How do you define violence? Is striking children in the name of discipline violence?
These were questions that the Fellowship for Intentional Community Board wrestled with at its recent semi-annual organizational meetings, held Oct 23-26 at Dancing Rabbit.
FIC has been around for 27 years and is best known for its comprehensive Communities Directory, which was first published as a book in 1990 and continues today both in print and as a searchable online database. We only have three boundaries around being included in the Directory:
a) That you tell the truth (no misrepresentation).
b) That you don't advocate violent practices.
c) That you don't interfere with members freely disassociating from the community if they no longer wish to be a part of it.
While we receive few complaints about listed groups—about 2-4 annually—mostly these amount to someone not liking what a group is doing and urging us to drop their listing based on their personal distaste. If it's nothing more than that we don't act. Our job is not to tell people what they should like; it's to give them options and let them choose for themselves.
However, if the complainant believes that the group has crossed one of our three boundaries above and is willing to stand by their position in a direct communication with the community, then we're willing to open a dialog with the community. Sometimes this amounts to clearing up a misunderstanding, occasionally this leads to a modified listing, and every now and then it leads to our pulling a listing down.
We received a complaint this summer from someone who claimed a listed community had a policy of abusing children in the name of Biblically-inspired discipline, and he was perfectly willing to discuss this with the community.
Realizing that this was not going to be simple to resolve, I brought the issue to the Board.
We had two issues to consider: 1) is the group misrepresenting its practices in its listing; and 2) is it advocating violent practices?
1. What's Happening and Is There Misrepresentation?
The complainant stated that community children are regularly disciplined by adults using reeds or sticks sufficient to raise welts and cause pain, though not enough to break the skin. Investigation shows that there are a number of ex-members who have testified publicly that this occurs. In television interviews, reporters asking for verification of the community's discipline practices are consistently rebuffed. On the one hand current members do not deny the practice, yet neither do they confirm it.
However, further research uncovered a website supported by the community in which the community admits to this practice. That resolved the question of what's happening and that it's a community practice, yet still left open whether there's been misrepresentation because this controversial practice is not mentioned in their listing. It would probably satisfy FIC's standard for honesty if the community explicitly included in their listing that the community condones disciplining children with a reed or switch that inflicts pain.
2. What constitutes violent practices?
When we first articulated our policy about violence, we distinguished between an act committed in the heat of the moment (while it may be no less traumatizing, acts of passion are easier to forgive than a policy of violence—such as regularly siccing attack dogs on unwanted visitors, or threatening people with guns).
Years later, we further refined our position by determining that hate speech is considered violence and grounds for being excluded from our listings. We had not, however, previously come to any conclusions about spanking children.
While a number of FIC Board members found the community's discipline practices personally abhorrent, the community claims that their practice is inspired by Old Testament Bible passages and discipline is done in the name of love. To what extent, if any, is it acceptable that a practice that is otherwise unacceptable be allowed because it's rooted in spiritual interpretation?
We needed to thread the needle around our commitments to: a) nonviolence; b) freedom of spiritual practices; and c) diversity of parenting philosophies. What a pickle!
What's more, one Board member wondered if this approach to discipline—however repugnant it is when considered in isolation—might actually be an effective deterrent to worse practices, helping to keep parents and other adults more disciplined about how they administer discipline. Who knows?
As FIC's main administrator (and the first monkey in the barrel when fielding critical feedback about listings), I needed a position that I could clearly delineate. If we took the view that striking children in the name of discipline was violent, how slippery was that slope? What about communities that take no position about disciplining children, leaving that wholly up to parents (which is what most communities do, so long as practices are acceptable within the eyes of the law)? Were we saying that any community that condoned spanking would be excluded on the basis of violating our boundary around violence? That could be quite a few.
After a thorough discussion we had narrowed our options down to:
Deleting the community on the basis of their advocating violent practices. Some Board members felt this was a straight forward extension of our commitment to nonviolence. As they found the community's discipline practices unacceptable, its listing was unacceptable. If there are other groups that condone striking children in the name of discipline—even implicitly, knowing that it occurs on a regular basis and not acting to stop it—then we should take down their listings as well.
Allowing the listing to continue if modified by the community to explicitly disclose information about their child discipline practices, accompanied by a statement from FIC that we are allowing this listing in the name of diversity and spiritual freedom, even though many of our Board believe this practice to be a form of child abuse. The argument here is that this might do a better job of balancing all the factors in play and it may be a more effective social change strategy because it attempts to educate about the issue, instead of turn our backs to it.
In the end, there was no consensus among the Board about where to draw the line, and it falls to me to do more investigating. By opening up a conversation with the community it may become clearer which way to proceed.
It was one of those moments where I hated the issue and loved the process, and an excellent example of using Board time appropriately—figuring out the best course of action in those awkward moments when our core values don't play nice with each other.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
How do you define violence? Is striking children in the name of discipline violence?
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Suppose you have multiple organizations interested in collaborating with one another. They each have similar—though not identical—missions and many common areas of interest, such as events, fundraising, outreach, education, research, and public relations. Let's further suppose that there's considerable geographic dispersal of the players, which complicates the desire for face-to-face meetings. How would you set it up to succeed?
One model is to put out the call for each of the partners to identify reps from their organization for each area of interest, encourage the reps to get together with their counterparts and see what happens. There is a simplicity and purity about this approach, but it tends to be fairly chaotic, and hit or miss about who answers the call, and how things move forward.
It works better, I think, if there's an identified coordinator—a person (or persons) whose job it is to call the meeting at which the reps gather, who sees to it that everyone knows about the meeting and how to access it (we're talking web-based meetings or conference calls), makes sure there's a draft agenda, that everyone gets to speak, that minutes are being taken, and that the conversation is forward moving.
Note that none of these coordinator duties needs to be coupled with a personal agenda. That is, they can all be performed neutrally. While I get it that in Western culture we're conditioned to think of the person in charge of coordinating and running meetings to be someone with power to control (or at least steer) outcomes—think of Congressional or Senate committee chairs to grasp my point—one of the most salient features of cooperative culture is the purposeful separation of facilitation from stakeholder.
So a key point in collaborative dynamics is whether you have a coordinator at all, and, if you do, how that person (or person) gets selected. If you offer to fill that role without being asked first, there can be suspicion about your motivation. Is it to control, to enhance productivity, or both? Having no coordinator addresses the power concerns (that the coordinator, or the organization with whom they're associated, will have an advantage in the direction taken by the collaboration), yet at the expense of efficiency (without portfolio, reps will be hesitant to step into the void to perform coordinating tasks—for fear of stepping on toes or being labeled power mongers).
In an anarchistic ideal, every rep would be fully actualized: willing and able to perform coordinator duties as the situation calls for them. But I've never seen that model work well. People can be reps—and good ones—without having the bandwidth to perform coordinating tasks. Perhaps none of the reps in a given interest area will have the time or inclination to coordinate. Or maybe the reps who volunteer to handle certain coordinating tasks are not seen as capable. Now what?
Of course, the reps could discuss that and determine collectively how to self-organize and fill coordination roles, which includes the possibility of reaching outside their current configuration. Can you count on that happening? Probably not. Yet rather than predicting that it won't, I'm suggesting that if you recognize the need for baseline coordination, then, as a partner organization you may want a proposal on the table at the outset, establishing that each focus group will address a set of standard questions about how they will conduct business—note that I am not saying that different interest groups need have the same answers, or that the collaborative groups need to operate the same way that parent groups do:
o Who will take the lead on scheduling meetings?
o Who will serve as a point of contact for the group (the person to whom inquiries are directed)?
o Who is authorized to be a spokesperson for the group?
o Will the group operate with a list serve, and, if so, who will manage it?
o How will reps be notified when meetings have been scheduled and the protocol for accessing them?
o If the group is frustrated by a rep's performance (missing meetings, not coming prepared, acting stridently, etc.) what is the protocol for addressing those frustrations, including the possibility of informing the rep's parent body what's happening and possibly requesting that the rep be replaced?
o What will be the standards for minutes, how will it be determined who will take them, how will they be disseminated, will they be available to folks outside the group, how can they be modified, and how will they be archived?
o Will meetings be facilitated, and, if so, how will it be determined who will facilitate?
o How will meeting agendas be drafted?
o To what extent are reps authorized to make decisions binding on their constituent organizations?
o If the group develops proposals, what can the group implement on its own and when do reps need to consult with their organizations? If proposals need to be shopped among the partners, who will manage this process?
o When can the group proceed in the absence of participation from a partner group (what happens when reps miss meetings)?
o What are the reporting standards for informing partners what the group is discussing?
o What is the protocol for inviting additional partners to join the group?
o How will the group make decisions?
While this list is not exhaustive, it's comprehensive enough to give you a good feel for what I'm talking about.
If you reflect on this set of questions, you'll observe that all of them have probably been addressed by each partner organization to establish how they'll function internally. None of this should be virgin territory. I suggest you think of it as extending what you already know to be helpful at home into your work with others. While there can a certain amount of impatience with tackling process considerations when an interest group initially gathers (it tends to be much sexier jumping into ideas for joint projects, which were the inspiration for collaborating in the first place), my experience has been that operating in the fog bank of murky process quickly erodes enthusiasm for the joint effort. If you want your group's work to have legs, you have to provide shoes.
While it may make sense, in the name of efficiency, to ask one partner group to take the lead on handling coordination functions (perhaps by virtue of access to greater resources or staff experience), at the very least all collaborative groups can walk through the checklist of organizational functions I've delineated above to keep things rolling.
Friday, October 24, 2014
I'm currently immersed in four days of FIC organizational meetings, where a key focus has been how to make better connections with others trying to build cooperative culture. Essentially, those of us with deep familiarity in community living believe that we're learning something in the crucible of that experience that has wide application—in neighborhoods, in the workplace, in schools, and in churches—yet we're frustrated with the lack of invitations to share what we know. What's going on?
I think this declination sorts itself into three main reasons:
A. Not Open to the Idea
Some groups believe that the intentional community experience is simply too exotic to be relevant to their situation—and they may be right. Or they may not (more about this in Part B below).
Some groups believe it's more problematic than beneficial to be closely associated with intentional communities (interestingly, this can be true even if the would-be recipient is itself an intentional community!). As such, they'd rather do without. This might be because: 1) they think it's politically unwise (if their constituency finds out they've been cavorting with Hippies there may be a knee-jerk negative reaction); 2) they think it's superfluous (the would-be client believes they can handle their struggles internally, or what intentional communities offer will not address their need); or 3) or maybe they believe that the help is not replicable (we'll never be able to do what you can do, so why bother having a taste of it?).
A more subtle, yet pervasive version of this is where the group is willing to continue to muddle through because they have no concept that it can be better, or it's beyond their imagination to seek help (we may not be perfect, but we're proud of our self-sufficiency).
Some people perceive acceptance of help as an admission of failure. For some it's too embarrassing letting others get a peek at their dirty laundry.
Thus, there are a number of reasons why groups may not be open to outside help.
B. Misunderstanding the Offer
Some resistance is tied to not wanting to be in a position of being told what to do by an outsider (I'm not saying that would happen; I'm saying there's repugnance at the thought that it might).
It's not unusual for clients to believe that their situation is so complicated or unique that it's too daunting to bring in outside help. (It would take too long to bring them up to speed; why should we pay to educate an outsider?) What they fail to grok is that people experienced in cooperative dynamics are familiar with patterns that may appear as impossibly specialized to the residents (who haven't as much cooperative experience under their belt as the consultant).
Some don't appreciate that groups are groups, and that the lessons gleaned in one cooperative setting are often readily adaptable to another.
Sometimes the folks making the offer do a poor job of casting it in ways that are accessible or attractive to the would-be client.
C. Misunderstanding the Need
It's relatively common for groups to mistakenly think that the problem essentially amounts to some small number of difficult members being jerks, rather than realizing that there's a bit of the jerk in all of us and what's needed is better tools for unpacking triggering dynamics.
If you've never witnessed a group work authentically and compassionately with distress, it may be hard to imagine that the group could use help with it.
Groups that slog through discussions where members disagree, may not understand that skilled facilitation can make a night and day difference in the likelihood of finding workable solutions without anyone selling out, or feeling run over by a truck.
At the very least, it will help us hone in on the opportunities where we think we have the best chance of turning it around—which has got to be a better response than wringing hands, or blaming the damn clients.
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Not only is the title to today's blog the alternate (lesser known) title of J. R. R. Tolkien's 1937 classic fantasy, The Hobbit, but it accurately captures my relapse into lower back pain following my overzealous representation of Sandhill Farm at the Best Missouri Fair at the Shaw Botanical Gardens, Oct 3-5. That is, I went there and now my back hurts again.
I know that was nearly three weeks ago but I still hurt.
Unfortunately the basic problem is getting older, which I suspect is terminal. The tenderness that I'm dancing with traces back to a fortnight of heavy construction on a cistern project for Sandhill that I oversaw (and apparently overdid) in late May. My folly was thinking that I could do anything (or at least anything that I've been able to do in the past), and that ain't necessarily so.
Having been a homesteader since I moved to Sandhill four decades ago, there's always been an emphasis on physical labor, and mostly that's an aspect of my life that I've fully embraced. Gradually, however, my work mix shifted from lifting with my arms, legs, and back to lifting with my pen, voice, and brain. Over time I did less work on the land and more as a nonprofit administrator (first for the Federation of Egalitarian Communities and then for the Fellowship for Intentional Community) and as a group process consultant and trainer.
Last May I got up close and personal to my physical limitations with the questionable choice to jump into concrete work after months of doing nothing more aerobic than carrying my own bags on train trips and pecking away vigorously at a keyboard. My back could tell the difference.
After a couple weeks of rest and recovery from the cistern work, my back wasn't "normal" (which condition I'm not sure I'm ever going to experience again) but I was able to resume normal non-constructive duties—I just needed to be cautious. When I got overambitious with a shovel digging up a suspect water line behind our house in July, my back made it clear the next day that that wasn't such a good idea.
The thing though that put me over the top of the pain threshold, was a four-day sequence at the beginning of October. On Thursday I was over at Sandhill grating, blending, and jarring 10 gallons of peeled horseradish root (yielding 127 half pint jars for sale—about eight gallons). In addition to the tears and irritated mucous membranes, I had to schlep our 90 lb Univex slicer/shredder from the commercial kitchen to our front porch (never try to shred horseradish indoors). It was like lugging a bag of cement. Ugh. At the end of an eight-hour shift I was bone tired and my back was sore.
The next day I returned to Sandhill to load for the fair, which entailed packing several boxes of sorghum (a case of quarts weighs over 40 lbs) and myriad cases of condiments. After a couple hours the pickup was full, and so was my quota of lifting for the day… but I wasn't done.
When I got down to St Louis I had to unload everything in our booth space and my back was protesting. I knew I was in trouble when I went to bed that night, but I still had to reload everything that didn't sell at the end of the fair Sunday evening and I was hurting badly by then. (Is there anything worse than lifting a weight that you know you shouldn't?)
It is now 16 days later and ibuprofen is my best friend.
My recovery has been painfully slow and I'm not used to being so limited in my activities or needing to be so careful when I get out of bed. I was walking to a meeting in the dark two evenings ago and when I stepped into a low spot in the road that I couldn't see, I overstrode slightly and it was like someone was gouging my lower back with razor blades. No fun. While I'm making do, I have to be way more cautious than I'm used to.
There is one silver lining: the sympathy and support I'm getting from Ma'ikwe, who has been struggling with lower back issues herself since '09, as a symptom of chronic Lyme. While it's not so great having both of us needing to be extra careful when lifting buckets, Ma'ikwe has been totally understanding when I ask her to help put on my shoes first thing each morning, before I've limbered up enough to be able to do it myself.
It's the different between sympathy and empathy—she's not just patiently listening to her partner describing pain, she's actually been walking in my moccasins. Painful as that is, we're navigating this together and that helps a lot.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
In 1951 Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard round the world." With the Giants down 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning in a do-or-die playoff game against the dog-ass Dodgers, they fought back to have runners on second and third with two outs and a run in. Dodger manager Charlie Dressen brought in Ralph Branca to relieve a tiring Don Newcombe to face Bobby Thomson (who had hit 31 homers in the regular season—some off Branca).
After throwing the first pitch for a strike, Thomson pulled a high inside fast ball into the left field stands, and Giant radio announcer Russ Hodges said it all:
There's a long drive ... it's gonna be, I believe ... THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!
[Did you ever wonder why the Dodgers chose to face Thomson, a home run threat, with first base open? On deck was the Giants' rookie-of the year candidate, Willie Mays, and the Dodgers wanted no part of him.]
The reason I bring that up is that two nights ago Travis Ishikawa, a journeyman defensive specialist that the Giants brought up from their Fresono farm team for the second half of the year, took a fastball from St Louis Cardinal reliever Michael Wacha into the right field stands, sending the San Francisco Giants (which the New York Giants of Bobby Thomson became when owner Horace Stoneham moved them west in 1958) to the World Series. Just like Bobby Thomson 63 years ago, Travis' pennant clinching belt came with two on board in the bottom of the ninth. Travis will never have to buy a beer again as long as he drinks in the City by the Bay.
I write about all this because I'm a sport fan. Baseball is my first love, and the team I love above all others is the San Francisco Giants, which I inextricably bonded with the moment they departed the Polo Grounds of Manhattan and landed in the Golden State. There is a capriciousness and purity about this that may only have been possible among eight year olds who grew up watching Leave It to Beaver, but here I am.
When Travis went yard on Michael, my inner eight year old went bananas: a Wach-off homer! My 33-year-old son—a diehard Cardinal fan—grudgingly texted me, "Hope you turkeys win it all now..." which passes for graciousness among the male sports fans in my bloodline.
Knowing of this internecine rivalry between Ceilee (the Cardinal fan) and Laird (the Giant fan), Annie (Ceilee's mother, who grew up an Indian fan—talk about long sufffering) sent me a two-word email the next day, "Go Giants!" After all, it's not just about getting to the World Series; you actually have to play it. In this case against a red-hot Kansas City Royals team that ripped off eight straight playoff victories to get there on the American League side of the bracket.
Semi-famous for her tongue-in-cheek malapropisms, Annie (whom I've known since 1968) was wont to ask each summer, "Who's gonna win the peanut this year?" This from the same person who grew up attending a Protestant church inspired by the teachings of John Calvin and who thought as a child that road signs at intersections were expressly for the benefit of her congregation: "Presbyterian Crossing."
For the sake of father-son relations it's gratifying that we've been trading ascendency the last five years, with the Giants winning the pennant in the even years and the Cardinals in the odd ones. Now all the Giants have to do is cool off the Royals. Both teams have had a good run to get to the Series. Both snuck into the playoffs as wild card teams, yet roared through their opposition with ease. It's the fifth-seeded Giants against the fourth-seeded Royals. Who's streak will endure for one more round?
Though it's anybody's Series, I feel lucky. Surely it's an omen that Bobby Thomson's birthday was Oct 25, the same as mine. At least such rabbit-foot logic makes sense to this baseball fan, a part of whom will always be eight years old.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Today (at noon) marked the exact mid-point of October. As we cross into the dark side, a strange thing happens—gardeners start longing for a frost.
Mostly, frost is something homesteaders want to assiduously distance themselves from. They want it to depart their fields as early in the spring as possible and stay away late into the fall—but there are limits. As the root cellar fills and pantry shelves begin to groan with the collected abundance of the growing year, you reach a point where enough is enough. Sure, you could just walk away and let the rest of the garden go, but that's hard to do; farmers are hard-wired to gather everything they grow, and it sometimes takes a frost to euthanize a garden that still has life in it. We're just about there.
In the Winter
Although this is the sleepy time for growing things, there is still plenty of outdoor work to do (it's a farm, after all). If you need to cut wood, for example, it makes a huge difference if the temperature is 25º or 35º. If there's no snow on the ground, then 25º is much better. The ground will be firm and you should have no problem maneuvering in the woodlot. At 35º, think mud.
On the other hand, if there is snow then 35º may be better because the white stuff will melt off the log (less ice to dull your chain saw) and the ground is likely to still be frozen.
If you're splitting wood, I suggest looking for something closer to 15º. The ground won't be greasy (better footing) and the cord wood pops right open in the cold (plus the brisk temperatures help counterbalance the heat you generate wielding a maul).
In the Spring
When the sap starts rising in the trees (typically in February in northeast MO), everyone starts to get itchy to plant garden. While some things can tolerate freezing temperatures (peas, onions, beets, carrots, potatoes, salad greens, and brassicas) most of the garden has to wait patiently for danger of frost to have past.
Depending on how green your thumb is—and how long you've been without fresh vegetables—it can be an excruciating wait. (Is there anything more delicious than your first homegrown or wildcrafted salad of the year?)
In the FallOn the one hand, homesteaders keep a close eye on Weather Underground (or old ankle injuries) for early warnings of impending freezes so they know when to strip the garden—after doing all that work to get everything planted and weeded, you want to capture as much of the bounty as possible. In the 40 years I've lived in northeast Missouri we've had our first killing frost as early as Sept 15 and as late as Nov 10—which is quite a wide range. Obviously this means big swings are possible in the amount of produce harvested from gardens at the end of the season.
If you last into October though (as we have this year), the sweet corn is long gone, the tomatoes have already dialed it back on their own, and the green beans have dried up. Still going are peppers, okra, and basil, all of which will just keep on trucking until Jack Frost paints them white.
I cranked out a batch of end-of-season pepper relish last week and I believe those will be the last jars we add to our store of 2104 canned goods. In the weeks ahead there will be sweet potatoes to dig, and the late root crops and salad greens will persist into December, but everybody here is ready to trade access to a few more late peppers in exchange for witnessing a population crash among houseflies and grasshoppers.
We're ready now to sing hallelujah and amen to another growing year.
Monday, October 13, 2014
One of the trickiest issues that intentional communities face is screening prospective members.
Some groups find this so odious (judging whether others are good enough) that they don't even try. Instead, they rely on prospectives to sort themselves out appropriately, based on what the community has said about itself (on its website, in brochures, or in listings), and how the new person relates to the community when they visit.
Another factor when it comes to screening is that communities often borrow money from banks to develop their property and are thus subject to federal Fair Housing Laws, which means they may not discriminate against people on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. Some groups mistakenly translate this into a proscription against using any discernment about who joins the group (or buys a house) but that's not true. It's perfectly legal to insist that people be financially solvent, not have been convicted of felonies, or agree to abide by common values and existing agreements. In fact, it's legal to choose against a candidate for any reason other than the seven protected classes listed above.
What's more, there are any number of people who are attracted to community for the right reasons but are not a good fit, and it's better all around if the community plays an active role in screening for decent matches. In many cases (unless the would-be member is a community veteran) the new person is still wrestling with the question of whether any intentional community is a good choice for them, much less your community. There will be many new and strange things that people have to make sense of during their initial visit, and in the process they can easily miss clues as to whether the visit is going well or not as seen through the host's eyes.
Finally, when you take into account how important it is to have your membership aligned about what you're trying to create, it becomes clear why it's not a good plan to rely mainly on the new person figuring it out on their own. Yes, this may mean that someone washes out sooner, but isn't that better for them as well—rather than getting a false impression about how things are going and discovering the mismatch six months after moving in? Delayed disclosure may relieve the community of having a difficult conversation up front, but at what cost?
OK, let's suppose I've convinced you that communities should get actively involved in membership selection. In broad strokes, there are four possibilities about how a prospective visit may go:
a) Both the community and the prospective realize it's not a good fit. While there's the possibility of some hurt feelings if the prospective feels that what they found did not match what the community promised, mostly this ends amicably and there's no problem.
b) You both like each other and the prospect converts to becoming a new member. Hooray! That's what you had in mind and you're off to a good start. Of course, the honeymoon will end and not everything that starts out well stays that way. While there's no guarantee of long-term happiness, you did your best and now you take your chances.
c) The prospective doesn't feel there's a good fit, though the community likes what they see and wants to encourage the prospective to hang in there. Most of the time when this occurs it's because the prospective comes across as a "good catch" and will likely be attractive to a number of communities. In short, they have options. In this situation also, there's unlikely to be hard feelings. The community may be sad at losing a good prospect, but dating doesn't always lead to marriage and you knew that all along.
d) The hardest combination—and the one I want to focus on in the remainder of this essay—is when the prospective likes the community but it's not reciprocated. Now what?
In general, this is because of one or more of the following factors:
o Poor social skills
There's a high value placed on good communication skills in community and it can be a serious problem if the prospective is not good at:
—Articulating what they're thinking
—Articulating what they're feeling
—Hearing accurately what others are saying
—Expressing themselves in ways that are not provocative
—Taking in feedback about how others are reacting to their behavior
—Being sensitive to how their statements and actions are landing with others
The issue is not so much whether the prospective fits right in, as whether the members feel they can work things out with the prospective when there are differences—because there will always be differences (eventually).
o Weak finances
Sometimes it's a question of whether the prospective has sufficient assets or income to meet the financial obligations of membership. Not everyone who is drawn to community has their life together economically.
o Too needy
Occasionally prospectives come to the community to be taken care of, and there appears to be a frank imbalance between what the person can give relative to the level of support they're needing. For the most part communities are looking for a positive or break-even balance from prospectives and will tend to shy away from those with mental health issues, emotional instability, addictions, or extreme physical limitations—unless there is a plan offered whereby those needs will be taken care of in a way that works for all parties.
Note that there are some excellent examples of communities that have built their identity around serving disadvantaged populations:
—Gould Farm (Monterey MA) focuses on mental health
—Innisfree Village (Crozet VA) focuses on intellectual disabilities
—Camphill Village (the first in the US was located in Copake NY and now there are 10 others) focuses on developmental disabilities
—L'Arche Communities (the first in the US was located in Erie PA and now there are 17 others) focus on intellectual disabilities
o Failure to keep commitments
It's hard on communities when members make agreements and then don't abide by them; when they make commitments and then fail to keep them. Sure, everyone has a bad week, but with some people it's a pattern and communities are leery of folks who aren't good at keeping their word.
To be sure, it can be difficult to discern a pattern during a visitor period, yet it's one of the reasons groups like to ask prospectives to lend a hand in group work parties—so they can assess follow through and work ethic. People who come across as allergic to group work don't tend to be viewed as good members.
o Too different
This factor is something of a nebulous catchall. It can be an unusual personality, a quirky communication style, strange tastes or habits… Perhaps this traces to a different cultural background, but regardless of the origin it can be hard when there are no others like this person already in the group. Members may feel awkward in this person's presence and questions arise about whether they can make relationship with this person.
Even where there is a group commitment to diversity, that doesn't mean that everyone can find a happy home there.
Saying "no" is not fun, and it can be very hard to hear it if you're the one being voted off the island. Yet sometimes groups have to do it, and putting it off doesn't make it easier later. The best you can do is anticipate that this is coming and discuss ahead of time what qualities you want in new members, so that you've already established the criteria you'll use before you start applying them.
There will still be challenges: such as the dynamic where one member wants to stretch to take a chance on a prospective that another member is convinced is a poor risk, but at least you'll have established a basis for the conversation—in this case: what is the perceived risk, and how much is too much?
While living in community can be a wonderful experience—I've been doing it for four decades and love it—it isn't always easy.