also interested in community. We got to know each other very well over the course of the next couple of years. (Unfortunately, during this time, C, who early on helped us find many of these people, became less involved with the group.) Finally, having built a network of folks and some trust among each other, R and I approached the others suggesting that we all live together.

That's when we discovered that although everyone said they wanted community, there were at least four different ideas among us about what community was. R and I saw it as us all living together rather communally. Others saw it as us living in close proximity to each other but everyone having their own space (what I will call the 'cohousing' model). At least one person thought that just doing all the events we were doing was the community--we didn't need to do anything more. (I think of this as the 'network' model--community as people involved with each other's lives through get togethers, etc.) But it seemed like the bulk of the folks responded to R and me by saying this was all new to them, they were learning so much about community from us, they weren't sure what they wanted to do, and, by the way, they thought they might be moving out to California next year.

Ironically, Community2, lasted (as a network) for over fifteen years--even though that wasn't the community R and I wanted. A real learning from this is that community evolves, often in ways that you can't predict.

Finally, as R and I were considering just having a place with the two of us, we found some folks (especially S and her family) who were really interested in what we were talking about. Five of us (myself, R, S, her then husband, G, and a woman I'll call P) spent a year planning a structured, communal community--but one that would begin simply and grow more detailed as we went along, unlike the 'do-it-all-at-once' approach of Community1.

Community3 lasted five years. Although there was a core of three of us (R, S, and I) the rest of the cast changed from year to year, eventually including A (my housemate from when Community1 collapsed). A became close with both R and S as well as me and we were hopeful he would become part of our core group. But after what I saw as a wonderful year and most of my housemates saw as a very stressful year (there was lots of conflict during the whole life of the community, but that year was particularly bad), we were left with six of us: myself, R, S, A, and S's two children. (By this time S and I were a couple.) We decided to keep it that way for a year while we regrouped and looked for some new people.

Midway through the year (after some unsuccessful attempts at finding others) R announced that he didn't want to do this any more. This was very painful (for different reasons) for S and I. We turned to A, hoping he would help us rebuild community, but he said that he had realized that he didn't want to live with that many people again. Eventually, the house (which had been a three family) reverted to three units with R having one unit, A having another, and S and I and the kids having the third. S and I had always seen our relationship as being part and parcel of community and so this wasn't what either of us wanted. (I made jokes at this time about unintentional nuclear families, but I wasn't laughing. I was as close to being depressed as I ever have been in my life.) It felt like we never had the critical mass we needed (beyond the core group of myself, S, and R) and one learning from this experience was a truism--you can't build community without people. Having looked at other communities since, I also think that while we were bothered by the ebb and flow of people during the five years of Community3, this is a normal part of most communities and while a stable core is what grounds a community, you have to expect continual change.

Eventually, S and I realized that she wanted to try living on her own with the kids and I wanted to still find community, and I moved into the first of several co-ops that I have lived in since. Co-ops are nice but they are not the communal community that I am looking for.

After life in a couple of them (and just as I was considering just moving to Twin Oaks!), I met two folks from Vermont that seemed to want community. Thus began the attempt at building Community4. These two convinced me to trust them and go with the flow and not try to plan at all--all of which ended up with me realizing (after we had bought a house together) that what they wanted wasn't what I wanted at all. Like Community1, this was a six-month disaster. I did learn that while it's not always a good idea to structure everything beforehand, it's also not a good idea not to be clear, at least about your bottom lines.

So this leaves me, once again, living in a co-op and wanting community. I am seeking others who want it as much as I do--but I am also clear about my bottomlines (unsurprising to anyone who follows this blog, I'm looking for simple, sustainable community). Recently someone who knew me through these adventures asked me if I really wanted to keep doing this and did I think I would ever find community? My answers are yes I do and, really, I don't know. I hope so, but at this point the pursuit of community needs to be worthwhile to me, because it's all I have for now.

Quote of the Day: "Community, particularly intentional community, has been a bitter experience for many people and we ignore that fact at our peril. ...
"It is painfully clear that however sincere we may be in our attempt to community ideals into practice, these efforts do not, by themselves, create that better society we are striving for. Noble intentions and community involvement do not automatically free us of the baggage that we all carry with us... This contradiction has spelled the end of countless experiments in collectivity, with some people coming to the tragic--and mistaken--conclusion that such alternatives run counter to human nature.
" order to make possible the fundamental changes in our all relations which alone can form the basis of viable communities, we need to continually develop our understanding of what must be changed and why, as well as our determination to live and interact differently in our daily lives.
"...integrating action and reflection is, I think, necessary for building sustainable and life-affirming communities." - Helen Forsey

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Real Models 3: Other Models

Although I concentrated on Twin Oaks (and other FEC communities) and Gaviotas in my last two posts (9/30/10 and 10/6/10), I want to make it clear that they are far from the only models out there. In this post I want to explore a variety of other models--some of them not as close to my simple, equal, communal, and sustainable society as I might like but all of them real, interesting, and holding lots that we can learn from. To use John Michael Greer's term again, here we have more Dissensus in Action. (See my post of 9/27/10 for more on the term and a very different example of dissensus.)

To begin with, there is the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. The FIC (a much larger and more expansive organization than the FEC) tries to be open to all types of 'Intentional Communities', which it defines as "an inclusive term for ecovillages, cohousing communities, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives, intentional living, alternative communities, cooperative living, and other projects where people strive together with a common vision." Their website includes a directory which list hundreds of 'ecovillages, communes, cohousing, and co-ops'. Diversity and dissensus, indeed.

Aside from the FEC communes, I'd like to single out one very different, very long term community, The Farm in Tennessee. Here is another example of a 'hippy commune' that hasn't disappeared and is in fact flourishing, with around 200 residents and a variety of organizations serving its principles of nonviolence, respect for the environment, and living lightly on the earth. It is, however, an example of a community that has evolved and gone through great changes as it evolved. It began as a very communal spiritual community under the leadership of Stephen Gaskin, who had been teaching a class in San Francisco on psychedelic experiences and world religions called the 'Monday Night Class'. Over time, and especially through rethinking and reorganization in the eighties, it became a more democratic and less communal model. It currently bills itself as an ecovillage and is involved in many service projects throughout the world.

Going from the communal to the more individual, I want to point out the Riot for Austerity as an example of a group of people who took on the goal of living (at least temporarily) at the level of 1/10th of what the average American lives on. (For more on these folks, read my post of 9/28/08, called Riot!) Another inspiration to me is man named Colin Beavan, who calls himself 'No Impact Man' and began by attempting to live in a way that would cause 'no net impact on the environment' while living in New York City. His attempt to do this with his family in tow has been made into a book and a movie.

Some of the most amazing groups, as far as I'm concerned, focusing on sustainablity are the Rhizome Collective in Austin, TX (which is in the process of undergoing some major changes) and the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center in Albany, NY, and the training they have created which is called RUST--Radical Urban Sustainability Training.[] (I've written about the Radix Center and RUST in my post entitled RUST, 7/13/10.)

A somewhat different group that also focuses on sustainability is out in Portland, OR. City Repair believes "that localization - of culture, of economy, of decision-making - is a necessary foundation of sustainability." These folks do 'intersection repair', 'de-paving', natural building, and 'placemaking'. They also hold a Village Building Convergence every year.

Another vision of what can be done is Growing Power, an urban farm and greenhouse in Milwaukee, WI that states its mission as "Inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time." It involves young people, elderly, farmers, and community folks, and has expanded to include farms in Chicago and rural Wisconsin, and is networking with farmers across the US through their Rainbow Farmers Cooperative. Boston's version of this is The Food Project, which I wrote about in my post on Feeding Ourselves in the Future, 7/24/08.

We can also learn from real models that are no longer around. Many community groups have been inspired by the utopian communites of the nineteenth century. For anyone who thinks that the hippies in the sixties were the first to build communes that practiced 'free love', some of these groups may be a revelation. Above all we should know that these models are really not new. (One of my favorite models is the Diggers from seventeenth century England.) For more on communities in the 1800s, see my post on Utopian Communities and New Religious Groups, 1/25/09.

Two experiments in sustainability from the 1970s are also models for me. The Integral Urban House was a project begun in 1974 in Berkeley, CA, that included solar power, composting toilets, a vegetable garden, chickens, rabbits, and beehives, all in an integrated system. The book, The Integral Urban House, recently republished by New Society Publishers, is a classic of eco-homesteading. At around the same time on the east coast of the US, the New Alchemy Institute was exploring "renewable energy, agriculture aquaculture, housing and landscapes." New Alchemy lasted twenty years (from 1971 to 1991) and was a major influence on many of the ideas I and other people have on sustainable living.

When I think about the utopian communities of the 1800s and the eco-experiments of the 1970s, I try to learn what worked, and what didn't, as well as why they ended. I think these 'post-mortems' can be useful before you try new experiments, and I will focus on this (on some of the living experiments that I've done) in my next post.

I know there are lots more models out there, and I am feeling pressed for time these days. But I do want to single out some Boston area (ie, local to me) models that are inspiring me. First of all there is the eco-homestead of my friends who do the DIO Skillshare. These folks live very simply and sustainably--growing most of their own food, collecting rainwater, reusing waste materials, and living with very low consumption, and they do this in an urban setting. Similarly, the JP GreenHouse crew try to also live as sustainably as they can. (I've written a bit about them in my post on Passive House, 1/24/10.) Haley House began in 1966 as an radical, spiritual attempt to help the homeless, and now has a live-in community, a soup kitchen, food pantry, low-income housing program, bakery training program, and organic farm. They model integrating service, social justice, and spirituality. And finally, the Pueblo group in Jamaica Plain models community building on a neighborhood level. I have been working with them to create a community garden from an abandoned piece of land near Egleston Square. They are encouraging relationships between people living around there and also encouraging people to buy houses in the area. They are looking into land trusts and other ways of creating community ownership.

All these groups and more are models of what can be done. Now we just need to get more people to do it.

Next: Post-mortems, what we can learn from no longer functioning alternatives.

Quote of the Day: "An appropriate symbol for the process of celebrating life, enduring limits, and resisting injustice ... is the beloved community.... The beloved community names the matrix within which life is celebrated, love is worshipped, and partial victories over injustice lay the groundwork for further acts of criticism and courageous defiance." - Sharon Welch

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Real Models 2: Gaviotas

In 1971, a Columbian visionary made a decision. As he put it, "They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place. We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere." The place that Paolo Lugari selected was in the middle of the empty savannas east of Bogota. He recruited scientists, crafters, engineers, technicians, thinkers, inventors, artists, laborers, local peasants, and homeless street children. They built a sustainable community in this desolate prairie setting, using solar power, wind power, and very innovative technology. They called it Gaviotas after a river bird native to the region.

One of the problems that these dreamers faced as they were building Gaviotas was getting water. Brackish water was all around them but there was a water table filled with clean fresh water beneath the land--all they needed to do was pump it out. Rather than using pumps that ran on electricity or fossil fuels, the technicians invented a bunch of pumps that ran on various types of manual labor. My favorite was one that was attached to a seesaw, so that the village children would pump water as they went up and down.

More impressive than the tools the Gaviotans created is the planting work that they did. Beyond simply planting food, they planted trees, including a Caribbean pine tree that slowly took to the savanna. In ten years, they transformed grassland into the beginnings of a rainforest. Species that had nearly disappeared from Columbia began appearing in their forest. In fact the native species were crowding out the imported pines--and it seems like an amazon type jungle (and the Amazon region lies due south of Gaviotas) is slowly emerging.

All this makes the process sound easy. The process is documented in the book Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World by Alan Weisman and it was anything but easy. The Gaviotans tried many, many experiments and almost as many were failures as were successes. But they worked together, replacing hierarchy and competition with solidarity and community. The twists and turns as Gaviotas emerged remind me of the twists and turns Kat Kinkade chronicled in her books on Twin Oaks. (See my last post on Twin Oaks.)

Reading Weisman's book makes me want to be able to experiment with others and build community. Sure for every place like Twin Oaks and Gaviotas that succeeds, a dozen crash and burn. Yet, like the Gaviotans that made progress by failure after failure and keeping going, the only way to create a new future is to try new things, and when something doesn't work, try something else.

Twin Oaks and Gaviotas are each unique in their own way, and hardly blueprints for anything else. But they are models of real, thriving alternatives. The only way we will create real social change is to have the courage to follow new paths, to persist (as both Twin Oaks and Gaviotas did) even when things aren't going well, and to have a vision that will sustain us. These are real models to hold onto and be inspired by, even as we forge new and different models for our own unique situations.

Quote of the Day: "Gaviotas isn't a utopia. Utopia literally means 'no place'. ... We call Gaviotas a topia, because it's real. We've moved from fantasy to reality." - Paolo Lugari