Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Reflections from a Reflective Reader

Here's another exchange from the mail bag. This comes from a regular visitor to this blog, who is sharing his thoughts about intentional communities, their place in the culture, outreach among communities, FIC's online Directory, Ecovillage Education US, and correspondence in general.

• • •
I. Defining "Intentional Community"
I have been giving some thought to just what makes intentional communities unique. I am defining an intentional community as a group of individuals who organize themselves to manage a resource, purposely left unspecified.

The definition I use is “a group of people living together on the basis of explicit common values.” It’s interesting that you’re focusing on managing a resource. 

I chose "resource"  because in the broadest sense any group organized for a common purpose is a community. For the purpose of this discussion I wanted to exclude groups like social and service clubs and organizations. Besides, lifestyle can be construed as a resource.

I think the reason I’m uncomfortable with that definition is because “resource" does not suggest a vision and most communities start with that, and then organize resources to pull together a living situation in service to that vision. The vision is the driver; not a commitment to managing a resource.

After browsing the FIC, Dancing Rabbit, Sandhill Farm, and other FIC listed sites, I think the defining characteristic is the seeking of a more cooperative, less competitive lifestyle. It may include religious contemplation, low ecological impact, or other goals but they are not defining.

I think that’s fair.

II. Community Outreach
I would guess that Dancing Rabbit is one of the more out reaching of the communities…

It is.

… due to Ma'ikwe's work in eco education.

Ma’ikwe’s EEUS work, though important, is only one of the ways that DR is outward facing. The community is trying to be a model of sustainable culture, creating a vibrant, fully-featured lifestyle consuming only 10% of the resources of the average US citizen.

I found out there is an artist community nearby I never knew about and I suspect most neighbors of many communities don't know that they exist.

You may be right; it's hard to say. Groups are "intentional communities” when they say they are. FIC doesn’t own the term or attempt to tell groups when they "qualify.” It turns out that there’s considerable softness about when a group is comfortable with the label intentional community; and further softness about whether they want to list their existence with FIC or let their neighbors know what they're up to.
  
III. Directory Listings

Another thing I noticed is there seems to be [in FIC's online Directory] a lot more forming/re-forming communities than established ones. Makes me wonder just how stable many of these communities are.

You are right that there many unsettled groups. FIC made the choice right at the beginning (with our first edition of Communities Directory in 1990) to list forming and re-forming groups along with established ones because finding people to match with your dreams early on is often crucial to survival. While we know that many of these tenuous groups will not succeed, we made the choice to support breadth above stability—which we are continuing to do today. That said, we have recently decided it will be a better service to users if we sort groups into four categories:
A. Established intentional communities
B. Forming intentional communities
C. Re-forming intentional communities
D. Groups with a strong community association but which are not intentional communities


I like your reorganized listing. As to the too-real question of whether a community is still "alive," you might want to consider something what Congress had the IRS impose on not-for-profits a half dozen or so years ago: the form everyone loves to hate, the 990. By requiring them to raise their hand every year and say "I am still here" at least you develop a foggy idea of who is still around. By de-listing them after three years of non-filing a lot of deadwood gets removed.

We’ve decided we don’t even want to wait that long. In the future all listed communities will be asked to affirm their existence every year and persistent non-response will result in their being moved into an Unresponsive category in less than six months.

I know that at least for very small not-for-profits they got de-listed by IRS because of personnel changes and mail not being forwarded. And getting re-listed is a royal pain. You could be less strict with re-listing.
IV. Community Demographics

My guess is that many communities are formed by idealistic younger folks who later mature and go more mainstream.

There’s certainly some of that. While you’re right that most communities are started by people in their 20s and 30s, one of the more interesting trends in the movement over the last 30 years has been the steady rise of people over 50 joining or starting communities for the first time.

I suspect individuals like you and Stan [a long-term member of Sandhill Farm] are in the minority in the movement. I think I remember Stan lamenting he was 27 years older than the next oldest member of Sandhill in one of his recent posts.

That’s true today because I’ve moved in with my wife at Dancing Rabbit, but that’s only been since December. For the first 34 years that Stan’s lived at Sandhill, he had me and others his age living there also.

V. Future of Intentional Communities
My bottom line is that while I think these communities are a valuable testing place well worth supporting, I don't think they will ever be more than a small niche.

I doubt they will ever represent a significant fraction of the population (while the movement is growing, FIC's best guess is that there are about 100,000 people in the US today who live in some form of self-identified intentional community—just 0.03% of the US population). Despite low numbers, however, communities can nonetheless play an important—even crucial—role as the tugboats that pull the Titanic of our culture in a cooperative direction, away from the icebergs of materialism, militantism, and competitive waste.

I also wonder if they will ever be really self supporting. I guess this is an important part of the experiment.

The overwhelming majority of established communities are self-supporting. What DR is pitching (both in support of the capital campaign to create their Green Community Center—which will include office space for FIC's headquarters—and in funding for EEUS) are outreach initiatives.

A good portion of the Community Center will be for the benefit of members, and that portion will be funded by loans that will be repaid by user fees. The donated portion will be to support DR’s education/outreach mission, which is tax deductible. In the case of EEUS, it’s definitely an attempt to get the thing off the ground and firmly established. There’s a constant dance between keeping the tuition low to attract students and keeping the tuition high to adequately compensate staff.

All of that said, I think it’s fair to hold the long-term goal that these efforts ultimately pay their own way entirely. 

VI. EEUS This Year How is Ma'ikwe making out with her training? Both her personally and the course she has planned for the summer.

Thanks for asking. She's doing pretty well these days in her battle with chronic Lyme disease. While there was a time this winter where the symptoms (muscle and joint ache, brain fog, diminished stamina) seemed to be increasing, she was able to adjust her health regimen in time to stave it off and she's doing rather well right now. (Knock on wood.)

Regarding EEUS, we did not get the enrollment we needed to do the full 37-day immersion course this summer (as we did in 2013), so we’ve switched to a number of smaller courses to help build energy:

—Laird's Greatest Hits • July 2-Aug 13
Seven two-hour webinars about cooperative group dynamics, offered every Wed afternoon. Come to one, or come to all.

—Starting an Intentional Community • July 26-Aug 1
An intensive week-long workshop with instructors Tony Sirna, Alyson Ewald, Ma'ikwe, and me—all of whom have experience starting communities.

—Encountering Climate Change • Aug 22-24
A Joanna Macy-style weekend retreat with Ma'ikwe, Alyson, Danielle Williams, and Joan Shagbark. This will focus on naming and working with despair, anger, numbness, and overwhelm related to our changing world and uncertain future.

Check here for details about this summer's offerings.

VII. Spreading the Word
I wonder if any of your other readers have had comments on my emails. If so, were they reflective, in alignment with my views, or did they feel I was totally off the wall?

I’ve (gratefully) used our correspondence as a springboard for a few blogs and will probably do more [such as I'm doing right now!]. I think your questions and observations are things many readers can relate to and it’s an excellent vehicle to amplify some points I want to make.

That said, not many people post comments. While I know that 100+ people read each blog entry and another 200 or so subscribe (which means it’s sent to them as an email), few write me. If there are comments posted on the blog site (which is open to anyone, without restrictions) then you can see them yourself.

I shared some of your Internet addresses; sandhillfarm.org, dancingrabbit.org, and ic.org; with a fellow teacher this morning, as well as showing him how to find your blog. I am curious as to what he thinks when I see him again.

Hah! Let me know. I am always interested in what my constituency (people interested in community) has to say.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Community Gone Viral?


I was handed this promotional card today, advertising a live event this summer to explore the topic of viral community via a one-day blitzkrieg in the City by the Bay. Confused? I am.

First of all, the feel of this card is high gloss techno-glitz featuring an empty stage illuminated by multicolored stage lights.  Does that say "community" to you? I don't think so. (How in the world do you think it's a clever idea to promote community through sterile images sans people? Hello?)

Second of all, what does it mean that this is an "unconference" where you're promised:
o  A participatory crash course on creating and /or improving your community.
o  Plans for creating your community for as little as $5000.
o  Knowledge of how to attain public and private partnerships with donors, collaborators, and members.
o  How to find the right location for your community.
o  Information about the policies that will make your community thrive.

If it's an unconference then the program is driven by participants. So how can you know ahead what the program will be? Hmm, I think perhaps this is a zen koan conference.

Third of all, I think starting and growing successful communities is an art form, not a speed dating event. How in the heck can you claim to give people the skills they'll need a la vaccination shots and take their money with a straight face? I'm shaking my head.

Community is mainly a social challenge, not a let's-line-up-the-resources-and-make-then-dance-like-Rockettes challenge. Neither is community a poetry slam, where you score big on originality, chutzpah, and style points; it's more of an orchestral performance, where the payoff comes from practice, teamwork, and attention to detail.

To be fair, I have resonance with the notion that interest in community is growing fast, but that doesn't mean you can treat it like fast food. Successful communities are built on successful relationships, and successful relationships are not something you pick up at the store, like African violets, take home, put in the window sill, and just add water.

Maybe it's flattering that community is popular to the point that it's drawing the attention of urban hypesters, but something strikes me as seriously off about this event. I know today is Easter, but this does not seem to me to be the second coming of community.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they'll pack 'em in July 5 and everyone will go home happier and wiser about how to manifest more community in their life. Maybe the unconference will unblock the secrets of community. I'll be keeping an eye on this viral phenomenon to see how far it spreads.